Sunday, March 17, 2019

CUP: Clint Bowyer the only retiree in Fontana after race-long engine woes

Clint Bowyer picked up the 8th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California when his #14 Rush Travel Centers / Haas Automation Ford fell out with overheating issues after 130 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Bowyer’s 474th series start, was his first of the season and first in Cup since September 3, 2017 at Darlington, 52 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, this was the 40th for car #14, the 116th from overheating issues, and the 689th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 59th for the #14, the 172nd from overheating, and the 948th for Ford.

The last time Bowyer was featured on LASTCAR in 2017, his frustrating night in Darlington all but eliminated him from Playoff contention. It was a disappointing end to his first full season with Stewart-Haas Racing after taking over for the retired Tony Stewart. All that changed last year, when he ended a nearly six-year winless drought at Martinsville, claimed a rain-shortened win at Michigan, and remained in Playoff contention until a crash in the penultimate round at the ISM Raceway. Bowyer’s 12th-place rank in points was his best since 2013, and set him up for another strong year in 2019.

Coming into Fontana, Bowyer sat 11th in the standings with a season-best 5th at Atlanta. Through those first four rounds, his #14 Ford Mustang had ranked no worse than 20th, his lone DNF of 2019 after a crash in the Daytona 500. He looked to keep the momentum going in Fontana, a track where he’d finished inside the Top 10 in nearly half of his 18 starts, and finished inside the Top 20 in his last three in a row.

Bowyer’s Fontana weekend began with the 14th-fastest speed in opening practice. He then made the controversial third round of Friday’s qualifying session, improving from 13th in Round 1 to 9th in Round 2. When he and the rest of the Round 3 participants waited too long to time in, he was officially credited with the 9th spot from Round 2. Officially, he had no listed speed, though his Round 2 mark clocked in at 178.359mph (40.368 seconds).

Starting 38th and last on Sunday was Joey Gase, who was back in the Cup garage for the first time since his disastrous weekend in Las Vegas. Team owner Carl Long at Motorsports Business Management made good on his promise to run logos for Nevada’s chapter of the Donate Life organ donor program on Gase’s #66 Toyota, running the exact same paint scheme that completed just 10 circuits in Vegas. He was joined at the back by two teammates from Front Row Motorsports: rookie Matt Tifft, whose #36 Surface Sunscreen / Tunity Ford changed engines, and Michael McDowell, whose #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford twice failed pre-race inspection.

Rolling off pit road after the command, Tifft stopped at the exit of pit road along with the #00 Manscaped Chevrolet of Landon Cassill, the #77 Benevolent Foundation Chevrolet of Garrett Smithley (which, like his XFINITY ride for JD Motorsports, was backed by CalFire, where Smithley’s father works as a wildfire tanker pilot), and the #52 Mtel-One Ford of B.J. McLeod. The four of them then rejoined the pack into Turn 3. By the end of the first pace lap, McLeod and Smithley lagged behind last-place Gase’s #66, as did Reed Sorenson in the #27 Rim Ryderz Chevrolet. The field then ran a five-wide salute to the fans, after which point McDowell dropped to the rear, followed by Tifft. Neither Front Row car spent much time in the rear as Sorenson, McLeod, Smithley, and Gase all dropped in behind the pair and filled out the final two rows when the green flag dropped.

On the break, Gase was running alongside Smithley, who shook off the #66 as they exited Turn 2. Smithley also made quick work of McLeod, who dropped back into Gase’s sights. By Lap 8, Gase reported a tight condition while McLeod pulled away from him, and the pair were more than 20 seconds back of the leaders. Those leaders caught up to Gase on Lap 13, then the next time by passed on the high side of Turn 1, putting Gase the first car one lap down. Gase lost a second lap by the 26th circuit, just short of green-flag stops.

The first round of pit stops caused last place to change hands several times. Cody Ware, McLeod’s Rick Ware Racing teammate in the #51 Jacob Companies Chevrolet, took the spot after his stop on Lap 33. Smithley took it seconds later on the same circuit. On Lap 34, McLeod took 38th for the first time, and returned to action three laps back of the lead. Gase finally made his first stop on Lap 37, and retook the position the next time by.

