Thursday, February 11, 2016

THROWBACK: Petty Pole Award Arrangement Leaves Andretti Out Of 2000 Shootout

John Andretti finished last in the Bud Shootout at Daytona on February 13, 2000 when his #43 STP / Cheerios Pontiac was disallowed from competing in the 25-lap event.

Andretti was competing in his eighth season on the NASCAR Winston Cup tour and was coming off what was to be his second and final Cup victory at Martinsville the previous spring.  Andretti’s other victory took place at the Daytona track in 1997, when he drove for Cale Yarborough Motorsports in the #98 RCA Ford.

2000 was a significant year for the Petty Enterprises team.  STP, which had been the primary sponsor of the iconic #43 since 1972, was scaling back its funding to an associate sponsor by the end of the year.  General Mills and its Cheerios brand would assume a progressively greater presence on the #43 through the season, culminating with Cheerios on the hood when the series returned to Daytona in July.  While one tradition was ending, another endured, locking-up the last spot in the field before the race even started.  While Andretti won a pole at Phoenix the previous fall, a family agreement not to run the Bud Pole Award decals on the car left them ineligible to run the Shootout itself.  Due to the team essentially disallowing themselves, Andretti is classified last in the official standings, and is thus for purposes of this site credited with finishing there.

Starting in the rear of the now 15-car Shootout field was Dale Jarrett, fresh off his first Winston Cup championship for Robert Yates in the #88 Quality Care / Ford Credit Ford.  Jarrett didn’t win a pole during his title season, so he had to earn the 15th spot in the main event by winning the Bud Shootout Last Chance Qualifier run earlier that day.  Jarrett started 6th in the event, dodged a multi-car wreck when Kenny Wallace and Jimmy Spencer tangled off Turn 4, and prevailed on the mandatory green-flag pit stop to win by more than four seconds over Jeff Burton.  It was to be the last of three runnings of the 25-lap qualifying race.  Nineteen drivers were to make the starting field, but eight withdrew prior to the start, including Derrike Cope, who decided to focus on second-round Daytona 500 qualifying in what was to be the final 500 start for Hall of Fame team owner Bud Moore.

When the green flag flew for the main event, Jarrett leap-frogged Kenny Irwin, Jr.’s #42 BellSouth Chevrolet by the end of the backstretch and began his march through the field.  Irwin was then passed for last by David Green the next time into Turn 1, Green running a one-off start for Kurt Roehrig in a #34 Chevrolet sponsored by Sunoco Lubricant and Kendall Motor Oil.  On Lap 4, Jarrett once again fell to the rear as the field remained two and three wide near the back of the pack behind then-race leader Jeff Gordon.  Jarrett passed Green to put the #34 last again on Lap 6 as the field remained within a one-second interval from front to rear.  With pit stops coming up, Green and Jarrett continued to trade last on Lap 8 with the leaders locked two-by-two.

All but two cars - Jarrett and the #18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac of Bobby Labonte - came down pit road on Lap 9.  That time by, Mark Martin was about to come into his stall, but seemed to misjudge the entry, leaving the right side tires outside the box.  In the process, he clipped his front tire changer Mike Garrett with the nose of his car, launching Garrett onto the hood.  Garrett injured his ankle in the incident, but was otherwise conscious when interviewed shortly after.  Without a completed pit stop, Martin pulled his car behind the wall, leaving him last among the starters in the race.

Moments after Martin’s incident, engine woes forced Mike Skinner to park his #31 Lowe’s Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, leaving thirteen cars to settle it on the track.  Ricky Rudd finished 13th when his first turn in Yates’ #28 Texaco / Havoline Ford ended with a  wreck out of the Top 5 following contact between Bobby Labonte and Sterling Marlin off the final corner.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was David Green, whose #34 lost the lead draft after the mandatory pit stops.

Andretti has made a total of 393 starts in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.  His most recent start was the 2010 Daytona 500, where he drove Front Row Motorsports’ #34 Window World Cares Ford into the 33rd starting spot before a crash left him 38th.  He has eleven last-place finishes in Cup points races, tying him with several drivers including 1986 Daytona 500 champ Geoffrey Bodine for the 14th-most in series history.

