Sunday, February 23, 2014

CUP: Martin Truex, Jr. First Daytona 500 Outside-Polesitter To Finish Last Since 1973

Martin Truex, Jr. picked up the 4th last-place finish of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career in Sunday’s 56th Annual Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet lost the engine after he completed 30 of the race’s 200 laps.

The finish was Truex’s first since Phoenix in the fall of 2012, thirty-nine races ago, when he also started in the second position.

To say the least, Truex’s past eight months have been a roller coaster ride.  Last June, he finally laid rest to a six year, 218-race losing streak with a convincing win in the Toyota / Save Mart 350 at the Sonoma Raceway.  The win put Truex in position to race his way into the Chase at Richmond in September, which he did in the closing laps.  But after the controversy surrounding the intentional spin of teammate Clint Bowyer during that race, NASCAR knocked Truex out of the Chase, leading to NAPA’s withdrawal from Michael Waltrip Racing and the end of Truex’s four-year career with the team.

Truex found his way to Furniture Row Racing, a team which made the Chase for the first time with Kurt Busch.  Like Truex, Busch lost a high-profile ride two years prior and had a breakout season with the single-car team, nearly winning a handful of races and finishing 10th in points.  With Busch moving to the new fourth team at Stewart-Haas Racing, Furniture Row hired Truex for the 2014 season.  The two seemed to hit it off from the start - Truex was very relaxed during his now-famous poolside media interview over the offseason.

Despite skipping the testing session in January, Truex’s new ride was exceptionally fast.  After just two laps in the first practice session of SpeedWeeks, he put up a lap of 194.263 mph, the 6th-fastest among 49 drivers.  The team skipped the second practice, then in last Sunday’s qualifying session nearly wrestled the pole away from Austin Dillon with a lap of 195.852 mph.  Truex ended up on the outside-pole for the 500, his second front row start in the event in five years and Furniture Row’s tenth front row start in less than a year.

On Wednesday, Truex timed in 23rd-fastest and was fortunate to miss both multi-car wrecks which eventually cut the session short.  The team again skipped the second session of the day, then set their sights on their run from the pole position in Thursday’s Budweiser Duel Race 2.

After 60 near-perfect laps, Truex was trying to help his younger brother Ryan Truex make his first Daytona 500, then rejoined the leaders as the field thundered off the final corner.  There, disaster struck.  Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel in the outer groove, triggering a nine-car wreck that included both Truex brothers.  The nose of Martin’s #78 was destroyed in the wreck, causing an oil fire as he limped across the finish line.  Ryan’s #83 BK Racing entry, already one lap down, missed the field for the 500.

Sent to a backup car, joining eight other drivers who would have to start in the rear of the field for the 500, Truex and team set their sights on the few remaining practice sessions.  With Friday afternoon’s session washed out by rain, Truex put up the fifth-fastest time in Happy Hour, and was confident that his backup was even faster than his primary car.

Then came the Daytona 500.

Last place first went to Michael Waltrip, also in a backup from Thursday’s wreck, then to rookie Kyle Larson, whose #42 Target Chevrolet cut down tires twice in the opening laps.  As Larson fought to get his laps back, Truex was running near the leaders when he suddenly slowed on the backstretch, then ducked out of line.  Smoke billowed from his #78, drawing the second caution of the race.  The engine had let go, ending his day.

The thunderstorm that stopped the race for more than six hours occurred during the ensuing caution, allowing the Furniture Row team to leave the track early for a test in Nashville.

Joining Truex in the Bottom Five were former teammate Clint Bowyer, whose engine also let go just past the halfway point, plus three drivers involved in the first of four multi-car accidents that took place in the final 54 laps.  Michael Waltrip’s backup car was the first, collected along with Danica Patrick and Aric Almirola.  All three had led laps earlier in the event.

Six drivers failed to make the 500 field, including three of the LASTCAR contenders described in Wednesday’s feature.  Dave Blaney’s only Plinker Arms Ford was lost in a crash on Wednesday while both Joe Nemechek and Michael McDowell ended up off the lead lap in the First Budweiser Duel, keeping both out of the field.

In that same race, Josh Wise turned heads with a surprising 5th-place finish, securing him the 11th spot in the 500 field.  Driving the same Ford that McDowell finished 9th with in the 2013 Daytona 500, Wise came home 24th, recovering from his involvement in the Lap 146 accident to finish four laps down.  Next week at Phoenix, Phil Parsons Racing will make the move to Chevrolet, using cars that appear to have been purchased from Furniture Row Racing.

*This is the first last-place finish for the #78 at the Daytona International Speedway.  However, the #78 did finish last once on the old Daytona Beach-Roadcourse in 1953 when Indianapolis native Frank Arford’s 1953 Oldsmobile blew a gasket after 2 laps, putting him at the back of a 57-car field.  Tragically, on June 20 of that year, Arford became the first NASCAR driver to lose his life in a qualifying accident.  The crash occurred during an event at the Langhorne Speedway in Pennsylvania.  He was 41.
*This is Furniture Row Racing’s first last-place run in the Daytona 500 since 2008, when Kenny Wallace’s #87 Furniture Row Chevrolet lost the engine after 141 laps.  Teammate Joe Nemechek two spots ahead of Wallace in the #78.
*Truex is the first outside-polesitter of the Daytona 500 to finish last since 1973, when Pete Hamilton’s #9 Housby Mack Inc. 1972 Plymouth lost the engine after 33 laps.  That race was the next-to-last of Hamilton’s 64 Cup starts, a brief career highlighted by a win in the 1970 Daytona 500.

43) #78-Martin Truex, Jr. / 30 laps / engine
42) #15-Clint Bowyer / 127 laps / engine
41) #66-Michael Waltrip / 144 laps / crash / led 4 laps
40) #10-Danica Patrick / 145 laps / crash / led 2 laps
39) #43-Aric Almirola / 146 laps / crash / led 5 laps

1st) Martin Truex, Jr. (1)

1st) #78-Furniture Row Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (1)

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