Thursday, January 13, 2022

OPINION: Haas F1 Team at a Crossroads Entering 2022

PHOTO: Beyond The Flag

by Ben Schneider
LASTCAR.info Guest Contributor

As America’s lone Formula 1 team prepares for their seventh season, how do we grade the underdog Haas F1 Team’s performance and accomplishments since their 2016 debut?

If I were writing this three years ago, in the months immediately preceding the 2019 season, it would likely be a resounding A. Haas came into the sport with immediate success as Romain Grosjean scored points on the team’s debut race in Australia with a P6 finish. Grosjean immediately followed this up by finishing 5th in Bahrain and would add three more points finishes by the end of the season, including a P10 in the team’s home United States Grand Prix. While teammate Esteban GutiĆ©rrez failed to score a point in 2016, Grosjean’s 29 total points were enough to give Haas an eighth-place finish in the Constructors’ Championship.

Haas followed this up with another P8 Constructors’ finish in 2017, as Grosjean and new driver Kevin Magnussen combined for 47 points throughout the season. Haas truly broke through in 2018, improving to fifth in the Constructors’, highlighted by both Grosjean and Magnussen finishing inside the top-five in Austria. For a brand new team to jump straight into the midfield and even flirt with the podium within their first three years is unheard of in modern Formula 1, and speaks volumes about the team’s desire to come into the sport and be competitive.

However, I am writing this in the present day, in the months immediately preceding the 2022 season. As such, it’s hard to justify that grade being anything better than an F. Recent bias aside, the lifetime grade would likely average out somewhere in the C or D range, but it’s hard to fathom just how far Haas has fallen in only three years.

The 2019 season began with high hopes as Haas signed Rich Energy as the team’s title sponsor. They even went so far as to contend that they could fight Red Bull “on and off the track.”

This did not happen. In fact, neither Haas nor Rich Energy came particularly close. Rich Energy became an entrenched source of controversy regarding brand legitimacy, copyright infringement, and their contentious CEO William Storey. By July, the brand’s Twitter account appeared to signal a termination of their contract with Haas, and while these reports were initially denied by Rich Energy shareholders, Haas announced the end of their partnership in September before the Italian Grand Prix.

Haas, on the other hand, also took a massive step backwards. To be fair, the Rich Energy saga certainly could not have helped matters, but the team scored only 28 total points as they fell all the way to P9 in the Constructors’, beating only a Williams team that missed the beginning of preseason testing. They also only managed a single point with one of the worst cars in the Grove-based team’s history.

In 2020, Haas managed only three points on their way to another P9 Constructors’ finish. Both Grosjean and Magnussen departed following the season, and in 2021, Haas was faced with an all-rookie lineup of Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin. Both drivers struggled to adapt to a car that Haas elected not to upgrade throughout the season, while Mazepin in particular underperformed compared to Schumacher and found himself in off-track controversy before the season even began. For the first time, the team failed to score a single point throughout the entire 22-race season.

In theory, Haas’ decision to stop development of their 2021 car should increase their resources and strengthen their 2022 challenger. And with the biggest regulation changes since the introduction of the V6 Turbo Hybrid engines on the horizon, many believe 2022 could be an opportunity for the small teams to close the gap to the likes of Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari, and McLaren.

In the case of Haas in particular, this season may very well be make or break for the American team. Gene Haas has said on multiple occasions that it makes little sense to remain in Formula 1 long-term if there is no clear path towards competing at the front of the field. After three disappointing seasons in a row, how much longer will he be willing to invest millions of dollars into his team?

Only time will tell.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

ARCA MIDWEST: Braison Bennett exits early in Dixieland 250

PHOTO: Ricky Bassman via Facebook

by William Soquet
LASTCAR.info Staff Writer

Braison Bennett picked up the second last-place finish of his ARCA Midwest Series career in Tuesday’s Gandrud Auto Group Dixieland 250 at Wisconsin International Raceway when his #9 PMF Landscape Supply / Bennett’s Auto, Inc. Toyota retired from the race after completing 25 of the race’s 250 laps.

The finish was Bennett’s first since the May 29 race at Jefferson, three races prior.

