Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Preliminary Entry List Storylines: Charlotte

PHOTO: Essex Homes Facebook Page
Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

For just the third time in 2017, there are actually more cars than starting spots in Sunday’s field.  Back this week is Tommy Baldwin Racing, which we last saw at Talladega with Elliott Sadler.  Sadler will attempt to make his third start of the year in the black-and-red Accell Construction, Inc. colors we last saw with J.J. Yeley at Texas.  Sadler’s best Cup finish at Charlotte came in the 2004 Coca-Cola 600, where he ran 5th for Yates Racing.

While Cody Ware finished 18th of 24 starters in last Saturday’s Monster Energy Open, he is not listed to make his first start in a Cup points race since Atlanta.  Back in the #51 Chevrolet is Timmy Hill, who finished a season-best 28th two weeks ago in Kansas.  Hill’s best of four Charlotte starts was one position better, a 27th in the 2013 running of the Memorial Day classic.

Carl Long, 17th and penalty-free in the Open, is also back at Charlotte, set to make his second-straight Cup start after a respectable 31st in Kansas.  If he makes the cut, it will be his first Cup start at Charlotte since October 7, 2001, when his Thee Dixon-prepared #85 Noopco Dodge finished a career-best 29th in the fall race at the track.  Long has yet to start the 600, though he qualified for the 2000 race before handing his ride to the DNQ’d Darrell Waltrip.  Both Long and Hill are scheduled to pull double-duty as both are entered in Motorsport Business Management’s XFINITY cars for Saturday.

Also returning from a long Charlotte absence is Derrike Cope, who has 28 starts at the track but none since the 2004 Coca-Cola 600, where he ran 34th for Don Arnold in the #50 Bennett Lane Winery Dodge.  The fall 1998 race saw Cope score his only career pole for Bahari’ Racing, a race where he finished 14th.  His best finish in a points race at the track was a 6th way back in the fall of 1989.  This week, he and teammate Reed Sorenson will again field their identical black machines for Premium Motorsports.

BK Racing teammates Corey LaJoie and Gray Gaulding exited the Open early last week with LaJoie coming in last and Gaulding returning to run a handful more laps before pulling out.  While Gaulding has yet to make a Cup start in a points race at Charlotte, LaJoie did in the fall of 2014, when he finished 35th for Randy Humphrey’s brief solo venture in Cup driving the #77 Essex Homes Ford.

Last year, Jeffrey Earnhardt improved from a 39th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 to a 26th in the fall, both driving for Go FAS Racing.  Car owner Joe Falk at Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group has a best finish at the track of 15th in the fall of 1998, where Todd Bodine enjoyed a late-season push driving the #91 Chevrolet.  Matt DiBenedetto, slighted for last Saturday’s fan vote, also improved between both Charlotte races in 2016, running 32nd in the spring and a track-best 25th in the fall.

Cole Whitt once again finds himself in position to improve on TriStar Motorsports owner Mark Smith’s most recent performance at Charlotte.  The team last entered a Cup race at the track in the fall of 2012, where “start-and-park” teammates Mike Bliss and Reed Sorenson finished 39th and 41st, respectively, in the 43-car field.  Other than that race, Smith’s team has been absent from either Charlotte race since 1997, when Gary Bradberry ran 31st in the 600.

Hisense 300 at Charlotte

42 cars made the entry list for this week’s Charlotte race as the XFINITY Series has yet to have a short field in 2017.  New this week is second entry from GMS Racing for Truck Series driver Ben Kennedy.  Kennedy, who finished a strong 4th for Richard Childress last time out at Talladega, will drive the #96 Jacob Chevrolet alongside teammate Spencer Gallagher in the #23 Allegiant Airlines Chevrolet.

Missing this week is Morgan Shepherd, who finished 35th three weeks ago at Talladega.  Shepherd has made 35 XFINITY starts at Charlotte with his track-best a pair of 3rd-place runs in 1982 and 1992.

Set to make his first XFINITY start since 2015 is Cale Conley, who we last saw driving the #14 Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America Toyota for TriStar Motorsports.  This week, Conley drives JGL Racing’s “Young Guns” entry, the #24 Toyota sponsored this week by Merchant Services, Ltd.  Conley already has three Charlotte starts to his credit with a best finish of 26th in the fall of 2015.