It was on this same 37th lap that Bowyer began to find trouble. Running 18th at the time, Bowyer radioed his crew that his engine felt like it was blowing up, that he had dropped a cylinder and there was smoke in the cockpit. Nevertheless, the #14 continued to run under power while a two-car battle ensued for last between Gase, 4 laps down by the 45th circuit, and McLeod, who picked up a large piece of debris on the backstretch. The pair then made several pit stops: McLeod took last again on Lap 58, followed by Gase on the 65th, McLeod on the 66th, Gase on the 67th, and McLeod on the Lap 68 restart.

On Lap 74, McLeod slowed down the backstretch and pulled to the apron of Turns 3 and 4. The Ford then crept down pit road and pulled into the garage, apparently done for the day. However, on Lap 86, the Rick Ware crew got the #52 rolling again, and McLeod returned to action 18 laps down on Lap 88. At that point, all 38 drivers were still on the track – including a concerned Bowyer – with none more laps down than McLeod.

Through all of this, Bowyer’s day went from bad to worse. A spotter miscommunication led to a tangle with Corey LaJoie’s #32 Hartford Gold Group Ford as the two raced off Turn 4, causing some cosmetic damage to both sides of the #14. Then, around Lap 135, Bowyer pulled into the garage area, citing the same engine issue from before. This time, the problem proved terminal. Five laps down in 33rd already, Bowyer’s car was pulled off RaceView on Lap 142 and shown “out” on FOX’s leaderboard soon after. On Lap 155, McLeod finally moved past Bowyer, dropping the #14 to last place. As it turned out, the Kansas native was the day’s only retiree, and the only one to score his first Bottom Five of 2019.

McLeod finished 37th, a full 42 laps ahead of Bowyer, but 28 laps down to race winner Kyle Busch. Smithley took 36th, 16 laps ahead of McLeod, and on the same circuit as Gase, who gave the Nevada Donor Network 188 laps of visibility. Rounding out the group was Reed Sorenson, four laps ahead of Gase and Smithley, and eight laps back of the leaders.

*This marked the first time that both Bowyer and car #14 finished last in a Cup Series race at the Auto Club Speedway.
*Bowyer is also the second-highest qualifier to finish last in a Cup race at the Auto Club Speedway. The record remains with Sam Hornish, Jr., who started 7th on February 25, 2008.

38) #14-Clint Bowyer / 130 laps / overheating
37) #52-B.J. McLeod / 172 laps / running
36) #77-Garrett Smithley / 188 laps / running
35) #66-Joey Gase / 188 laps / running
34) #27-Reed Sorenson / 192 laps / running

1st) Front Row Motorsports (2)
2nd) Germain Racing, Motorsports Business Management, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

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


XFINITY: Caesar Bacarella’s difficult Fontana weekend ends with parking second Means car

PHOTO: Bryan Nolen, @TheBryanNolen
Caesar Bacarella picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Production Alliance Group 300 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California when his #90 Whataburger Chevrolet fell out with a vibration after 1 of 150 laps.

The finish came in Bacarella’s 9th series start. In the XFINITY Series last-place rankings, it was the 21st for car #90, the 138th from a vibration, and the 522nd for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 51st for the #90, the 211st from a vibration, and the 1,646th for Chevrolet.

Bacarella is a name many NASCAR fans may not know as his entrance to NASCAR has been both sudden and infrequent. A pilot, outdoorsman, and owner of a construction firm, the 43-year-old driver has been racing since 2000. According to the profile on his website, he’d originally planned on making the jump to NASCAR’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series in 2012, six years after he’d claimed Rookie of the Year honors in Florida’s FASCAR Pro Truck Series. But that debut never came, and five years later he instead appeared in the ARCA Racing Series.