Braison Bennett is the third generation of an illustrious family of Wisconsin racing drivers. His grandfather, Bob Bennett, was a pioneer in the Northeast Wisconsin circle track racing scene in the mid-1900s. Braison’s father Lowell is an incredibly accomplished super late model racer who won the Slinger Nationals five times and made seven Busch Series starts in the early 2000s. 

Braison cut his teeth in the local pavement ranks at Wisconsin International, following the tire tracks of his father and grandfather, but also spent some time in the local IMCA dirt scene. However, after some years, Bennett decided to fully turn his attention to pavement racing, running in both the late model and super late model divisions at WIR. Until 2021, all of Bennett’s racing had been done with himself at the helm with his trademark #9 machines. However, at the end of 2020, local team Chase Motorsports parted ways with Casey Johnson, who won the ARCA Midwest Tour title in 2019 and 2020. For local shows, Chase turned to Braison Bennett; the team’s traveling endeavors were mostly put on hold for 2021.

The Dixieland race has a decades-long penchant for drawing big names; currently, it bills itself as “Wisconsin’s richest one-day race”. The guest list this year included NASCAR Cup competitors William Byron and Aric Almirola (who said that it was his first super late model race in a decade), ARCA Menards Series East champion Sammy Smith, late model barnstormer Casey Roderick, NASCAR Truck Series driver Derek Kraus and Toyota development driver Jesse Love. Bubba Pollard, after using a promoter’s provisional to make the show last year, did not make the trip up to make another attempt.

Ty Majeski, the former Roush-Fenway Racing development driver who grew up about a half hour from WIR in Seymour, Wisconsin, paced the qualifying session with a lap of 18.7 seconds. The top 16 qualified in on time trials with WIR local Jesse Oudenhoven the last of those. Bennett clocked in 32nd, and anchoring the charts in 34th was Andrew Brockers, a Midwest Tour regular who ran a lap of 20.2 seconds. Brockers consistently lacked pace in the last chance qualifier, and eventually retired early from the race, the only entry to do so. Travis Sauter, brother of NASCAR Truck Series driver Johnny Sauter, won the last chance race. Bennett finished 15th in a race that took ten cars to the feature, but secured a provisional due to his high point standing within WIR’s weekly racing.

The other local provisional (the Midwest Tour granted two for this event) was granted to Sawyer Effertz, who secured the 30th and last starting spot on the grid. The last-place battle, however, cycled through several different drivers in the early goings. On Lap 6, local driver Bobby Kendall assumed control of the last position, followed by Levon Van Der Geest, Bennett and Dillon Hammond in the next few laps. Hammond qualified in on time and avoided the last chance race, but struggled with handling during the feature event, eventually finishing eight laps down in 16th position. The #75 machine was lapped on Lap 19 and was the last-place runner until Lap 26. At that point, Bennett’s #9B machine made a quiet exit on to the pit lane. As his pit stall was on the backstretch, activity was hidden from the fans, and the car never made it back out on track. When non-crew members were allowed in the infield after the race, Bennett’s hauler was already on its way out of the track, the driver at the helm of the dually.

Next to retire was Jeff Holmgren Jr., who ran decently until the first competition caution on Lap 56, but did not return to the race after pitting. The WIR local was busy putting the car away after signing autographs and taking pictures after the race, but I did manage to catch a word with one of his crew members. “We have three cars and this one just doesn’t run right. Jeff has two checkered flags here in the past month, there’s no reason we should be lapped by lap 50,” the crew member told me. The team parked the entry; photos later showed that flames were emanating from the car for a fair amount of the opening section of the race.

The 2011 ARCA Midwest Tour champion Andrew Morrissey met a similar quiet end to his race. His #19 Toyota made it just past the competition caution before making an inauspicious exit on Lap 59. Things were a little more hectic for Carson Kvapil, the 27th-place finisher. The son of former NASCAR Cup racer Travis Kvapil skipped on the first day of his junior year in high school to run the Dixieland and showed off in time trials, clocking in eighth on the charts. The #35 machine was a solid contender until Lap 65, when the car slowed considerably in turns one and two. Kvapil pitted in an attempt to fix the issue, but made only a few more laps before permanently retiring from the race. “I was just driving it as hard as I could to keep up without burning the right rear off,” Kvapil told me after the race. “We broke the left-front hub, broke the A-frame. We had really good speed, just didn’t get to show it.”