*This was Andretti's second last-place finish in this event.  He previously finished three laps down in 1996 Busch Clash when driving the #37 K-Mart / Little Caesar's Ford owned by Michael Kranefuss.
*Andretti wasn’t the only Petty Enterprises driver to finish last in the Bud Shootout because of the pole award arrangement.  Bobby Hamilton did in 1998 followed by Jeff Green in 2004.

16) #43-John Andretti / 0 laps / disallowed
15) #6-Mark Martin / 10 laps / radiator
14) #31-Mike Skinner / 10 laps / engine
13) #28-Ricky Rudd / 24 laps / crash
12) #34-David Green / 25 laps / running

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

OPINION: Forget You, I’ve Got Mine: Charters Trap Small Teams In Catch-22

SOURCE: Outside The Track Editorial Photography
Today, the Race Team Alliance (RTA) finally announced their brand-new charter system to be instituted in the 2016 Sprint Cup Series.  36 teams have been afforded “medallions” earning them guaranteed spots in the field - so long as they remain in “good standing,” attempt every race, and follow other yet-undisclosed requirements.  Last year at Homestead was the final 43-car field in NASCAR as we’re also going to see just 40 cars cross the line in the Daytona 500, the final four of which left open for teams without medallions.

We haven’t always had 43-car fields.  In fact, before 1998, every Sprint Cup field was a different size according to track length.  This isn’t the first time field sizes have been cut, either - the XFINITY Series went from 43 to 40 in 2013 and the Trucks from 36 to 32 just last year.  But what’s just happened in the Cup Series is very different - by reducing field sizes by three and also instituting a medallion system, the RTA has created not just a floor, but a ceiling.  And in so doing, they’ve damaged an integral part of the sport.

Up until this year, whether or not you could compete in Sprint Cup was determined largely by two things: qualifying speed and your team’s rank in owner points.  It was a simple meritocracy: if your team wasn’t performing or just wasn’t fast enough, you weren’t going to finish very well if you made the show at all.  If you continued to struggle for too long and couldn’t receive financial support, the numbers alone would close your team.

For some teams within the RTA, this scenario is very much a reality.  Tommy Baldwin Racing, which this year fields the No. 7 Chevrolet for Regan Smith, last year scaled back from two cars to just one, having spent five years trying to expand.  Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 will run full-time for the first time in 2016, but only because they were able to merge with Circle Sport and receive support from Richard Childress.  Premium Motorsports, which will field up to two cars in 2016 and lease its medallion to HScott Motorsports, contains the remnants of eight different Sprint Cup teams from 2012.

But this scenario is not the same for Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, and the like, which have gobbled up the majority of the 36 medallions.  There has never been a danger that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would miss a race, or that Matt Kenseth wouldn’t find sponsorship to replace The Home Depot.  But that’s the fallacy the RTA built the charter proposal - and the need for it - upon. The multi-car programs insist that they really have been in danger, that the value of their teams isn’t enough to keep the lights on.  Yet still, through this charter agreement, they’ve granted themselves added privileges they never needed in the first place to secure spots they were never in danger of losing.

But that’s not all.  Through the “good standing” requirement, RTA teams can oust people from the group of 36.  The initial interpretation of this rule was to eliminate “start-and-parks,” again falling into the myth that teams do so as some kind of scam and not to survive and build their programs.  But the rule is much broader than that - if a team simply isn’t finishing well on a consistent basis, their charter can be rescinded.  This is a big problem because there haven’t been any “start-and-park” teams in Sprint Cup for the last two seasons, meaning that any Cup team can finish last in today’s NASCAR.  Racing is an unpredictable sport, and a streak of bad luck isn’t unheard of.  Thus, it’s very likely that the Baldwin, Leavine, and Premium cars to name a few can be kicked out very early on by the program that was supposed to protect them.

Defenders of the charter system are quick to point to those final four spots in the 40-car field, saying that teams without a medallions aren’t prevented from qualifying or competing.  The first problem with this is obvious - there used to be 43-car fields, and now there’s three fewer chances of qualifying than before.  The second will come into play when teams start to fall out of the chartered 36.  The few teams already without a medallion will have an even harder time trying to qualify as they’ll have to compete against a growing number of ejected teams.  The third is due to the inflexibility of the barrier between drivers with and without medallions.  A medallion may be purchased or loaned, but the cost is based on demand with no oversight, meaning that even if the applying team can afford the fee on top of cars, equipment, tires, etc., the locked-in teams can still pick and choose which of the applying teams they feel like welcoming.  Then, when combined with the equally-nebulous “good standing” rule, that same team can have its medallion revoked again for not finishing well enough, requiring them to pay the fee all over again.  It’s a brutal business model much more perverse than the one already in place, allowing the big teams to watch the small ones fight each other to the death.