There’s been a driver switch at B.J. McLeod Motorsports as Jeff Green, who led 18 laps and finished 10th at Talladega, will move to the team’s flagship #78 Chevrolet with McLeod in the #8.  Green is a past winner of the Charlotte race, scoring back-to-back victories in the spring of 2001 for Greg Pollex and 2002 for Richard Childress.  He finished 37th here last fall.  McLeod’s best finish in four Charlotte starts was a 25th in this race last year.

Alex Labbe returns to XFINITY competition for the first time since Texas as again the driver of Mario Gosselin’s #90 Can-Am / Kappa Chevrolet.  It will be Labbe’s first start at Charlotte and a chance to improve on his career-best 23rd at Phoenix in his series debut last year.

Mike Harmon and the Veterans Motorsports, Inc. team are again entered this week in the #74 Dodge, having earned a respectable 25th back at Talladega.  Harmon’s best Charlotte finish in seven prior starts was a 29th in the fall of 2015.

Next Race: Dover 200 at Dover
June 2, 2017

Sunday, May 21, 2017

CUP: Matt Kenseth’s All-Star last-place finish by oil cooler a NASCAR rarity

Matt Kenseth finished last in Saturday’s Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when his #20 DeWalt Benefiting Wounded Warrior Project Toyota fell out with a busted oil cooler after 20 of 70 laps.

Last in February’s Daytona 500, Matt Kenseth came into the All-Star Race with both he and the entire Joe Gibbs Racing team winless in 2017.  Kenseth himself scored a season-best 3rd in Atlanta, but two consecutive hard crashes at Phoenix and Fontana followed by a heartbreaking 23rd at Richmond after dominating from the pole left him just 18th in points after Kansas.  The All-Star Race must have seemed like a welcome change of pace: Kenseth earned his first Cup victory at the Charlotte track in 2000 and was the 2004 All-Star.  But a crash in last year’s All-Star Race left Kenseth 18th in the race, ending a streak of nine consecutive finishes of 9th or better in the event.

Kenseth’s black-and-gold DeWalt Toyota also carried logos for the Wounded Warrior Project, a program to help injured members of armed forces, their families, and caregivers.  The car ran 10th of the 16 locked-in drivers during Friday’s final practice, then lined up 8th in qualifying, missing the second round by just under a second.

Starting last in the All-Star Main was Chase Elliott, who made his second-consecutive start in the race by once again scoring the Fan Vote.  When the green flag dropped, Elliott immediately set to work on the field, dropping rookie Daniel Suarez to last as the field headed into Turn 1.  Suarez passed Clint Bowyer by the backstretch, and Bowyer moved Talladega winner Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. to last as the field entered the backstretch on Lap 2.  On Lap 4, Stenhouse worked his way past Chris Buescher, last August’s breakthrough Pocono winner, and by Lap 7, Buescher’s #37 Bush’s Beans / Nature Valley / Kingsford Chevrolet was 10.1 seconds behind race leader Kyle Larson.

Kenseth didn’t enter the picture until after Larson took the checkered flag in Segment 1, when Kenseth reported he’d run over something on the track.  By the time the crew finished their pit stop, the #20 was pouring white smoke and leaving puddles of oil in the pit stall.  Fast work by the crew got Kenseth back on track in the 7th spot, but he was forced to surrender the position with a second stop.  The crew looked under the hood, and one of them, perhaps crew chief Jason Ratcliff, said “We’re done.  Shoot.  Hole in the oil cooler.”  The crew pushed Kenseth’s car behind the wall, done for the night.

Finishing 19th on Saturday was Phoenix winner Ryan Newman, whose #31 Caterpillar / Grainger Chevrolet made contact with the outside wall just before the end of Segment 3.  The rest of the Bottom Five was filled by drivers eliminated by having the worst average finish across the three segments: 18th-place Dale Earnhardt, Jr in the #88 Axalta / Maaco Chevrolet, 17th-place Buescher, and 16th-place Kasey Kahne in the Mountain Dew Chevrolet.