A similar fate befell Love, who rounded out the Bottom Five. The ARCA Menards Series West champion was fastest in final practice and was sixth in time trials while driving for Chris Wimmer Development, headed by the namesake, the former Xfinity Series driver. Approaching Lap 90, Love’s car lost a good amount of pace and fell through the field, eventually spinning Aric Almirola on Lap 93 to draw a caution. The ensuing pit stop stretched into a retirement for the #21 car, which was later revealed to have also broken a hub. “About Lap 60, I felt a really bad vibration, felt like the power steering,” commented the driver. “Got progressively worse and worse and then after that caution got really really bad… I finally found a hole to get down to the pit road, and before I was going to make that cut, it broke the right-front hub. It landed on the splitter and went straight, and you can’t do anything at that point.”

Almirola emerged from the spin unscathed and finished the race in eleventh position on the lead lap.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
30) #9B-Braison Bennett / 25 laps / mechanical
29) #5H-Brett Holmgren Jr. / 56 laps / carburetor
28) #19M-Andrew Morrissey / 58 laps / unknown
27) #35K-Carson Kvapil / 69 laps / hub
26) #21L-Jesse Love Jr. / 95 laps / hub

2021 LASTCAR ARCA MIDWEST TOUR DRIVERS CHAMPIONSHIP


Friday, December 17, 2021

OPINION: ESPN's Bubba Wallace documentary manages to both intrigue and disappoint

PHOTO: Brock Beard

What was the purpose of making “Fistful of Steel: The Rise of Bubba Wallace?” Fresh off his first career Cup Series win, and on the eve of 23XI Racing’s expansion into a two-car team, Wallace's is very much a story that’s still being written.

If the film’s purpose was to simply to present a biography of Wallace, it largely succeeds. We learn so much about who he is, and both the people and events that have shaped his life. Most revealing are the interviews with his parents, who during their marriage attempted to reconcile two very different outlooks on life. We see the direct effect on Wallace himself, especially when his parents offered contradictory advice about how to handle a traffic stop. Their divorce, and the subsequent estranged relationship between Wallace and his father, remains a subject so sensitive that all three won’t talk about it, shedding new light on Wallace’s battle with depression.  

Racing, then, must have been an escape for Wallace and the film does a good job chronicling most of his rise through the ranks of stock car racing. His success in the Truck Series dovetails perfectly with the included biography of Wendell Scott, and we see how much Wallace’s success means to the Scott family – especially his 2014 win in a Scott “throwback” scheme.

This is the strongest part of the film because it clears up two misconceptions some outside the sport have about Wallace. First, Wallace is a skilled driver who has won on some of NASCAR’s toughest tracks. And second, well before 2020, Wallace was popular with both fans and drivers. Yes, Wallace does share stories about his negative experiences with law enforcement. But, in the first hour or so, there are no stories of competitors intimidating him, nor of fans booing him. In fact, we see him take pictures with everyone.

Unfortunately, this part of the film also leaves out other significant moments of his career that highlighted both his personality and his unique place in the sport. The film incorrectly states the 2018 Daytona 500 was his Cup debut, leaving out any mention of 2017. This prevents us from reliving his entire XFINITY career, which put him in position to relieve an injured Aric Almirola at Richard Petty Motorsports. There is no mention of his Cup debut at Pocono, where his closest friend Ryan Blaney scored his first win with the Wood Brothers, nor images of the two celebrating in victory lane as young stars driving two of NASCAR’s most iconic rides. In fact, Blaney is never mentioned, nor interviewed. There’s not even an account of Wallace’s hard-fought victory in the 2019 Monster Energy Open, nor other examples of him outperforming for a small team.  

~

Was this film intended to settle once and for all what happened at Talladega in June 2020, and to make clear to Wallace’s detractors how those events differed from the recently decided case involving Jussie Smollett? If this was the film’s intent, it failed. 

