Sunday, July 23, 2017

CUP: Corey LaJoie’s early crash a footnote to strong underdog performances in wild Brickyard 400

PHOTO: NBC Sports
Corey LaJoie picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when his #23 Dr. Pepper Toyota was involved in a single-car accident after 9 of 167 laps.

The finish, which came in LaJoie’s 19th series start, was his second of the season and his first since Las Vegas, 17 races ago.  With 16 races to go, LaJoie takes second in the 2017 LASTCAR Cup Series rankings on a Bottom Ten tiebreaker with Erik Jones, 10-5.  He trails current leader Jeffrey Earnhardt by two finishes.

Without doubt, the highlight of LaJoie’s rookie season came earlier this month at Daytona.  After a disastrous SpeedWeeks where he was involved in a controversial wreck with Reed Sorenson during his qualifying race, then crashed during a green-flag pit stop in the 500, LaJoie finished a strong 11th, besting Jimmie Johnson and all three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates.  Prior to that night, the second-generation racer hadn’t finished better than 24th.

It’s been a difficult year for BK Racing.  The team’s 2016 drivers David Ragan and Matt DiBenedetto left at season’s end, as did Ryan Ellis, whose #93 team was closed.  Their shop was briefly padlocked in December, and a $1.46 million judgment was levied against team owner Ron Devine.  BK then scaled back from two Charters to just one, the #83’s guaranteed spot sold to Front Row Motorsports, who leased it to TriStar Motorsports’ #72.  Both BK cars parked during the Monster Energy Open, and LaJoie’s teammate Gray Gaulding was released in June.

While BK has courted new talent, bringing in NASCAR Euro Series race winner Alon Day at Sonoma and perennial XFINITY Series underdog Ryan Sieg for multiple races, the team has begun to scale back its current two-car operation.  While the #83 was originally slated to run part-time, BK Racing had managed to run a full-season effort alongside the #23 through 15 races.  But Day’s debut at Sonoma saw BK not enter the #83 for the first time since the team’s 2012 reorganization from Team Red Bull.  Ryan Sieg was slated to run the car in Sunday’s race, but the entry was withdrawn on Wednesday, leaving 40 cars for 40 spots.

Making his third start of the season in BK Racing’s #23, the ride he took over following Gaulding’s departure, LaJoie ran 34th in Saturday’s opening practice, improved to 29th in Happy Hour, and secured the 32nd starting spot with a lap of 179.404mph.  Through it all, LaJoie took in the experience of making his first start at Indianapolis, a track where his father, two-time XFINITY Series Champion Randy, never competed.  “I guess it’s not a dream,” he tweeted on Sunday morning, “I’m actually racing in the #Brickyard400 today.”

Starting 40th on Sunday morning was B.J. McLeod in a black #51 for Rick Ware Racing.  On Thursday, it was announced that the team had severed ties with East Carolina University, whose logos were on the team’s car at Dover and were scheduled to once more at Indianapolis.  Reports indicated that a deal to acquire other sponsors to cover the cost didn’t materialize, forcing Ware to run the sponsors out-of-pocket.  Clemson University, which ran on the car at Pocono, is expected to back the #51 at Darlington in September.  While last-minute sponsorship for the #51 did arrive from American Campus Communities, and while McLeod put up the 35th-fastest lap, the official starting lineup placed him behind A.J. Allmendinger, who did not take time due to handling issues on his #47 Kroger ClickList Chevrolet, and did not record McLeod’s time.  As of this writing, I have not obtained information explaining the reason for this, though it seems to indicate McLeod’s time was disallowed.

Joining McLeod at the tail end of the field were Joey Gase, whose #15 The Lisa Colagrossi Foundation Chevrolet required an engine change, and both Jimmie Johnson’s #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet and Cole Whitt’s #72 Moen Chevrolet, both sent to the back for rear gear changes.  Johnson’s penalty was particularly damaging, as he had put up the 4th-fastest lap in qualifying.  By Lap 3, McLeod had fallen to the back of the pack, and on Lap 6 he was drafting Gase’s #15, the two of them 29 seconds behind the pack.  By all accounts, they were still running in the back when the first caution fell on Lap 10.

