Thursday, March 23, 2017

2/28/71: The forgotten debuts of Dean Dalton and Ontario Motor Speedway

PHOTO: Getty Images, RacingOne
On February 28, 1971, Dean Dalton picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Miller High Life 500 at the Ontario Motor Speedway when his unsponsored #17 1969 Ford was flagged off the track after 2 of 200 laps.  The finish came in Dalton’s series debut.

Dalton’s story is as much about the track as it is about the driver.  Opened in August 1970, “The Big O” was constructed to quite literally be “The Indianapolis of the West,” a 2.5-mile rectangular oval with nine-degree banking in the corners.  The complex included a spacious garage area, a drag strip, and an infield road course – twenty years before Indianapolis built theirs.  The first race, held on September 6, 1970, welcomed the USAC open-wheelers in a 200-lap race of their own.  Taking the checkers was Jim McElreath, driving for A.J. Foyt, who took the lead from Art Pollard with five laps to go.

The following February, the 26-year-old Dalton arrived as one of 81 drivers looking to make the 51-car field for Ontario’s first NASCAR race.  Among them were a mix of Winston Cup and Winston West competitors, as well as both McElreath and Pollard.  When time trials were done, McElreath made the field, but Pollard did not.  Among the 29 joining Pollard on the ride home were owner-drivers D.K. Ulrich, Neil Castles, Ed Negre, and Bill Champion.  Dalton, meanwhile, secured the 43rd starting spot, lining up next to Bobby Wawak and Harry Schilling in a three-wide Indy-style formation.

Starting 51st and last that day was Daly City, California driver Bob England.  England, fourth in Winston West points the previous year, had made four previous Cup starts, all of them on the Riverside road course.  His best finishes were a pair of 13th-place runs in 1970 and 1971, though he had yet to finish any of his starts under power.  Only two laps into the race, Dalton was flagged off the track, perhaps for not maintaining minimum speed.  The exit wasn’t shown in “Car and Driver’s” highlights of the event, which can be seen here.

Finishing 50th that afternoon was another owner-driver, Frank Warren, whose engine let go on his #79 Prince Chrysler-Plymouth 1969 Dodge.  The next two spots went to Winston West competitors.  Another engine failure by the #82 Tognotti’s Speed Shop 1969 Ford of 49th-place Ron Gautsche, who finished 19th in his series debut at Riverside, drew the first caution of the race.  48th went to Dick Kranzler, 14th at Riverside, but out with overheating problems on his #4 Goodyear Tire Center 1970 Chevrolet.

Rounding out the Bottom Five was another standout, Mexico City’s Pedro Rodriguez.  By 1971, Rodriguez was one of the best drivers in the world.  He started racing bicycles and motorcycles with his brother Ricardo, ran the 24 Hours of Le Mans when he was just 18, entered Formula One in 1963, and won two Grands Prix at Kyalami and Spa.  Twice he finished 6th in the World Championship, once each for Cooper and BRM.

Long before Daniel Suarez and Carlos Contreras, Rodriguez had also been racing in Cup since May 17, 1959, when he finished a strong 6th in the 18-car field at Trenton, New Jersey.  He followed this up with a 5th in the 1965 World 600 at Charlotte, driving for Holman-Moody.  He even banged fenders with Benny Parsons during the Ontario race.  Tragically, subsequent electrical issues on his #20 Southland Auto Salvage Auction 1970 Ford marked the end of his final NASCAR start.  Less than five months later, Rodriguez was killed during a race at the Norisring in Nuremburg, West Germany.  The Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez road course in his native Mexico City is named in honor of the Rodriguez brothers.

Unfortunately, the careers of Dean Dalton and the Ontario Motor Speedway that began that day in 1971 would not last a decade.  Dalton switched car numbers from #17 to #7, and ran that number in most of his 118 Cup starts.  His best finish was a 6th at Darlington in 1973.  Dalton also brought sponsor Belden Asphalt into the sport, a company which would then back owner-driver Henley Gray into the 1990s.  From 1971 through 1977, Dalton fielded cars for Gray as well as Ed Negre, Jackie Rogers, Walter Ballard, Jack Donohue, Cecil Gordon, D.K. Ulrich, and Frank Warren.

