Thursday, November 23, 2017

OPINION: Thank goodness the “Junior Singularity” is over

A few thoughts on Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s retirement, and what it means for NASCAR going forward.

It’s easy to forget just how high expectations were for Junior before February 18, 2001. He won twice in his rookie season in Cup – once more than his father in 1979 – and took his first All-Star Race in dramatic fashion. “Junior Nation” was already well past its founding. But once that final lap happened, everything became so much bigger. From that point on, Junior was now carrying the hopes, dreams, and expectations of two equally-massive fan bases – his own and his father’s. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for him, on top of everything else.

From then on, there was was what I call the “Junior Singularity.” The Cup Series became “Junior and Friends,” a weekly show where everyone else in the field – even its newest seven-time champion – played a supporting role. I was told by a friend in the NASCAR merchandise business that Junior outsold every other driver in the field 10-to-1. I believed it, especially when FOX broadcasts were constantly interrupted with a “Nationwide Dale Jr. Performance Report.” Junior was always a story - even if that story involved a terrible final season with DEI, a four-year winless streak, and a worrying series of concussions.

It wasn’t like Big E in the 1990s, when he was presented as one of a number of quirky stars – Wallace, Martin, Jarrett, Irvan, Gordon, and Bodine, to name a few. He stood out, of course, but not in the James Dean kind of way he does today. Some of the best proof of this are those old skits ESPN put together to open their Cup broadcasts. Earnhardt wasn’t the star of all of them, and some didn’t mention him at all. If another driver was the story – such as Rusty Wallace and his short-track dominance in early 1993 – then he carried the narrative instead. Earnhardt’s hardly mentioned at all in the 1992 Hooters 500, widely regarded as NASCAR’s greatest race. For Earnhardt, it was known ’92 was a season to forget, a year where accidents and mechanical issues left him 12th in points.

This isn’t to say that any of this is Junior’s fault – far from it. A big part of his popularity has been the result of things completely out of his control, and he’s consistently steered that celebrity toward charity. From the very beginning, he’s remained humble, compassionate, and about as down-to-earth as one can get. I’ve always found it ironic that the sport’s most popular driver remains a fan of Jimmy Means, a driver who raced without any wins in 455 starts. He’s also a studied student of the sport, not only from spending his youth in the garage, but also his clear dedication to the sport’s history, such as his “Back In The Day” program. I also can’t fault the fans for supporting who they want, nor the media for filling the need for Junior news that they desire. Much larger forces steered both that direction.

But I can say I’m glad that it’s over.

I am thankful that Junior retired on his own terms – not just for himself, but for his sport. I believe that the “Junior Singularity” has distracted too much of us from the state of NASCAR as a whole. We need to look at the lingering effects of the Charter system, how it has continued to prevent start-up teams from forming while doing nothing to prevent a proven winner like Matt Kenseth from being squeezed out of the sport. We need to re-examine how broadcasts are handled in the internet age and create leaner, more efficient, more informative experiences for fans old and new. And, most of all, we need to start talking again about the rest of the field, the big names and the small, who will each play a role in shaping NASCAR’s future. Let’s celebrate that Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson are now the old guard, fending off a rising tide of Chase Elliott, Darrell Wallace, Jr., Ryan Blaney, William Byron, Erik Jones, and many others.

I don’t think anyone really knows Junior. Maybe his family. Maybe his wife. But that’s about it. I don’t know how he’s handled everything thrown at him with such grace. And I can only imagine the relief he now feels with that Axalta Chevrolet in his garage and a baby on the way. I’d like to imagine he’d complement his new career in broadcasting with another NASCAR history show. I can see him in the role of Neil Bonnett when he did “Winners” on TNN, though without that return to Daytona in 1994. But I can’t say what’s right for him, never mind tell him. Nobody can. For perhaps the first time in his life, Junior is free. It’s not a time for sadness. We should be happy for him.

To anyone out there in an 88 shirt, you need to realize that the sky isn’t falling just because one of its stars isn’t on the track. Like Ned Jarrett, Benny Parsons, and Buddy Baker before him, you’re gonna enjoy him even more in the booth. And the sport will be better for it.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

CUP: Joey Gase scores third last-place finish in as many seasons one day after final start with Jimmy Means Racing

PHOTO: John Harrelson, LAT Images
Joey Gase picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway when his #83 Eternal Fan / Premier Millwright Toyota was involved in a single-car accident after 4 of 267 laps.

The finish, which came in Gase’s 22nd series start, was his first of the season and first in Cup since September 18, 2016 at Chicagoland, 45 races ago.

