Friday, February 23, 2018

PREVIEW: Without Open teams at Atlanta, track sees shortest Cup field since 1976

Jack Donohue loses an engine at Atlanta, 1976
PHOTO: Historical Stock Car Racing Forum
Saturday, February 24, 2018
TRUCKS Race 2 of 23
Active Pest Control 200 at Atlanta
2017 Last-Place Finisher: Todd Peck

There are 34 trucks entered for 32 spots, down four trucks from last week’s race in Daytona. Two trucks will miss the show.

RETURNING: #0-Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing
After her hard crash last week in Daytona, Jennifer Jo Cobb has entered her second truck, the #0, for the first time since last fall at Homestead. The driver is Joey Gase, who despite his developing Cup and XFINITY career has never started a Truck Series race. He was entered in the Cobb truck last year at Kentucky, again in the #0, but was withdrawn. It's as yet unclear whether this team will be a "start-and-park," as it has been used in the past.

DRIVER CHANGE: #1-TJL Motorsports
One week after B.J. McLeod failed to qualify as a last-minute replacement for J.J. Yeley, TJL Motorsports has selected another driver to be announced. UPDATE: Clay Greenfield became the driver on Friday, one week after hos strong qualifying run at Daytona.

MANUFACTURER CHANGE: #3-Jordan Anderson Racing
Jordan Anderson saved his Toyota from disastwr when he spun to safety across the finish line. Nevertheless, he's driving a Chevrolet this weekend.

DRIVER CHANGE: #20-Young's Motorsports
UPDATE: Daytona 500 champion Austin Dillon takes the controls of Young's #20 this weekend, replacing Scott Lagasse, Jr. According to Bob Pockrass, the majority of this truck's season will go to development driver Tanner Thorson.

CLOSED: #28-FDNY Racing
Bryan Dauzat threatened for a Top 10 finish last week in Daytona, only to be involved in a late-race accident that left him 18th. With that, Jim Rosenblum’s Truck Series team has closed its doors after 53 series starts. T.J. Clark picked up their best series finish at Phoenix in 1996, coming home 12th.

MISSING: #47-Chris Fontaine
Chris Fontaine’s electrical issues left him 29th at Daytona, and his next start will likely be Talladega, as it has in all but one year since 2013.

DRIVER CHANGE: #63-MB Motorsports
In place of ARCA veteran Bobby Gerhart, who failed to qualify at Daytona, Mike Mittler brings back Akinori Ogata of Japan to attempt his seventh series start. Ogata finished 30th in this race last year for Beaver Motorsports.

MISSING: #68-Clay Greenfield Racing
A sterling 3rd-place qualifying run in the #PleaseStand Chevrolet ended with a brutal crash in the final 20 laps of Friday’s race, leaving him a disappointing 22nd. The team isn’t entered this week, their return to be announced. UPDATE: Greenfield is driving TJL's #1 truck.

DRIVER CHANGE: #74-Mike Harmon Racing
Mike Harmon returns to the controls of his own #74 Chevrolet, one week after Cody Ware failed to qualify at Daytona.

MISSING: #87-NEMCO Motorsports
NEMCO Motorsports scaled back from two trucks at Daytona to just one this week, parking the #87 that Joe Nemechek drove to a spirited 3rd-place finish last week. The reason for the reduction is John Hunter Nemechek will make his first XFINITY start of the season in Ganassi’s #42 Chevrolet. Joe will take the controls of John Hunter’s #8 on Friday.

RETURNING: #97-JJL Motorsports
After a successful limited schedule in 2017, it was announced January 22 that Chad Little’s son Jesse will run more races this year, starting this week. In place of last year’s black Toyota, the team will run a blue Ford sponsored by JJL Marketing Developments. The team debuted their new website on February 13.

CUP INVADERS: #4-Kyle Busch

Saturday, February 24, 2018
XFINITY Race 2 of 33
Rinnai 250 at Atlanta
2017 Last-Place Finisher: Blake Koch

There are 43 cars entered for 40 spots, down three from Daytona. Three cars will miss the show. UPDATE: Make that 42 with the withdrawal of the McLeod #99 on Friday.