The events of 2020 – and especially Talladega – are so integral to Wallace’s story that they could be the subject of an entirely separate documentary. It is no mystery that those few days in June – not Wallace’s race – are why he has become a controversial figure in the eyes of so many. That single event changed him, or perhaps revealed a side of himself we never saw. We don’t know which because the entire chapter is compressed into the film’s last fifteen minutes.

Approaching this properly would have required asking some difficult questions. Did Wallace tie the knot in his garage door pull? No – and the footage of the stall from 2019 proves this. Did Wallace make the initial report to NASCAR? No – he wasn’t even aware it had been reported until Steve Phelps contacted him. But it is undeniable that Wallace dismissed the FBI’s findings and continued to state the garage door pull was, in his words, “a straight-up noose.” At the very least, that is a controversial stance to take, and worth a few follow-up questions. Equally controversial was the interview where the Wallace family alleged that the FBI’s findings were nothing more than a “conspiracy theory.” Again, this is not discussed further.

The film also fails to hold NASCAR accountable for their baffling decision to release a public statement about the “noose” during an ongoing investigation. Even with Steve Phelps in the room, we don't get the story. It’s never asked why NASCAR didn’t consult their own video footage showing the same knot next to Paul Menard’s car the previous October (which also meant Wallace’s car was parked in a different stall). The fear that accompanied the racial strife of that spring does not excuse this. The sanctioning body should have handled this incident with more care, not less – particularly with the then-ongoing Smollett case fresh in everyone’s mind. Instead, NASCAR created a scenario where if they were wrong – and they were – Wallace would be blamed for it – which he was – and comparisons to Smollett – no matter how unjustified – were certain to happen. 

The media also escapes unscathed despite their role in furthering the misinformation that day - perhaps not all that surprising since ESPN joined in the chorus. Yes, COVID-19 regulations at the time prevented media members from accessing the garage to actually see the garage pull in question. But, like NASCAR, that meant they had to be more careful in their reporting, not less. 

When NASCAR first broke word about the “noose,” ESPN’s Ryan McGee was among the many media members who let his outrage overcome his objectivity. He published an open letter to the person responsible for the alleged crime, and in his overzealousness invoked the rhetoric of a lynch mob: “And if you were hiding in plain sight among those in that image,” he closed, “then your time among them is numbered because the hunt is on. You know it too.” It must also be said that, when the FBI subsequently reported no hate crime had occurred, McGee was one of the only media members to apologize, and in his video posted that week made a call that journalists should “pump the brakes.” 

Sadly, most others in the press did not follow McGee's example. They expressed no contrition for their rush to judgment and assumed no responsibility, even though they had implicated crew members, emergency personnel, and NASCAR officials who were the only people even allowed in the garage that weekend. This, too, didn’t make it into the documentary, despite McGee’s significant involvement in the project.

With so much left unresolved, we – Wallace included – are all now living with the consequences. Tainted are images of one of the most poignant moments in sports as an entire garage rallied around their driver, saying in no uncertain terms, “if you’ve got a problem with him, you’ve got a problem with all of us.” The tragedy of that moment is that, if NASCAR had spontaneously decided to celebrate Wallace the exact same way just one week, one month, or one year earlier, no one would have minded, and it would still be celebrated as it should have been. Shrugging one’s shoulders and saying, “well, thank goodness there wasn’t a hate crime,” does not transport us all into this alternate reality.

When deciding to make this documentary, ESPN had an opportunity - and arguably the duty - to set the record straight about Bubba Wallace and persuade at least some of his doubters to see him in a new light. While Wallace’s biography dispelled some of the more flagrant lies made about him, nothing was done to address his unpleasant truths. By not only failing to do this, but actively making the truth even harder to find, ESPN has not championed justice, but inhibited it.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

PREVIEW: Gary Bradberry on his eventful 1994 ARCA campaign

PHOTOS: Bryan Hallman, BRH Racing Archives

On December 9, I had the opportunity to interview Gary Bradberry to follow-up on my video biography of him from earlier this month. The following is just an excerpt from the one-hour interview, the audio of which will be posted soon to my YouTube channel. This segment focuses on Bradberry's early ARCA career in 1994, including a particularly memorable weekend in Flat Rock.

