Thursday, June 29, 2017

CUP: Tommy Regan’s effort a throwback to West Series “combination races” at Sonoma

Tommy Regan
PHOTOS: Brock Beard
When browsing the entry list for last Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350, many took notice of the five drivers set to make their Cup Series debuts.  Four of the five were traditional “road ringers,” racers with road racing experience outside of NASCAR’s top three series: Israeli open-wheel turned Euro Series racer Alon Day, Ford factory driver Billy Johnson fresh from the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Grand-Am veteran Kevin O’Connell, and IMSA and SCCA competitor Josh Bilicki.

The fifth, Tommy Regan, was a different class of racer – a throwback to the days when K&N Pro Series West drivers were invited to race alongside Cup veterans.

The very first race for the K&N Pro Series West, held March 28, 1954 in Oakland, California, was a late model race which matched local drivers against Grand National stars like Lee Petty, Marvin Panch, and Dick Rathman.  In an effort to grow both series, these “combination races” counted toward the point standings of both divisions.  The result put tracks like Riverside, Ontario, Phoenix, and Sonoma on the Cup schedule.  It also introduced new talent in the Cup Series fields, including Ray Elder, Jim Robinson, and Bill Schmitt.

Up until the late 1990s, west coast Cup Series events were still “combination races” where several West drivers banged fenders with Cup regulars.  By 1994, the highest-qualified West driver was still guaranteed a starting spot by means of a provisional.  That year, the West provisional set the grid for the inaugural Brickyard 400, where Mike Chase bested 14 others from his region for the final starting spot.  Some of the drivers Chase beat, including Rick Carelli and Hall of Fame inductee Ron Hornaday, Jr., would go on to lay the foundation for the Camping World Truck Series.

While the K&N Pro Series West has continued to bring new talent to the Cup - most notably Kevin Harvick, Brendan Gaughan, and current Truck Series rookie Todd Gilliland – the west coast Cup races are no longer “combination races.”  Only at Sonoma does the K&N Pro Series West even share a weekend with Cup, and when they do, they run different cars on different tires in a completely separate race.

On the grid for qualifying
In 2012, Tommy Regan was in that Sonoma race, finishing 21st in a field of 30 driving a #44 Ultra Lube Toyota for car owner Marv Brown.  It was one of four starts that season for Regan, who since 2001 had been competing in weekly series races at the Altamont Speedway, a bullring not far from his hometown of Tracy, California.  “I was born and raised in like a horsepower family, not necessarily a professional racing family,” said Regan on Friday.  “We always had the v-drive boat in the garage and some ’69 Camaros, some Chevelles, and some drag racing in high school time and stuff like that.  But wanted to take it to the next level.”

Regan reached the next level in 2014, moving to Mooresville with sights set on his Truck Series debut.  Driving for car owner Christopher Long, who had entered trucks for current XFINITY Series owner-driver B.J. McLeod, Regan started 28th in the field of 36 at Iowa before ignition issues ended his run on the opening lap (LINK).  Undaunted, Regan improved over his next two starts, finishing 25th at Martinsville and a career-best 24th at Gateway.  His efforts became the subject of “Regan Motorsports,” a 2014 reality show on the Velocity Channel.

This year, Regan has made two Truck Series starts this season, driving as teammates to both Jennifer Jo Cobb and Norm Benning.  Along the way, he’s has become friends with current Cup Series car owner Rick Ware and helped out at their shop.  “I really enjoy – I’m not an official employee, but I really enjoy being there in the garage, working with the cars, and helping the setups.  It’s still really exciting to me.”

Regan obtained clearance to compete in Cup this season, and eyed making his debut at Sonoma.  When asked why this particular track, he said “I would say it’s the track I know the most.  I have the most experience here, I understand the most, and I’ve done the most laps here, so that’s what I felt comfortable with.”  A social media post first indicated that Regan would drive for Ware, but with Josh Bilicki’s deal already secured over the winter, the opportunity then came to drive for Premium Motorsports with Ware offering support.

“It’s been a culmination of about maybe 100 different things that finally came together,” said Regan.  “The stars needed to align for this deal and they did.  So excited to be here at Sonoma, my first Cup race., they really made – they stepped up to the plate to make this happen.  Capri Tools, I really couldn’t have done this without them.  Rick Ware was a huge help in helping my career to help me get here.”

While other newcomers were hoping for a Top 20 finish, Regan was mindful of the challenges that lay ahead in Sunday’s race.  “I’ve gone at it differently this time.  I’ve made it aware to everybody that this is my probationary, first time race.  I’m more looking for to follow through on the processes and fundamentals.  You know, I’m still building my foundation, we just started, and I don’t have expectations of high finishes.  My expectations are getting consistency and stability with our processes, our strategies, and really starting to work on that aspect of things.”