This scrum for the final few starting spots in the field also creates a logjam that will prevent any new start-up teams from breaking into the sport for years to come.  As I stated in my opinion piece last month, it is the Top 35 Rule Version 2.0, re-branded to sound less offensive.  NASCAR has no shortage of drivers trying to break into Sprint Cup - the problem has for years now been a lack of teams.  Just nine years ago, 61 cars arrived to attempt the 2007 Daytona 500, creating two Duel races with 31 and 30 cars.  Big names and teams were sent home from this and several other races that season, many because they were brand-new and didn’t have any points to fall back on.  With every DNQ, the hole just went deeper and it was impossible to break into the Top 35.  The medallion system makes this impossible task a hard-and-fast rule, adding arbitrary costs and performance requirements to make it that much more difficult.  And it’s doing it at a time where both drivers and the sport need to welcome more new teams into the fold.  In short, it’s counterproductive to the growth of the sport.

It’s already hard to make it into a Sprint Cup race.  Simply getting a car to the track and taking one qualifying lap requires the work of many staff and crew members, both seen and unseen.  To earn a good finish, to get to the next race, much less the whole season - these are accomplishments in and of themselves.  But the RTA doesn’t care about any of this.  They turned a meritocracy into a common entitlement program.  In exchange for a little added security for its richest members, those clutching medallions have slammed shut a door though which every single one of them have passed, saying “forget you, I’ve got mine.”  They have shoved the sport one more step away from the guy who soaped numbers on his Lincoln at the Charlotte Fairgrounds in 1949, making the culture in the garage area a little more bland, a little more predictable.  And with every medallion fee they collect, they are selling the soul of NASCAR racing.

Monday, January 4, 2016

OPINION: The Charter System Is Wrong For NASCAR

Today, NBC Sports announced that the Race Team Alliance (RTA) is now in the final stages of establishing a new charter system within the sport, reducing the Sprint Cup starting field from 43 cars to 40 and locking up 36 of those remaining spots to current teams and entries for the next five years.  It’s a well-meaning plan, though a bit of saber-rattling on the part of a union that’s existed for just over a year, but I believe it’s wrong for NASCAR.

I’m torn on this one.  On the one hand, I’m reluctant to say anything negative about a union’s activities as I believe collective bargaining is important to keep an employer’s powers in check.  I believe this is particularly important in sports, where there’s so much money at stake that potentially serious problems - like the reserve clause in baseball and CTE in football - can go ignored for years.  NASCAR itself has mishandled such matters as Curtis Turner’s lifetime ban for union activities, the debacle of Talladega 1969, and I believe still needs to do more to support drivers once they retire (but that’s an article for another day).

On the other hand, all this doesn’t mean unions can’t make poor decisions - in baseball, you only have to look back to 1994 for proof.  So that’s what this article will focus on - not the RTA itself, but the problems with this single proposal.

First of all, the RTA's charter system is built on a fallacy.  There is no risk now or in the next five years that NASCAR’s most prolific Sprint Cup drivers and teams will ever - EVER - fail to qualify for a single race.  Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Team Penske to name just a few of the RTA’s members have so much money and resources, commitments from so many sponsors, and such an extended presence in the XFINITY Series - not to mention high positions in the points - that we’re not going to see a race without their drivers for some time.  I hope the reason the RTA is getting traction on this isn’t because of Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers’ injuries, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth’s suspensions, and the collapse of Michael Waltrip Racing last year, matters which had nothing to do with any of their cars having enough speed to make the race.