Ontario hosted its final Cup race, won by Benny Parsons, in 1980.  In the infield, Dale Earnhardt, then driving for Rod Osterlund, celebrated his first Winston Cup after edging Cale Yarborough by 19 points.  The track was demolished the next year.  Oval track Cup racing would not return to Southern California until Fontana’s debut in 1997.

*This marked the first last-place finish for #17 in a Cup race since June 8, 1968, when David Pearson’s #17 1968 Ford was disqualified for mismatched tire treads at the (Birmingham) Fairgrounds Raceway.  It would not finish last again until March 11, 1979, when Roger Hamby earned his own first last-place finish after his #17 Hamby-Ellis Chevrolet overheated 68 laps into the Richmond 400 at the Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway.
*This marked the first time a Cup last-place finisher was flagged off the track since February 11, 1971, when Ken Meisenhelder’s #41 1969 Chevrolet was waved off after 1 lap of Race 2 of the 1971 Daytona Qualifiers (then listed as a full-race points event).  It wouldn’t be long before it happened again.  On June 26, 1971, Ernest Eury’s #05 1969 Chevrolet was also flagged after just 1 lap of the Pickens 200 at Greenville-Pickens Speedway.

51) #17-Dean Dalton / 2 laps / flagged
50) #79-Frank Warren / 4 laps / engine
49) #82-Ron Gautsche / 10 laps / engine
48) #4-Dick Kranzler / 13 laps / overheating
47) #20-Pedro Rodriguez / 18 laps / electrical

*NASCAR Grand National @ Ontario 1971 – YouTube (posted by Mitch’s Racing Highlights)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Small Team Storylines: Fontana

Auto Club 400 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California

The current entry list includes 39 drivers for 40 spots, one spot short of a full field for the fourth week in a row.

Derrike Cope finished 33rd last Sunday at Phoenix, his best run at the track since 1998 and his best finish of 2017.  This week, he’s back once again in a yet-unsponsored #55 Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports.  It will be Cope’s seventh Fontana start and first in Cup since September 5, 2004, when he finished 40th driving for William Edwards in the #96 Mach One Inc. Ford.  Teammate Reed Sorenson is again in the #15, which has alternated between a Toyota and Chevrolet since Daytona.  After finishing 30th in the Chevrolet at Phoenix, he will run a Toyota on Sunday.

BK Racing endured another difficult weekend in Phoenix.  Corey LaJoie has now been involved in at least one accident in each of the first four races while teammate Gray Gaudling tangled with David Ragan in a hard Turn 1 accident.  However, the team again does not appear to be struggling for sponsorship., which previously backed Tommy Joe Martins’ Truck Series ride at Daytona, will be back to sponsor Gaulding for a second-straight week.  Bubba Burger, an associate sponsor of Rick Ware Racing among others, will be the primary for Corey LaJoie’s #83.

Speaking of Rick Ware Racing, Timmy Hill will again pilot the #51, having finished a season-best 32nd at Phoenix.  The team continues its search for speed and will look to improve on last-place qualifying runs earned in all three of their starts.  Also without an announced sponsor is Cole Whitt and TriStar Motorsports’ #72 Chevrolet.  Left with their first DNF of the year and a season-worst 34th-place finish after a late accident, Whitt will be looking for a turnaround.  Sunday will be team owner Mark Smith’s first Cup start at Fontana since 2013, when Mike Bliss ran a “start-and-park” effort for Humphrey-Smith Motorsports.

One small team which will have a primary sponsor this weekend is Phoenix last-placer Jeffrey Earnhardt and Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group.  A “thank you” message on social media indicates that NiceRide Apparel will again grace the black-and-silver #33 Chevrolet.

Matt DiBenedetto continues to enjoy a quietly consistent season with Go FAS Racing.  After four races, he stands 27th in points, has yet to score a DNF, and has each time finished inside the Top 30.  Sunday will be DiBenedetto’s third Fontana start in Cup, and he finished inside the Top 30 again last year, running 27th for BK Racing.

California 300 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California

42 drivers are listed for 40 spots, marking the first time since Atlanta that there were 40 or more cars on the preliminary entry list.