DRIVER CHANGE: #0-JD Motorsports
DRIVER CHANGE: #15-JD Motorsports
After Joe Nemechek turned heads with a strong run at Daytona, and Matt Mills was originally reported to drive the #15 this weekend at Atlanta, the entry list now indicates that Mills will swap rides with Garrett Smithley, putting Mills in the #0 and Smithley in the #15.

DRIVER CHANGE: #8-B.J. McLeod Motorsports
Tommy Joe Martins was at the Daytona 500 last week in the Go FAS Racing pits, and this week makes his first XFINITY start of the season, taking the place of Caesar Bacarella in the #8. Martins made nine series starts last year with a season-best 11th at Iowa.

RETURNING: #12-Penske Racing
Following a disappointing last-place finish at Daytona with Roush-Fenway, Austin Cindric begins his split-season with Penske Racing in the #12 sponsored by Fitzgerald Glider Kits. It promises to be the first XFINITY start for Penske’s #12 since Sam Hornish, Jr.’s runner-up performance at Charlotte last fall.

DRIVER CHANGE: #18-Joe Gibbs Racing
In place of Cup regular Daniel Suarez, who drove the car at Daytona, K&N Pro Series upstart Kyle Benjamin returns to action. In a five-race stint for Gibbs last year, Benjamin took the pole at Pocono and Kentucky and finished a season-best runner-up to teammate Ryan Preece at Iowa. Preece is not entered this week as Brandon Jones and Christopher Bell continue their full-time efforts in the #19 and #20.

MISSING: #25-ACG Racing
Chris Cockrum came up just short of a starting spot in last Saturday’s race, and Jeff Spraker’s team isn’t entered this weekend.

J.J. Yeley and Ryan Sieg swap rides from Daytona with Yeley now in the #93 and Sieg in the #39. Jeff Green remains in the third RSS car, the #38 Chevrolet.

DRIVER CHANGE: #42-Chip Ganassi Racing
The XFINITY Series debut of John Hunter Nemechek is on schedule for this weekend as he takes the place of Kyle Larson in Ganassi’s #42 Chevrolet, sponsored by NEMCO backer Fire Alarm Systems. Nemechek won the Truck Series race at Atlanta two years ago.

MISSING: #54-NXT Motorsports
One week after their rear gear issue at Daytona with Gray Gaulding driving, NXT Motorsports has not entered their #54 Toyota.

DRIVER CHANGE: #60-Roush-Fenway Racing
Taking the controls of the #60 this week is Chase Briscoe, who makes his XFINITY Series debut in an unsponsored Ford. Briscoe finished 25th in the Truck Series race here last year for Brad Keselowski Racing.

MANUFACTURER CHANGE: #66-Motorsports Business Management
After he was bumped from the Daytona field at the last moment, Timmy Hill returns with a blue Dodge in place of last week's white Toyota

DRIVER CHANGE: #78-B.J. McLeod Motorsports
An overtime tangle with Kyle Larson ended Ryan Ellis’ return to action last Saturday, leaving him 30th in the final running order. Team owner B.J. McLeod takes over the controls while Tommy Joe Martins drives his #8 Chevrolet.

MISSING: #86-Brandonbilt Motorsports
Brandon Brown showed speed last week in Daytona, but his family’s team has elected not to enter Atlanta following their involvement in last week’s backstretch pileup.

MISSING: #88-JR Motorsports
JR Motorsports drops from five teams to four this weekend, leaving out the #88 that Chase Elliott drove to a 12th-place finish.

WITHDREW: #99-B.J. McLeod Motorsports
After Ray Black, Jr. wound up the fastest driver to miss the cut last week in Daytona, McLeod was originally going to enter the #99 - UPDATE: but withdrew on Friday without assigning a driver.

CUP INVADERS: #3-Ty Dillon, #22-Joey Logano, #98-Kevin Harvick

Sunday, February 25, 2018
CUP Race 2 of 36
Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta
2017 Last-Place Finisher: Cody Ware

There are just 36 cars entered for 40 spots as, for the first time in series history, all four Open teams are unused, leaving only the 36 Chartered entries. Just seven times before have that few cars started a Cup race at Atlanta, most recently on November 7, 1976, when Jack Donohue’s engine let go on the first lap.