“This is our first race, so I kind of put all my focus on just this race.  I haven’t even looked towards the future past this.  But I do – my sponsors are all very happy, they say they want to re-up with me and the race hasn’t even started yet (laughs).”

Regan qualified 37th in Sunday’s 38-car field, and for much of the afternoon worked his plan.  He fell back at the start, holding down the last spot for most of the first stage and into the early laps of the second before Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s crash in Turn 4 (LINK).  He was just about two seconds ahead of race leader Martin Truex, Jr. when the first stage ended, and only lost the first of three laps late in the third stage.  He finished 34th with just a couple of scrapes on #55, and though his black driver’s uniform was soaked with sweat, he was just as excited.

Loading up after the race
“Oh my gosh, it was everything that I ever wanted,” he said.  “I just – if I could just keep it in one piece and, you know, I was just trying – I was learning so much because when I went out there, I had different lines than most of the people.  I’d tuck in behind Junior or tuck in behind Hamlin and be like ‘oh, that’s what they’re doing!’ (laughs).  You know, so it was mostly a learning curve.  My fastest lap was Lap 90 [of 110].  Yeah, so I had a tremendous amount of fun, I learned a lot, I kept getting faster.  Before my next race, I’ll definitely try and do some testing or sort of stuff and it’ll definitely help me out.”

“I wanted to be really respectful on the track.  When somebody was coming on the lead lap, you know, they were obviously faster than me, I would move over, but I’d tuck right in behind them when they got by and try and catch and learn as much as I can.”

When asked about the endurance side of the race, particularly after triple-digit temperatures earlier in the week, he said, “I was really impressed because I didn’t know what to expect because that was my first three-hour – what – three hour, fifteen minute race, so I trained really, really hard for a three-hour race over the past five months, and it really paid off ‘cause I didn’t get tired in the car and it was very enjoyable.  I mean, out of breath, you know, obviously, tired comes, but I wasn’t out of breath, my focus even at the end of the race was right on point and all that training really helped out. . .The end of the thing of the first tires, I was slipping and sliding, like I was on ice skates, it was like woah-woah-woah, and you’re moving over here, so it was really enjoyable.”

Regan was sure to thank his sponsors, who applauded him as he wrapped up his interview.  “You know, I wanna give a humongous shout-out to and Capri Tools.  They really helped my dream come true today.  I mean, I raced my first Cup race!  So it all begins now, and I’m just – today’s a great day.  I finished, what, 32nd? [34th].  That’s a win for me, buddy.”

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Preliminary Entry List Storylines: July Daytona

PHOTO: Source unknown
Coke Zero 400 at Daytona

After four consecutive short fields, including a track record 38 last Sunday in Sonoma, there will be exactly 40 cars attempting the 40-car field for Saturday’s Independence Day classic.  Most notable, however, is the lack of the #96 Toyota of Gaunt Brothers Racing, which attempted the previous two plate races with Canadian driver D.J. Kennington.  This week, Kennington is instead entered in Premium Motorsports’ #15 Chevrolet (teamed with Reed Sorenson, who moves back in the #55 Toyota).  Also missing is Rick Ware Racing, which failed to qualify for both Daytona and Talladega, then ran last Sunday with Josh Bilicki running 36th at Sonoma.

While the Gaunt and Ware teams are missing, the #75 Beard Motorsports has returned for its third-straight restrictor-plate attempt, and will again go with veteran driver Brendan Gaughan.  Gaughan turned in a strong 11th-place finish the last time out at Daytona, and perhaps would have been in position for another at Talladega had the car not suffered front valence damage at the start.

Also returning is Tommy Baldwin Racing, making its fifth start of the year and its first since J.J. Yeley ran 26th in the Coca-Cola 600.  Sponsorship from Golden Corral and driver Elliott Sadler return for the third of three plate starts, returning to the scene of a 20th-place run in February.

The other team returning is BK Racing’s #83, absent at Sonoma, but this week back with Ryan Sieg to make his third Cup start of the year.  Fresh off a career-best 2nd at Iowa, Sieg could be a dark horse to watch, particularly after his other battle for the lead in the XFINITY race at Talladega.  Corey LaJoie slides over from the #83 to the #23, the car driven last Sunday by Alon Day and before that by Gray Gaulding and Sieg.

Another dark horse will be Matt DiBenedetto, who finished a season-best 9th in this year’s Daytona 500.  The driver earned a solid 23rd-place finish at Sonoma, and will look to continue to build after a rough few weeks of late-race misfortunes.