Homestead was the site of a number of dramatic endings, not the least of which the retirement of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and what could also be the final races for Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick. It’s also seen the end of several longstanding driver-team partnerships, including the end of Kasey Kahne’s term at Hendrick Motorsports, where he joined in 2012, Michael McDowell’s last turn at Leavine Family Racing, where he first ran in 2014, and Landon Cassill, who’s still looking for a new ride after his second season at Front Row Motorsports.

One of the longest relationships to end on the XFINITY side was driver Joey Gase with Jimmy Means Racing. Gase first drove for Means at Iowa on May 20, 2012, when Gase was driving for Go Green Racing (fielded by Archie St. Hilaire, the current owner of the #32 Go FAS Racing team in Cup). When interviewed for my upcoming book on J.D. McDuffie, Means reflected on how he met with Gase.

“When [Gase] drove for Archie St. Hilaire the 79 car in XFINITY, he was renting that ride and I know he ran well and didn’t tear his stuff up.  And when the money ran out with Archie, basically was rent-a-ride if you wanted to drive the car you paid money, and I’m an old school racer so we don’t make a dime but we race, that’s our downfall.  But somebody introduced me to him and Joey was able to find some money so it kind of helped keep both of us going, so it’s been a good relationship, it’s kept him in it, kept me in it.”

Helping the team bring in a number of sponsors, most notably the Donate Life organ donor program, Gase helped Means to the #52 team’s first full XFINITY season in 2014, finishing 20th in points. The team’s best run that year came at Talladega, where they also led their first lap. When they returned to Means’ home track the following year, Gase kept his overheating Chevrolet in the lead pack, and carved out a 5th-place finish. It was Means’ first Top 5 in NASCAR, a proud moment for a driver whose best finish in 455 Cup starts over two decades was a 7th at Talladega in 1983.

Gase has continued to run strong on the restrictor plate tracks, finishing 7th and 10th in this year’s races at Daytona and 16th at Talladega. But on October 19, it was announced that Gase and Means Racing would part ways amicably at the end of the season.

The two parted ways as Gase has focused more on making it to the Cup Series, where he reunited with Archie St. Hilaire in 2014. This season saw Gase make more Cup starts than in any previous season – nine -  including his first Daytona 500 with BK Racing. He also drove for Premium Motorsports, finishing a season-best 21st at Talladega and a 26th at Indianapolis.

Gase wasn’t originally slated to run Sunday’s race. The preliminary entry list showed that BK Racing wasn’t going to enter the #83 Toyota, while Premium Motorsports’ #7 Chevrolet, Gase’s ride from the last two weeks, was going to be driven by fellow XFINITY regular Ross Chastain. But Premium ended up withdrawing the #7, resulting in Homestead’s first short field for the Cup finale, and BK entered the #83 for Gase on Wednesday. Although Gase’s car was first listed with Earthwater as the sponsor, as it had when Gray Gaulding finished last at Texas, Phoenix sponsor Eternal Fan, also based in Iowa, signed to sponsor the car. Premier Millwright also joined the effort, sponsoring Gase’s run in Cup as well as his final start for Means on Saturday.

Gase began the weekend running 37th in Friday’s opening practice, then qualified 35th in the field with a lap of 164.654mph. He ran 38th in Saturday’s first session and 37th in Happy Hour. In between, he started 32nd in the XFINITY finale and brought Jimmy Means’ car home under power, five laps down, in 29th.

Starting last on Sunday was Ray Black, Jr., another XFINITY regular looking to break into Cup. Homestead saw Black make his third Cup start of the season, closing out Rick Ware Racing’s return season to the Cup Series. By the time the cars were pushed out to the grid, however, his #51 ScubaLife Chevrolet was already ahead of two cars.

Behind Black on pit road were two of the day’s biggest stories: the #20 DeWalt Hurricane Relief Toyota of Matt Kenseth and the #88 Axalta Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Earnhardt had been moved back there in anticipation of leading the field during a special fourth parade lap. Earnhardt then asked NASCAR if Kenseth could join him, at which point the #20 lined up in front of his car. Curiously, Earnhardt was the only driver to incur a pre-race penalty, having been forced to change engines on Friday.

By the time the field took the green, Earnhardt was already passing cars, and had made his way to 30th after the first lap. Black, on the other hand, lost touch with the rest of the field with a slow start, and was back to last by the first set of corners. He was 3.864 seconds behind the leader after Lap 1. With two laps complete, the spot fell to Corey LaJoie, Gase’s teammate in the #23 Toyota. According to BK’s Twitter, LaJoie was forced to make an unscheduled stop for a flat right-rear tire, putting him a lap down. Three laps later, trouble would find the second BK car.

