Monday, March 19, 2018

CUP: Against long odds, Kevin Harvick once again avoids first Cup Series last-place finish; Trevor Bayne endures “hardest crash I’ve ever had in my life”

ALL PHOTOS: Brock Beard
Trevor Bayne picked up the 6th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California when his #6 Performance Plus Motor Oil Ford was involved in a hard single-car accident after 108 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Bayne’s 171st series start, was his first of the season and his first since September 4, 2016, following an engine failure during the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington.

In the LASTCAR Cup Series rankings, it’s the 32nd for car #6, the 680th for Ford, and the 561st by reason of a crash. Across the top three series, it’s the 57th for the #6, the 937th for Ford, and the 1,131st by reason of a crash.

Bayne, the 2011 winner of the Daytona 500, has continued to struggle in Roush-Fenway’s flagship team. While there have been flashes of brilliance – a pair of Top Fives in each of his last two seasons, he’s fallen well short of a spot in the Playoffs, finishing 22nd in the points both years. With his lone teammate Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. enjoying a breakout 2017 with a pair of restrictor-plate wins, Bayne is not only still looking for that elusive second Cup victory, but also the consistency to earn a spot in NASCAR’s postseason.

Coming into Fontana, Bayne had shown some marked improvement. Other than Atlanta, where a late-race engine failure left him 35th, Bayne had finished a season-best 13th in the Daytona 500, followed by a pair of back-to-back 20th-place showings in Las Vegas and Phoenix, yielding a 21st-place rank in points. For the following race in Fontana, longtime sponsor AdvoCare (celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2018) would be replaced by Performance Plus Motor Oil, a company which joined the Roush effort at Sonoma in 2016.

Bayne ran 28th among the 37 entrants in Friday’s opening practice and was fortunate to be one of the 24 drivers who managed to get through inspection quick enough to take time in qualifying. Bayne ran 15th of the 24 who ran in Round 1. In Round 2, he placed 13th, coming just eight-hundredths of a second short of bumping Brad Keselowski for a place in Round 3. With a qualifying lap of 184.743mph (38.973 seconds), Bayne would have his best starting spot since he rolled off 12th last fall at Homestead. The car continued to show speed against the full field in Saturday’s practices: he ran 20th in the morning session, then 22nd in Happy Hour.

Starting last in Sunday’s field was Cole Whitt, who returned to driving TriStar Motorsports’ #72 Chevrolet for the first time since Las Vegas, two races ago. This time around, he carried backing from local car dealership SoCal Chevy. Owner Points ranked Whitt’s team lowest of the 13 drivers who were unable to get through inspection and, curiously, he was also last in line in the inspection cue during Round 1. Another four drivers didn’t turn a lap in Round 2: Front Row Motorsports teammates David Ragan and Michael McDowell, BK Racing’s Gray Gaulding, and Reed Sorenson, making his season debut in the return of Premium Motorsports’ Open car. Sorenson’s #55 Chevrolet didn’t have a primary sponsor, but carried associate backing from the LowT Centers and Champion Machinery, sponsors of Ross Chastain’s #15 with Premium’s Charter.

As the cars rolled off pit road, outside polesitter Kyle Busch pulled his car to the apron of Turn 1, then rejoined the field. Kasey Kahne followed suit, stopping his own #95 WRL General Contractors Chevrolet from the 34th spot just past the exit of pit road. Kahne stayed there for several seconds and only caught the tail end of the field at the conclusion of the first pace lap. Pre-race penalties were handed out to Gray Gaulding and Alex Bowman, who changed engines, to Michael McDowell for a rear gear change, and to Daniel Suarez, who wrecked his primary car when he snapped loose on the exit of Turn 2 in opening practice.

Bowman, McDowell, and Suarez didn’t spend much time in the back as other cars also voluntarily fell to the rear. On the next pace lap, Whitt was still in the back, this time alongside Sorenson, who surrendered his 24th-place starting spot. With one lap to green, Gray Gaulding pulled high in Turn 1 to let traffic pass, at which point both Ross Chastain’s #15 and Rick Ware’s #51 Bubba Burger Toyota for Timmy Hill had done the same as well as Jeffrey Earnhardt in StarCom Racing’s #00 VRX Simulators Chevrolet. When it all shook out, Earnhardt was lined up last with Sorenson, Hill, Gaulding, Whitt, and Chastain occupying the next five spots.