BROCK:
Was there any significance to running the number 78 or those red paint schemes?

GARY BRADBERRY:
I always loved red and my little brother Charlie loved red, so the only (color) we ever raced was red. And I'll tell you the story on the 78 - I went to work at a motorcycle shop. . .my first Yamaha racing go kart and I got we started selling them at the motorcycle shop and I got interested in the go kart racing. That's how I got into the go-kart racing. So they let me start driving. They had a they had a complimentary shop motorcycle racing team this shop did, and so they decided to promote sales they would start running a few go-kart races to promote the go-kart sales, and they let me drive the go-kart. I'd become their go-kart driver. And that shop - that motorcycle shop - their shop number on the motorcycle and on the go-kart was 78 and that is how I got the 78. I just stuck with it from the from the go-kart racing back when I worked at that little motorcycle shop and that's how the 78 come about. And it was a strange thing though - the Triad Motorsports team that had 78, everybody a lot of people leave until this day thanks that was mine, the Pilot car and the Hanes car was my race team because of the number. But it was just strictly a coincidence that I got hired to drive that car because the number had absolutely nothing to do with that I was hired to drive it.

BROCK:
So, what's this about an ARCA race at Flat Rock in 1994, where your equipment was stolen?

GARY BRADBERRY:
We went to Detroit, to Michigan for the Flat Rock race and we stayed in the Detroit suburbs and normally we carried our our hauler rig which had living quarters in it. But normally, somebody went along with the vehicle, but this particular trip we all went in the hauler rig and the trailer. And we got up there, got our motel, spent the night. We had to be at the track the next morning for practice. It was a one day show, just a one day show. So we got up the next morning and a guy come to my room and asked me why we moved our hauler truck. And I said, 'I didn't move the hauler truck.' And he said, 'Well, it's not there.' I kinda laughed - I thought it was a joke, and I walked outside and the hauler rig was gone, and the awning at the office of the motel was half tore down. And about this time, the motel people are jumping all over us telling us we're gonna pay for that awning, and we don't even know what they're talking about.

Well come to find out, we finally come to reality to figure out the hauler rig has been stolen. The lady in the office said, 'Well, yeah, 'cause y'all left out of here about - somebody's getting in it about four o'clock in the morning, and they didn't make that turn, and they caught the awning on the motel and tore it down. So we realized then what happened. We called the police and there we sat on the sidewalk - the motel was booked that night, we didn't have any room. There we sit on the sidewalk with our luggage and no hauler rig, no nothing. And I was running for points that year and I had a good chance of finishing, you know, second, third, fourth - I was running for the Rookie of the Year was the main thing. And everything we owned - spare motors -  everything we owned, was in that in that tractor trailer. I mean, we were out of business - we was out of the racing business at that time.

And about two hours later, the police pulled up in the parking lot, and told us 'Look, we found your hauler rig, but it's been wrecked, and it's been towed to an impound area,' or whatever you want to call it. So we're thinking if some of the stuff is just still in it, which we didn't have much expectations of that. But they carried us to this impound yard. As far as the hauler rig being wrecked, it was the damage on the trailer from running into the awning overhang at the motel. It had a flat tire on the trailer. The living quarters of the hauler rig had been tore up and the TV and VCR all that stuff was gone. And we went back to the back and opened the door on our trailer, and we had left late and set a new spare motor right in the door, and would you believe the people that robbed us, they never even opened the door on that trailer. Two boxes, motor, everything was sitting right inside that door, so there it had not been touched. So we get on the phone right quick and call and get in touch with somebody at ARCA at the track. It's about lunchtime now there. They're fixin' to practice and we go to the we put a tire on it, we go to the track. ARCA practice is almost over, and they let me have about five laps practice. I go out qualify. I qualify dead last. I start in the rear and we come from dead last and won the race. We took the lead with I don't know 10 or 12 laps I guess to go. What a wild weekend. We never made a change on the car from the time it left the racetrack here. We started the race with it just like it left. So that was a pretty wild weekend. It really was.

BROCK:
Was that the only car you had in ARCA that season?

