Tuesday, June 17, 2014

SONOMA WEEK: Last-Place Finishers of the Toyota / Save Mart 350 (1989-2013)

Curiously, just one driver in Sunday’s field for the Toyota / Save Mart 350 has ever finished last in the event.  That driver is Joe Nemechek, who in 2012 drove a Ferrari red #87 AM/FM Ernergy Pellet & Wood Stoves Toyota.  The car’s engine had a strange high pitch in qualifying, and as it turns out, the engine was what put him out after just one lap.  On Sunday, Nemechek will drive the #66 Land Castle Title Toyota for his co-owned Identity Ventures Racing.

The other twenty drivers who have finished last at Sonoma are an eclectic group of NASCAR champions, road course specialists, and lesser-known figures in the sport.

The inaugural event, run on June 11, 1989, saw future three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett trail the field when his Cale Yarborough-owned #29 Hardee’s Pontiac broke the transmission after only eight laps.  Jarrett, competing in only his second full season on the tour, would score his first Top Five with the team at Martinsville that fall, then in 1990 moved to the famed Wood Brothers team to relieve the injured Neil Bonnett.

Another racing legend, the ageless Hershel McGriff, finished last at Sonoma twice in 1990 and 1993, both while driving his familiar #04.  The 1993 finish, McGriff’s 85th and final Cup Series start in a career that dated back to 1950, made him the oldest driver to ever finish last in a NASCAR Cup Series race at 65 years, 5 months, and 2 days.  The record stood until this past March, when Morgan Shepherd drove Joe Nemechek’s second car at Phoenix at 72 yeas, 4 months, and 18 days.

McGriff was one of several drivers to run “combination races” with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.  Drivers in what is today known as the K&N Pro Series West used to compete in Cup Series races at Sonoma, Phoenix, NASCAR’s exhibition races in Japan, and even the inaugural Brickyard 400.  The practice faded away as several new Cup teams ran the full season, but not until two other drivers joined McGriff in the LASTCAR standings.  In 1995, Portland driver Dan Obrist finished last in his only Cup start when his #72 Fight Team USA Chevrolet broke down in the Esses after 7 laps.  And in 1999, Butch Gilliland’s final Cup start ended when he lost the engine on his #38 Ralph’s / Food4Less / Coca-Cola Ford after three laps.  Butch’s son David currently runs the #38 in Cup.

“Road course ringers” took the place of West coast regulars in the 1990s, and three have finished last at Sonoma.  In 2008, Brian Simo stunned everyone when his #34 No Fear Ford, an outdated 2007 Car of Tomorrow, bumped out four teams in qualifying, including the fully-sponsored rides of J.J. Yeley and Dario Franchitti.  Unfortunately, Simo’s ride lost the transmission after 20 laps.

P.J. Jones has finished last at Sonoma twice, both while running a second car for former owner-driver Robby Gordon.  In 2009, Jones’ #04 Jim Beam / Menards Toyota left the race with power steering issues after two laps while in 2011, his #77 SPEED Energy Drink / GNC Dodge left the race after five laps with suspension woes.  Gordon, the 2003 winner, finished 36th and 18th in those races.

But of this list, the most significant name in LASTCAR history is Tom Hubert, who became the first driver ever to finish last in the same race in three consecutive years.  Each time, Hubert was the road course driver for the independent operation owned by former crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine.  And each time, he exited the race for a different reason.  In 2004, Hubert’s #72 Freddie B’s Ford was flagged off the track after 5 laps for running too slow.  In 2005, his #27 Freddie B’s / NAPA Ford lost oil pressure after 33 laps.  And in 2006, his #27 Interush Ford was taken out in a hard opening-lap crash with Ken Schrader and Sterling Marlin.

Marlin himself has two last-place finishes at Sonoma.  In 2002, fresh off two early season wins, Marlin came to the track as the point leader by 110 points over Jeff Gordon.  He left 62 points ahead of Mark Martin and 82 over Gordon, thanks in part to a blown engine due to a slipped belt on his #40 Coors Original Dodge, and also to a 37th-place finish by Gordon.  In 2007, one year after Gordon’s most recent win at the track, Marlin finished last again in one of the last events for Ginn Racing when his #14 WileyX Chevrolet lost another motor after 12 laps.