Back behind the wheel this week is Darrell Wallace, Jr., who for the third time this year takes the controls of Richard Petty Motorsports’ #43 Smithfield Ford.  Wallace has made six Daytona starts in the XFINITY Series with a best of 6th in the February 2016 opener.  The team he’s driving for last took the checkered flag here in July 2014, when the Aric Almirola won the rain-shortened Sunday event.  With Almirola set to return in mid-to-late July, Wallace will look to make the most of Saturday’s race.

Jeffrey Earnhardt is back with Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group, and so is sponsor Hulu for the green #33 Chevrolet.  Earnhardt had a good run going in February’s Daytona 500, running near the Top 10 before a late-race crash left him 26th.  Coming into Saturday, that finish – his only prior Cup start at Daytona – remains his best run of the season.

Another driver to watch will be Cole Whitt, who like Earnhardt had a strong run going in February’s 500 before running out of gas on the final lap.  Whitt quietly finished 21st at Sonoma, came home 11th in this race last year, and still ran 18th despite the empty fuel tank early this year.  In 14 previous Daytona starts in the Cup Series, team owner Mark Smith has only finished better than Whitt’s 18th-place run two times – a 10th in 1991 with Bobby Hamilton, and a 15th in 1993 with Greg Sacks – both in the #68 Country Time Lemonade machine.

At Talladega, we saw several teams forgo an impound violation and change their cars from qualifying to race setup after the opening lap – most notably the #55 of Premium Motorsports and the #83 for BK Racing.  With exactly 40 cars on the list this week and no risk for any Open car to be sent home, it’s unlikely this strategy will be used this weekend.

Firecracker 250 at Daytona

43 drivers are entered to attempt the 40-car starting grid for the XFINITY race at Daytona.

As of this writing, the driver has yet to be announced for RSS Racing’s #93 Chevolet, the team dominating this year’s LASTCAR standings.  Jeff Green, the driver for each of the last four races and last-place finisher in three of them, is this week back in the #8 for B.J. McLeod.  No doubt, the team is looking to build on Green’s 10th-place finish at Talladega and Tommy Joe Martins’ sterling 11th-place run last week in Iowa.  McLeod is himself entered in place of Martins in the flagship #78.

Corey LaJoie is listed as pulling double-duty this weekend, this time running the XFINITY event in a fourth JD Motorsports entry, the #15 Chevrolet.  While “start-and-park” entries are rare at the restrictor plate races, they do still happen.  It is as yet uncertain whether LaJoie’s car will run the full race.  Another possible “start-and-park” candidate is the second King Autosport Chevrolet, the #92 for team owner Mario Gosselin, which was withdrawn last week at Iowa.  JGL Racing has entered a third Toyota, #26, for Scott Lagasse, Jr., but given Lagasse’s past runs at plate tracks, the car will run the distance.

Chris Cockrum looks to make his fourth start of the season and first since Talladega.  Back in his #25 Advanced Communications Group Chevrolet, Cockrum’s best finish of the season has been a 28th at Daytona, and the Florida track also saw his career-best 21st in 2015.

Also back on the list is ARCA veteran Mark Thompson, who runs Motorsports Business Management’s #13 Toyota alongside Timmy Hill in the #40.  The 65-year-old Thompson is a decade younger than 75-year-old Morgan Shepherd, who looks to rebound from a February DNQ to make his 21st XFINITY start at Daytona in his 50th anniversary season.

Casey Mears reprises his role as Aric Almirola’s relief driver in the #98 Fresh From Florida Ford.  Mears could be a dark horse to take the checkered flag – Almirola won this race last year in the Biagi car, and Mears has shown flashes of brilliance on the restrictor-plate tracks during his Cup career.

Speaking of dark horses, one cannot overlook any of the drivers who ran so well last Saturday in Iowa.  Garrett Smithley, Jeremy Clements, Dakoda Armstrong, Ross Chastain, and especially runner-up Ryan Sieg are all entered and could have something to say to the likes of Cup regulars Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, and Joey Logano.

Next Race: Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 at Kentucky
Thursday, July 6, 2017

While the entry list for this race has yet to be published, it is expected to include the #52 Halmar Friesen Racing entry for driver Stewart Friesen, which has skipped the previous two rounds in Gateway and Iowa.