DRIVER & NUMBER CHANGE: #15-Premium Motorsports
After being used for Danica Patrick’s final start and being entered as car #7, Premium Motorsports’ Chartered entry returns to car #15, the same number it obtained last year from the shuttered HScott Motorsports. Their driver is Ross Chastain, who had an impressive Cup debut at Dover last year, but was withdrawn from what would have been his most recent attempt last fall at Homestead.

STILL THERE: #23-BK Racing
The 36 Chartered teams entered includes BK Racing as they begin to reorganize their program following last Thursday’s judgment. Gray Gaulding returns to drive this weekend, but the car may again arrive without a sponsor as none has yet been announced.

SPONSOR UPDATE: #43-Richard Petty Motorsports
On the heels of his runner-up finish in the Daytona 500, Darrell Wallace, Jr. has picked up sponsorship from the NASCAR Racing Experience. Associate sponsorship arrived Tuesday from Ohio-based E.E. Ward Moving & Storage, at 137 years the oldest African-American-owned business still operating in the United States.

DRIVER CHANGE: #51-Rick Ware Racing
After a strong 12th-place finish by Justin Marks in the Daytona 500, XFINITY Series regular Harrison Rhodes is scheduled to make his Cup Series debut in the #51 Chevrolet. Rhodes, who has not run since last season's XFINITY finale at Homestead, has three Atlanta XFINITY starts with a best finish of 24th.

MISSING: #62-Beard Motorsports
MISSING: #66-Motorsports Business Management
MISSING: #92-Ricky Benton Racing
MISSING: #96-Gaunt Brothers Racing
All four Open teams from the Daytona 500 are not entered. According to Brendan Gaughan himself, Beard Motorsports’ #62 will return at Talladega, continuing their exclusive focus on the plate tracks. The same is likely to happen with the Gaunt Brothers’ #96, which did so in the first two plate races last year. The next starts for MBM’s #66 and Benton’s #92 are, as yet, unknown. David Gilliland, who finished 14th with Benton in the 500, has indicated he may be done running Cup to focus on son Todd's efforts.

DRIVER CHANGE: #72-TriStar Motorsports
Following Corey LaJoie's disappointing last-place finish in the Daytona 500, Cole Whitt's split season with LaJoie begins this weekend. Whitt, who ran full-time for TriStar last year, finished 20th in this race in 2017, his fourth-best finish of the entire season.

Ever wonder who Jack Zink is, the guy who’s at the very bottom of the LASTCAR rankings? Born on October 17, 1928, Zink was an engineer and racing enthusiast, most notably his family’s efforts at the Indianapolis 500. His lone recorded Cup start came at his home track, a half-mile dirt oval in Oklahoma City, on August 3, 1956. Driving his own 1956 Pontiac, car #88, Zink started 7th in a field of 12, but overheated after just 10 laps to score his lone last-place finish. Zink entered the next race, to be run the following day on a track in Tulsa, but the event was cancelled due to terrible track conditions. At the time the race was cancelled on Lap 34 of 200, Zink had already crashed out, finishing third-from last in his #88. Since the race was cancelled, neither Zink’s start nor Bill Moore’s last-place run are officially recorded. Zink passed away in 2005.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

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

J.D. at Atlanta, 1976
SOURCE: Historical Stock Car Racing Forum
J.D. McDuffie made 31 starts at what is now the Atlanta Motor Speedway, including five on the track before it was expanded from 1.5 miles to the 1.522-mile length it held from 1970 through the first part of 1997.

McDuffie’s first Atlanta start came on August 7, 1966 during the Dixie 400, just the 15th race ever run at the track. Competing in his second Cup season, McDuffie was driving one of twelve Fords on the grid, and rolled out last in the 42-car field. In a season where Ford had boycotted the sport when their 427 engine was banned, independents like McDuffie benefitted as the lone standard bearers in place of the factory efforts. On this day, he climbed to 22nd before the transmission let go.

McDuffie failed to finish half of his Atlanta starts – 16 of 31 – but only once finished last. That came in his second Atlanta start on August 4, 1968, when his 1967 Buick fell out with a vibration after four laps.