Driving for fellow Floridian Brian Finney, who hadn’t fielded a stock car since his son Phil was seriously injured in a scary crash in the final moments of the 1980 Firecracker 400. Bacarella made both ARCA restrictor-plate starts in 2017, finishing 33rd in his debut at Daytona, then 25th at Talladega. Workout apparel company Alpha Prime, still another connection to Florida, sponsored both races, and would again return on November 11, 2017, when Bacarella jumped the Truck Series completely and made his XFINITY debut driving for B.J. McLeod at the ISM Raceway. Though he qualified a strong 14th in his first race, Bacarella’s first start was marred by an early tangle with Brennan Poole and Daniel Hemric which sent Poole into the wall, eliminating Poole from Playoff contention in the penultimate race.

While Bacarella had failed to finish three of his eight previous XFINITY Series starts, he has already turned heads at Daytona. In 2018, just one year after his ARCA debut at the track, the driver earned a career-best 13th in the first race he ever finished on the lead lap. He looked to do even better this past February in his debut for Mario Gosselin’s XFINITY team, DGM Racing. After qualifying 12th, Bacarella ran as high as 5th and had just re-entered the Top 10 with three laps to go when contact from Tyler Reddick put him into the Turn 3 wall, leaving him 29th. Saturday’s race at Fontana would be Bacarella’s first since that day.

Bacarella’s Fontana weekend began on a promising note Friday when he jumped from 27th of 30 drivers in the opening practice to 16th of 34 in Happy Hour. Then, in qualifying, a major setback. Headed into Turn 3 on his single-car timed lap, Bacarella’s car broke loose and backed into the outside wall, causing the right-front to whip into the fence. The driver managed to roll his battered car into the garage area with the right-front wheel locked-up, and through he was uninjured, the DGM Racing team didn’t have a backup car.

As it turned out, this was the second-straight week the #90 had wrecked before the race. Last week, rookie Ronnie Basset, Jr. crashed in practice and had to run a redecorated version of the #36 Joe Froyo Chevrolet the DGM team had on hand for teammate Josh Williams. But Williams was now running that car at Fontana, and the team had no bullets left in the chamber.

The backup Means car with Bacarella's wrecked #90 in the
PHOTO: Cindy Yen, @cindymeliyen
In the final frantic minutes before the race, team owner Mario Gosselin worked out a deal with Jimmy Means Racing to have Bacarella drive Means’ backup car for David Starr. Unlike Bacarella’s black-and-white machine, this was one of the bright orange #52 Chevrolets sponsored by Whataburger. As in many similar arrangements – particularly at Means Racing – the team applied temporary numbers out of tape to each corner of the car. Large black squares of tape covered the #52 on each door with a crude rectangular “90” fashioned out of at least two rows of white tape strips. A smaller black patch covered the number on the nose with crooked “9” and “0” decals from the DGM Racing font. While none of the sponsor or driver name decals were changed in the brief time leading up to the race, the car was still listed in the race results under the “Alpha Prime” and “Maxim” sponsors of Bacarella’s original entry.

Failing to complete a qualifying lap meant that Bacarella would start in the rear, and the backup car meant he would incur a redundant tail-end penalty prior to the start of the race. Joining him would be the #13 Street Toys / Toyota of John Jackson, the first car out to qualify, who missed driver introductions. Bacarella retook the spot moments after the green, as scanner traffic intercepted by Max Neuwirth reported that Mario Gosselin instructed his driver to take the green at half-throttle, then pull down to the apron on the backstretch and pull his car in. Bacarella did this, lagging back from Jackson at the start before pitting, completing the first lap in the process, and was done for the afternoon.

With only two cautions for stage breaks in the first 84 laps, eight other drivers filtered into the garage area, filling out the Bottom Five.

Nine laps after Bacarella’s exit, Jeff Green pulled in RSS Racing’s #38 Chevrolet with brake issues, the closest Green has come to finishing last since Atlanta.

Finishing 35th was ISM Raceway last-place Bayley Currey, whose Rick Ware Racing crew repaired the damaged #17 Chevrolet and brought on Cup sponsorship from Jacob Companies, only to retire with overheating issues after 14 circuits.

Timmy Hill took 34th, completing 34 laps in Carl Long’s lowest-finishing Toyota Camry, the #66 Toyota, before transmission issues.