Monday, June 26, 2017

CUP / WEST: LASTCAR Sonoma Garage Reports

No. 32 Can-Am / Kappa Ford
Started 27th, Finished 23rd

After finishes of 29th and 31st in two Sonoma starts driving BK Racing’s No. 83 Toyota, Matt DiBenedetto returned with Go FAS Racing.  “It’s been good,” DiBenedetto said of the transition to a single-car team, “it’s nice to have all the focus on our one deal and that team, so our performance has been great this year, we just had a lot of bad luck that really killed us in the points. So, I really feel like we should be 5 spots higher in the points based on how we performed, but we had a lot of issues four weeks in a row that caused some DNFs or not the finishes we needed, so things are just kind of out of my control. So yeah, we’ve been running great, growing as a team, so hopefully we get back on track and have a lot of good finishes.”

One of those rough afternoons came earlier this month at Pocono, where he pulled off the track in the final stages. “Yeah, actually I got sick the night before at Pocono, I ate something bad, so that kind of set me behind for the race. And then it went green flag for a really long time and so I just got really dehydrated early, but normally I’m really more hydrated.”

The triple-digit heat which gripped the Bay Area days before the race also brought to mind the issue of heat in the race car.  “Last year, I burned my feet here, so I had really bad blisters.  So we worked on the floor of the race car, I got some heat shields for my feet, so that was the main concern coming here, make sure that doesn’t happen again.  So it’ll definitely be a long one and the road courses create a lot of heat with the brakes and all.”

Like many of the other teams we spoke with, DiBenedetto’s goal was for a Top 20 finish.  “You know, I don’t know, it’s – road courses are a place where you can get a really good finish, so I enjoy them a lot, so I’d, you know, looking at it, if we could come out of here with like a Top 20 would be great, so that’s kind of our general goal here.”  Of this group, he came the closest to achieving his goal, finishing on the lead lap in 23rd.

No. 33 Chevrolet
Started 34th, Finished 29th

Said arrived at the Sonoma Raceway to drive the No. 33 Chevrolet for Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group, driving in place of Jeffrey Earnhardt.  According to the team, the sponsorship deal from Hulu was done after the team signed Boris to run both road course races.  We caught up with Said shortly after he arrived at the No. 33 garage stall on Friday, helmet in hand with his son next to him.  “I mean, it just kind of came up the last minute,” Said told of the deal to drive No. 33.  “[T]hey needed somebody more for a road course.  I mean, I’m surprised they called me being as I’m almost 55, but I’m really happy to be here.  I love – been racing 31 years, probably gonna be my last season doing NASCAR, but it’s just – gonna have a blast.”

While Hulu will back the No. 33 next Saturday in Daytona and for a few more races this season, the green car didn’t carry any logos on Friday.  By Saturday, came on board as part of a deal worked out between Said and Hendrick Motorsports.  “It’s not a front-running car, but I think it’ll be a good enough car.  Hendrick gave us a little help, because I’m partners with Rick Hendrick and the car dealers, so he gave us a motor and a few little pieces, so hopefully that’ll help us out a little bit.  I just can’t wait to go.”

Said will return to Cup this August at Watkins Glen for what may be the driver’s 54th and final Cup start.  He’s competed in the Truck Series since 1995 and XFINITY since 1998, winning one race in both series, and at Sonoma in 2003 claimed the first of two Cup pole positions while driving in place of the injured Jerry Nadeau.  The Watkins Glen car will be sponsored by Genessee Beer, which backed his last two starts at the Glen.

No. 23 Earthwater Toyota
Started 32nd, Finished 32nd

By taking the green flag on Sunday, Alon Day not only became the first Israeli driver to start a Cup Series race, but also marked the 16th different country to be represented in the Cup field at Sonoma.  Driving the No. 23 BK Racing entry in place of Gray Gaulding and Ryan Sieg, Day finished the race under power, but without much of the bodywork.  “Yeah, it was pretty difficult,” said Day, who was wearing the same yellow driver’s uniform for CAAL Racing in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series. “The Earthwater guys did a great job keeping the car - unfortunately half of the car is missing (laughs) - but we still did good in my opinion.  Was hoping for a caution that didn’t [come].  Next race, we’ll be stronger.”

An early spin in Turn 3, then an on-track incident made his car the first car to lose a lap.  The nose was so badly damaged that the hood threatened to come loose, forcing an unscheduled pit stop.  “Somebody spun in Turn 11, and everybody brake and someone bumped me from behind and I bumped the guy in front of me.  The hood got bent.”

During Friday’s press conference, Day said he liked NASCAR over other forms of racing because of the lack of dependence on electronic driving aids, thus putting the performance in the driver’s hands.  That said, he was surprised by the kind of racing the Cup Series produces.  “I think the aggression of the drivers, that’s the only thing that wasn’t – and the race is pretty long, but other than that. . .I got good experience, familiar more with the car.”