Heading through Turn 3, LaJoie cut down what was either a left-rear or right-rear tire, sending his Toyota hard into the outside wall.  While the rookie managed to drive his car back to the pits, the damage to the rear and left-front of the machine was too much to clear the “Crash Clock,” and he pulled into the garage, done for the afternoon.  During the same yellow, first a lightning warning, then a large rainstorm stopped the action, forcing a delay of 1 hour and 47 minutes.

The rest of the Bottom Five was filled by mid-race.  Next to retire was Chase Elliott, whose #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet sputtered after the delay, filled the cockpit with smoke, then finally lost the engine on Lap 43.  38th-place David Ragan was eliminated in a multi-car wreck on Lap 58 that crunched the nose of his #38 Dockside Logistics Ford.  37th went to J.J. Yeley, who after recovering from the Ragan wreck lost a right-front tire on Lap 72, finishing off Tommy Baldwin’s #7 Accell Construction Chevrolet.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was a dejected Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who rear-ended Trevor Bayne on the restart following Yeley’s crash, destroying the front valence and radiator on his #88 Nationwide Insurance Chevrolet.

Seven more accidents followed Earnhardt, Jr.’s, resulting in the longest and craziest Brickyard 400 in the event’s brief history.  When the stay-dri settled, the finishing order saw several strong runs by different drivers.  On top of Kasey Kahne, who ended a nearly three-year winless streak, Matt DiBenedetto improved on his season-best 9th in the Daytona 500 by bringing the #32 Corvetteparts.net / Anest Iwata Ford home 8th, the second-best finish of his career.  A.J. Allmendinger rebounded from his qualifying struggles to following his JTG-Daugherty Racing teammate Chris Buescher home, putting them 9th and 10th.  Danica Patrick ran 11th, her second-best finish of the year and first run better than 22nd in the event.  TriStar Motorsports had just one start in the Brickyard 400, a last-place run in 2012, until Cole Whitt came back from his rear gear penalty to earn a season-best 12th.  And, at the top of the list, Timmy Hill finished 14th in his 200th NASCAR start, marking not only the best finish for Carl Long’s MBM Motorsports (which was making just its fourth Cup start), but Hill’s own best Cup finish since he ran 22nd at Kansas back in 2012.

Further back in the pack, last-place starter B.J. McLeod would lose multiple laps with an electrical issue around Lap 60 which caused his digital dashboard to short out.  The team managed to fix the problem in the garage and get him back on track to finish the race.  McLeod secured a 32nd-place finish, beating both dominant cars of Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr.  Jeffrey Earnhardt, whose #33 Hulu Chevrolet suffered cosmetic damage in David Ragan’s accident, managed to finish under power in 26th, beating both Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson.  Earnhardt’s finish equaled his own season-best in this year’s Daytona 500.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the second-consecutive last-place finish for BK Racing in the Brickyard 400, following Matt DiBenedetto’s engine failure last year, but is the first in the event for car #23.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #23-Corey LaJoie / 9 laps / crash
39) #24-Chase Elliott / 43 laps / engine
38) #38-David Ragan / 56 laps / crash
37) #7-J.J. Yeley / 70 laps / crash
36) #88-Dale Earnhardt, Jr. / 76 laps / crash

2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group (4)
2nd) BK Racing (3)
3rd) Furniture Row Racing, Rick Ware Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing (2)
4th) Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Premium Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (10)
2nd) Toyota (7)
3rd) Ford (3)

2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

XFINITY: Jeff Green qualifies 28th on 25-lap tires, finishes last at Indianapolis for third time

PHOTO: LAT Images
Jeff Green picked up the 94th last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Lilly Diabetes 250 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when his unsponsored #93 RSS Racing Chevrolet fell out with a vibration after he completed 9 of 100 laps.