*Kenseth is the first driver ever to finish last in both the Daytona 500 and the All-Star Race in the same year.  He crashed out after 103 laps of the season opener.
*This was Kenseth’s first last-place finish in the All-Star Race, the fifth-consecutive first-time last-placer in the event.
*Although NASCAR exhibition races are categorized separately from points races here at LASTCAR, Kenseth’s listed reason out by “oil cooler” is rare in the sport’s history.  Across all of NASCAR’s top three divisions – including both points races and exhibitions – only three times has an oil cooler been the listed cause of a last-place finisher’s exit.  All three were in Cup points races: Tighe Scott, out after 17 laps at Rockingham on October 21, 1979; Kyle Petty, out after 19 laps at North Wilkesboro on April 17, 1983; and Billy Standridge after 51 laps at Talladega on October 12, 1997.

20) #20-Matt Kenseth / 20 laps / oil cooler
19) #31-Ryan Newman / 57 laps / crash
18) #88-Dale Earnhardt, Jr. / 60 laps / eliminated segment 3
17) #37-Chris Buescher / 60 laps / eliminated segment 3
16) #5-Kasey Kahne / 60 laps / eliminated segment 3

CUP: Corey LaJoie leads brief appearance by BK Racing in Monster Energy Open

PHOTO: Sarah Crabill, Getty Images
Corey LaJoie finished last in Saturday’s The Monster Energy Open at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when his #83 Hope for the Warriors Toyota fell out with a vibration after 12 of the race’s 50 laps.

Since his last-place finish at Las Vegas in March, LaJoie has still been looking for his first lead-lap finish and an equally elusive Top 20.  While his 24th-place finish at Bristol only tied his season best in the Daytona 500, FOX Sports’ Mike Joy pointed out that he was running 23rd with just 24 laps to go at Kansas when a crash in Turn 2 dropped him to 27th.

Ironically, LaJoie and BK Racing teammate Gray Gaulding weren’t on the preliminary entry list for Saturday’s open race.  Nor was Cole Whitt in TriStar Motorsports’ #72 RTIC Coolers Chevrolet.  But by Friday, all three were at the track, ready to fill the 24-car field.  LaJoie’s #83 carried a new look as it carried logos for Hope For The Warriors, a four-pronged program designed to help military veterans and their families.  LaJoie ran 17th in Friday’s lone practice session, then secured 15th on the grid with a lap of 182.420mph.

Starting last in the Open was Michael McDowell in Leavine Family Racing’s #95 WRL General Contractors Chevrolet.  Neither McDowell nor 23rd-place starter Reed Sorenson turned a lap in qualifying, placing Sorenson’s #15 Internetwork Engineering Chevrolet next to McDowell.  When the field received the signal for one lap to green, however, three more cars fell to the rear behind McDowell: Jeffrey Earnhardt in Circle Sport with The Motorsport Group’s #33 Towne Bank Chevrolet, Derrike Cope in Premium Motorsports’ #55 Ckezipis Law Toyota, and Carl Long in the #66 Waltrip Brothers’ Charity Championship Chevrolet.  After his sponsorship struggles last week at Kansas, Long’s sponsorship from the Waltrip family proved particularly timely: at the same Charlotte track in 2000, where Darrell Waltrip failed to make the field for his final Coca-Cola 600, Long let Waltrip race his Thee Dixon-owned #85 Ford.

On the first lap of the race, Long held 24th and last, nearly six seconds behind the leaders, but by Lap 4 had caught and passed the #51 Lily Trucking Chevrolet driven by Cody Ware, Ware’s first Cup race of any kind since Atlanta.  As on the previous quad-oval, Ware struggled to keep pace with the pack: he was 14.3 seconds back of the leader on Lap 5, 21.3 behind on Lap 8, and the first to lose a lap on the 13th circuit.  At almost the same moment Clint Bowyer put Ware a lap down, Corey LaJoie suddenly pulled behind the wall, and would not return for the rest of the night.

23rd in the Open went to Bowyer, who won the first stage in his #14 Haas Automation Ford and was the first to transfer into the All-Star Race.  22nd went to LaJoie’s teammate Gray Gaulding, whose #23 Bubba Burger Toyota went behind the wall at the end of the first segment on Lap 20, then returned on Lap 33 to run three more laps before parking for the night.  21st went to A.J. Allmendinger, whose fast #47 Kroger ClickList / Tide / Hellmann’s Chevrolet suffered left-rear damage when Austin Dillon broke loose beneath him.  The Crash Clock wasn’t necessarily a factor as much as the green-flag stop itself, which took Allmendinger out of contention.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Segment 2 winner Ryan Blaney, who also led his segment from start to finish.