As of this writing, Day does not know what his plans are in NASCAR’s top three divisions, including the August race at Watkins Glen.  He will continue to run full-time in the Euro Series, whose next round will be in Holland on July 15.

No. 15 SBC Contractors / Apollo Opening Roof System Chevrolet
Started 36th, Finished 33rd

O’Connell joined Premium Motorsports to drive in place of Reed Sorenson in the No. 15 Chevrolet.  The Sonoma car’s primary sponsor was SBC Contractors, the Sacramento-area construction firm which last year sponsored Josh Wise and The Motorsports Group No. 30.  Speaking with SBC’s president on Friday, the company is looking into sponsoring the car in future races, including this November’s round in Phoenix.  The Premium Motorsports team also added several decals to the quarter-panels on Friday morning.

The team struggled in Friday's opening practice, missing most of the session because of a power steering issue that required replacing the power steering pump.

Replays after the race seemed to indicate O’Connell lost control of No. 15 as he and Kasey Kahne raced side-by-side on the final lap.  Headed into Turn 1, the two cars made contact, sending Kahne hard into the concrete traffic barriers.  O’Connell managed to reel his car in off Turn 1 and came home 33rd.  Unaware of his involvement in the incident, we only got a short quote from O’Connell as he walked back through the garage area after the checkers.

“You know, listen, it was everything I thought it would be,” said O’Connell.  “Those guys are great drivers and, you know, we tried to bring a small team and hold our own, I think we did that.  We’ll look to do some more.”  As with many drivers we spoke to, plans for Watkins Glen were still up in the air.  “We’re talking about the Glen and maybe going to Canada and doing something in the Truck Series.  Since he drove for Premium Motorsports on Sunday, this could mean that O’Connell will drive Premium’s No. 49 truck in Mosport, a truck currently driven by Wendell Chavous.

No. 51 Marriott Drywall / Climate Fieldview Chevrolet
Started 33rd, Finished 36th

Rick Ware Racing returned from a one-week hiatus at Michigan to make the team’s first Sonoma start.  Selected to drive over the past offseason was Wisconsin driver Josh Bilicki, another of the five drivers looking to make their Cup debut.  “Came together in the winter,” said Bilicki of the deal.  “Rick Ware saw my performance at Road America in the XFINITY Series, to be honest that was my only NASCAR start – my first NASCAR start.  So Cody Ware. . .got in touch with me over the winter and said ‘we’ve got this opportunity for you to run the road course if you’re interested,’ so I tossed the idea around to a few sponsors and we have Climate Fieldview and Marriott companies aboard, so they picked it up and that’s why we’re here.”

Bilicki had never before raced at the Sonoma track, but he had tested there just a few months before.  With NASCAR mandating the testing and no Goodyear tests scheduled at the track, however, Bilicki had to improvise.  “It was actually a 2001 NASCAR, a Hooters car, a Brett Bodine car, it was on Hoosiers.  You know, NASCAR mandates the tests, so you couldn’t test Goodyear tires, so a little bit of a different tire compound, but a big heavy car and about the same horsepower, so I think it was really beneficial and I think that’ll help me be a little more prepared than some of the other guys here.”

Earlier this season, Bilicki was slated to drive for XFINITY Series team Obaika Racing, running the No. 77 Chevrolet alongside former Cup Rookie of the Year Stephen Leicht in the No. 97.  We asked him about the Obaika team, which has been missing from the circuit since Bristol, and what happened.  “Unfortunately, I don’t. Yeah, I was set to drive three races this year with them and every race kind of fell apart, and I know the team kind of fell apart.  I’d like to see them back, but I have not heard from Victor or anyone else.”

“First goal is definitely to finish the race,” said Bilicki on Friday, “a Top 20 would be a success, I think a Top 15 would be a win for us.”  Although overheating issues left the team back in the running order, the young driver has more plans coming together, including a return to the Ware team for the Cup race at Watkins Glen.  He also is looking ahead to XFINITY races in the midwest.  “Yeah, we’re trying to put together a sponsorship deal, I ran the XFINITY Series last week with MBM Motorsports, we’re trying to line some more stuff up with that. I definitely want to try and do all three road courses, Chicagoland, some local tracks close to me in Wisconsin, so we’ll see.”

K&N Pro Series West
No. 20 Inglebright Racing Chevrolet
Started 12th, Finished 30th in Carneros 200

Part of Kevin Harvick’s weekend sweep was a victory in Saturday’s Carneros 200 for the K&N Pro Series West.  Here, the last-place battle was settled before the race ever began as Kevin O’Connell’s own plans for double-duty ended after Joe Nava’s team withdrew his No. 77 RC-1, Inc. Chevrolet.