Second, while the charter system’s proposal to guarantee starting spots does help a number of small teams who are RTA members, further shortening the field to 40 cars unnecessarily punishes nonmember teams and deters any start-ups from joining in the next five years.  Unlike the Gibbs and Hendricks of the sport, fellow RTA members like Go FAS Racing, BK Racing, and Tommy Baldwin Racing have still struggled to make races and earn good finishes.  Five years ago in 2011, Baldwin was starting to escape the “start-and-park” doldrums, FAS was in its second year reorganizing from the assets of Roush-Fenway’s closed #26, and BK was still Team Red Bull.  Imagine if all three teams were on the outside looking in on the proposed charter system, battling all the other start-ups for the final four spots in the field.  None might exist today, having lost so much from a greater number of DNQs.

I realize that the big teams are trying to avoid the same fate, but I don’t believe they should be allowed to give themselves a safety net that excludes upstarts and makes this their series alone.  This isn’t a sport of franchises.  It never has and it never should be. Only the Wood Brothers have been around since the very beginning.  It would be great if Bud Moore Engineering were still around, if Petty’s cars were built in Level Cross and the only #11 were fielded by Junior Johnson, but the sport’s very nature is to change.  Teams are no different than drivers or even manufacturers - they come and go.  There is risk in every business venture, and if other current events are any sign, no race team should be declared “too big to fail.”

Third, the charter system is nothing more than a re-branding of the dreaded Top 35 rule.  It’s a classic deception - if the people don’t like it, simply call it something else.  Remember how we didn’t like that?  How it made the rules for the Duels even more difficult to understand and turned much of qualifying into a formality?  I do.  In 2010, I covered the “Top 35 Battle” for another website.  When watching that spot on a weekly basis, I was able to see it for what it was.  During the first few races, the previous years’ points set the field, so the same teams stayed in the Top 35.  Once the “reset” occurred, the same teams were there anyway, and for the rest of the year the gap between 35th and 36th stayed the same or inched wider, making it impossible for anyone to jump back in.  On paper, this could theoretically change if a new team had a breakout performance in the Daytona 500, qualified for the next four races without being able to fall back on Owner Points without even one DNQ, and finished well in all four.  The RTA’s charter system simply makes this impossibility a rule - even if a team outside the RTA has a breakout season, they’ll never earn a guaranteed spot.

Finally, the RTA’s charter proposal is just plain wrong for NASCAR.  From its roots, the Sprint Cup Series welcomed all kinds of drivers, teams, and manufacturers to challenge its top names. In the 1960s, there were Cup points races at Bowman-Gray Stadium where Fords and Plymouths raced alongside British MGs and Triumphs.  Series outsiders from legends Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti to Winston West competitors like Bill Sedgwick and Mike Chase showed how well they could handle the sport’s big cars.  Well into the 1990s, local drivers like H.B. Bailey and Billy Standridge still brought their own cars to the track and out-qualified Cup regulars to make the race - Standridge made all four restrictor-plate races in 1998.  The drivers, teams, and manufacturers who will make up the 2016 Sprint Cup roster all benefited from this openness at one point in their careers.  To let them reap that benefit and then turn around and prevent others from the chance to earn it is repugnant to the spirit of stock car racing.

Monday, December 28, 2015

OPINION: How To Fix The Sprint Cup Schedule

A New NASCAR Sprint Cup Schedule
(click for larger size)
Last October, NASCAR entered into a contract with 23 tracks to host Sprint Cup races for the next five years, matching similar agreements for the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series.  Among other reasons for the agreement is to make it easier to set future schedules.  However, with the 2016 series set without any significant changes, NASCAR has still failed to fix one central problem with its schedule: tracks which have two Cup Series dates.

The problem has its roots in NASCAR’s modern era, which began in 1972 when the sanctioning body eliminated all dirt track races and set a minimum distance requirement of 250 miles for events run on ovals.  This cut the schedule from what in 1964 had been a 64-race series over 363 days to 31 races with a brief winter off-season.  Just 17 tracks remained on the 1972 Winston Cup schedule with 14 of them hosting more than one race.  Eight of those 14 tracks still host two Cup dates today: Bristol, Charlotte, Daytona, Dover, Martinsville, Michigan, Richmond, and Talladega.  When combined with the additional second races at Kansas, Loudon, Phoenix, Pocono, and Texas, the current 2016 Sprint Cup schedule is 13 weeks longer than if each track had just one date.