The finish, which came in Green’s 465th series start, was his fifth of the season and his first since Iowa, four races ago.  With this finish, Green, the all-time NASCAR last-place leader and five-time LASTCAR XFINITY Series Champion, has taken the lead in the 2017 series standings on a Bottom Five tiebreaker with Jordan Anderson, 10-6.

Green returned for his third-consecutive start for RSS Racing following finishes of 37th at Kentucky and 38th at Loudon.  His #93 was originally one of 41 entries, but prior to the publishing the preliminary entry list, Biagi-DenBeste Racing withdrew Casey Mears’ #98 GEICO Military Ford.  He didn’t participate in Friday’s opening practice, but ran 34th in Happy Hour, then qualified 28th with a lap of 160.245mph.  In a tweet posted by the team last weekend, it was revealed that Green “qualifies great every week on 25 lap old tires.  Beats a lot of cars that have sticker tires.”

Starting 40th on Saturday’s grid was Mike Harmon in the #74 AFM Graphics / Veterans Motorsports Dodge.  On the pace laps, he was joined by both Spencer Gallagher, whose crew made unapproved adjustments to the #23 Allegiant Airlines Chevrolet, and Green’s teammate Ryan Sieg, who missed the driver’s meeting after qualifying a season-best 8th in the #39 RSS Racing Chevrolet.  By the time the field addressed the starter’s stand for the green flag, Reed Sorenson had also dropped back from his 27th starting spot to trail the field in JD Motorsports’ #15 Chevrolet.

While NASCAR’s new aero package tightened the race up front, the tail end of the field spread themselves out quickly.  Harmon fell back to the rear on the first lap, 8.3 seconds back at the stripe.  He was then 14 seconds back on Lap 2, 18.575 on the third, and 23.786 on the fourth.  On Lap 5, Harmon was 29.006 seconds behind the leader when Daniel Hemric made an unscheduled pit stop for grass on the front grille of his #21 Blue Gate Bank Chevrolet, dropping him to the tail end of the field.  Hemric held the spot for only a few moments as Joey Gase pitted his #52 Donate Life / Sparks Energy Chevrolet that same lap.  Citing engine issues, Gase’s crew worked under the hood, then got the #52 back on track in last, two laps down.

Green entered the last-place picture on Lap 8, when he eased back to 39th, then pulled into the garage area the next time by.  With Gase still running, Green took last on Lap 11, where he remained for the rest of the afternoon.

Finishing 39th was Morgan Shepherd, whose #89 Racing With Jesus Chevrolet stayed out to lead a lap during the competition yellow on the 17th circuit, then pulled out of the race soon after the restart.  Reed Sorenson, who fell to the rear at the start, pulled out one lap later to secure 38th.  37th went to Tyler Reddick, whose splitter dug into the grass during a four-car wreck on Lap 39, ending the drive for his #42 Broken Bow Records / Jason Aldean Chevrolet.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Timmy Hill in Carl Long’s OCR Gaz Bar Toyota.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked Green’s third last-place finish in six XFINITY events at Indianapolis, following his Lap 4 exit in 2013 and Lap 2 retirement in 2015, both for TriStar Motorsports.  It is the first last-place finish at the track for car #93 and RSS Racing.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #93-Jeff Green / 9 laps / vibration
39) #89-Morgan Shepherd / 22 laps / engine / led 1 lap
38) #15-Reed Sorenson / 23 laps / vibration
37) #42-Tyler Reddick / 38 laps / crash
36) #13-Timmy Hill / 40 laps / clutch

2017 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) RSS Racing (11)
2nd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Kaulig Racing, King Autosport, Motorsports Business Management, Richard Childress Racing, Shepherd Racing Ventures, SS Green Light Racing (1)