Rounding out the group was Bacarella’s teammate Josh Williams, citing engine trouble on the #36 Joe Froyo Chevrolet just 37 laps into the event. Williams, Hill, and Bacarella earned their first Bottom Fives of 2019.

Morgan Shepherd was also among the early exits on Saturday, retiring with handling issues after 43 laps. However, the short field and high attrition among smaller teams lifted him to 31st at the finish, his best XFINITY Series run since last summer at Indianapolis. (CORRECTION: Shepherd's best finish since Dover on September 28, 2013, when he finished 27th). It had been even longer since Shepherd last finished 31st in an XFINITY race – September 22, 2012 at Kentucky.

Further up the standings, Ryan Sieg came home 11th, charging from 16th in the final 20 laps following a pit road penalty. Sieg keeps alive the strongest start of any full-time competitor on the XFINITY Series tour - no driver but him has managed to finish 11th or better in all five rounds run so far, and he now sits 9th in the standings. To put this in even greater perspective, Sieg has already matched his season-best marks in Top Fives (1) and Top Tens (3), set in 2016, with 28 races still left to run this year.

Also keeping their streaks alive were both Brandon Brown and Gray Gaulding, who restarted 10th and 12th with 34 to go and finished the final two cars on the lead lap in 15th and 16th. This time around, Brown finished ahead of Gaulding, and once again did so without sponsorship on his #86 Chevrolet. Brown has yet to finish worse than 18th in the Daytona opener and now sits 14th in points. Gaulding, 16 points behind Brown, has finished 16th in three of the last four races, not counting a season-best 12th in Las Vegas. Brown and Gaulding have also matched each other in laps led, both pacing the field for two circuits.

*This marked the first XFINITY series last-place finish for car #90 since April 3, 2010, when Danny O’Quinn, Jr.’s #90 D’Hont Humphrey Motorsports Chevrolet fell out with brake issues after 33 laps of the Nashville 300 at the Nashville Superspeedway. This team, fielded by Eddie D’Hont and Randy Humphrey, was ostensibly the latest incarnation of MSRP Motorsports, the Phil Parsons-led effort which fielded the #90 for 2009 LASTCAR XFINITY Series champion Johnny Chapman.
*Curiously, the #90 entered this race in a tie with the #52 for the ninth-most last-place finishes in XFINITY Series history, 20 apiece. The #90 is now tied with the #0 with 21 each.

37) #90-Caesar Bacarella / 1 lap / vibration
36) #38-Jeff Green / 10 laps / brakes
35) #17-Bayley Currey / 14 laps / overheating
34) #66-Timmy Hill / 34 laps / transmission
33) #36-Josh Williams / 37 laps / engine

1st) Motorsports Business Management (2)
2nd) DGM Racing, JD Motorsports, Rick Ware Racing (1)

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


Thursday, March 14, 2019

PREVIEW: Kyle who? Two XFINITY teams off to an impressive start in 2019

Brandon Brown's unsponsored #86 sits 14th in XFINITY Series points headed to Fontana.
Saturday, March 16, 2019
XFINITY Race 5 of 33
Production Alliance Group 300 at Auto Club (Fontana)
2018 Last-Place Finisher: Mike Harmon

There are 37 drivers entered for 38 spots in Saturday’s race, marking the third short field in five races in 2019 and the second in a row.

DRIVER CHANGE: #8-JR Motorsports
Ryan Preece returns to the XFINITY Series for the first time since his 7th-place run in Atlanta, and brings with him sponsorship from Velveeta Shells and Cheese. Preece takes over for Ryan Truex, who earned his first runner-up finish in the series since 2012 as he followed Kyle Busch to the finish line, 3.025 seconds back. Preece pulls double-duty along with his Cup ride in the JTG-Daugherty #47 Kroger Chevrolet.

DRIVER CHANGE: #13-Motorsports Business Management
John Jackson rejoins Carl Long’s operation for the first time since his last-place showing in Atlanta, three rounds ago. He takes the place of Stan Mullis, who finished next-to-last at the ISM Raceway. Street Toys and, Mullis’ backers at ISM, are again the listed sponsors this week.