Jeffrey Earnhardt (center) about
to be lapped by race leader
Kyle Busch (center right)
on Lap 14
On the break, Earnhardt and Sorenson raced each other side-by-side into Turn 1, but Sorenson got the drive off Turn 2, dropping the #00 to last by Turn 3. Earnhardt gradually lost ground to the back of the field, and by the sixth lap he trailed the trio of Sorenson, Hill, and Gaulding by open track. On the 14th circuit, race leader Kyle Busch caught Earnhardt in Turn 1, then moved high to pass him, the first driver to lose a lap. By the 24th lap, Earnhardt had moved from the middle to the high lane, but was still losing positions. That time by, 27th-place A.J. Allmendinger worked his way past. Three circuits later, after pitting with the rest of the field, Earnhardt was a second lap down.

Earnhardt was still in 37th when the day’s most dramatic moment occurred on Lap 37. It involved Kevin Harvick, who came into Sunday’s race looking for his fourth win in a row. Coming down the backstretch, Harvick locked fenders with Kyle Larson, steering Harvick’s #4 Busch Beer Ford hard into the outside wall with the right-front of his machine. Harvick veered to the inside, the rear TV panel peeled away from the rear clip, and somehow managed to avoid running into the inside barrier. Even with NASCAR’s “Crash Clock” extended to six minutes, it looked unlikely that Harvick would be able to run any further. If he did, with Earnhardt and the rest of the field still running, the result would have been Harvick’s first-ever last-place run in a Cup points race, dating back 615 starts to his series debut at Rockingham one week after Dale Earnhardt’s passing in 2001.

Harvick did, however, manage to drive to pit road, where the crew began patching up the car. Several large silver patches of tape were added to the right-rear, holding the TV panel in place, while crews addressed the heavy damage to the right-front. Radio transmissions indicated that the toe-end was knocked out more than an inch and a half. Combined with the aerodynamic damage to the front valence, this would prove devastating at any track, particularly a downforce track like Fontana. Harvick returned to the track under yellow, then made a second stop for additional repairs. He lost two laps in the bargain, taking last from Earnhardt on Lap 43, and was rolling down pit road when the race restarted.
Harvick returns to the track after his first pit stop following
Lap 37 accident

Surprisingly, Harvick’s car still showed enough speed to contend with the tail end of the field. On Lap 45, just two laps after rejoining the field, he passed Earnhardt for position, dropping the #00 back to last. By Lap 54, when Earnhardt lost a third lap, Harvick was passing more cars, running interference to keep himself from losing another lap. Harvick re-took last from Earnhardt on Lap 65 when the crew made more repairs under the caution at the end of Stage 1, adding black tape to the silver already used. The crew instructed Harvick to repeat his previous restart, waiting for the restart to rejoin the field at the back of the pack. At this point, Harvick was now five laps down to the leaders, and another half-lap behind the tail end of the field. But, once again, he caught up. On Lap 75, he caught and passed Earnhardt, though this time it wasn’t for position as the #00 was two circuits ahead. As Earnhardt continued to struggle for speed, however, he slowly fell into Harvick’s clutches once more. On Lap 92, following another round of green-flag stops, Earnhardt was now six laps down to Harvick’s seven.

Bayne (center) pulls behind the wall on Lap 111
It wasn’t until Lap 109 that Trevor Bayne entered the last-place picture. During the green-flag stretch that preceded it, Bayne was locked in a tight battle with teammate Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., his #6 holding the high lane. On that 109th circuit, just as Paul Menard came down pit road, Bayne’s car apparently cut down a tire and slammed the outside wall between Turns 3 and 4. The car ground to a stop, then rolled down the banking and drove down pit road. Bayne spoke with his crew, saying “That’s the hardest hit I’ve ever had in my life.” He also hinted at a possible concussion, saying he didn’t know how he drove the car down pit road, but was conscious enough to warn his crew that he didn’t have any brakes. The car stopped in his stall and the crew briefly worked on repairs. The crew chief told Bayne to shut the car off, and on Lap 110 had Bayne drive to the garage. The next time by, on Lap 111, Bayne re-fired the engine and drove down a couple stalls to the next garage entrance, the first car to pull behind the wall. He was 32nd at that moment, two laps down. He took last on Lap 115.

36th fell to Earnhardt, who was once again passed by Harvick not long after Bayne’s caution. Earnhardt finished 11 laps down to race winner Martin Truex, Jr., and news soon broke that he had been released from StarCom Racing, to be replaced by Landon Cassill. Harvick not only passed Earnhardt to take 35th, but came home two laps in front of Earnhardt and managed to finish under power. Seven other times, Harvick has finished next-to-last in a Cup Series race, including on July 2, 2016 when he was collected in a multi-car pileup at Daytona, only to be classified one spot ahead of last-placer Chris Buescher on the same lap. Sunday’s finish, though two spots away from last, may have been his closest escape yet.