2017 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (17)
2nd) Dodge (1)

2017 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

Friday, July 21, 2017

OPINION: The Brickyard 400’s Identity Crisis

PHOTO: Matt Kryger, IndyStar
The Brickyard 400 is in trouble.  It’s not just a matter of empty grandstands or single-file racing, but an identity crisis.  In less than a quarter of a century, NASCAR’s trip to Indianapolis has slipped into the background as just another race, sometimes to the point of being utterly forgettable.  Even in 2008, when I was assembling a video montage for the 15th running, I found it difficult to select enough clips of famous moments to make it exciting.  Hours later, the exploding Goodyears that turned the race into a game of “red light, green light” made future projects even harder.

These aren’t merely opinions – the statistics tell the same tale.  In 23 previous runnings, the race has never seen a last-lap pass for the win.  Four of the last five had a margin of victory of two seconds or more.  Fights in NASCAR are nothing new, particularly when the stakes are high in the sport’s “crown jewel” races, but in the Brickyard 400, they’re unheard-of.  The closest thing to an on-track scuffle in the event came in 2002, when the ongoing feud between Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer saw Busch gesture at Spencer following an early crash.  Drivers have instead had to fight with today’s ever-changing array of “spaghetti against the wall” aerodynamic changes.

This year, Kyle Busch comes to Indianapolis looking for not only his third-consecutive Brickyard 400 win, but his third-straight year of sweeping the XFINITY and Cup races.  Last summer, he led 149 of 170 laps in a race with only four lead changes.  Even the last-place battle, which was competitive in 2013 and 2015, was sewn-up after just four laps.  Though winless so far in 2017, Busch is almost certainly the favorite to win it again, particularly after his near-miss at the other 2.5-mile flat track in Pocono.  And, given his 10-second victory last Saturday in Loudon, awaiting the winner of this Saturday’s XFINITY race is practically a formality.

And that’s one of the big problems– the predictability of it all.  In 1994, no one knew for sure how the heavy and unsteady stock cars would handle the sprawling oval.  Tests conducted in 1992 raised questions about whether cars could draft or race side-by-side through the corners.  There were surprises in qualifying, from H.B. Bailey putting in the first timed lap, to Rick Mast’s pole position, to open-wheel veterans like Danny Sullivan and A.J. Foyt bumping several Cup regulars from the field, including Loy Allen, Jr., that year’s Daytona 500 polesitter.  It was a special event not only because of the history, but the unpredictability.

What’s ironic is, for every year the Brickyard 400 has stagnated, the Indianapolis 500 has seen a return to greatness.  The point of departure seemed to come in 2011, when Dan Wheldon’s stunning triumph after J.R. Hildebrand’s wreck was followed in July by Paul Menard taking his first Cup win, holding off the legend Jeff Gordon.  Since then, the 500 has consistently seen spectacular race-long battles every single year, capped by Takuma Sato’s victory in May.  Arguably, the best moment in the 400 in that span had nothing to do with the racing itself, but rather Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon’s final lap last year after they finished 11th and 13th.

It also doesn’t help that, since 2013, Indianapolis has now been big-footed by Wednesday’s Truck Series dirt race in Eldora, which has consistently put on a much better show.  Combined with the late-summer heat and the ludicrous decision to move the XFINITY Series away from Indianapolis Raceway Park, the Brickyard 400 lost its final significance – its exclusivity in the world of stock car racing.  Simply put, the race isn’t special anymore.

Many proposals have been brought forward, ranging from running the infield road course to simply taking the event off the schedule.  Personally, I’d like to see the return of something closer to “The Winston Million” or the “No Bull Five,” where the XFINITY Series is sent back to IRP and the Brickyard regains its title as a crown jewel race alongside Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, and Darlington.  While I don’t believe the fallacy that drivers will race harder just because a race is worth more money, I think it would be a nice way to pay homage to the speedway and acknowledge that it isn’t just the 20th event on a 36-race schedule.