At the peak of NASCAR’s popularity in the early 1990s, it made sense to keep these second dates.  The sport left North Wikesboro and Rockingham for new venues in Las Vegas and Fontana while the seating capacity at fan favorites like Bristol increased by the thousands.  Fans on television and at the track couldn’t get enough, so supply met demand.  But as today’s empty grandstands make obvious, we don’t live in that time anymore.  Charlotte bulldozed its derelict Turn 2 stands in lieu of RV parking, and Daytona did the same along its once-crowded Superstretch.  Dover and Martinsville have more than half their grandstands covered by advertising banners.  Yet, even now, all four tracks still hold two dates, and are still struggling at the ticket counter.  Even now, tracks like Las Vegas are trying to get second dates of their own.  It’s a load the sport can no longer bear.

NASCAR’s Chase format, whose creation has popularly been blamed on Matt Kenseth’s dominating 2003 season, has in reality been an attempt to reduce the effects of NASCAR’s bloated schedule.  Eight of the 13 extra races are in the Chase, not including the championship cut-off round at Richmond.  Thus, viewers complaints about the Chase are also complaints about second races at Cup tracks.  What NASCAR has failed to understand is that, for television viewers, these races are essentially rematches of races run earlier in the year.  We’ve seen them already - we want to see something new.  Even for the most hardcore fans, listening to NBC try and come up with new superlatives for Pocono just weeks after FOX did the same isn’t nearly as interesting as the opening weeks of the NFL.  NASCAR should know this.  In reality, they never decided to take on the NFL - second race dates held since 1972 forced them to, and try as they have, it’s a battle they just can’t win.

NASCAR needs to follow-up its agreement with the tracks with a long-overdue mandate to ensure the survival of the sport.  Each track gets one Sprint Cup date.  Period.  No exceptions, ever.

How should this be enforced?  Simple.

Begin by eliminating the Chase.  Forget about Chase Races, the names of the elimination rounds, all of that.  Look at the current schedule as 36 races.  Then you start by getting rid of the duplicate races in September, October, and November, when the weather’s worst and the Air Titan spends the most time on the track: Richmond and Loudon (September), Dover, Charlotte, Kansas, Talladega, and Martinsville (October), Texas and Phoenix (November).  Then you work your way up to the July race at Pocono and the August race at Michigan, races which for decades have held up two summer dates just days apart.  Get rid of the rain-plagued spring race at Bristol and keep the iconic night race in the summer.  Just like that, you’re left with thirteen open weekends added to the offseason.  Move Chicagoland back to Pocono’s July date and make the Homestead finale on Richmond’s Saturday night, one week after Labor Day at the Southern 500.  Using the 2016 schedule, that makes a 23-race championship at 23 races with three off-weekends and the season finale the night before NFL Week 1 in September.

This change is dramatic, but it doesn’t eliminate a single track on the circuit and instead creates a more traditional racing schedule where each and every event takes place at a different facility - much like Formula One.  It thus becomes much easier for broadcasters, track officials, and journalists to talk about each round’s unique traits while creating a season that isn’t so long that it exhausts any of them.  Drivers get the variety of venues they seek and without the need for a Chase format can actually vie for a full-season championship.  New fans can be attracted by each track’s unique character without taxing the patience of longtime fans.

With one date per track, it would also be easier to move races.  Atlanta can leave its frozen February date for one of the openings in the summer, perhaps as a night race.  Indianapolis’ sweltering July date can be moved as well, perhaps to the spring.  The open July 4 weekend from no second Daytona race can become the new home of the fireworks of the Bristol Night Race.  The current West Coast Swing can remain intact for the cold-weather days following the season-opening Daytona 500.  And new venues can be added during the February to September swing - with none of them having to contend with the NFL or the awful weather in the fall.  My personal hope is that NASCAR reconciles with the folks in Montreal to give us a Cup race on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

There are also several opportunities to create new traditions and bring back old ones.  By not eliminating the Daytona 500, the spring race at Talladega, the Coca-Cola 600, or the Southern 500, Sprint or its partners can bring back the Winston (Sprintston?) Million.  The All-Star Race doesn’t have to have a weekend of its own and can take place as part of the 600 weekend, perhaps the previous Friday.  My personal suggestion is to run the All-Star Race in its current format on the dirt track next to Charlotte Motor Speedway, a callback to NASCAR’s first-ever race at a different dirt track in the Charlotte area in 1949.