Throughout his career, McDuffie rarely drove for other teams. Atlanta on August 2, 1970 was one of those occasions. During the Dixie 500, McDuffie joined up with Georgia driver Ken Spikes, who had been fielding a part-time effort for the last six years. He climbed aboard a #16 Chevrolet sponsored by Crane Cams, but turned just 30 laps before a vibration ended his run. It would be the only time all season that he didn’t run his own #70, and his only start that year in a Chevrolet.

McDuffie’s best Atlanta finish came on July 22, 1973, when his Chevrolet finished 7th, 11 laps down to David Pearson. His only other Top Ten came eight years later on March 16, 1980, rallying from 32nd to finish 9th, four laps down. Dale Earnhardt won that day over a Roger Penske-prepared Chevrolet whose driver, Rusty Wallace, was making his first Cup start.

Over the last decade of his career, McDuffie never finished better than 23rd at Atlanta, failing to finish seven of his last eight starts there. He missed both races there in 1984 and 1986, then made his final start there on March 15, 1987. In a race won by Ricky Rudd, driving for the late Bud Moore, McDuffie started 41st in the 42-car field and finished 40th, out with engine trouble after just 16 laps.

One of McDuffie’s last recorded attempts to make the Atlanta field came in March 1990, when qualifying was rained-out. McDuffie was sent home along with A.J. Foyt and Greg Sacks. Sacks was driving one of the cars fielded by Rick Hendrick for “Days of Thunder,” painted like Tom Cruise’s pink-and-white #46 Superflo Chevrolet.

Monday, February 19, 2018

OPINION: FOX dropped the ball in filling the void left by retired stars

Your 12th-place finisher yesterday.
Yesterday, in FOX’s lead-up to the Daytona 500, Charlize Theron introduced the starting lineup to Sunday’s race. It was terrible. The fault’s not Theron’s – she was merely delivering the lines she was given. It goes back to FOX itself, a network which let a tremendous opportunity pass by.

This is a critical season for NASCAR. The biggest names of the last two decades are all gone, including Dale Jr., Edwards, Stewart, Kenseth, Gordon, and now Danica. The sport and its teams have responded by advancing several young stars into top-flite, ready-to-win rides. So many, in fact, that young guns from a decade ago like Logano, Hamlin, and Kyle Busch are now the old guard against the likes of Blaney, Byron, and Wallace. The result is the youngest, healthiest field in decades, which in spite of the Charter system’s effect on overall depth, still has the very real potential of producing some of the best competition in years.

But all this is utterly meaningless if the media fails to inform the audience about who these people are, and why we should care about them. And this is where Sunday’s starting lineup comes in.

FOX had the opportunity – no – the responsibility to calm the concerns of old fans of retired drivers and attract the interest of people who had no understanding of the sport. This is actually much easier than it sounds because both groups are on equal footing: they both need to be given a reason to watch. The simplest and best way to do this isn’t some misleading ad campaign, but just take the time to tell us about each and every one of the forty starters. Not just Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch – everyone. Make a case why you should cheer for each and every person climbing behind the wheel. Tell us something interesting about each one of them, like the fact that Jeffrey Earnhardt is driving for the guy who beat his grandfather in the 500 in 1990. Or that a 66-year-old Mark Thompson is making just his second start since 1992.

Did FOX do this? No. In fact, their starting lineup didn’t even mention most of the field by name. And those who were named, we hardly learned anything about them. The more it played, the more I got the impression that whoever was in charge of the segment – whether the production team or its on-air talent – didn’t do their homework over the offseason. As I wrote in my article last year about the “Junior Singularity,” this was a trap that was waiting for them. With a fan favorite gone and no clear successor, you can’t just talk about the big names who are left. You need to talk about everyone because anyone can become the next Junior. FOX’s failure to prepare for this was completely avoidable and inexcusable.