At the end of the day, I want the Brickyard 400 to succeed.  I still think a win in the event is meaningful, and traditions like “kissing the bricks” have brought something new to the speedway’s history.  But more than that, I want to be excited by the event again, to see it as an equal to a Daytona 500 or Southern 500.  But for that to happen, NASCAR and the speedway need to be honest about the problems facing the event, and have the courage to undo past mistakes.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

8/5/95: Elton Sawyer’s long-awaited Cup debut followed by Indianapolis last-place finish

PHOTO: @NASCARMemories
On August 5, 1995, Elton Sawyer picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when his #27 Hooters Ford dropped a valve after he completed 17 of 160 laps.  The finish came in Sawyer’s ninth series start.

Born in Chesapeake, Virginia, the same hometown as NASCAR legend Ricky Rudd, Sawyer was for much of his career a fixture in what is now the NASCAR XFINITY Series.  He made his series debut on October 30, 1983 in the season finale at Martinsville.  Driving for veteran owner-driver Emanuel Zervakis, Sawyer qualified his Pontiac 18th in the field of 42, then finished 30th after a crash.

The following February, Sawyer fielded his own car, a #02 Pontiac, and in his second career start finished a strong 7th.  Though he’d make just five of 29 races that year, he finished 9th or better in all five, including a runner-up in his return to the Martinsville finale.  Driving for Bill Lewis, who like Rick Hendrick went from car dealer to car owner, Sawyer came just two carlengths from beating Cup newcomer Morgan Shepherd.

Sawyer and Lewis steadily developed their program into a full-time effort in 1987, when they ranked 14th in the season standings.  That June, the duo seemed primed for their first victory at the Indianapolis Raceway Park.  With 18 laps to go, Sawyer took the lead from Don Kreitz, Jr. and was out front on the final lap when a lapped car got in his way, handing the victory to Larry Pearson.  Driver and owner would come no closer through the 1989 season, when the two parted ways.

In 1990, Sawyer signed with Alan Dillard, Jr., who would go on to field Ward Burton’s first Cup Series ride four seasons later.  This time, Sawyer acquired sponsorship from Chisholm Boots and Gwaltney Foods, and would also be teamed with another rising star – fellow Virginian short tracker Rick Mast.  Mast had scored two wins a season for the previous three years, and would rack up another three in 1990, yielding 10th in the season standings.  Sawyer remained just 13th in the standings with another pair of runner-up finishes, both to Tommy Houston.

On November 24 of that year, Sawyer married fellow racer Patty Moise, who would run a few races for Dillard the following season.  The Jacksonville, Florida driver had by then raced in Busch since 1986 and had also made five Cup starts at Daytona, Talladega, and Watkins Glen with a best finish of 26th in the 1988 Firecracker 400.  Sawyer, however, had yet to make the move to the elite division, and would lose his ride with Dillard midway through the 1991 season.  By the end of that season, Sawyer had made 164 starts without a win.  He’d have to make another 16 before it finally happened.

That day came on June 11, 1994, during the Carolina Pride / Budweiser 200 at the Myrtle Beach Speedway.  Sawyer was now driving for Sutton Racing (later Akins-Sutton Motorsports, then Akins Motorsports), a team co-owned by Bob Sutton and Brad Akins.  After a two-race schedule in ’93 were now attempting the full ’94 season with sponsorship from Ford Motor Credit.  After a hot-and-cold start to the season, including a DNQ at Atlanta where the team had to buy a ride from car owner Ron Zock, Sawyer qualified 4th at Myrtle Beach, took the lead from Kenny Wallace with 20 laps to go, and cruised to victory by more than two seconds.  Not long after, his opportunity finally came.