DRIVER CHANGE: #66-Motorsports Business Management
Timmy Hill takes over for brother Tyler, who finished a strong 20th in just his second career series start last week in Phoenix. It will be Timmy Hill’s fourth XFINITY Series start in five races this year, and first since a 23rd-place showing in Las Vegas.

GIVE A CALL: #86-Brandonbilt Motorsports
Brandon Brown enters Saturday’s race 14th in points, having finished no worse than 18th in all four races run so far this season. His best finish of the year came in Atlanta, when he ran 13th. Driver and team have accomplished this despite running without primary sponsorship all season long. Saturday will mark Brown’s first XFINITY start at Fontana.

Caesar Bacarella returns to the XFINITY Series for the first time since his career-best run in the Daytona opener, where an almost certain Top 10 ended with a brush with the wall leaving him 29th. Bacarella takes over for Ronnie Basset, Jr., who recovered from a slow start at ISM Raceway to finish 32nd in a backup car.

GIVE A CALL: #08-SS-Green Light Racing
Like the Brandonbilt team, Gray Gaulding has enjoyed a strong start to the 2019 season, holding 16th in the standings. He arrives in Fontana with three consecutive finishes of 16th or better with a best of 12th in Las Vegas. Through Gaulding ran just 34th in the Daytona opener, this was mostly due to a pit road incident in an otherwise event-free race, and came after he qualified a season-best 5th. and Flywheel will again sponsor the Bobby Dotter entry in what will be Gaulding’s first series start at Fontana.

CUP INVADERS: #18-Kyle Busch
Busch is entered in his third-consecutive XFINITY Series race, and on Saturday will have his first opportunity to reach 200 combined wins across NASCAR’s top three circuits.

Sunday, March 17, 2019
CUP Race 5 of 36
Auto Club 400 at Auto Club (Fontana)
2018 Last-Place Finisher: Trevor Bayne

There are 38 drivers entered for 40 spots this week, two more cars than last Sunday’s round in Phoenix, and tied with Las Vegas for second-most in 2019. Regardless, this remains the fourth-consecutive short field in 2019.

RETURNING: #27-Premium Motorsports
For the first time since Casey Mears’ last-place finish in the Daytona 500, car #27 is back in the lineup this week. This time around, the car isn’t entered under Germain Racing, but under Jay Robinson’s Premium Motorsports (which was reportedly the arrangement at Daytona). This time around, Reed Sorenson drives in place of Mears, rejoining the Cup tour for the first time since Las Vegas, where he ran Spire Motorsports’ #77 (also backed by Premium) to a 36th-place finish. Tommy Baldwin, Jr., who most recently tried to get the #71 Chevrolet into the Daytona 500 field, is the crew chief.

GIVE A CALL: #36-Front Row Motorsports
Matt Tifft was one of the biggest surprises in last Sunday’s Cup race at the ISM Raceway when he ran as high as 18th before settling for 20th. Tifft’s three previous Cup starts yielded finishes of just 36th, 28th, and 34th. Surface Sunscreen and Tunity once again sponsor the #36 Ford Mustang.

DRIVER CHANGE: #52-Rick Ware Racing
B.J. McLeod returns to pull double-duty (along with JD Motorsports’ #15 on the XFINITY side) in the #52 Mtel-One Ford. McLeod takes the place of Bayley Currey, who earned a 31st-place finish in his first series start at the ISM Raceway. McLeod will make his first start at Fontana in a Cup car.

RETURNING: #66-Motorsports Business Management
As reported here during the Las Vegas race, Joey Gase and the #66 Cup team are back in action this week, two rounds after a frustrating engine issue left them last. The Nevada Donor Network has picked up team owner Carl Long’s offer to back the ride in Fontana in hopes of giving the sponsor more track time. Like McLeod, Gase has never made a Cup start at Fontana. However, he does have seven XFINITY starts here with a best of 16th just last year.

DRIVER CHANGE: #77-Spire Motorsports
One week after Quin Houff earned a 30th-place finish in his Cup Series debut, Garrett Smithley is back in the Spire entry for the first time since Atlanta, where he ran 36th.

