Sunday, February 21, 2010

CUP: Almirola’s Adventure Ends With Sour Engine at Auto Club

Aric Almirola picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his career in Sunday’s Auto Club 500 presented by NAPA at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California when his unsponsored #09 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet fell out with engine problems after completing 34 of the race’s 250 laps.

Almirola and team owner James Finch had a rough start to the 2010 season. They lost longtime sponsor Miccosukee Resorts and Gaming just days before the Daytona 500, a race they then missed after struggling to a 22nd-place finish in the Second Gatorade Duel. Last Friday during qualifying at Fontana, bad luck seemed to find both driver and team once again. The hood on Almirola’s Chevrolet caved in on top of his cowl, resulting in a sluggish first timed lap. However, a miraculous second lap vaulted the #09 to a 24th-place starting spot at a speed of 181.315 mph.

One lap before the start of Sunday’s race, Almirola made a pit stop during which his crew made adjustments under the hood. The move forced him to surrender his starting spot and take the green flag at the rear of the field. Joining Almirola was Denny Hamlin, who changed engines after Happy Hour, and a surprising Dave Blaney, whose unsponsored PRISM Motorsports Toyota qualified 5th in Sunday’s race. With one lap to green, Blaney pulled to the apron on the backstretch and fell to the rear. It was a move likely in response to Blaney’s run in last summer’s Sharpie 500 at Bristol, where he started 4th and was shoved into the wall in the opening laps. Blaney received some valuable TV time on Sunday when he stayed out and led 3 laps during the first round of green-flag stops. Soon after Jimmie Johnson passed Blaney on lap 43, Blaney pulled behind the wall to join his teammate, Michael McDowell.

Neither Blaney nor McDowell, however, were involved in the race’s competition for last place. Early on, Boris Said looked like he was going to secure his first last-place finish in a points race. Said’s Sacred Power / Southern Pride Trucking Ford broke down during his qualifying run, skipped Happy Hour, and lost a lap early in Sunday’s race. Then, on lap 27, last week’s and defending Auto Club 500 last-place finisher Joe Nemechek went behind the wall. However, after Almirola and Said went behind the wall in the next ten laps, first Nemechek, then Said returned to the track, dropping Almirola to last. Only then did Blaney and McDowell fall to 41st and 42nd, respectively, as Said and Nemechek moved up to 38th and 40th before falling out for good a few laps later.

As mentioned earlier, this is only Almirola’s second last-place finish. His first came nearly three years ago during his inaugural Sprint Cup season when an electrical problem knocked his #01 U.S. Army Chevrolet out of the 2007 Subway 500 at Martinsville after completing 111 laps. While Nemechek finished last in the 2009 running of this event, it is actually the second-straight last-place finish for Phoenix Racing and the #09 at Fontana: Mike Bliss finished last for Finch in last fall’s Pepsi 500. Joe Ruttman also finished last in a James Finch-owned Dodge during the 2004 Auto Club 500, giving Finch a total of three Fontana last-place finishes as an owner.

43) #09-Aric Almirola / 34 laps / engine
42) #55-Michael McDowell / 40 laps/ engine
41) #66-Dave Blaney / 43 laps / engine
40) #87-Joe Nemechek / 48 laps / rear gear
39) #56-Martin Truex, Jr. / 64 laps / engine

1st) Aric Almirola, Joe Nemechek (1)

1st) #87-NEMCO Motorsports, #09-Phoenix Racing (1)

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