Since 1953, Junior Johnson had fielded some of the fastest cars in the Cup Series garage.  On top of his own legendary driving career, he’d fielded rides for the likes of Fred Lorenzen, A.J. Foyt, and Curtis Turner.  He’d won championships with Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip, and nearly scored the ’92 crown with Bill Elliott.  The last three of his 132 Cup wins had come the year before - two with Jimmy Spencer and a ninth Darlington victory with Elliott.  But in 1995, Elliott and Spencer were gone, and so were their sponsors.  In Elliott’s place came Brett Bodine, who a year later would buy the team and become an owner-driver for the next eight seasons.  Spencer’s #27 went to Loy Allen, Jr.

Allen, the previous year’s Daytona 500 polesitter, brought with him sponsorship from Hooters Restaurants, which had backed his efforts since his days in ARCA.  Unfortunately, Allen’s three poles that season turned out to be the only highlights of a forgettable season.  He made just 19 of 31 races, failing to qualify 12 times, including the inaugural Brickyard 400.  At season’s end, Allen and Hooters took their business to Junior Johnson’s team.  In early 1995, the results weren’t much better.  Without the Hoosier tires that aided his pole runs, Allen started 37th in the Daytona 500, finished no better than 17th, and failed to make the fields at Atlanta and Bristol.  By late April, it was clear a change had to be made.  It was the perfect opportunity for Sawyer.

Through these first months of the ’95 season, the plan had been for Sutton and Akins to move their program from Busch to Cup, giving Sawyer a chance at Rookie of the Year in 1996.  But when the opportunity to drive for Junior Johnson arrived, he took it, forsaking a ROTY run by competing in 20 of the remaining 23 races.  His first Cup start would come at the very scene of his Busch debut a whole 12 years earlier – the Martinsville Speedway.  Sawyer put up the 9th-fastest lap in qualifying – more than enough to bump seven drivers from the field – and finished 20th in the rain-shortened event.  After one-offs at Pocono where the #27 was driven by Jimmy Horton, Greg Sacks, and Jeff Purvis, then a DNQ at Sonoma, Sawyer responded with a season-best 14th at Talladega.  Next up was Indianapolis, not far from the scene of his near-victory in 1987.

The second annual Brickyard 400 had far fewer entrants than the inaugural – just 50 drivers for 41 spots.  While Sawyer managed to secure a spot in the field, he struggled to find speed, putting up a speed of just 167.592mph, nearly two seconds off the pole speed set by Jeff Gordon.  The lap required Sawyer to use a provisional to make the field, placing him in the final starting spot.  Things looked better on the Busch side as Sawyer won the pole at Indianapolis Raceway Park for Friday’s Kroger 200, led 51 laps, and finished just under 1.5 seconds behind race winner Jason Keller.  The run jumped Sawyer from 12th to 9th in the series standings.

With the start delayed several hours because of rain, the 41 engines were fired from Gasoline Alley for a mid-afternoon start.  At the start, Sawyer tried to make a move to the inside, then was gapped by the field as the leaders headed into Turn 1.  By the end of Lap 10, he had completely lost the pack and was being caught by Jeff Gordon down the front straightaway, the flagman signaling him with the “move over” flag.  Sawyer moved aside in Turn 3, then was drafted by the pursuing pack down the frontstretch, his engine sounding flat.  Seconds later, Rick Mast nearly collided with him into Turn 3 as Mast tried to pass Joe Nemechek.  On Lap 15, Sawyer came off pit road, the crew believing the issue to be an ignition problem, but the engine stayed sour.  He was four laps down on the 20th circuit as he slowed down the frontstretch.  Soon after, he pulled behind the wall.  Sawyer said the team hoped to come back out, but when it was diagnosed as a dropped valve, he was done for the day.

It was Junior Johnson’s second-straight last-place finish in the Brickyard 400, following Jimmy Spencer’s hard crash in the #27 during the ’94 inaugural.