Saturday, March 23, 2019
TRUCKS Race 4 of 23
Alpha Energy Solutions 250 at Martinsville
2018 Last-Place Finisher: Mike Senica

The Truck Series returns next week to lead-off the companion weekend with the Cup Series at Martinsville.

On this day in LASTCAR history (March 14, 1982): Dick May picks up the 13th last-place finish of his Cup Series career when his D.K. Ulrich-prepared #40 Stihl Chain Saw Buick lost an engine after 34 laps of the Valleydale 500 at Bristol. It was the final last-place finish of the Watertown, New York driver’s career, which extended back to 1970 and ended with a 25th-place run at North Wilkesboro on April 21, 1985. May’s best finish came in one of his first starts on May 21, 1971, when he ran 6th at the New Asheville (North Carolina) Speedway.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

ARCA: For the second year in a row, Mike Basham finishes last in the season’s second race

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
by William Soquet Guest Contributor

Mike Basham finished last for the second time in his ARCA Menards Series career in Saturday’s ARCA Pensacola 200 presented by Inspectra Thermal Solutions at Five Flags Speedway when his No. 69 Longhorn Fab / Kimmel Racing Ford fell out with clutch issues after 4 of 200 laps. It was his first since the 2018 Music City 200, 20 races ago.

Not much has changed at the Basham camp since we featured Mike almost a year ago. ARCA’s rule change to only allow steel-bodied cars at tracks under three-quarters of a mile has threatened some of the Basham family’s plans of their traditional schedule, but the family remains active in the series. According to The Pit Lane, the team’s focus has shifted away from fielding cars, although they may do that in the fall sometime at a short track. The collaboration between the Basham family and the Kimmel family is nothing new, as we chronicled after last year's Madison race. The Kimmel shop, however, is where things have changed. The team’s main sponsor, FASS Fuel Systems, did not return to the team, leaving team principal Will Kimmel scrambling for funding. Scott Melton stepped in to run half of the schedule, mostly superspeedways. Kimmel himself hopes to run a few events, such as his hometown Salem events. To fill in the gaps, it appears the team will continue to do what it did in 2018 – "start-and-park" to keep the car up in owner points and eligible for series bonuses.

ARCA did not release its preliminary entry list until February 26, and when it was released, it made waves for only having a dozen cars on the list. Series official Charles Krall said on Twitter he expected 24-26, and while it proved optimistic, it was close to where the entry list peaked, as 21 cars were entered by then. Connor Okrzesik made his debut with his family team, Corey Heim made his series debut for Chad Bryant Racing, Ty Gibbs made his first start with Joe Gibbs Racing and Tim Richmond (no, not that one) debuted in Wayne Peterson Racing’s No. 06 car, which has secured full-season sponsorship from Great Railing.

A host of drivers also made season debuts. Sam Mayer ushered in GMS Racing’s return to the series, Raphael Lessard made his first start since 2017, driving a second entry for KBR Development, and Matt Dooley and Dick Doheny made their season debuts, both with Fast Track Racing. Former Empire Racing development driver Kaden Honeycutt made his first appearance of the year and rolled out a family entry, which was assisted in setup and crew chiefed by racing veteran Jeff Spraker, who fielded a car for Dave Mader III at Daytona the past couple years. Tommy Vigh Jr and Chandler Smith also ran as part of scheduled limited-event efforts this year. Dale Shearer was also scheduled to bring his No. 73 down to Pensacola.

Doheny anchored final practice, his lap of 20.42 seconds (equivalent to about 88 mph) three-and-a-quarter seconds off of leader Chandler Smith’s lap. Smith led qualifying with a lap of just under 17 seconds, and while Doheny picked up the pace to a 20.2, it was his Fast Track teammate Matt Dooley who trailed the field, running a lap of 21.079 seconds.

Like many ARCA Menards Series races, the last-place battle for the ARCA Pensacola 200 was done within a few minutes. Basham pulled off the track after four laps. Doheny made seven laps before turning into the garage with rear end issues. Fourteen circuits later, Dooley took a trip behind the wall with handling problems. Carson Hocevar made an early exit with fuel pump mishaps, and Brad Smith made 47 laps before overheating to round out the Bottom Five.