GARY BRADBERRY:
That was the only short track car I had. That year, we had one short track car, and then we had an intermediate car for you know Atlanta, places like that. Then we had our superspeedway car and that was that was all of our cars. But our spare motor and stuff was in the trailer and our pit stuff---I mean if we hadn't have got the trailer back, we would have been shut down for the rest of the year because I mean everything we owned stayed in that trailer. So that was a miracle that we got that trailer back and that the trailer hadn't been broken into. . .And it was kind of funny, the race started and I had an old dirty wore-out practice suit - driving suit - and I always practiced in it and I put on my new suit for the race. And the guy that crew chiefed and all got aggravated at me, told me I had to change. I said I'm not changing nothing - I said I'm wearing this suit. All I wanna do is get this race behind us and go home. (Laughs) And I won the race and I got that dirty old wore out nasty driving suit in pictures. So I guarantee that was the last thing on my mind was having a shot at winning that race cuz that little track is tough to pass on anyway and then we were starting in the rear. But man, of all times in the car was just great. And it was pretty neat weekend.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

FEATURE: Norm Benning thanks Al Niece for the opportunity after he falls short qualifying for Phoenix finale


With just minutes before the start of Truck Series qualifying for the 2021 season finale, the Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix, most of the field had been pushed onto pit road. Most, that is, except a white Chevrolet parked in the shade of AM Racing’s large hauler. The truck with a bold #6 on the doors was still on jack stands with a crew of no more than six working underneath, particularly on the splitter. Among them was Charlie Langenstein, who that same weekend would work his final weekend with the closing StarCom Racing. There was a mallet on the ground, someone’s phone on the deck lid, and a NASCAR official watching everything closely.

It wasn’t great timing on my part to have had that be the moment I’d walk up to the Norm Benning Racing crew with a sticker in hand, but I was determined. The Cup race at Martinsville hadn’t even ended when the team contacted me about getting a LASTCAR.info sticker on the passenger side b-post. A quick print job by the Jukebox sticker company got the 6-inch-square sticker in my mailbox before my brother and I drove out on Thursday, and 11 hours of driving later, I was there to deliver it to the crew. One of them pointed to Norm’s hauler at the other end of the garage, but I met my contact Jack on his way back. He checked with the official before carefully applying the sticker, and even took the time to photograph me standing by the truck before returning to work.

Of all the seasons through which the 69-year-old veteran from Pennsylvania has raced, 2021 may have been Benning’s most difficult yet. At Kansas, the pickup truck with which he towed his small hauler to the track was stolen, stranding his crew in the garage until a friend could pick them up. While the truck was recovered, it was seriously damaged, and there still more races to run. The truck made it to Gateway, where NASCAR no longer allowed him to run an older nose on his #6, and prevented him from qualifying. Through it all, he still made 13 starts, but five times was parked for not maintaining minimum speed, often with vigorous objections from the driver.

But Phoenix promised to be a different story. Benning wasn’t running his own black #6, but a white Chevrolet prepared in the Niece Motorsports shop. The chassis, built in April 2015, was entered alongside Al Niece’s four trucks for Ryan Truex, Carson Hocevar, Dean Thompson, and Lawless Alan. Three of those four teams had struggled for most of this year while Hocevar made a bid at the Championship Four that fell just short the previous week in Martinsville. Benning brought his crew, transporter, and tools to the track – parked next to Niece’s hauler inside Turn 2. The result was perhaps the best truck Benning had ever driven since he first competed in the series in 2002, and the first time he’d received so much support from a multi-truck team. Niece’s logo was on the tailgate.

There were a couple noticeable details to Benning’s truck. The driver’s name on the rear glass was not pre-printed, but cobbled together from strips of white tape. Just like at Daytona, the rear decklid was covered in underdog “bones” with handwritten names of supporters (a promotion I’d joined before being offered the sponsorship). Among these well-wishers was Kathy Beshears, whose decal was placed beneath a photo of her late father U.S. Navy veteran Stephen Beshears, who died in 2012. In addition to returning sponsors Poppy Packs and Race City Sports Memorabilia, primary backer MDF A Sign Co. had also placed his logo in reflective decals on the truck, anticipating a race under the lights. While the company’s logos have only appeared more recently on the #6, the Florida-based business had been backing Benning since his early years in the series, running the same ketchup-red #57 as his famous Eldora Last Chance Qualifier in 2013.