All of this sounds like fantasy and exaggeration, but with a little bit of selflessness on the part of track officials and NASCAR, perhaps a schedule like this which efficiently features the strengths of each of its venues can help the sport and be applied to the XFINITY and Truck Series.

Monday, November 23, 2015

CUP EXTRA: 1993 LASTCAR Champion Jeff Gordon Retires With Six Last-Place Finishes

Sunday saw the 797th and final Cup start for Jeff Gordon, who came home 3rd in the championship after a late rally lifted him to 6th on the track.  Gordon retires with six last-place finishes in NASCAR’s top three divisions.  Looking at the circumstances of these finishes offers an intriguing view of how quickly he adjusted to stock car racing, and to the dedication of his team to get him back on track when things went sideways.

Gordon’s first last-place finish came on April 13, 1991, in his eighth career XFINITY Series start at Bristol.  Just 22 laps into the Budweiser 250, Gordon’s #1 Carolina Ford Dealers Ford lost an engine, taking him out of the race.  It was to be Gordon’s only last-place finish outside of Cup.  Much like Gordon’s debut in the Cup Series the next year, this race also saw a changing of the guard.  Three-time Sportsman champion and two-time XFINITY champion Jack Ingram failed to qualify for the second time that season and would ultimately retire from the tour at season’s end.

Gordon’s next two last-place finishes came during his first full rookie season in Cup in 1993, and both were due to early crashes at the series’ two trips to North Wilkesboro Speedway.  In the First Union 400 on April 18, Gordon’s rainbow-hued #24 DuPont Auto Finishes Chevrolet caught fire after backing into the Turn 1 wall on Lap 26.  Then, during the Tyson / Holly Farms 400 on October 3, his 16th-place car was damaged in a seven-car opening-lap crash when the outside lane failed to get going on the green flag.  Gordon parked the car with handling woes after running a quarter distance.  Gordon got his revenge in 1996, winning the final Cup race yet run at the North Carolina short track.

The next last-place run didn’t happen until the PRIMESTAR 500 on March 9, 1997, during the final race run on the Atlanta Motor Speedway’s 1.522-mile true oval configuration.  Gordon lasted just 59 laps into the site of his first Cup start before the engine let go.  It was to be the first of only two DNFs in an otherwise dominant 10-win season.  When he returned to the Atlanta track for its reconfiguration in the fall, he again struggled to finish 17th, but still walked away with his second Winston Cup.

The final two last-place finishes of Gordon’s career came at the Texas Motor Speedway, a track that vexed the champion after back-to-back early race crashes in the first two races run there in 1997 and 1998.  While he managed to avoid finishing last in both races, he was not so fortunate during the spring races in 1999 and 2008.  The first finish on March 28, 1999 was another crash, a solo shunt into the Turn 4 wall after 68 laps.  The other on April 6, 2008 saw Gordon fighting handling woes once again after a crash in the same spot on Lap 110.  Again, just as he had at North Wilkesboro, Gordon soon managed to solve the Texas puzzle, winning his lone race there in 2009.

Gordon remains the only driver in NASCAR history to win both a NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship and a LASTCAR title, the latter coming during his first Cup season in 1993 after a bottom-ten tiebreaker with ARCA veteran Bob Schacht.  On top of his 93 victories and countless other impressive statistics, it is perhaps this quick turnaround from challenger to champion that is most impressive of all.

CUP: Crash Eliminates Clint Bowyer From MWR’s Final Race; Landon Cassill Clinches First LASTCAR Title

SOURCE: Sarah Crabill - Getty Images N.A.
Clint Bowyer picked up the 4th last-place finish of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway when his #15 5-Hour Energy Toyota was involved in a multi-car crash that ended his run after 45 of the race’s 267 laps.

The finish, which came in Bowyer’s 361st series start, was second of the season and his first since Martinsville, three races ago.  Bowyer’s elimination from the race locked-up the 2015 LASTCAR Cup Series Championship for Landon Cassill, who ran as high as 19th before he came home 35th, four laps down.  Alex Bowman, his title challenger, finished 26th, two laps behind race winner Kyle Busch.  The two LASTCAR title contenders started side-by-side in Row 17.