Last week in Phoenix, Morgan Shepherd and Mike Harmon both made their first XFINITY starts of the season, but this week only Harmon is on the list.  Obaika Racing has also entered both its Chevrolets once more, but it will be anyone’s guess if the #77 and driver Josh Bilicki will actually make it into the field (Stephen Leicht is again entered in the #77 with Bilicki in the #97).

New this week is James Carter’s prolific #72 CrashClaimsR.Us Chevrolet with Scottish driver John Jackson behind the wheel.  We haven’t seen Jackson in XFINITY since last fall at Kentucky, when he finished 39th in the #40 Chevrolet for Motorsports Business Management, and the #72’s most recent green flag was last September at Darlington (another 39th).  In 16 previous starts, the Carter #72 has yet to finish better than 31st, making them a possible LASTCAR favorite alongside Jordan Anderson and the #93 RSS Racing Chevrolet, which may be headed to their third-straight last-place finish.

Motorsports Business Management retains the same two-car lineup at Fontana with Carl Long in the #13 Dodge and Timmy Hill in the #40 Toyota.  Hill’s double-duty weekend last week yielded a 26th-place finish in XFINITY, the team’s best run since Brandon Hightower’s 13th place in Daytona.

The return of the Cup veterans to XFINITY after the “Dash 4 Cash” hiatus has also brought back last-place record holder Jeff Green to B.J. McLeod’s #8 Chevrolet.  Green’s 26th-place run at Atlanta still remains the #8 team’s best performance of the year, four spots better than Matt Mills’ performance last Sunday at Phoenix.  Green will again be joined by McLeod (#78) and David Starr (#99) in the three-car effort.

Also back after skipping Phoenix is Biagi DenBeste Racing, which for the first time this year will put Cup veteran Casey Mears in its #98 Ford in place of Aric Almirola.  It will be Mears’ first XFINITY start at Fontana since 2007, when he scored the second of two career runner-up finishes at the track for Rick Hendrick.

Through the first three races of the season, each of Johnny Davis’ three drivers at JD Motorsports has had the privilege of beating their other two teammates.  But at Phoenix, Ross Chastain’s 22nd-place finish in the #4 ahead of 23rd-place Harrison Rhodes (#01) and 24th-place Garrett Smithley (#0) broke the tie.  Smithley and Rhodes still hold the team’s best finishes of the year, an 8th and 10th respectively at Daytona.

A fiery crash at Phoenix left Joey Gase with his first DNF of 2017 and a 35th-place finish.  Driver and team hope for better in Fontana, where other than a last-place effort in 2013, the duo have never finished worse than 30th.

An “atta-boy” to JGL Racing, which has finished inside the Top 20 in all four races so far in 2017.  The #24 youtheory Toyota returns to Corey LaJoie this Sunday, who despite his struggles in Cup produced a workmanlike 16th-place run at Fontana.  J.J. Yeley also earned a season-best 16th at Phoenix in TriStar’s #14 Toyota and continues his rebound after back-to-back DNFs at Daytona and Atlanta.  Superior Essex will back the Yeley effort.

Next Race: April 1, 2017
Alpha Energy Solutions 250 at Martinsville

Sunday, March 19, 2017

CUP: Jeffrey Earnhardt’s first Cup last-place finish equals a 2007 record

Jeffrey Earnhardt picked up the 1st last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Camping World 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway when his #33 NiceRide Apparel Chevrolet fell out with transmission problems after 9 of 314 laps.  The finish came in Earnhardt’s 28th series start.

Son of Kerry Earnhardt and nephew of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeffrey is currently competing in his third Cup Series season.  His famous last name overlooks what has been a difficult path to NASCAR’s upper ranks.  According to his website, Earnhardt began “piloting a silver 4 cylinder Yugo on the dirt tracks of Wythe Raceway in Rural Retreat, Virginia.”

Earnhardt worked his way through the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, finishing 5th in the 2007 standings, and made his XFINITY debut in 2009 at Watkins Glen.  He remained a part-timer in national competition through 2010, when he partnered with Rick Ware Racing.  The Ware effort included an opportunity to both race Trucks as well as professional sports car racing in the Rolex Grand-Am Sports Car Series, piloting Porsches and Mustangs at Daytona and Birmingham.  It wasn’t until 2014 that Earnhardt ran a full season in NASCAR, running the #4 Chevrolet for Johnny Davis’ JD Motorsports, and it wasn’t until this year that he now attempts a full Cup campaign.