Rounding out the Bottom Five were Sorenson and Hill, both seven laps down with their cars intact. Sorenson stood out a little more on Lap 94, when he came off pit road with chrome rims identical to those once used by Michael Waltrip Racing.

*This marked the first last-place finish for car #6 in a Cup Series race at Fontana. Both the car number and team won at the track once before when Mark Martin took the checkers on May 3, 1998.

37) #6-Trevor Bayne / 108 laps / crash
36) #00-Jeffrey Earnhardt / 189 laps / running
35) #4-Kevin Harvick / 191 laps / running
34) #55-Reed Sorenson / 193 laps / running
33) #51-Timmy Hill / 193 laps / running

1st) TriStar Motorsports (2)
2nd) BK Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Roush-Fenway Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet, Ford (2)
2nd) Toyota (1)


XFINITY: Engine trouble leaves Mike Harmon with his first series last-place finish in three years

PHOTO: @hrmn8ter
Mike Harmon picked up the 15th last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Roseanne 300 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California when his #74 Chill by Koolbox / Shadow Warriors Project Chevrolet fell out with a blown engine after 6 of 150 laps.

The finish, which came in Harmon’s 250th series start, was his first in an XFINITY Series race since April 10, 2015, when he lost an engine after 2 laps of the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas. As with Saturday, that finish was his first in nearly three years, dating back to June 16, 2012 at Michigan.

In the LASTCAR XFINITY Series rankings, Saturday was the 10th for car #74, the 497th for Chevrolet, and the 251st by reason of engine failure. Among the top three series, it’s the 49th for the #74, the 1,582nd for Chevrolet, and the 1,053rd by reason of engine failure.

Saturday was a historic moment for Harmon, the 60-year-old driver from Alabama. Not only was it his 250th XFINITY Series start, but also the 200th XFINITY start for his owner-driver operation, Mike Harmon Racing. It was at the same Fontana track on February 25, 2008 that Harmon made his first XFINITY start as an owner-driver, then campaigning a #84 Chevrolet sponsored by M-150 Energy Drink. Harmon started 40th that day and finished there, exiting nine laps in with handling woes.

The two cars finishing behind Harmon that day belonged to MSRP Motorsports, whose drivers Scott Lynch and Larry Gunselman pulled off the track after five and three laps, respectively. MSRP, owned by Phil Parsons and Randy Humphrey, was widely regarded as one of NASCAR’s most notorious “start-and-park” operations. In 121 combined starts, the team’s cars never finished a single race, never finished better than 35th, and cruised to the 2009 LASTCAR XFINITY Series title with driver Johnny Chapman. With Harmon’s team also running near the back of the field, it’s been tempting to consider his program a “start-and-park.” But this overlooks the marked progress the team has made over those 200 starts.

On April 26, 2008, in only his team’s seventh series start, Harmon finished 17th at Talladega, the first time his own car finished under power. He matched that finish at Daytona in 2013, the same year Kevin O’Connell wheeled one of his black #74 Chevrolets to a 22nd-place finish at Road America. The team also started to decrease their DNF count, from 18 in 2014 to 12 in 2015, and 10 in 2016, all the while qualifying for a larger number of races. Harmon has also helped fill fields in the Truck Series, helping out fan favorites Tommy Joe Martins and Jordan Anderson, among others.

Harmon’s team has gathered a number of associate sponsors, and has also joined another racer and business partner, Jennifer Jo Cobb, in supporting several military foundations. On any given weekend, members of the armed forces can be found following the #74 team in the garage area, bringing further attention to backers like, Hearts For Heroes, and last year a partnership with Veterans Motorsports, Inc. The Shadow Warriors Project, a foundation to improve the lives of wounded vets, joined Harmon’s team at Daytona.

Through it all, Harmon’s team has outlived MSRP Motorsports, which was absorbed by Premium Motorsports in 2015.

Since the closing months of the 2013 seasons, Harmon has fielded Dodges for most of his starts, even long after the manufacturer pulled out of NASCAR. But after his Dodge failed to qualify for this year’s Daytona opener, Harmon has only fielded Chevrolets. Following another DNQ at Atlanta, Harmon started 38th at Las Vegas, then finished 31st, followed by a 35th-place run at Phoenix. He looked to close out the “West Coast Swing” with a better finish.

