Sunday, June 7, 2015

CUP: Almirola Keeps Stenhouse From First Last-Place Finish At Pocono

SOURCE: Getty Images, NASCAR
Aric Almirola picked up the 5th last-place finish of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career in Sunday’s Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400 at the Pocono Raceway when his #43 Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs Ford lost the engine after he completed 88 of the race’s 160 laps.

The finish was Almirola’s first of the 2015 season and his first in a Cup Series race since last year at Fontana, 45 races ago.

Coming into the Pocono race, Almirola had just finished a season-best 5th at Dover, putting him 10th in the series standings.  This also put him 5th among drivers without a win in 2015, trailing only Martin Truex, Jr., Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, and Jeff Gordon.  Quietly, Almirola had put together his most consistent start to date - he hadn’t finished any worse than a 26th-place run at Las Vegas and had completed all but five laps.  Unfortunately, while Truex’s winless streak came to an end Sunday, Almirola’s streak ended as well.

For the second-straight year, the Pocono event would be the first of two NASCAR events to hold qualifying events for next month’s Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, the other being the Sonoma Raceway in three weeks.  To mark the occasion, Almirola’s #43 would carry primary sponsorship from associate supporter Nathan’s on a blue-and-gold paint scheme.  The car was 26th-fastest in the opening practice and qualified 25th in Happy Hour, putting up a speed of 174.791 mph.  On Saturday, he improved further to 24th in the second session before he dipped to 28th in Happy Hour.

Just 43 cars showed up to attempt the race, so the 43rd starting spot went to Brendan Gaughan in his unsponsored black #62 Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports.  On Sunday, Gaughan, who has now made 2 straight races after 6 DNQs in 2015, was briefly joined by Joey Logano, sent to the rear after a rear gear change before the race.  Logano quickly moved through the field while Gaughan held 43rd for the first 21 laps and was the first to be lapped on Lap 18.  Green flag stops shuffled the entire field, putting Josh Wise in 43rd on Lap 22, then Jeb Burton on Lap 23 with Burton’s #26 Maxim Fantasy sports / Estes Express Lines Toyota becoming the first to lose two laps on Lap 26.  Travis Kvapil’s first start of the year in the #32 / Ford briefly dipped to 43rd on Lap 28, a spot he held until Lap 30 when Paul Menard lost the left-front tire on his #27 Schrock / Menards Chevrolet in Turn 2.

On Lap 36, 43rd spot changed hands again, this time going to Burton’s BK Racing teammate J.J. Yeley in the #23 Dr. Pepper / Heinz Toyota.  Yeley had picked up a bag on his grille, causing his machine to overheat and make a unscheduled stop for the crew to raise the hood.  He was just underway again, 4 laps down, when the second caution of the afternoon flew on Lap 70.  Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., running 17th in his #17 Zest Ford, lost the brakes racing into Turn 2 and slapped the outside wall hard.  Uninjured, but too frustrated to talk with reporters, Stenhouse dropped through the field only to be denied 43rd by last-place starter Gaughan, whose lapped machine had gone behind the wall just before the incident.  At the time, Gaughan was one lap behind Stenhouse.

Almirola didn’t play a role in the LASTCAR battle until Lap 80, when his car suddenly sounded flat coming down the front straightaway.  He struggled to keep up the pace, the gauges on his #43 reading normal but the car struggling to take any fuel.  Soon, the car began to trail smoke.  On Lap 88, a debris caution allowed Almirola to make it to pit road for the crew to have a look, but when he pulled off pit road, the car was pouring smoke worse than before.  He then pulled behind the wall the next time by, dropping him into the Bottom Five.

On Lap 90, Gaughan returned to the track, and one lap later Stenhouse slipped to 43rd.  If he stayed there, it would mark not only Stenhouse’s first last-place finish in 90 Cup starts, but also the first back-to-back lasts by Roush-Fenway Racing since Matt Kenseth lost the engine in 2003’s finale at Homestead and Mark Martin’s let go in the 2004 Daytona 500.  Almirola, meanwhile, slipped behind Yeley’s lapped machine to the 42nd spot on Lap 110.

Finally, on Lap 123, Stenhouse brought his battered car back onto the track just in time for the restart following Sam Hornish, Jr.’s hard crash in Turn 1.  The wreck put both Richard Petty Motorsports cars in the Bottom Five while Stenhouse’s return meant Almirola would fall to last if the #17 finished under power.  Stenhouse did, in fact, make it the rest of the way, and Almirola fell to 43rd with 16 laps to go on Lap 144.

Stenhouse remained 42nd, Hornish in 41st, and Gaughan in 40th was finally felled by electrical issues.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Ryan Newman, whose #31 Grainger Chevrolet wrecked while racing A.J. Allmendinger for the 7th spot with just 18 circuits remaining.

Almirola still sits 12th in the series standings heading to Michigan next week.

*This marks the first last-place finish for both Almirola and the #43 in a Cup race at Pocono.

43) #43-Aric Almirola / 88 laps / engine
42) #17-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 105 laps / running
41) #9-Sam Hornish, Jr. / 120 laps / crash
40) #62-Brendan Gaughan / 129 laps / electrical
39) #31-Ryan Newman / 141 laps / crash

1st) Landon Cassill (3)
2nd) Alex Bowman (2)
3rd) Justin Allgaier, A.J. Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Trevor Bayne, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Joey Gase, Sam Hornish, Jr., Brian Scott, J.J. Yeley (1)

1st) Hillman Smith Motorsports (3)
2nd) Richard Petty Motorsports, Tommy Baldwin Racing (2)
3rd) BK Racing, Go FAS Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, HScott Motorsports, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Richard Childress Racing / Circle Sport, Roush-Fenway Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (9)
2nd) Ford (4)
3rd) Toyota (1)

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