Following his last-place run at Martinsville, Bowyer came home 15th at Texas and 23rd in the rain-shortened race at Phoenix, and he would remain 16th and last among the Chase field at season’s end.  The Homestead finale marked both Bowyer and teammate David Ragan’s final race with Michael Waltrip Racing as the team is set to close its doors this offseason.  MWR made its NASCAR debut in 1994 with all-time last-place leader Jeff Green coming home 3rd in an XFINITY Series race at Bristol driving the #17 Clabber Girl Pontiac.  In 1,203 combined starts across all its Cup, XFINITY, and Truck Series teams, MWR earned 12 victories.  Bowyer’s Homestead run was the team’s 20th last-place finish.

Bowyer started the weekend 9th in the opening practice and ran 29th and 24th in Saturday’s two practice sessions.  He would start 24th on Sunday after a lap of 172.651 mph, fourteen spots ahead of Ragan.  Missing the race were Rookie of the Year contender Jeb Burton in the #23 Overture Promotional Product Agency / Estes Toyota and Reed Sorenson in Premium Motorsports’ unsponsored #62 Toyota.  Premium’s #62 attempted all 36 races in 2015, but qualified for only 16.  

Premium secured a starting spot for their newly-acquired second team as Ryan Preece made his fourth start in a row driving the #98 East West Marine / Logan’s / FireAde Chevrolet with the modified scheme he ran in his Cup debut September at Loudon.  Preece held the spot the opening four laps until Cole Whitt fell back in Front Row Motorsports’ #35 Speed Stick Ford.  Sam Hornish, Jr., making his final start for Richard Petty Motorsports in the #9 Cheney Brothers Ford, was next to take the spot on Lap 13 and was about to lose a lap when the first caution flew on Lap 15.

At that moment, polesitter Denny Hamlin’s #11 FedEx Ground Toyota was running 2nd to Joey Logano when he lost a Wiggins clamp and his leaking axle grease caught fire under the hood.  Hamlin pulled behind the wall on Lap 16, and it first appeared he would score his first last-place finish since coming home 42nd in the short field last summer at Kentucky (LINK).  However, the crew got him back out on track three laps down on Lap 19.  He got two Lucky Dogs and one more lap back on the track en route to a surprising 10th-place finish.

The first of Hamlin’s Lucky Dogs came on Lap 41, when Kasey Kahne’s #5 Great Clips Chevrolet slowed in Turns 1 and 2 with a flat right-rear tire.  Contact with the was made, and Kahne lost a lap as the crew made repairs, dropping Kahne behind Hamlin for 43rd on Lap 43.  Kahne was still running in the spot when trouble broke out shortly after the restart.

On Lap 46, as the field stormed down the backstretch, Bowyer’s ill-handling Toyota lost control while racing Ty Dillon’s #33 Nexium 24 Hour Chevrolet mid-pack.  Bowyer’s car hooked to the right, collecting Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s #88 Nationwide Chevrolet as he nosed the outside wall, then cut left again.  The ensuing wreck collected Aric Almirola’s #43 Smithfield Foods Ford, Casey Mears’ #13 GEICO Chevrolet, and damaged the right-front to both Hornish and Bowyer’s teammate Ragan as they tried to get by on the inside.  No drivers were injured, and a disappointed Bowyer was unsure what caused his car to lose control.

The next time by on Lap 47, Mears was classified in last, the rear end of his #13 badly damaged, with Bowyer 42nd and Almirola in 41st.  The trio went to the garage for repairs, followed soon by 40th-place Dale Earnhardt, Jr., whose team was unable to fix his car on pit road.  NBC Sports posted a picture of Bowyer’s crew hard at work with the others, the front valence removed from the #15 short of the halfway mark.  However, despite their efforts, Bowyer was listed as out of the race by Lap 92.  Mears, who completed the same 45 laps as Bowyer, was still listed as 43rd until Lap 150, the Germain Racing crew deciding not to rejoin the race until the next caution for debris.  Bowyer fell to last the next time by and stayed in that spot.

Mears pulled off the track a final time on Lap 203 and remained 42nd at the finish, he and Bowyer the only two retirees from the race.  Almirola remained 41st and Earnhardt, Jr. 40th, both laps down to race winner Kyle Busch.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Josh Wise, whose #32 Zak Products Ford trailed smoke in the final stages of the race.