The effect of FOX’s failure was felt through the rest of the broadcast as, once again, only a small circle of drivers received any real attention. This was particularly noticeable with each field-clearing wreck, as each brought a new group of drivers into contention, but few new stories. To his credit, Mike Joy has continued to keep an eye on small teams exceeding expectations, as he did with Brendan Gaughan and Matt DiBenedetto in the final stages. However, the task is too much for Joy alone. Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon were no help, choosing once again to simply react to things happening rather than reporting on developing stories. This problem is by no means limited to FOX as NBC’s group is just as guilty. Consider “throwback weekend” at Darlington, and how few of those paint schemes you actually saw during the race.

I do believe there’s time to right the ship, but only if immediate action is taken. The production staff needs to put more effort on producing driver profiles and, during the race, help the booth stay appraised of stories they may be missing. The announcers need to each take on different roles in the booth, focusing on a different aspect of the action, and stick to it. In doing so, they need to stop reacting and start reporting. The overall tone of the broadcasts needs to be turned away from entertaining the audience to informing them. Cars going around the track is entertaining enough – your job is to tell us there’s more going on. The result will be a leaner, more enjoyable, and more successful broadcast for all involved.

This isn’t asking too much. As I’ve said in the past, we should demand more of professionals, and not let them rest on their laurels. Because if we don’t, we will not only miss out on key moments in one of NASCAR’s most important seasons, but miss out on the chance to capitalize on them.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

CUP: Corey LaJoie arrives late, leaves early in first Camaro to finish last in Cup since 1971

Corey LaJoie picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s 60th Annual Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #72 Schluter Systems Chevrolet fell out with a blown engine after he completed 8 of 207 laps.

The finish, which came in LaJoie’s 35th series start, was his first since last July at Indianapolis, sixteen races ago. In the LASTCAR Cup Series rankings, it’s the 13th for #72, the 738th for Chevrolet, and the 676th by reason of engine failure. Across the top three series, it’s the 28th for #72, the 1,576th for Chevrolet, and the 1,050th by reason of engine failure.

At this time last year, LaJoie was embarking on his rookie season, making his first Cup start since a two-race stint with Humphrey-Smith Motorsports in 2014. Driving the #83 Dustless Blasting Toyota from BK Racing, LaJoie didn’t make friends early, wrecking Reed Sorenson in his Duel to transfer into his first Daytona 500. A crash coming onto pit road led to a 24th-place finish, and a difficult freshman campaign. Other than an 11th-place finish in his return to Daytona in July, he never again finished inside the Top 20.

While BK Racing filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy this past Thursday, ultimately fielding just one of their two Toyotas in the Daytona 500, LaJoie had already made the move to another team. He tweeted in January that he would be driving a Chevrolet, but it wasn’t until just days before SpeedWeeks that he was announced as the driver for TriStar Motorsports, sharing the ride with 2017 driver Cole Whitt. The Daytona car would carry sponsorship from Schluter Systems, which backed BK Racing in a number of races last year.

SpeedWeeks 2018 began on a rough note when TriStar Motorsports’ hauler didn’t arrive in time for sign-in day on February 9. Faced with a cut-off time of the next morning, the truck arrived in the middle of the night, ensuring that exactly 40 cars would fill the 40-car field. Without the need to race his way in, LaJoie turned the slowest lap in opening practice, then 38th and 16th in the next two sessions, skipped the fourth, and ran slowest of the 25 in Happy Hour. In between, he turned the first lap in qualifying – slowest of those completed at 186.058mph (48.372 seconds). He also ran a conservative race in Duel Race 2, finishing two laps down in 16th of the 20-car field. This secured him the 32nd spot on the 500 grid.

Starting last on Sunday was 66-year-old Mark Thompson, who was driving a former Richard Petty Motorsports Ford purchased by Carl Long’s team, Motorsports Business Management. The #66 Ford, sponsored by Thompson’s aeronautics company Phoenix Air, had computer issues early on. As the car warmed up on the grid, it didn’t report the water pressure. In the race, a cord had pinned down the antenna, causing interference on the radio. When asked to move the cord, Thompson replied “I’m afraid to touch anything.”

Making just his second Cup start since 1992, Thompson ran side-by-side with David Gilliland in the other former Petty Ford (now a backup #92 Black’s Tire Ford for Ricky Benton Racing). Gilliland got the advantage down the backstretch, and the crew instructed Thompson to follow in his tire tracks. Thompson attempted this, but by the second lap had already lost touch with the pack, more than 1.4 seconds behind the 39th-place car. Thompson was still bringing up the rear, and running by himself, when the first caution of the afternoon flew.