2017 has been a reunion of sorts.  Earnhardt drives for The Motorsports Group, whose owner Curtis Key fielded his first XFINITY Series ride in 2009.  TMG came off its first full Cup season in 2016 with journeyman Josh Wise, who made all but five of the first 31 races and scored the LASTCAR Cup Series Championship.  This year, TMG merged with Joe Falk’s team Circle Sport, which came over after providing its Charter to Leavine Family Racing.  The move gave TMG a guaranteed starting spot for the first time in its existence.  As part of the change, Falk assumed ownership duties and switched the primary car’s number from TMG’s #30 to Circle Sport’s #33 (though the #30 may return as a part-time Open team this year). Earnhardt climbed behind the wheel of a car painted silver and black, much like his grandfather’s.

Coming into 2017, Earnhardt’s best Cup finish was a 26th last fall with Go FAS Racing, the #32 Ford team which now runs with driver Matt DiBenedetto.  A TMG car had yet to make a Cup restrictor-plate race, shut-out of three races in 2016, including their second-straight Daytona 500, and had withdrawn from Talladega last fall.  Thanks to Circle Sport’s Charter, however, the #33 was guaranteed its 32nd starting spot.  And, even after a late-race crash down the backstretch, Earnhardt matched his career-best 26th.

Earnhardt stood as one of the 39 entrants for the Phoenix race, and for the second-straight week acquired sponsorship for the main event.  This time, the backing came from NiceRide Apparel, a first-time sponsor in NASCAR.  Earnhardt ran 37th of 38 drivers in Friday’s opening practice, qualified 38th of 39 with a lap of 128.032mph.  He rounded out practice on Saturday with the 38th-best lap again in the second session, and 37th in Happy Hour.

Rick Ware Racing started last for their third-consecutive Cup start.  The team returned to Atlanta’s black-and-white #51 Spoonful of Music Foundation paint scheme on its Chevrolet with Timmy Hill aboard.  Joining him at the rear were Denny Hamlin, whose #11 FedEx Toyota picked up a screw in qualifying and had to change tires, and Aric Almirola, with a new engine under the hood of his #43 Smithfield Ford.

By the end of Lap 1, Jeffrey Earnhardt had fallen to 39th and was starting to lose touch with the field.  He was 5.647sec behind the leader after the first circuit, 6.909 on the second, and 8.438 on the third.  The fourth time by, Earnhardt’s car started smoking and he pulled down pit road, then entered the garage.  Reports indicated rear gear trouble, and though the car was soon pulled from NASCAR’s RaceView program, the team was still making repairs.  On Lap 80, the work was done, and #33 stopped at the end of pit road before re-entering the track, 76 laps behind.  Five circuits later, Earnhardt was back in the pits, and the crew instructed him to make another lap to return to the garage.  There, on Lap 90, the crew discovered a transmission issue.

Back on the track, on Lap 119, hard-luck Corey LaJoie found the outside wall for the fourth-straight race, striking the outside wall in his #83 BK Racing Graphics Toyota.  The impact knocked him out of the race.  However, Earnhardt, still behind the wall, would still secure last if he didn’t come back out on Lap 206 (or Lap 208, given the green-white-checkered finish).  Just short of that mark, on Lap 190, FOX Sports showed the #33 was listed “OUT,” securing the last-place run.  Curiously, prior to that, the FOX leaderboard showed Earnhardt multiple laps down, indicating he was on the track - even though he was still in the garage.  LaJoie ended up 38th.

37th went to Matt Kenseth, who took a savage hit to the outside wall on Lap 193 in his #20 Tide Toyota.  Rounding out the Bottom Five were 36th-place Gray Gaulding in the #23 Toyota and the #38 Jacob Companies Ford of David Ragan, both eliminated in a two-car wreck on Lap 206 when Ragan slid into Gaulding in Turn 1.