First into the garage area was Nicole Behar, whose No. 33 Custom Welding & Fabrication Chevrolet had issues under the hood for multiple laps before she returned to the track.  Next was Jesse Iwuji, who lost the engine on his No. 36 Champion Parts / Lights Out / Bullet Proof Chevrolet.  Meeting Iwuji’s car behind the wall was veteran Jim Inglebright, who helped push his unsponsored yellow No. 20 behind the wall.

The 55-year-old Inglebright, a three-time winner in the West Series and winner of three consecutive Sonoma races on the Southwest Tour, was making his first and only start of the season.  He drove the same Chevrolet he debuted at Sonoma last year when it was No. 1, but it never turned a lap and was classified last.  This year, he started 12th, but had dropped through the field in the early laps.  He started to pass cars again, but slowed once more, forcing an unscheduled pit stop.  He sat on pit road for several laps, the car constantly shutting off every time it was fired.  Finally, the decision was made to take it to the garage, where he spoke with us.

“You know, it’s a new car,” said Inglebright.  “We actually had some issues last year with the oil tank, that’s why we didn’t even have a chance to race, we blew the motor up, so got that fixed.  But it gave me no warning.  I mean, practice was good, qualifying was good, warm-up, we take the green flag and I get to the top of Turn 2 there and the thing starts backfiring on me.  So I had to dive out of everybody’s way, not wreck everybody, and I was kind of hoping I could figure it out and get it cleaned up.   We tried a couple things down there on pit road, but it just wasn’t to be.”

“It’s really weird, yeah.  In all honesty, like under green, I could get it going, but it would cut off on me right like coming down the hill, just totally stop.  And I could get it going and it would take off again.  So I don’t know if – my motor guy says it’s like the crank sensor, the pick-up crank sensor he thinks is going down on it.  I mean, all we can do is take it to the shop, take a look at it, see what’s going on.”  When asked if the Gen-6 inspired car was more dependent on electronics, accounting for the issue, he said, “No, not really.  Not really, no.  It’s just – we haven’t had the opportunity to shake the bugs out of it.”

Unfortunately, Inglebright isn’t planning any more K&N Pro Series West races.  But he is planning to come back to run the Carneros 200 in 2018.  “Well, thank you, we’ll be here.”

CUP: Restart wreck leaves Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. last in Sonoma

ALL PHOTOS: Brock Beard
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. picked up the 4th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350 at the Sonoma Raceway when his #17 Fastenal / Louisville Ladders Ford was involved in a multi-car accident after 30 of 110 laps.

The finish, which came in Stenhouse’s 164th series start, was his second of the season and first since Dover, three races ago.  He now ties Cody Ware for the second-most last-place finishes in Cup in 2017.

As Stenhouse himself indicated during his post-race Sonoma interview, the Talladega winner came into the road course race coming off a streak of career-best finishes at other tracks.  One week after the hard hit at Dover, he ran 11th at Pocono (improving on his previous best of 15th on two occasions), then ran 8th at Michigan (where again 15th was his earlier mark).  15th in points, Stenhouse eyed a strong run at the Sonoma Raceway, where his previous best was a 20th in 2015.

Stenhouse started the weekend strong, putting up the 3rd-fastest time near the end of Friday’s opening practice (and was also the top Ford, trailing only the Toyotas of Martin Truex, Jr. and Denny Hamlin), then settled back to 24th in Happy Hour.  On Saturday, he secured the 22nd starting spot with a lap of 94.029mph, besting his previous qualifying mark of 24th in 2014.

After the accident that ended his race on Sunday, we asked Stenhouse about how his weekend had gone.  “Yeah, this was probably one of our better Sonoma practices, qualifying efforts, probably how the car felt during the race.  We felt good about what we had, just kind of biding our time until we got to the end of this race.”

Just 38 drivers arrived to attempt Sunday’s field, marking the shortest-ever Cup Series field in the 29 years of Cup racing at Sonoma.  Starting last was a frustrated Matt Kenseth.  During Friday’s opening practice, Kenseth’s #20 DeWalt FlexVolt Toyota lost an engine entering Turn 4.  Despite efforts to cool the motor in the garage, an engine change had to be made, meaning that Kenseth would have to start last regardless of qualifying speed.  Aware that he would have to start the race on the tires he used in qualifying, Kenseth exercised the same strategy as Austin Dillon earlier this year at Richmond, running one slow lap in qualifying to avoid taxing his tires.  With the starting line well past the qualifying cue, Kenseth never actually completed a lap, and did not have a qualifying speed.