20) #69-Mike Basham / 4 laps / clutch
19) #1-Richard Doheny / 7 laps / rear end
18) #11-Matt Dooley / 21 laps / handling
17) #35-Carson Hocevar / 34 laps / fuel pump
16) #48-Brad Smith / 47 laps / overheating

1st) Kimmel Racing, Mullins Racing (1)

1st) Ford (2)


Sunday, March 10, 2019

CUP: Michael McDowell’s pit road fight with Suarez followed by hard crash on Sunday

PHOTO: Dominic Aragon,
Michael McDowell picked up the 32nd last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Ticket Guardian 500 at the ISM Raceway when his #34 Dockside Logistics Ford was involved in a single-car crash after 157 of 312 laps.

The finish, which came in McDowell’s 289th series start, was his second of the season and first since Atlanta, two rounds ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 33rd for car #34, the 576th from a crash, and the 688th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 45th for the #34, the 947th for Ford, and the 1,173rd from a crash.

The finish not only extended McDowell's lead in the 2019 LASTCAR Cup Series Championship, but tied him with the late J.D. McDuffie for the second-most last-place finishes in Cup history. Both drivers remain one finish behind current series leader Joe Nemechek with 33.

Following a 30th-place finish in Las Vegas, McDowell arrived at his home track and promptly made headlines in Friday’s Cup Series qualifying. In the closing moments of Round 1, Daniel Suarez was among the dozens of drivers trying to turn in a fast lap at the last second. Suarez argued that McDowell blocked his #41 Ruckus Ford during a hot lap, costing him valuable time. McDowell’s version was Suarez was trying to wreck him. The result was the same – both drivers missed Round 2.

Moments later, a fight broke out when an angry Suarez confronted McDowell on pit road. McDowell shoved Suarez, who responded with a leg sweep that knocked McDowell to the ground. McDowell got up again and grabbed at Suarez’ leg before the crews broke up the pair. A media circus ensued, after which both met with NASCAR officials to go over the situation. And since both qualified in Row 14, the two would have to share a ride in the same truck during driver introductions.

McDowell outpaced Suarez for the 27th spot, turning a lap of 136.514mph (26.371 seconds). He’d also run 24th and 23rd in the weekend’s two practice sessions. With just 36 drivers entered for the 40-car field, no drivers were sent home. The result was the smallest-ever Cup field at Phoenix, and the first without a single “open” team since Atlanta in 2018.

Starting 36th on Sunday was Bayley Currey, one of two drivers in the field making their first Cup Series debut. Driving Rick Ware Racing’s #52 Mtel-One Ford, Currey had a rough start to the weekend. He secured the last spot on the grid as the only Cup driver to not turn a lap in Round 1, and on Saturday crashed out while driving Ware’s #17 Port of Tucson Chevrolet.

Currey would fill out Row 18, starting to the outside of fellow XFINITY Series part-timer Quin Houff. Houff, driving Spire Motorsports’ #77 Rim Ryderz Chevrolet, was forced to change his left-rear tire when the crew discovered a hole after qualifying. The tail-end penalty proved redundant as he would remain in the last row on the grid, joining Currey as the field took the green flag.

On the break, Currey drew away from Houff. But on Lap 2, Houff caught both Currey and his Rick Ware teammate Cody Ware in the #51 Jacob Companies Chevrolet. Ware and Currey waged a spirited battle for 34th before Ware drew away, leaving Houff to deal with Currey.

Moments later, outside-polesitter Chase Elliott was black-flagged for jumping the initial start, and on Lap 4 incurred a pass-through penalty. Elliott’s fleet #9 Hooters Chevrolet returned to the track just in front of the leaders – 22.945 seconds back of the lead – and by Lap 7 was a full straightaway behind the now 35th-place Houff. Elliott closed the gap quickly, catching Houff on Lap 10, then passing him off Turn 2 on the 11th circuit. Two laps later on the 13th, race leader and polesitter Ryan Blaney caught Houff in the same spot, making the #77 the first car one lap down.

