Monday, November 8, 2010

CUP: Nemechek One Bottom-Five Away From 2nd LASTCAR Cup Title After Engine Blows Early At Texas; NEMCO’s #87 Takes Owner’s Title

Joe Nemechek picked up the 24th last-place finish of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway when his #87 Toyota fell out with an engine failure after completing 12 of the race’s 334 laps.

The finish was Nemechek’s 30th between all three of NASCAR’s top divisions, moving him into sole possession of 4th in the all-time LASTCAR standings and within two finishes of the late J.D. McDuffie for 3rd.

One week after Nemechek led the opening lap at Talladega last Sunday, sponsor re-upped for the Texas race, giving the veteran two consecutive weeks of full Cup sponsorship for the first time since he brought NEMCO back into the series in 2009. On Friday, he ran an aggressive 190.121 mph qualifying lap that locked him into the field in 34th as the fourth-fastest go-or-go-homer, more than enough to beat the six teams that failed to make the field. Nemechek also showed remarkable driving skill by maintaining control when his right-front tire drove through the infield grass entering the quad-oval, kicking up a huge cloud of dirt.

On race day, Nemechek slipped to 42nd on Lap 3, but was moving to 39th on Lap 9 when defending LASTCAR Champion Dave Blaney fell to 43rd. Blaney, returning to Front Row Motorsports to drive the team’s #37 A&W Ford, was overheating in the early laps. Before Blaney could pit, however, Nemechek’s engine suddenly exploded in turn one on Lap 11, sending his #87 sliding up the track and into the outside wall. Nemechek was uninjured in the incident and limped his Toyota onto pit road, then to the garage, under the ensuing caution. Blaney earned the Lucky Dog under the yellow, but blew his own engine 12 laps after the restart and went to the garage, joined two laps later by teammate Travis Kvapil in the #34. All three cars did not return to the race.

Nemechek did not quite clinch his second LASTCAR Sprint Cup Driver’s Championship at Texas, however, as one driver still stands in his way:

With two races to go, Nemechek now has a two-finish lead on both Dave Blaney and Michael McDowell, who can still mathematically tie Nemechek’s seven last-place finishes in 2010 with a two-race sweep. However, in reality, this year’s battle for the LASTCAR Sprint Cup Driver’s Championship has become a two-horse race between Nemechek and McDowell.

The reason is that, as of now, Nemechek has 23 bottom-five finishes to McDowell’s 22 and Blaney’s 18. This means that McDowell could claim this year’s championship if he finishes last at Phoenix and Homestead while Nemechek finishes 38th or better (outside the bottom five) in both of those races, giving him 24 bottom-fives to Nemechek’s 23. Blaney, while still capable of tying Nemechek on finishes, has been eliminated from championship contention as he can only rack up 20 by Homestead.

However, if Nemechek finishes bottom-five either this week at Phoenix or next week at Homestead while McDowell bottom-fives in both, tying the two with 24 bottom-fives apiece, Nemechek will clinch the championship even if McDowell finishes last in both races. This is because Nemechek currently has an insurmountable lead on bottom-ten finishes: 29 to McDowell’s 23.

A bottom-ten tiebreaker would be a highly unusual event: no LASTCAR Cup championship has been this close since Jeff Gordon’s rookie season in 1993, where he took the LASTCAR Driver’s title by beating Bob Schacht’s two last-place finishes and three bottom-fives with six bottom-tens to Schacht’s three.

Ironically, the Owner’s Championship has now officially been clinched by Nemechek’s #87 team, NEMCO Motorsports. Although the second-ranked #66 PRISM Motorsports team can also still tie NEMCO’s seven last-place finishes with 43rd-place runs at Phoenix and Homestead, NEMCO’s #87 already has an insurmountable lead in bottom-five finishes: 23 to PRISM’s 18.

For the first time in 2010, PRISM Motorsports scaled back to a single-car operation at Texas, only fielding the team’s #66 car with Mike Bliss stepping in for Johnny Sauter. The car qualified for the first time since Fontana and finished 39th after Bliss stayed out to lead a lap under the second caution on Lap 42. This weekend, both PRISM’s #55 and #66 will attempt to qualify with Bliss back in the #55 and Jason Leffler in the #66. As has been the case for much of PRISM’s existence, neither team has any sponsorship.

Joe Nemechek is also listed without a sponsor for the Phoenix race, whereas Michael McDowell, his Driver’s Championship contender, has funding from a company named “Super Pawn.” Dave Blaney, the defending LASTCAR champion, will return to Tommy Baldwin’s #36 following J.J. Yeley’s failed qualifying attempt at Texas; Baldwin’s Chevrolet is also currently without sponsorship.

*Nemechek and the #87 had never finished last in a Cup race at the Texas Motor Speedway. The number had also never finished last in any of the eight Cup races held at the old Texas World Speedway in College Station.
*Despite the track’s high speeds, no driver had finished last in a Cup race at Texas because of an engine failure since 2007, when David Reutimann’s #00 Burger King Toyota lost the motor 90 laps into the 2007 Dickies 500.

43) #87-Joe Nemechek / 12 laps / engine
42) #37-Dave Blaney / 23 laps / overheating
41) #34-Travis Kvapil / 25 laps / overheating
40) #09-Landon Cassill / 35 laps / vibration
39) #66-Mike Bliss / 45 laps / rear gear / led 1 lap

1st) Joe Nemechek (7)
2nd) Dave Blaney, Michael McDowell (5)
3rd) Max Papis (4)
4th) Aric Almirola, Jason Leffler (2)
5th) Landon Cassill, Jeff Fuller, Robby Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Bobby Labonte, Johnny Sauter, Reed Sorenson, Scott Speed, J.J. Yeley (1)

1st) #87-NEMCO Motorsports (7)
2nd) #66-PRISM Motorsports (5)
3rd) #13-Germain Racing, #55-PRISM Motorsports (4)
4th) #36-Tommy Baldwin Racing, #09-Phoenix Racing (3)
5th) #32-Braun Racing (2)
6th) #7-Robby Gordon Motorsports, #11-Joe Gibbs Racing, #46-Whitney Motorsports, #64-Gunselman Motorsports, #82-Team Red Bull, #97-NEMCO Motorsports (1)

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