LaJoie was himself running near the back of the pack when his car started trailing smoke, forcing him to pull down to the apron. Under the ensuing yellow, LaJoie managed to drive his own car behind the wall, and the team brought out the generator to see what was going on beneath the hood. He was the first driver to lose a lap to the leaders. On Lap 11, someone on the crew said “We’re done,” and the team packed up, the first car done for the day.

The rest of the Bottom Five was filled by the first of three multi-car accidents on Lap 60. A blocking Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. narrowly saved his #17 Fastenal Ford entering Turn 3, but set up a four-wide logjam at the front of the pack. Contact between Kyle Larson’s #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet and Erik Jones’ #20 DeWalt Toyota triggered a seven-car pileup. Receiving the most significant damage were Jones, the #19 Arris Toyota of Daniel Suarez, the #48 Lowe’s for Pros Chevrolet of Jimmie Johnson (his third wreck of SpeedWeeks), and the #13 GEICO Chevrolet of Ty Dillon. All four fell to the Bottom Five under the ensuing yellow.

Mark Thompson lost the first of four laps on the 25th circuit to finish 22nd, the best finish of his Cup career. His was the one of many intriguing storylines.

Locked in a side-by-side battle with Denny Hamlin was rookie Darrell Wallace, Jr., whose runner-up finish was the best by the #43 in the Daytona 500 since Richard Petty ran 3rd in 1987 (which itself was its best finish since Petty’s seventh win in 1981).

Chris Buescher finished 5th, his best run since he ran 5th in the Bristol night race in 2015.

Michael McDowell ran 9th in his first start for Front Row Motorsports, his second-straight Top 10 at Daytona.

Justin Marks finished a career-best 12th in his and Rick Ware Racing’s first Daytona 500.

David Gilliland gave Ricky Benton a strong debut of his own, steering the #92 Ford to a 14th-place finish.

Gray Gaulding and the bankrupt BK Racing team finished 20th, their second-straight Top 20 at Daytona and Gaulding’s second-straight Top 20 on the plate tracks.

And Jeffrey Earnhardt, whose StarCom Racing team finished no better than 32nd in its two previous starts, earned a 21st-place finish, five positions better than Earnhardt ran in last year’s 500.

*This marked the first Cup Series last-place finish for car #72 since November 12, 2006, when Brandon Whitt’s #72 Dutch Quality Stone Chevrolet broke the rear end after 123 laps of the Checker Auto Parts 500 presented by Pennzoil at Phoenix. The number had never before finished last in a Cup race at Daytona.
*It’s the first Cup Series last-place run for TriStar Motorsports since July 14, 2013, when Mike Bliss’ #19 Humphrey-Smith Racing Toyota (then co-owned by Randy Humphrey) left with rear gear issues after 75 of 302 laps of the Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire. The team had never before finished last in a Cup race at Daytona.

*This marked the first last-place finish for a Chevrolet Camaro in a Cup Series points race since August 28, 1971. That day, during the Buddy Shuman 276 at the Hickory Speedway, was the last Cup race held at the third-mile oval in North Carolina. That day, Camaros were distinguished from other Chevrolets in the field as the race featured a mix of full-sized machines and smaller “pony cars,” including Mustangs and Javelins. Taking last was Dick Brooks, who started the year driving for Mario Rossi’s Dodge team. When Rossi stopped entering cars earlier that month, Brooks took the wheel of a 1969 Camaro, one of three in the field. Brooks’ #95 qualified 15th, but turned just 30 laps before overheating issues ended his race. While the second Camaro of Randy Hutchison also exited early with an oil leak, the third, driven by Tiny Lund, took the win by nearly a lap over Elmo Langley.

40) #72-Corey LaJoie / 8 laps / engine
39) #13-Ty Dillon / 59 laps / crash
38) #48-Jimmie Johnson / 59 laps / crash
37) #19-Daniel Suarez / 59 laps / crash
36) #20-Erik Jones / 59 laps / crash / led 10 laps

1st) TriStar Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (1)