At Fontana, Harmon began the weekend second-slowest in the opening practice session on Friday, just under three seconds faster than fellow owner-driver Morgan Shepherd. He improved to 37th in Happy Hour, besting both JP Motorsports teammates Josh Bilicki and Stephen Leicht despite running only three laps. He turned in the slowest lap in qualifying with a lap of 163.741mph (43.972 seconds), but ended up 39th in the field of 40 when Las Vegas last-placer Dylan Lupton’s first qualifying lap in the #28 thinQ Technology Partners Ford ended when he spun and backed into the outside wall.

On Saturday, Lupton incurred a redundant tail-end penalty for the backup car, but quickly picked his way through the field, making his way into the mid-20s after Stage 1. Ultimately, Lupton would be felled by engine trouble on Lap 111, leaving him 33rd. By that point, Harmon had already become the day’s first retiree, citing engine trouble of his own. Harmon was adamant in tweets after the race that he did not “start-and-park,” but had actually encountered problems under the hood. Incidentally, it was also Harmon’s first bottom-five finish of the season.

39th went to LASTCAR record holder Jeff Green, whose #93 RSS Racing Chevrolet exited four laps later with brake trouble. 12 circuits after that came Morgan Shepherd’s #89 Visone RV Chevrolet, citing suspension issues. Finishing 37th was Matt Mills, who drew the first caution of the afternoon when his #15 Flex Glue Chevrolet for JD Motorsports made contact with the outside wall on Lap 33, ending his afternoon. Motorsports Business Management’s Chad Finchum rounded out the Bottom Five with engine trouble on Carl Long’s #40 Smithbilt Homes Toyota.

If you’re a fan who would like to support Mike Harmon, he has some merchandise available for pre-order at this link.

*This marked the first last-place finish for car #74 in an XFINITY Series at Fontana since March 26, 2011, when Harmon’s #74 Riverwalk CafĂ© Chevrolet had a vibration after 3 laps of the Royal Purple 300.

40) #74-Mike Harmon / 6 laps / engine
39) #93-Jeff Green / 10 laps / brakes
38) #89-Morgan Shepherd / 22 laps / suspension
37) #15-Matt Mills / 29 laps / crash
36) #40-Chad Finchum / 45 laps / engine

1st) RSS Racing (2)
2nd) JGL Racing, Mike Harmon Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing, RSS Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (3)
2nd) Ford (2)


Friday, March 16, 2018

PREVIEW: Premium’s #55 returns, Gaunt Brothers’ #96 missing on Fontana entry list

PHOTO: Prudential Overall Supply
Saturday, March 17, 2018
XFINITY Race 5 of 33
Roseanne 300 at Auto Club Speedway of Southern California
2017 Last-Place Finisher: Jordan Anderson

There are exactly 40 drivers entered to attempt this Saturday’s 40-car field, meaning that all entrants will start the race.

DRIVER CHANGE: #3-Richard Childress Racing
Austin Dillon steps in for brother Ty Dillon this Saturday in a #3 Chevrolet sponsored by Red Kap and Prudential Overall Supply. Ty finished 13th last week in Phoenix.

DRIVER CHANGE: #18-Joe Gibbs Racing
Fontana will see the season debut of Ryan Preece, last year’s Iowa winner, as he takes the controls of Joe Gibbs’ flagship #18 driven last week by Kyle Busch. It will be Preece’s first XFINITY start at the track since 2016, when he finished 25th for JD Motorsports.

DRIVER CHANGE: #22-Penske Racing
Following Brad Keselowski’s win last Saturday in Phoenix, Cup teammate Joey Logano drives the #22 this weekend. Logano and Dillon are the only Cup drivers entered in Saturday’s race, improving the odds for the series regulars.

DRIVER CHANGE: #42-John Hunter Nemechek
John Hunter Nemechek makes his second career XFINITY start on Saturday, following a sterling 4th-place run last month in Atlanta. It will be Nemechek’s first race on the Fontana track, where his father Joe won the first Cup Series pole in 1997.

CUP INVADERS: #3-Austin Dillon, #22-Joey Logano

Sunday, March 18, 2018
CUP Race 5 of 36
Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway of Southern California
2017 Last-Place Finisher: Jeffrey Earnhardt

There are 37 drivers entered to make the 40-car field, the fourth-consecutive short field in 2018 and the third with just one Open team entered. It is the shortest Cup field in the history of the Fontana track, two cars fewer than the previous record of 39 in the last two runnings.

UPDATE: #51-Rick Ware Racing
Bubba Burger, which backed the Ware team in 7 races last year, returns to sponsor Timmy Hill this weekend. The team has also stuck with the new number font that debuted last month at Atlanta with Harrison Rhodes.