*This marked the first last-place finish in the Open for the #83.
*LaJoie is the 21st different driver to finish last in the Open, a streak extending back to Delma Cowart’s final race in 1997.

24) #83-Corey LaJoie / 12 laps / vibration
23) #14-Clint Bowyer / 20 laps / won stage 1 / led 20 laps
22) #23-Gray Gaulding / 23 laps / electrical
21) #47-A.J. Allmendinger / 34 laps / crash
20) #21-Ryan Blaney / 40 laps / won stage 2 / led 20 laps

TRUCKS: Todd Peck drives Copp truck for Mittler to Charlotte last-place finish

Todd Peck picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career in Friday’s N.C. Education Lottery 200 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when his #63 Arthritis Foundation / Pulse Transport Chevrolet fell out with electrical issues after 4 of the race’s 134 laps.

The finish, which came in Peck’s 24th series start, was his second of the season and first since Atlanta, three rounds ago.  He is the first repeat last-placer of the 2017 Truck Series season.

Charlotte saw Peck in a new, but familiar ride.  After driving the first three races of the season for D.J. Copp in the #83 Chevrolet, Peck became the fifth different driver to drive Mike Mittler’s #63 in 2017 (joining Bobby Gerhart, J.J. Yeley, and Kyle and Kevin Donahue).  The truck, however, appeared to be the exact same #83 that Peck finished 18th with in February’s season opener at Daytona, the #83 replaced with Mittler’s #63.

Peck didn’t participate in Thursday’s opening practice, then anchored the chart in Happy Hour, running a single lap of just 144.733mph.  Noah Gragson, fastest in the session at 181.941mph, ran a lap nearly eight full seconds faster.  He then secured the 32nd and final starting spot in the field with a lap of 152.754mph, still the slowest of the session.  Two trucks, each nearly three seconds faster, were sent home: Brandon Brown, back in his family’s #86 Coastal Carolina University Chevrolet for the first time in 2017, and Cody Ware, unable to pull double-duty in his father’s #12 Motorsports Safety Group Chevrolet.  Ironically, Brown ran faster than Peck despite spinning in Turn 3 during his timed lap.

On race night, Peck was joined at the back by Jennifer Jo Cobb and Kansas last-placer Stewart Friesen, both sent to the rear with unapproved adjustments.  Friesen’s adjustments were made following a crash in qualifying.  Next to challenge for the spot was unlucky polesitter Christopher Bell, who led the first two laps before a flat left-rear tire sent him to the rear.  The next time by, Peck pulled behind the wall, done for the night.

31st and 30th went to Brandon Jones and Daytona winner Kaz Grala, respectively, who collected each other in a Lap 60 crash.  Jones’ #99 Roland Chevrolet owned by Daytona last-place owner Matthew Miller lost control and slid into Grala’s #33 Outlaw Fasteners Chevrolet, sending both trucks into the wall and leaving Grala with a loose rear trunk lid.  29th went to Regan Smith, who crashed hard entering the quad-oval when he backed his #92 BTS Tire & Wheel / Advance Auto Parts Ford into the outside wall.  On the Cup side, Smith recovered to finish a strong 4th in relief of Aric Almirola during Saturday’s Monster Energy Open.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Wendell Chavous, citing oil pump issues on Premium Motorsports’ #49 Down South Restoration & Remodeling Chevrolet.

*This was the first Truck Series last-place finish for the #63 since last fall at Texas, seven races ago, when Norm Benning’s unsponsored Chevrolet had engine troubles after 22 laps of the Striping Technology 350.  It’s also the first time the number has finished last in a Truck race at Charlotte.
*Peck is the first Truck Series last-place finisher at Charlotte to fall out with electrical issues since May 15, 2009, when Chris Fontaine’s #22 Red Rocks Cafe Dodge also exited after 4 laps.

32) #63-Todd Peck / 4 laps / electrical
31) #99-Brandon Jones / 62 laps / crash
30) #33-Kaz Grala / 70 laps / crash
29) #92-Regan Smith / 101 laps / crash
28) #49-Wendell Chavous / 106 laps / oil pump

1st) Copp Motorsports, Halmar Friesen Racing, MB Motorsports, MDM Motorsports, TJL Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (5)