With four laps complete, Gase was running in 35th ahead of Reed Sorenson. As the pair headed into Turn 1, Gase’s car cut sharply to the right, reportedly due to a flat right-front tire, and smacked the wall hard. This drew the day’s first caution, and Gase managed to just barely get his car back to pit road. With the steering tweaked and the passenger side pancaked, the team’s day was done, and the car was promptly pushed behind the wall.

Black finished 38th, flagged off the track for running too slow. Much like John Graham the day before, NASCAR had called his #51 to pit road early, allowing the team to make adjustments to get the car back up to speed. Like Graham, Black was called in once more, flagged off the track for running too slow.

37th went to Danica Patrick, whose final start for Stewart-Haas Racing did not go to plan. A flat tire caused her to lose control in the outside of Turns 1 and 2, and her #10 Aspen Dental Ford smacked the outside wall before being rear-ended by Kasey Kahne. Patrick reported earlier in the week that she will “cap it off” with next year’s Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, but there is no news as of yet who she will drive for.

In 36th was David Starr, back in one of Motorsports Business Management’s Chevrolets after BK Racing lent Carl Long’s team a car last week in Phoenix. Starr was running a handful of laps down in the final 100 laps when the left-front brake rotor failed. The debris didn’t cause a caution – or a fire, in the case of Chris Buescher last week – but did leave a small puncture in the right-front fender of Playoff contender Kevin Harvick’s Ford.

Rounding out the Bottom Five was Reed Sorenson, citing engine trouble on Premium’s #15 Xchange of America Chevrolet.

The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship went to Martin Truex, Jr., the first for both the New Jersey driver and his Denver-based team, Furniture Row Racing. Truex has six last-place finishes – none this season – including one in the fall Phoenix race in each of the last three election years. Furniture Row Racing has nine last-place finishes and took the 2008 LASTCAR Cup Series title with Joe Nemechek, who trailed three races that season and edged A.J. Allmendinger on a Bottom Five tiebreaker, 9-6. Congratulations to both Truex and Furniture Row on coming so far this past decade.

*Gase has now finished last in exactly one Cup Series race in each of the last three seasons.
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #83 in a Cup race at Homestead.
*Gase’s four laps complete are the second-fewest for a last-place finisher in a Cup race at Homestead. The fewest was 0 laps in 2004, after Hermie Sadler’s #02 Drive For Diversity / Sam Bass Chevrolet was eliminated in a multi-car accident at the start of the Ford 400.

39) #83-Joey Gase / 4 laps / crash
38) #51-Ray Black, Jr. / 39 laps / too slow
37) #10-Danica Patrick / 139 laps / crash
36) #66-David Starr / 175 laps / brakes
35) #15-Reed Sorenson / 212 laps / engine

1st) BK Racing, Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group (5)
2nd) Rick Ware Racing (4)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Furniture Row Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Premium Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (2)
4th) Front Row Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Motorsports Business Management, Richard Petty Motorsports, StarCom Racing, Tommy Baldwin Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (20)
2nd) Toyota (10)
3rd) Ford (6)


XFINITY: Jeff Green closes out record-breaking season with 13th last-place finish of 2017

PHOTO: David PeQueen
Jeff Green picked up the 102nd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway when his unsponsored #38 RSS Racing Chevrolet fell out with clutch problems after 10 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Green’s 480th series start, was his first since Kansas, three races ago, and his series-leading thirteenth of the season.

RSS Racing shuffled their driver lineup for the season finale with Ryan Sieg driving the #93 Chevrolet for the first time in 2017, welcoming sponsorship from Code Rum. The #39 that Sieg ran for the rest of this season would go to Stephen Leicht, who last drove for RSS when he trailed the field at Charlotte in May. Leicht’s #39 would be the same black-and-blue Chevrolet that Gray Gaulding debuted as the #93 in Charlotte last month, and was set to run half the race distance. Green, however, would remain in his #38 Chevrolet, the roof numbers now the same shade of red as the roof, and was set to exit the race before Leicht.