With darkness fast approaching, the race ran at a torrid pace with just one caution slowing the action, preventing a race shortened by darkness.  The only other two DNFs that afternoon were both due to engine failures in the second half of the race.  40th went to Derrike Cope, whose #12 Straight Arrow Ford blew on Lap 104, and Bobby Hillin, Jr. in the #77 Jasper / USAir Ford.

Rounding out the Bottom Five were two drivers who played a significant role in the race’s outcome.  The lone caution that slowed the day’s action came out on Lap 133 when 38th-place finisher Jeff Burton crashed his #8 Raybestos Brakes Ford the backstretch, nearly collecting Rusty Wallace.  Wallace, who was trying to catch race leader Dale Earnhardt, had moments before been crowded at the exit of pit road by 37th-place finisher Rich Bickle in the #40 Kendall Pontiac, causing him to lose even more ground during the green-flag stop.  The late restart gave Wallace another chance at Earnhardt, but he ended up with his first of three runner-up finishes in the event.

Indianapolis began a difficult stretch for driver and team as Sawyer failed to finish six of his 11 remaining starts, and he missed the cut again at Bristol.  In 1996, when the #27 team was sold to David Blair, Hooters Restaurants left to sponsor Rick Mast’s #1 Pontiac for car owner Richard Jackson.  Despite once again facing a lack of sponsorship, Sawyer managed to earn the outside-pole for the final spring race at North Wilkesboro, but finished no better than 19th.  Sawyer lost his ride at midseason, then drove one final race in the Atlanta finale, driving a car Harry Ranier had originally prepared for Tony Stewart.  In just 29 Cup starts, he finished last four times.

The Sutton-Akins-Sawyer Cup Series effort never came to pass (though Sutton would field Boris Said’s Cup entry in 2005), and Sawyer picked up where he left off in the Busch Series in 1997.  With new sponsorship from Barbasol Shaving Cream, Sawyer secured 8th in the season standings, a new career-best.  The effort was buoyed by a gutsy performance at Las Vegas, where he suffered first and second-degree burns in an early crash, climbed back in the car, and salvaged a 31st-place finish.  He then ranked 5th in the standings for the next two years, during which time he earned his second and final series win at Loudon on May 8, 1999.

Sawyer made his 392nd and final Busch Series start on November 16, 2002 at Homestead, where he ran 22nd for Brewco Motorsports.  He then turned his attention to officiating, first as the Director of Team Operations for Action Express Racing in the Tudor United SportsCar Championship, then in NASCAR as its Managing Director of the Camping World Truck Series.  He was last year promoted to NASCAR’s Vice President of Officiating and Technical Inspection, where one of his first cases was Derrike Cope’s bizarre explosion at Watkins Glen.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*As of this writing, Sawyer remains the only driver to earn his first career Cup Series last-place finish in the Brickyard 400.  The #27 has not finished last at the track since, and would in 2011 go to victory lane with Paul Menard and Richard Childress Racing.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
41) #27-Elton Sawyer / 17 laps / valve
40) #12-Derrike Cope / 104 laps / engine
39) #77-Bobby Hillin, Jr. / 106 laps / engine / led 1 lap
38) #8-Jeff Burton / 141 laps / running
37) #40-Rich Bickle / 152 laps / running

SOURCES
*Albert, Zack. “Cope on Car Issues: I’ve never ‘seen that transpire before,’” NASCAR.com, August 7, 2016.
*“Elton Sawyer is a BAMF,” clip from ESPN2, YouTube, Posted by friskynixon2
*FOX Sports. “NASCAR moves Chad Little to inspection role; Elton Sawyer to lead Truck Series,” FOX Sports, February 2, 2015.
*nascarman, “Historical Motorsports Stories: Tony Stewart’s Planned Cup Debut,” November 17, 2016.
*Staff report. “NASCAR Enhances Competition Executive Team,” NASCAR.com, July 12, 2016.
*Pearce, Al. “Drive to Do Double Duty: Sawyer To Run Cup, Grand National Races,” Daily Press, May 17, 1995.
*Racing-reference.info