Sonoma holds the distinction of running the last points race with more than 43 starters.  In both 1996 and 1997, 44 cars took the green flag, and both times last place went to a Cup Series regular.  In 1996, Mike Wallace, driving for the late Junie Donlavey, was one of only two retirees when the rear end broke on his #90 Heilig-Meyers Ford.  In 1997, Geoffrey Bodine, winner of the most recent road course race at Watkins Glen, started 7th only to lose the engine on his #7 QVC Ford after 10 laps.  Bodine’s team would go on to finish last in the next two races.

While Bodine is the only driver to both win and finish last at Sonoma, the only team to match Bodine’s feat is Morgan-McClure Motorsports.  While driving for MMM in 1992, Ernie Irvan drove one of the most impressive races of his brief career when he was black-flagged for jumping the start, then came back to win the race.  In 2001, Kevin Lepage finished last in the Kodak Film #4 when the engine let go after two laps.  Finishing last the day Irvan won was Greg Sacks, whose turn in the #41 Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Chevrolet for owner Larry Hedrick also ended with engine failure after two laps.

The hilly terrain of the Sonoma course has seen some spectacular exits among its last-place finishers.  In 1991, Trans-Am driver R.K. Smith lost the engine on his #09 Midgley Racing Pontiac entering the Carousel and ended up on two wheels against an embankment.  Three years later, Derrike Cope hit that same spot even harder in a tangle with Winston West driver John Krebs, sending Krebs tumbling into a vacant spot on the other side and leaving Cope with the finish.

In 1998, the Sonoma track was reconfigured to leave out the Carousel, only to see another hard crash.  Outside-polesitter and then-rookie Jerry Nadeau broke the track bar on his #13 FirstPlus Financial Ford while running off course during a bid for the lead on the opening lap.  Thirteen laps later, he slammed into the side of a hill entering the Esses, ending his race.  The #13 finished last at Sonoma one other time in 2010, when Max Papis’ GEICO Toyota was gobbled-up in a multi-car accident on the frontstretch during a Lap 66 restart.

In 2000, John Andretti was driving for Petty Enterprises.  In accordance with a new sponsorship contract, Sonoma was to be the final race the iconic #43 would be sponsored by STP before General Mills took over at Daytona the following week.  However, while running mid-pack on Lap 16, Brett Bodine’s spin caused Andretti to rear-ended another car, and the #43 was ablaze.  Andretti escaped unhurt, but after the 43rd-place finish, it was decided to run the STP colors one more time in the season finale at Atlanta, where he came home 19th.

In 2003, Japanese racer Hideo Fukuyama made the fourth and final start of his Cup career in a #66 Kikkoman Ford fielded by Travis Carter.  Years before Kickstarter and the Dogecoin efforts, Fukuyama was crowd-funded by an effort known as the “Hideo Fukuyama Racing Project.”  Unfortunately, Fukuyama’s gearshift came apart on the opening lap, and though he managed to complete 68 laps, the rear end gave out.

That brings us to last year, when Bobby Labonte became the first driver since Brian Vickers at Watkins Glen the year before to finish last without completing a lap.  Mechanical gremlins nearly prevented Labonte from starting his 704th consecutive Cup start, dating back to the 1993 Daytona 500.  Labonte’s streak ended the next week at Kentucky, when current #47 driver A.J. Allmendinger drove in his place.

Will Nemechek repeat his last-place run in 2012?  Or will we see a new Sonoma last-place finisher?  We’re just a few days from finding out.

UPDATE (June 19): It now looks like there will be no past Sonoma last-place finishers in Sunday's race as Tomy Drissi will fill in for Nemechek to make his third consecutive start in this race.  Also, Landon Cassill will run with sponsorship from returning Daytona backer Carsforsale.com.

Click here to get your FREE copy of LASTCAR: The First Year-By-Year Chronicle of Last-Place Finishers in the NASCAR Cup Series (1949-2013).  Enter promo code HG74S to download yours today!

And for more individual LASTCAR track statistics like today's article, click here to check out the LASTCAR Track Guide!


Unknown said...

Nemechek won't repeat because he won't race. Tomy Drissi will be driving the 66.

Brock Beard said...

That is news to me - Jayski's entry list still shows Nemechek. I must say, I'd be excited to meet Drissi if he runs!

Unknown said...

Why were there 44 starters in 96 and 97? Was it because there was a certain number of spots allocated to Winston West competitors?

Brock Beard said...

I believe that's the case, Alex. I know that was why there were 43 starters for the 1994 Brickyard 400. Mike Chase was given the spot as the fastest of the dozen or so Winston West competitors who attempted to qualify.

Unknown said...

Drissi bringing the Hercules sponsorship is what got him the ride. If he brings another big sponsorship for Watkins Glen, then he'll be driving there too.