The preliminary list for Saturday’s race saw 45 cars, which was pruned once to 44 after Penske Racing withdrew the #12 Ford for Truck Series title contender Austin Cindric, then again to 43 cars after Motorsports Business Management withdrew their third “start-and-park” car, which John Jackson was set to drive for the first time since his last-place run at Loudon. There were also a pair of driver changes for two independent teams: John Graham in place of Mike Harmon in the #74 Magellan Aviation Dodge (though Harmon helped practice the car in Happy Hour) as well as Josh Williams replacing Mario Gosselin in the #90 Starbrite Startron Chevrolet.

Green earned the Past Champion’s Provisional in qualifying, having turned in the slowest lap of Round 1 with a speed of 149.052mph. He’d run faster in practice, ranking 27th in the first session before skipping Happy Hour. According to David PeQueen, who captured the pictures used in today’s article, Green’s slow timed lap was due to him being “super conservative, staying well off the wall on corner exit.”

Three other drivers were sent home after qualifying: Quin Houff in the Precision Performance Motorsports #46 Chevrolet, Matt Mills in the #55 / J.D. Electric Toyota for start-up team NextGen Motorsports, and owner-driver Morgan Shepherd in the #89 VisOne RV Chevrolet. All three drivers ran around two seconds faster than Green.

Green took the green in last, and was one of two cars to trail the field in Turn 2 by the time the leaders hit Turn 3. Joining him was John Graham, who was struggling with speed in Harmon’s Dodge from the very start. Green passed Graham by the end of Lap 1 by which time the #74 was already 10.991 seconds behind. Graham was 15.042 seconds behind the next time by and 21.576 behind on Lap 4. That time by, Ryan Reed served a penalty when his #16 Lilly Diabetes Ford passed to the inside at the start, dropping Reed to last on Lap 5. Reed got back up to speed, catching and passing Graham at the completion of Lap 8.

Graham was the first to be lapped on Lap 10, and was being warned by NASCAR to pick up the pace. By the time that lap was done, Jeff Green pulled down pit road, then into the garage, promptly taking last from Graham. Green was listed out on NBCSN’s leaderboard by Lap 31. Graham made contact with the outside wall, and came down pit road at least twice early in Stage 1. The second stop forced him to pull behind the wall, his Dodge flagged off the track for not maintaining minimum speed.

Finishing 39th between Green and Graham was Harrison Rhodes, who according to David PeQueen was running white rims on the right side of the car and black ones on the left. Rhodes, who was swapped to JD Motorsports’ #15 Masters Properties / Industrial Piping Chevrolet as Joe Nemechek ran his #01, retired nine laps after Green.

In 37th came Timmy Hill, running the renumbered blue #13 OCR Gaz Bar Dodge that had been Motorsports Business Management’s Pete Hamilton throwback at Darlington. He pulled into the garage 24 laps before Christopher Bell, who one day after clinching the Truck Series title lost the engine on Joe Gibbs Racing’s #20 GameStop / Power A Toyota.

Taking the 2017 NASCAR XFINITY Series Championship was third-place finisher William Byron, set to join Hendrick Motorsports’ #24 Cup team in 2018. Byron did not score a single last-place finish this season with just one Bottom Five – a 36th at Talladega – and two Bottom Tens.

*This was Green’s third last-place finish in the last four XFINITY Series races at Homestead.
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #38 in an XFINITY Series race at Homestead since November 10, 2001, when Christian Elder lost the rear end on his #38 Great Clips Ford after 19 laps of the GNC Live Well 300.
*This was just the seventh time in XFINITY Series history where the last-place finisher fell out with clutch issues. The last time it happened was May 5, 2012, when Kevin Lepage’s #52 TTTR Racing Engiens Chevrolet fell out after 1 lap of the Aaron’s 312 at Talladega.

(All Photos by David PeQueen)

40) #38-Jeff Green / 10 laps / clutch

39) #15-Harrison Rhodes / 19 laps / electrical

38) #74-John Graham / 31 laps / parked

37) #13-Timmy Hill / 54 laps / vibration

36) #20-Christopher Bell / 78 laps / engine

1st) RSS Racing (20)
2nd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Motorsports Business Management, Shepherd Racing Ventures (2)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, JD Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, King Autosport, Richard Childress Racing, SS Green Light Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (30)
2nd) Dodge (2)
3rd) Toyota (1)


TRUCKS: Ciccarelli takes last at Homestead, Senica takes the title

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
Ray Ciccarelli picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career in Friday’s Ford EcoBoost 200 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway when his #10 Chevrolet had engine problems that kept him from completing any of the race’s 134 laps.

The finish, which came in Ciccarelli’s sixth series start, was his second of the season and his first since New Hampshire, six races ago.