*This was the first last-place finish for Bowyer, Michael Waltrip Racing, and the #15 in a Cup race at Homestead.

43) #15-Clint Bowyer / 45 laps / crash
42) #13-Casey Mears / 104 laps / crash
41) #43-Aric Almirola / 209 laps / running
40) #88-Dale Earnhardt, Jr. / 241 laps / running
39) #32-Josh Wise / 247 laps / running

1st) Landon Cassill (4) - 2015 CHAMPION
2nd) Alex Bowman (3)
3rd) Aric Almirola, Michael Annett, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Timmy Hill, Kasey Kahne, J.J. Yeley (2)
4th) Justin Allgaier, A.J. Allmendinger, Trevor Bayne, Jeb Burton, Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Joey Gase, David Gilliland, Sam Hornish, Jr., Bobby Labonte, Brian Scott, Tony Stewart, Cole Whitt, Josh Wise (1)

1st) Hillman Smith Motorsports (4)
2nd) BK Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, HScott Motorsports, Phil Parsons Racing / Premium Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports, Tommy Baldwin Racing (3)
3rd) Go FAS Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Michael Waltrip Racing, Wood Brothers Racing (2)
4th) Joe Gibbs Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Richard Childress Racing / Circle Sport, Roush-Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (19)
2nd) Ford (11)
3rd) Toyota (6)

XFINITY: Jeff Green Trails All But 10 XFINITY Series Races In 2015

SOURCE: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
Jeff Green picked up the 83rd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway when his #19 Premier Barter Exchange Toyota fell out with transmission problems after 3 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Green’s 420th series start, was his 23rd of the 2015 season.  He shatters his own record for the most last-place runs in a season by a NASCAR driver - 15, which he set in the 2013 XFINITY Series season, and is now a five-time LASTCAR champion.  By rounding out the 2015 season with six consecutive last-place finishes, Green can also break his record of eight lasts in a row if he sweeps the opening three rounds in 2016.

Green was 36th-fastest in the series’ final practice session of the season and timed in 27th in qualifying with a speed of 161.310 mph.  The lone driver who missed the field was Morgan Shepherd, whose #89 Racing With Jesus Chevrolet ended up with its seventh DNQ of the season.

Starting 40th on Saturday was ARCA driver Tim Veins, who after making his Truck Series debut at Dover this past May rejoined Mike Harmon to drive his #74 Dodge.  On Lap 4, Green pulled behind the wall and secured the 40th spot while Viens, who spun in Turn 1 on Lap 11, recovered to ended up 33rd at the finish, the final car to come home under power.

The remaining members of the Bottom Five retired from the race between the start and the third caution for Josh Reaume hitting the Turn 4 wall in Motorsports Business Management’s #40 Braille Battery / Grafoid Chevrolet, the next lapped car to finish ahead of Viens.  39th went to T.J. Bell, his sixth-straight bottom-five finish in JGL Racing’s #26 Toyota.  38th was B.J. McLeod, his second-straight bottom-five finish for King Autosport in the #92 Bucked Up Apparel Chevrolet.  Mike Bliss, Green’s teammate and the defending LASTCAR Cup Champion, was 38th in TriStar’s unsponsored #14.  Rounding out the group in 36th was Carlos Contreras, who lost the engine on Rick Ware’s #15 Chevrolet.

*This is Green’s third last-place finish in an XFINITY Series race at Homestead, joining finishes in 2010 and 2014.

40) #19-Jeff Green / 3 laps / transmission
39) #26-T.J. Bell /23 laps / vibration
38) #92-B.J. McLeod / 36 laps / vibration
37) #14-Mike Bliss / 44 laps / vibration / led 1 lap
36) #15-Carlos Contreras / 59 laps / engine

1st) Jeff Green (23) - 2015 CHAMPION
2nd) Dexter Bean (2)
3rd) Ryan Ellis, C.J. Faison, Mike Harmon, Blake Koch, Charles Lewandoski, Carl Long, Morgan Shepherd, Derek White (1)

1st) TriStar Motorsports (25)
2nd) King Autosport, Motorsports Business Management (2)
3rd) JGL Racing, Mike Harmon Racing, Rick Ware Racing, Shepherd Racing Ventures (1)

1st) Toyota (27)
2nd) Chevrolet (3)
3rd) Dodge (2)
4th) Ford (1)