RETURNING: #55-Premium Motorsports
Fontana sees the return of Premium Motorsports’ Open team, two weeks after Joey Gase gave the car a 32nd-place finish in its season debut. Sponsorship for the #55 Chevrolet is still to be announced, though the entry list has Reed Sorenson listed as driver. It will be Sorenson’s first start of 2018 after running 28 races for Premium last year.

DRIVER CHANGE: #72-TriStar Motorsports
Corey LaJoie’s second engine failure in as many starts this season will be followed with Cole Whitt back in the #72. Whitt, who finished 28th in both his starts in 2018, has a track-best finish of 18th in the 2014 running, when he drove for Swan Racing. SoCal Chevrolet is listed as the car’s sponsor.

MISSING: #96-Gaunt Brothers Racing
D.J. Kennington earned a quiet 31st-place finish last Sunday in Phoenix, finishing three laps down to race winner Kevin Harvick. The team is not entered this weekend. Given their 2017 schedule, expect GBR to return next month at Talladega the latest.

Saturday, March 24, 2018
TRUCKS Race 4 of 23
Alpha Energy Solutions 250 at Martinsville
2017 Last-Place Finisher: Bryce Napier

The Truck Series returns next week at Martinsville for the first short track race of the 2018 NASCAR season.

The first XFINITY Series race at Fontana was held on October 19, 1997, four months after the first Cup race, and during a weekend shared with the Camping World Truck Series. Finishing last that day was Johnny Chapman, the very first of his career. That day, Chapman was driving a second car belonging to Phil Parsons, who at the time was running the full season in his #10 Channelock Chevrolet. Chapman drove the #0 with sponsorship from Bowl Fresh and Honeywell, but turned just three laps before the engine let go. In his career, Chapman would go on to score 13 more XFINITY last-place finishes, including the 2009 LASTCAR XFINITY title. In that 2009 season, Chapman again drove for Phil Parsons and co-owner Randy Humphrey under the banner MSRP Motorsports.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

#JD70: J.D. McDuffie's Career at the Ontario Motor Speedway

PHOTO: Getty Images
Less than seven miles west from the Auto Club Speedway, where NASCAR runs this weekend, is the site of the Ontario Motor Speedway. Nothing remains of the track today other than the roads that once formed a rectangle around the property. The Citizens Business Bank Arena dominates what would have been the infield of the 2.5-mile Indianapolis-style oval. Even a small park named for the track sits about one block west of where Turns 3 and 4 actually were.

“The Big O” hosted nine Cup Series races from 1971 through 1980. And, though the track was 2,481 miles west of tiny Sanford, North Carolina, J.D. McDuffie made the long drive each year. He qualified for all nine races, and never once finished last there.

In the inaugural race, held February 28, 1971, McDuffie entered a two-year-old Mercury, the marque he would run for most of that season. After radiator trouble in his 125-mile qualifier knocked him out of the Daytona 500 field, McDuffie arrived in California with new sponsorship from the T.D. Welker Construction Company. He qualified 42nd in a tremendous 51-car field – no small accomplishment, since another 30 drivers failed to qualify. He finished 35th when the engine let go short of halfway.

McDuffie’s best Ontario finish came on November 24, 1974, when his 1972 Chevrolet climbed from 25th to finish 10th in a race won by Bobby Allison. McDuffie finished nine laps down to Allison, on the same circuit as Richard Childress, who lost an engine in the final laps. McDuffie came just short of a second Top Ten two years later, this time coming one lap short of taking 10th from the late Bruce Hill. Again, McDuffie was nine laps down, this time to race winner David Pearson. Among the drivers McDuffie beat that day were Bobby and Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Buddy Baker, and last-place finisher Darrell Waltrip, out with engine failure.

McDuffie’s own engine let go in three of his nine Ontario starts, though in all but the inaugural race, he completed more than half distance of the 200-lap, 500-mile marathon. In 1979, he made it 104 laps into the Los Angeles Times 500, ending a day where he’d qualified a respectable 20th.

The final running of the Los Angeles Times 500, won by Benny Parsons on November 15, 1980, saw McDuffie qualify 31st in his Bailey Excavating Chevrolet. This time, he closed within six laps of the winner to finish 14th. He was also second among owner-drivers that day, four positions behind Buddy Arrington in an old Petty Enterprises Dodge. It was on that same day that Dale Earnhardt scored his first of seven Winston Cups, having edged Cale Yarborough by 19 points thanks to a 5th-place finish. It was also the first title for his crew chief, Doug Richert, who was just 19 at the time.

Reserve your copy of "J.D.: The Life and Death of a Forgotten NASCAR Legend" at Waldorf Publishing. Click here for more details.