On Sunday, Kenseth was joined at the rear by NASCAR Whelen Euro Series driver Alon Day.  Day made history as the first Israeli driver to make a Cup Series start, the 16th different country to be represented in a Cup Series field at Sonoma.  Day qualified 32nd in BK Racing’s #23 Earthwater Toyota, but was sent to the rear for missing driver introductions.  It made little difference.  By the time the green flag dropped, another first-timer had already dropped to the back: 37th-place starter Tommy Regan.  Regan, a native of nearby Tracy, California, was late getting started in the all-white #55 / Capri Tools Chevrolet.  After catching the field during the second pace lap, he accelerated a split-second later at the start, and was already behind by open track at the stripe.

Another rookie was next to take last – this time, full-timer Daniel Suarez in Joe Gibbs Racing’s #19 Stanley Tools Toyota.  On Lap 2, Suarez locked the brakes so hard entering Turn 11 that all four tires smoked heavily, forcing him to pit the next time by.  Suarez returned to the track 30 seconds behind 37th-place Regan and approximately two full corners ahead of the leaders.  Moments later, the same fate befell Suarez’ teammate Kyle Busch, who locked the brakes on his #18 M&M’s Caramel Toyota in the middle of Turn 11, forcing an unscheduled stop of his own.  Busch slotted back in line in 36th, ahead of both Suarez and Regan.  Suarez dropped Regan to last once again after catching him down the frontstretch at the end of the tenth lap, then passed Regan on the technical portion of the course the next time by.

Regan was still running in the 38th spot when the first caution fell on Lap 15, this time for actual contact in Turn 11.  Dale Earnhardt, Jr., making his 18th and final Sonoma start, started 10th and was running 8th spun his #88 Axalta / Fix Auto Collision Chevrolet heading into the corner.  Somehow, the #88 slid backwards between a pair of tire stacks - and directly into the path of a passing Danica Patrick’s #10 Code 3 Associates Ford.  This same contact also collected polesitter Kyle Larson, who was clipped in the left-rear and went for a spin of his own in the #42 Target / Coca-Cola Chevrolet.  While all three drivers were able to continue, the first caution flew, forcing a nine-lap sprint to the end of Stage 1.

Dale Jr. entered the last-place battle, albeit briefly, when he came down pit road under yellow on Lap 16.   On top of still another change of flat-spotted tires, the crew attended to a large dent in the passenger-side door.  Earnhardt returned to the track without losing a lap and was back up to speed within the five-minute “Crash Clock.”  Earnhardt was then caught speeding in Section 8 exiting pit road, which would keep him at the tail end of the field for Lap 17.  That time by, Tommy Regan, who joined a small group of cars in staying out, made his own pit stop, and re-took last from Earnhardt for the Lap 18 restart.  This time, Regan had a faster start, and he was soon following in the tire tracks of David Ragan’s #38 Shriners Hospital for Children Ford.  On Lap 20, Regan was 19.392 seconds behind the leader and steadily losing time to 37th until he was again running by himself.

Stenhouse’s first appearance in the last-place battle actually came on Lap 24, as he joined another group of cars looking to short-pit before the end of Stage 1.  He was then passed for last on Lap 25 by road racer Billy Johnson in Richard Petty Motorsports’ #43 Smithfield Ford, then on Lap 26 by Trevor Bayne in the #6 AdvoCare Ford, who all made it to pit road before it was closed.  Bayne just rolled off the end of pit road as the leaders entered Turn 11 to receive the stage-ending caution flag.

Additional pit stops under the yellow shuffled the running order once more, and it was again Regan’s #55 in last.  In front of him were Kyle Busch, who was caught speeding exiting pit road, and the #95 K-LOVE Radio Chevrolet of Michael McDowell, who made his own Segment 1 pit stop after the pits were closed, incurring a tail end penalty.  The Lap 30 restart saw all three cars get a slow start with Busch pinned behind McDowell and Regan checking-up not to hit both cars.

Loading up as the race restarts
That time by, Alon Day had begun picking through the field following his penalty, but spun off in the grass of Turn 3, dropping him briefly to the 38th spot.  At that moment, a three-wide race into Turn 4 triggered another multiple-car accident.  Following her incident with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Danica Patrick was in a tight battle for 20th when she found herself once again racing Earnhardt and Larson, who this time were side-by-side on her right.  Larson caught the inside curbing and bumped into Earnhardt, who then clipped and spun Patrick into the Turn 4 runoff area.  Patrick completed a slow 360-degree spin as Clint Bowyer slipped by.  Looking to follow Bowyer through was Stenhouse, who suddenly saw the hole close in front.  With Chase Elliott to his right, Stenhouse had nowhere to go but into Patrick’s left-rear, destroying the left-front of his car.