Next to join the last-place battle was 10th-place starter Erik Jones. On Lap 38, Jones lost control in Turn 2 with a flat right-rear tire. Jones made mild contact with the outside wall, damaging the right-rear corner, and nearly collecting a sideways Ryan Preece in the #47 Kroger Chevrolet. Jones darted down the nearby entrance to a closed pit road, incurring two penalties for his unorthodox entrance. When the crew discovered damage to the suspension on Jones’ #20 Reser’s Fine Foods Toyota, he was forced to pit a second time and lost three laps by Lap 42. That third lap dropped Jones behind Houff, taking the last spot.

Jones returned to the track on Lap 43, but would hold the 36th spot for much of the afternoon. The Lap 45 restart revealed how badly his car was damaged: “I don't know, man,” said the driver soon after the green, “I'm just trying to make minimum speed, but I don't know if I'll be able to. . .There’s something that’s really broke, or something in the front that’s really bent. . .It's hard to even go straight on the straightaway.” Further communications revealed the Joe Gibbs crew had put another wheel spacer on the right-rear. While intended to make sure the wheel held, it reduced the threads on the lug bolts, causing a vibration. This cost Jones a fourth lap on the 55th circuit.

Flat tires and mechanical issues continued to plague many of the front runners, including Brad Keselowski’s #2 Alliance Truck Parts Ford and the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet of Alex Bowman, who both wrecked in nearly the same spot as Jones. Keselowski slipped to 32nd, raced his way up to the Lucky Dog, then went laps down again following a two-minute pit stop to repair his car. Bowman suffered two flat right-front tires, the second breaking the suspension so badly that he fell out of the race. Daniel Suarez, McDowell’s foil on Friday, accidentally shut off his engine while trying to keep it cool under caution, costing him a lap he would never get back.

McDowell’s role in the last-place battle didn’t come until Lap 159. Locked in his own race for the Lucky Dog with Chris Buescher’s #37 Kroger Flavor Fill Up Chevrolet, McDowell was running a solid 22nd when he suddenly slowed entering Turn 3. As the driver revealed later, the throttle hung, and he locked the brakes in futility as he struck the outside wall. McDowell climbed out uninjured, but his car was destroyed, out of the race. Crews towed his #34 behind the wall using the infield entrance at the dog leg. McDowell officially took last from Jones on Lap 160, and the #20 would ultimately climb to 29th by the finish. Bowman’s second tire failure came on the ensuing green-flag run, leaving him 35th. Bowman was the only driver to earn his first bottom-five finish of 2019 on Sunday.

Finishing 34th on Sunday was Preece, who was collected in the day’s final two accidents, ultimately retiring with heavy damage to the front end. Finishing 33rd was Landon Cassill, who ended up 45 laps back of the leaders in StarCom Racing’s #00 Iron Mountain Data Centers Chevrolet. Cody Ware rounded out the Bottom Five, 12 laps back of the lead in the #51. Currey and Houff finished in the next two spots, both within a lap of each other.

Chad Chaffin's #34 at Phoenix in 2005
*This marked the first Cup Series last-place finish for car #34 at the ISM Raceway since November 13, 2005, when Chad Chaffin’s #34 Fiesta Inn Resort Chevrolet fell out with overheating issues. That race turned out to be the 35th and final Cup start for team owner William Edwards, whose two-year-old single-car program Mach 1 Motorsports was merged into Front Row Motorsports in 2006.
*The 157 laps completed by McDowell were the fifth-most of a last-place finisher in a Cup race at Phoenix. The record remains with Martin Truex, Jr., who turned 258 laps before a crash on November 13, 2016.

36) #34-Michael McDowell / 157 laps / crash
35) #88-Alex Bowman / 191 laps / crash
34) #47-Ryan Preece / 229 laps / crash
33) #00-Landon Cassill / 267 laps / running
32) #51-Cody Ware / 300 laps / running

1st) Front Row Motorsports (2)
2nd) Germain Racing, Motorsports Business Management (1)

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