The win on Sunday went to Ryan Newman, who finished last in the same event a year earlier.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #33 at Phoenix since 2013, when Tony Raines’ Little Joes Autos Chevrolet, fielded by Joe Falk when Circle Sport was its own Cup team, exited with brake problems after 29 laps of the AdvoCare 500.
*This marked the first time three consecutive NASCAR Cup races had first-time last-place finishers since the spring of 2007, when J.J. Yeley’s #18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet crashed at Texas, David Stremme came home laps down at Phoenix in the #40 Coors Light Dodge, and Paul Menard’s #15 Menards Chevrolet lost an engine at Talladega.
*Earnhardt is the first Cup last-place finisher to trail a race because of transmission issues since June 30, 2013, when Scott Riggs’ #44 No Label Watches Ford fell out after 6 laps of the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky.

39) #33-Jeffrey Earnhardt / 9 laps / transmission
38) #83-Corey LaJoie / 115 laps / crash
37) #20-Matt Kenseth / 190 laps / crash
36) #23-Gray Gaulding / 201 laps / crash
35) #38-David Ragan / 204 laps / crash

1st) BK Racing, Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group, Joe Gibbs Racing, Rick Ware Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet, Toyota (2)


*Championship rankings corrected to include an additional Bottom Five and Bottom Ten for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. that was previously not counted.

XFINITY: Late return by Obaika Racing gives Jordan Anderson 2nd-straight last-place finish

PHOTO: @j66anderson
Jordan Anderson picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s DC Solar 200 at the Phoenix International Raceway when his unsponsored #93 RSS Racing Chevrolet fell out with overheating issues after he completed 3 of 200 laps.  The finish, which came in Anderson’s ninth series start, was his second in a row.

The preliminary entry list, which included Anderson, grew from 39 cars to 41 on Tuesday with the additions of owner-drivers Morgan Shepherd, who successfully raised funds to enter his #89 Racing With Jesus / Visone RV Chevrolet, and Mike Harmon in his #74 Dodge.  Shepherd seemed geared for an all-out qualifying attempt when he put up the 19th-best time of 32 drivers in Friday’s opening practice.

On Saturday, when Obaika Racing once again withdrew the #77 and driver Josh Bilicki, Shepherd and Harmon were locked-in to their first races of the season.  Shepherd and Harmon ended up timing in 29th and 30th in qualifying after eight drivers were unable to complete inspection in time.  Anderson’s #93, meanwhile, earned the 26th starting spot with a lap of 127.945mph.  He ran 30th of 37 after his only practice laps during Happy Hour.

Starting 40th on Sunday was the second Obaika Racing car of Stephen Leicht, once again moved to the #97 after the withdrawal of Bilicki and the #77.  Footage from the pre-race seemed to indicate that Leicht was driving the #77 as the “9” on the door number appeared to be a hastily-changed “7,” differing in style from the “9” used in previous races.  The car was also colored black over red, differing from the damaged Las Vegas car’s red over black.

The #97 behind the wall after 2 laps of the race, followed a lap later by Anderson, which first gave the impression that both would be “start-and-parks.”  Had the finish stayed this way, it would have been the first XFINITY last-place finish for the #97 since 2003, when Jeff Fuller exited after 3 laps at Rockingham.  But on Lap 125, Leicht pulled back out of the garage and completed 22 more laps, climbing to 37th before retiring with handling issues.  This dropped Anderson to last on Lap 127.

Between Anderson and Leicht were 39th-place Daniel Suarez, who on Lap 10 made contact with the outside wall after crossing the nose of Jeremy Clements’ #51, then cut down a right-rear two circuits later and slammed rear-first into the Turn 1 barrier.  38th went to Carl Long, who made his own 2017 debut in his #13 CrashClaimsR.Us Toyota, then pulled out with rear gear trouble as the listed reason.  Morgan Shepherd rounded out the Bottom Five, citing brake issues after 33 laps.  Fellow owner-driver Mike Harmon finished three laps down in 31st.

*This marked the first XFINITY Series last-place finish at Phoenix for both Anderson and the #93.

40) #93-Jordan Anderson / 3 laps / overheating
39) #18-Daniel Suarez / 11 laps / crash
38) #13-Carl Long / 18 laps / rear gear
37) #97-Stephen Leicht / 24 laps / handling
36) #89-Morgan Shepherd / 33 laps / brakes

1st) RSS Racing (2)
2nd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Inc., Kaulig Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (4)