The finish was Wise’s first of the 2016 season and his first in Cup since last summer at Kentucky, 20 races ago. It came in Wise’s 129th series start.
Wise enters his sixth Sprint Cup season driving for his seventh different team. The journeyman driver from Riverside, California has made steady progress through the years, going from a “start-and-park” driver for Front Row Motorsports in 2012 to a full-time competitor the next year, then moving to Phil Parsons Racing as it, too, ran full races for the first time in 2014, even achieving sudden headlines after an internet campaign earned him the Fan Vote in that year’s All-Star Race. With the Parsons team’s sale last year to Jay Robinson and Premium Motorsports, however, Wise left the team and over the offseason signed with The Motorsports Group (TMG).
Like Wise, TMG has also fought to become competitive in NASCAR. Team owner Curtis Key fielded cars in the XFINITY and Truck Series for more than two decades. The team earned their first top-five finish in just their fifth XFINITY start when Tommy Ellis came home 5th at Hickory on November 7, 1993. However, by 2011, sponsorship woes forced the team to begin to “start-and-park” on a near-weekly basis, its flagship #40 able to finish under power only a handful of times. Wise joined TMG the next season, and joined the game of musical chairs between the full-race #40 and the “start-and-park” backups, numbered #42, #46, and #47. Contrary to popular perception, the team’s drastic measures had a clear goal in mind: to move to the Sprint Cup Series. And so, after four difficult seasons, TMG made its move, suspending its XFINITY operation to focus on one single Sprint Cup car, #30, for 2015.
Despite hiring current NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Ron Hornaday, Jr., the learning curve proved steep. TMG’s fully-funded #30 Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff Chevrolet was the slowest car in time trials and missed the 500 field. Hornaday made the next race at Atlanta when an inspection miscue marred qualifying, but the team made just one of its next 11 attempts - ironically with last-place record holder Jeff Green at Richmond. Key withdrew the car from the September race at Dover, locking the remaining 43 cars into the race, and instead prepared for Daytona. Wise was hired that offseason, and after another DNQ for the Daytona 500, the team came to Atlanta for a rebound.
One week after a post-RTA Daytona 500 allowed for just 40 starters, the shortest Cup Series field since the final race at North Wilkesboro on September 29, 1996, Wise was one of just 39 entrants at Atlanta, the shortest field for a Cup race at the track since November 6, 1983, when Joe Booher’s #18 Booher Farms Buick trailed a 39-car field in the Atlanta Journal 500. While this locked The Motorsports Group into its second-straight Atlanta race, it also meant the #30 was now just one of three “open” teams at the track, down from eight at Daytona qualifying. Still, the team was in the race, and like in 2015, now eyes a run at attempting more races against even greater odds.
Wise was slowest in the opening practice, improved to 37th in qualifying with a speed of 183.820 mph, and was 38th in Happy Hour.
The 39th spot was to go to Jeffrey Earnhardt, making his first Cup start of the year in the chartered #32 Can-Am Ford. However, a technical infraction meant pole sitter Kyle Busch’s pole winning speed was disallowed after the session, meaning he would start last in Cup for the first time since August 24, 2013 at Bristol. When the green flag fell, however, Kyle quickly zipped past Wise in Turns 1 and 2, beginning a two-car race for 39th between Wise and Jeffrey Earnhardt that lasted the rest of the afternoon.
Earnhardt’s #32 took 39th from Wise on Lap 3 and was the first to lose a circuit to the leaders on Lap 20. Wise took it back during green-flag pit stops on Lap 43, but Earnhardt took it again by the next round of stops around Lap 73. With the race still green and the entire field struggling to race on worn tires and last year’s low-downforce aero package, Wise took the last spot on Lap 105, and was 13 laps behind by the time the first caution fell on Lap 211. Earnhardt briefly took 39th one more time on Lap 238, but Wise took it a final time on Lap 246. In the end, Wise and Earnhardt remained just one lap apart in 39th and 38th.
37th went to Cole Whitt, who like Wise rebounded from a Daytona DNQ and carried sponsorship from Tweaker Energy Shot and RaceTrac on his Premium Motorsports #98, now a Chevrolet from Toyota. Three laps ahead of Witt was Landon Cassill in Front Row Motorsports’ chartered #38 FR8 Auctions Ford. Rounding out the Top 5 was the #15 Aaron’s Chevrolet of Clint Bowyer, who continues to struggle in his first season with HScott Motorsports.
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*This was the first Cup Series last-place finish for the #30 since November 21, 1999, when Todd Bodine’s #30 Rudy’s Farm Pontiac for Bahari Racing started 5th, but crashed after 42 laps of the NAPA 500, also at the Atlanta track.
*Wise completed the most laps of any Atlanta last-place finisher with 312 laps, besting Elliott Sadler’s March 9, 2008 record of 257 set during the Kobalt Tools 500 after his #19 Best Buy / Garmin Dodge was involved in three consecutive cautions.
*Among points races, Wise finished the second-fewest laps down in Cup Series history, trailing only Jimmy Spencer, whose #23 Smokin’ Joe’s Ford finished 10 laps down in the Tyson Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro on October 1, 1995.
*Wise’s 312 laps complete ranks the eighth-most circuits completed by a last-place finisher in Cup Series history. The all-time record remains 401, set on April 18, 1999 when Ricky Craven’s #58 Hollywood Video Ford had handling issues during the Goody’s Body Pain 500 at Martinsville.
+For purposes of clarity, these statistics do not include the 22 occasions where drivers were classified last by disqualification. 10 of those drivers, including 1949 inaugural event qualifier Glenn Dunaway, were originally flagged the winner and are still credited with completing all the laps in the official results. No Cup driver has been classified last by a post-race disqualification since October 11, 1992, when Bobby Hillin, Jr.’s #31 Team Ireland Chevrolet was displaced from 15th following the Mello-Yello 500 at Charlotte.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
39) #30-Josh Wise / 312 laps / running
38) #32-Jeffrey Earnhardt / 313 laps / running
37) #98-Cole Whitt / 318 laps / running
36) #38-Landon Cassill / 321 laps / running
35) #15-Clint Bowyer / 322 laps / running
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Matt DiBenedetto, Josh Wise (1)
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) BK Racing, The Motorsports Group (1)
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet, Toyota (1)