Ciccarelli was originally one of 33 entries on the preliminary list, but that list shrank back to 32 on Wednesday as Mike Harmon pulled his #74 Chevrolet. Ciccarelli was originally listed to run Cobb’s #0 Chevrolet, as he had in four of his previous five starts, but by Friday had been swapped over to the team’s primary #10 Chevrolet with Cobb herself running the #0. Ciccarelli’s best finish of the year had been in the Cobb team’s flagship #10, when he ran 22nd at Eldora despite a series of late-race spins. He’d run no better than 26th since, each time retiring in the first twenty-one laps.

Ciccarelli didn’t turn a lap in either practice session while Cobb turned just one lap in Happy Hour, anchoring the charts with a lap of 135.098mph, more than seven seconds off John Hunter Nemechek’s session-leading speed. Both Ciccarelli and Cobb didn’t turn a lap in qualifying, either, joined by Bayley Currey in D.J. Copp’s #83 Preferred Industrial Contractors Chevrolet. This put Currey, Ciccarelli, and Cobb in the final three positions.

The last-place headline for Friday was the three-way battle for the 2017 LASTCAR Truck Series Championship, the only title among the top three series to be decided in the season finale. Todd Peck came into the race with the lead, but wasn’t entered in the race. This left both Mike Senica and Joe Nemechek in position to take the title. Senica, tied with Peck on Bottom Fifteens, needed only a Bottom Ten to take the title. Nemechek, who had more Bottom Fives and Bottom Tens than either Senica or Peck, needed to finish last. Senica, carrying returning sponsorship from Pennsylvania Power Products, qualified 29th, one spot behind Nemechek. A LASTCAR poll run Friday on Twitter had Senica as the title favorite, receiving 82% of the votes.

Last-place starter Cobb incurred a redundant tail end penalty before the start of the race for unapproved adjustments. She was running alongside Ciccarelli at the start, and both trucks were already losing touch with the pack as the leaders took the green. By the time the field came back around, both trucks were already behind the wall. Although Cobb started one spot behind Ciccarelli and was sent to the rear, she was still classified ahead of her teammate.

The dual retirements of the Cobb trucks promptly eliminated Joe Nemechek from LASTCAR title contention as he could no longer finish last. Senica’s bid for a Bottom Ten was settled soon after. On Lap 3, Senica’s #57 was already 30th, eighteen seconds behind the leaders. Two laps later, he pulled his truck into the garage. While Senica indicated on Twitter that he pulled out with brake issues, forcing him to park earlier than the Benning team had planned, NASCAR listed the #57 as “parked” in the official results. Regardless of reasoning, the run was enough to steal away the 2017 LASTCAR Truck Series title from Todd Peck. It was the only week all season that Senica led the season standings.

Senica’s championship was the first by a rookie Truck Series driver since 1999, when Phil Bonifield took the title in Tom Mazzuchi’s #23 Red Line Oil Chevrolet. Bonifield’s mark of six last-place finishes remains tied for the most by a single driver in Truck Series history, equaled first in 2011 by Mike Garvey, and then again by Caleb Roark just last year. Roark’s title was his third in a row and the fourth-straight for Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing – the same team Ciccarelli drove for on Friday.

Rounding out the Bottom Five was title contender Joe Nemechek, three laps behind Senica in his #87 D.A.B. Constructors / fire Alarm Services Chevrolet. Senica’s title-clinching Bottom Five prevented Nemechek from becoming the first driver in NASCAR history to claim at least one LASTCAR title in both the Cup Series and the Truck Series. Behind him in 28th, one lap beyond, was Bayley Currey in the Copp #83.

Taking the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Championship on Friday was runner-up finisher Christopher Bell, who didn’t score any last-place finishes in 2017 and just two Bottom Tens.

*This marked the first last-place finish for truck #10 in a Truck Series race at Homestead.
*Chevrolet became the first manufacturer in NASCAR history to sweep every last-place finish in a single season in any of the series’ top three divisions.

32) #10-Ray Ciccarelli / 0 laps / engine
31) #0-Jennifer Jo Cobb / 0 laps / electrical
30) #57-Mike Senica / 4 laps / parked
29) #87-Joe Nemechek / 7 laps / electrical
28) #83-Bayley Currey / 8 laps / engine

1st) Norm Benning Racing (7)
2nd) Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing (4)
3rd) Copp Motorsports (3)
4th) MB Motorsports, NEMCO Motorsports (2)
5th) Halmar Friesen Racing, Henderson Motorsports, Martins Motorsports, MDM Motorsports, TJL Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (23)