Benning needed every ounce of speed from his new ride if he hoped to start the race. Phoenix was one of the series’ few races with an actual qualifying session, and 41 teams had answered the call to attempt a reduced 36-truck field. The effort was helped before Friday practice even started as both Spencer Davis Motorsports and Peck Motorsports had withdrawn, meaning just three entries would fail to qualify. Still not a guarantee, but the odds had somewhat improved. They needed to. In practice, Benning ranked just 37th of the 39 drivers who clocked at least one lap. After 29 laps on the oval, he was still 2.238 seconds off the pole. Thus, the crew worked feverishly until there was no time left. After issues in technical inspection, there was even less time to be had.

Benning drew 17th in the qualifying order, between fellow owner-drivers Dawson Cram in the #41 Be Water Chevrolet and Jordan Anderson in the #3 Lucas Oil / Bommarito.com Chevrolet. But when it came to Benning’s turn, the truck wouldn’t fire. Other trucks had stalled momentarily as the driver accelerated off pit road, but it was clear something else had happened. Two crew members came up to the driver’s window to help while NASCAR officials waved Anderson out of line to make his run. Benning tried to start the truck again, the starter chirping to no avail. NASCAR waved Hailie Deegan by. Then the engine fired, and the crew walked away. But then it stalled again, and Deegan left for her lap. Finally, the engine fired again, and before Ben Rhodes could be moved around him, Benning was off. 

On his first lap, Benning broke loose, and crossed the line with the engine sounding flat. He tried to make it up on the second, but it was no good. His time of 29.277 second (122.963mph) was slowest of the session, out of the field with Cram and Jennifer Jo Cobb.

The crew walked dejectedly through the infield and back to the entrance of Turn 3, where the qualified trucks parked perpendicular to the pit wall. When I got there, the small group stood together next to a pit box, each on the verge of tears. I decided against doing an interview right away, and told the team how much I appreciated getting the site’s logo on their truck. Benning began to describe that the kill switch was accidentally triggered. At that point, I began to perform the interview.

WHAT HAPPENED ON THE QUALIFYING LAP?
“Yeah, Ilmor figured it out - there was a problem,” said Benning of the kill switch trip. “They said there was also a problem with the main - it was hanging up, so it wouldn't start. They figured it out. We just - this is a brand new truck and it just wasn't set up for this racetrack. We tried to do what we could in 50 minutes (of practice). I overdrove it going into (Turn) 1 there and it just slid right up the track and you're hanging on at that point, but I ruined both laps by doing it. I boiled the right rear tire off driving it sideways. It's a shame. We came out here to race. We have (ABC, A) Sign Company on here and different people. I want to thank Al Niece for what he did. He was a huge help. But we just - the truck wasn't set up for here.

HOW DID THE TRUCK HANDLE IN PRACTICE?
“It went from wrecking loose to too tight to wrecking loose. We just couldn't fix it in 15 minutes. We tried and we gained on it, but not enough. Then I said the driver overdrove it - I was doing everything but wrecking. I'm gonna get everything I can out of it. But it was a little too far and it ruined the second lap.”

TELL ME HOW THIS DEAL CAME TOGETHER.
"Al Niece approached me. He's a great guy. And he really, really wanted to help me. I don't know what happened. They had - they decided to bring four trucks here and they were having their issues, so it just snowballed. We had a truck that needed some engineers or something and just didn't happen. They had their hands full. But I can't thank Al Niece enough. . .Like I said, Al's great, just had some issues in inspection and got us behind on everything else we needed to do. Long way to drive. . .I'm just really disappointed right now. I thought I had a great truck.”

Racing is a cruel business, particularly for those drivers and teams on the back half of the grid. It takes a special breed of competitor to persist against such adversity. While Benning may not have been able to start the season finale, it was an honor to be aboard, if only for qualifying. Norm would also like to personally thank Al Niece for the opportunity to drive his truck. The team’s plans for 2022 are still coming together, and we will see the result when Daytona arrives next February.