Stenhouse managed to limp onto pit road, where the crew briefly tried to effect repairs.  As the five-minute “Crash Clock” ticked away, and the #17 was the first to lose a lap, the damage to the left-front suspension proved too extensive.  The car was pulled behind the wall, out of the race, where the crew put it on rollers and loaded it onto the hauler.  Stenhouse, meanwhile, arrived at the infield care center by side-by-side ATV, where he walked in under his own power.  We got a word with Stenhouse as he finished interviewing with FOX, PRN, and Claire B. Lang’s “Dialed In.”

Interview outside the care center
“It’s a part of it.  Just being aggressive on restarts.  Tried to give and take, and felt like I gave a lot really through the first stage, and was trying to give during that second stage and, you know, just trying to set ourselves up for the final stage and just weren’t able to do that with crashes in front of us.  And I thought I had it cleared and just caught it at the last second.  So, it was a bummer way to end our day, the Fastenal guys worked really hard. . .You never want to end that way, but that’s part of racing sometimes.  You sometimes get lucky and miss them, and sometimes you don’t and we didn’t this time.”

Looking ahead to next Saturday and Daytona, where Stenhouse will make his first restrictor-plate start since his breakthrough Talladega victory, the driver mentioned “that Talladega car’s mine.  So, we got a new one, but should be just as good.”

After the rough to start to Sunday’s race, the third segment ran without a single yellow, stringing out the field of battered race cars.  With Stenhouse as the only retiree, any minor incident had catastrophic results.  Alon Day was the first driver to lose a lap as contact in Turn 11 damaged the nose of his car, loosening the hood to the point that it almost completely blocked his view.  When the yellow the BK Racing team waited for didn’t come, Day made an unscheduled stop, and returned without the hood and most of the right-front valence.

Day was lifted from 37th by, ironically, one of the best cars in the field.  3rd-place starter Martin Truex, Jr. won the opening stage and led 25 laps, becoming what Kevin Harvick later admitted was the team’s biggest challenge for the win.  But after 86 laps, Truex reported he’d dropped a cylinder, and the car smoked as he made it down pit road.  The crew looked under the hood and sent him back out, but when the smoke came back, he backed-up from pit exit and pulled into the garage.  The issue proved terminal, and he didn’t return to the race – the day’s only other DNF.

36th went to Josh Bilicki, who finished his first Cup start under power.  Like many drivers in the field, Bilicki’s #51 Marriott Drywall / Climate Fieldview Chevrolet suffered nose damage, but he managed to run as high as 7th as the field shuffled through its various strategies.  Unfortunately, the nose damage caused an overheating issue in the final laps, and he lost 10 circuits to the leaders as the crew tried to cool the car down.  Regardless, it was an important step forward for Rick Ware Racing, which returned for its first start since Pocono and came home under power for the first time since Charlotte.

JTG-Daugherty Racing also faced the highs and lows at Sonoma.  Teammates A.J. Allmendinger and Chris Buescher started 5th and 9th, respectively, and were running 1-2 during Segment 1.  Allmendinger took the lead from Buescher on Lap 19 and led for four circuits, but his #47 Kroger ClickList / Cheerios / Crisco Chevrolet struggled from there.  On top of a spin and damage to both the right-front and left-rear, Allmendinger had a voltage issue that required a battery change with 35 laps to go, dropping him four laps down.  He returned to the track, only to again discover the voltage dropping, but it soon leveled out.  He lost two more laps by the end of the race, pulling over to let faster cars by in Turn 2, and wound up 35th.

Rounding out the Bottom Five was Tommy Regan, three laps behind in the #55.  For more on Regan and his weekend, check back this week on for a special feature on the driver.

*This marked the first Sonoma Raceway last-place finish in the Cup Series for both Stenhouse and the #17.

38) #17-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 30 laps / crash

37) #78-Martin Truex, Jr. / 86 laps / engine / led 25 laps / won stage 1

36) #51-Josh Bilicki / 100 laps / running

35) #47-A.J. Allmendinger / 104 laps / running / led 4 laps

34) #55-Tommy Regan / 107 laps / running

1st) Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group (4)
2nd) Rick Ware Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing (2)
3rd) BK Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, Furniture Row Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Premium Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (9)
2nd) Toyota (4)
3rd) Ford (3)