Thursday, February 18, 2016

2/18/01: Purvis and Finch's return another footnote to Earnhardt tragedy

On February 18, 2001, Jeff Purvis picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #51 Phoenix Construction Ford was involved in a single-car crash after 47 of 200 laps.

It was Purvis’ first last-place finish since October 5, 1992, when his #12 Raybestos Brakes Chevrolet lost an engine after 35 laps of the Tyson Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro.  It was also the first last-place finish for Phoenix Racing, the prolific single-car team owned by James Finch.

A lesser-known storyline overshadowed by the untimely death of Dale Earnhardt was the return to Cup Series competition for both Tennessee driver Purvis and Floridian team owner James Finch.  For Purvis, the 2001 Daytona 500 was his first Cup start since October 5, 1997, when he finished 39th in his fourth and final start for owner Larry Lockamy during the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte.  For Finch, it was his first start as a Cup team owner since July 28, 1996, when Purvis last raced for him at Talladega and came home 40th in a field of 42.  It was also the first time Purvis had raced for Finch since the XFINITY Series finale at Homestead in 1998, though by then the two had raced together for nearly a decade.

Purvis’ XFINITY Series debut at Charlotte on October 7, 1989 came in Finch’s unsponsored #49 Buick - engine trouble left them 40th after just 21 laps.  Following Purvis’ Cup debut with Bobby Allison at Martinsville the next spring, the two reunited at Dover that fall where Purvis finished 33rd.  It was Finch who was to field cars for veteran Neil Bonnett during his return to Cup in 1994, but following Bonnett’s own death at Daytona, it was Purvis who raced in his honor.  And two years later in 1996, Purvis scored Finch’s first two NASCAR victories in the XFINITY Series at Richmond and Michigan, coming home 7th in points.

Bill Elliott closed his owner-driver operation after the 2000 season, making a number of his Ford Tauruses available for start-up teams.  Finch acquired at least one of them and set his sights on making his first Daytona 500 as an owner since 1996.  To make the race, he again tabbed Purvis to drive.

52 drivers showed up to make the 43-car field for the 2001 Daytona 500, including a sponsorless Ford that didn’t even have headlight decals on the nose.  Finch had painted the former Elliott car flat white with a red roof with the number 51 on the door, making it resemble one of the cars he fielded and Purvis raced back in the 1990s.  The car struggled to find speed in practice and qualifying, meaning that they would have to race their way into the 500 field.  Purvis would start 25th in the 26-car field for Race 1.

The Duel races run that Thursday were some of the most competitive on record as the popular restrictor-plate package from the previous years’ Talladega race made lead changes commonplace.  Under the second caution of Race 1 with fifteen laps to go, Purvis and 1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope stayed out while the rest of the field pitted, putting the #51 up front for the restart.  In those frantic final few laps, Purvis and Cope fell back into the three-wide pack.  On the final lap, Purvis was in the high lane pushed by the unsponsored Eel River Racing #27 Pontiac of Kenny Wallace.  Purvis and Wallace finished 8th and 11th, making the field.  Rick Mast, his #50 Midwest Transit Chevrolet just a couple carlengths behind, joined Cope as one of the nine sent home.

Purvis started 17th with Finch's Phoenix Construction company logos on the car and held his own during the opening laps of the Daytona 500.  Despite the aggressive racing afforded by the new aero package, the first 48 laps were run under the green flag.  Among the drivers who exchanged 43rd during that stretch were last-place starter Brett Bodine, Jeremy Mayfield, Johnny Benson, Jr., and Rusty Wallace, who lost a lap after a unscheduled Lap 28 stop and penalty for a flat tire.  Wallace was still 43rd on Lap 49 when Purvis, running around 35th, lost a right-front tire in the high lane and made contact with the outside wall in Turn 4, drawing the first yellow of the day.  His car made it to the apron without involving anyone else, but the damage was too severe for the #51 to continue.

Finishing 42nd that day was Dave Blaney, whose #93 Amoco Ultimate Dodge lost an engine just before the final quarter of the race.  41st went to rookie Kurt Busch, whose #97 Team Ford Racing / 2K Taurus Ford collided with Joe Nemechek in the trioval on Lap 158 and finished laps down to the leader.  Bobby Labonte and John Andretti, who rounded out the Bottom Five, were among the nineteen cars gobbled up in the tremendous Lap 174 wreck on the backstretch.

Just like Billy Standridge in 1998, Finch and Purvis pulled off the equally-impressive feat of qualifying for all four restrictor-plate races in the 2001 season, finishing a season-best 34th in the caution-free sprint race at Talladega.  Purvis never raced for Finch in Cup after 2001, but what driver and team accomplished that year brought Phoenix Racing another twelve seasons in Cup competition, highlighted by Brad Keselowski’s thrilling win at Talladega in 2009.  Finch sold Phoenix Racing to HScott Motorsports in 2013, but the team lives on today as the #15 currently raced by Clint Bowyer.

*This was the first last-place finish for the #51 in a Cup Series race since May 28, 1989, when Butch Miller’s #51 Fruit of the Loom Chevrolet lost a wheel bearing after 24 laps of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.  Despite the car number, Miller’s car was not a Phoenix Racing entry - it was owned by Leroy Throop.

43) #51-Jeff Purvis / 47 laps / crash
42) #93-Dave Blaney / 135 laps / engine
41) #97-Kurt Busch / 169 laps / running
40) #18-Bobby Labonte / 173 laps / crash / led 3 laps
39) #43-John Andretti / 173 laps / crash


Unknown said...

Didn't Purvis have a crash the next season that pretty much ended his NASCAR career?

Brock Beard said...

Nazareth in 2004, if I remember correctly. It was such a shame - even as a part timer in Cup and a journeyman in Busch, Purvis was a fixture in the garage area for years.