Thursday, March 31, 2016

4/14/02: Andy Hillenburg and Marcis Auto Racing exit early at Martinsville

SOURCE: Getty Images, The Sporting News
On April 14, 2002, Andy Hillenburg picked up the 4th last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Virginia 500 at the Martinsville Speedway when his #71 Camp 28 Saloon / Fast Track Driving School Chevrolet fell out with clutch issues after 9 of 500 laps.  The finish came in Hillenburg’s 11th series start.

The 2002 Winston Cup season began with a farewell to one of the series’ most prolific owner-drivers.  Over the offseason, 61-year-old Dave Marcis announced that the Daytona 500 would be his final Cup start, closing out a 35-year career.  His iconic #71 RealTree Chevrolet carried a silver paint scheme for SpeedWeeks, honoring his late friend Dale Earnhardt who, with owner Richard Childress, helped support Marcis’ racing efforts.  A 7th-place showing in the Second Gatorade Twin 125 put Marcis 14th on the grid for his 33rd Daytona 500 start, an event he never once missed from 1968 through 1999.  Marcis’ 883rd start ended when his engine soured after 79 laps, leaving him 42nd.  Tony Stewart, whose own engine blew on Lap 3, ended up with his first Cup Series last-place finish.

After Daytona, Marcis turned his attention to team ownership.  Marcis Auto Racing returned the next week at Rockingham with fellow Wisconsin drive Dick Trickle and sponsorship from Warranty Gold, but the #71 ended up the fastest of three cars to miss the field.  Trickle and team rebounded by making their next attempt at Atlanta two races later, but Trickle wound up 42nd after a hard head-on crash into the backstretch wall.  For the next round at Darlington, Marcis tabbed another driver: Andy Hillenburg.

Hillenburg, then 39 years old, had been active in racing for most of his life.  Like Marcis, he was an owner-driver when he made his own Cup debut at Rockingham on March 3, 1991, finishing last in his #29 MAX-Orb Buick.  By 1995, he had branched out into NASCAR’s top three divisions in addition to the ARCA Racing Series.  He won two ARCA races that season, including his first of two ARCA 200s at Daytona, and claimed the season championship in a close contest with Bobby Bowsher.  Hillenburg even qualified for the 2000 Indianapolis 500, bumping from the field 14 other drivers including Roberto Guerrero and Davy Jones.  Through it all, Hillenburg’s entries often carried logos from his Fast Track High Performance Driving School where he still serves as a racing instructor.

Darlington was a reunion of sorts for Hillenburg and Marcis, who had previously worked together as test drivers for the International Race of Champions.  With 43 cars for 43 spots, Hillenburg made the Darlington race - his first Cup start since Talladega in the fall of 1999 - but engine problems left him last after just 12 laps.  The Wisconsin boys took over again for the next two races at Bristol and Texas, but the team continued to struggle.  Dick Trickle made it 239 laps into the Food City 500 at Bristol, but the engine failure still left him 42nd.  Jay Sauter - brother of current Truck Series regular Johnny - came home under power in his Cup debut at Texas, but could only manage 37th.  The next week, it was again Hillenburg’s turn.

Hillenburg’s #71 for Martinsville carried sponsorship both from the Fast Track school as well as the Camp 28 Saloon, Marcis’ rustic resort and bunkhouse in the Rib Lake area of Wisconsin.  Again, the car squeezed into the field in the 43rd spot, but this time edged for the final spot Truck Series regular Randy Renfrow in Foster Price’s unsponsored #59 Dodge.  During the pace laps of Sunday’s race, however, Hillenburg was joined by the silver-and-black #29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet.

Kevin Harvick, then in his second Cup season, had been put on probation following an altercation with Greg Biffle after the Busch Series race at Bristol.  The day before, Harvick then spun Coy Gibbs from contention in Martinsville’s Craftsman Truck Series race.  As of Sunday morning, NASCAR instituted what it called a “temporary emergency action,” parking Harvick for the Cup race without the possibility of an appeal.  In Harvick’s place was Kenny Wallace, who during the young season was also a relief driver for the injured Steve Park.  The driver change sent Wallace to the back of the pack.

When the green flag flew, Hillenburg had already fallen behind Wallace and the rest of the field by open track.  Around Lap 5, he was 10 seconds behind the leaders and three seconds behind 42nd-place Rick Mast in Junie Donlavey’s #90 Sauer’s Ford.  On Lap 10, polesitter and race leader Jeff Gordon was about to lap Hillenburg in Turns 1 and 2.  Hillenburg pulled to the inside on the backstretch, then pulled onto pit road.  FOX’s Mike Joy indicated that the #71 was a “field filler” for the race as Hillenburg pulled into the garage.

42nd went to John Andretti, whose #43 Cheerios Dodge blew an engine in Turns 3 and 4 on Lap 211, triggering a multi-car wreck in Turn 4.  In 41st was Ryan Newman, who while running 10th in his first Martinsville race started blowing smoke on Lap 242, then pulled his #12 Alltel Ford behind the wall with overheating issues.

40th went to ARCA regular Frank Kimmel, who was making his third of just seven Cup starts.  Kimmel was one of many drivers tabbed to race for Travis Carter Racing.  Carter’s two cars were set to be sponsored by K-Mart, but when the retailer filed for bankruptcy, the team struggled without funding.  Kimmel, who made his Cup debut for Carter when he relieved Jimmy Spencer at Michigan in 1998, brought his ARCA sponsorship from Advance Auto Parts and the Pork Council onto the #26.  Joe Nemechek, the season-opening driver of the car, returned to qualify Kimmel’s entry at Martinsville while Kimmel raced to victory in Friday’s ARCA event at Nashville.  Kimmel struggled in the Cup race itself, slapping the wall in Turn 3 after contact from Hut Stricklin near the halfway point before retiring for the afternoon.

Rounding out the Bottom Five in 39th was Jerry Nadeau, who stayed out early to lead 42 laps in his #25 UAW-Delphi Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, but electrical issues with 161 laps to go led to an overheating problem that knocked him from the race.  Nadeau remained on standby to relieve teammate Jeff Gordon, who was struggling after he’d lost all power steering at the exact halfway point of the race.  Then-rookie Jimmie Johnson in the third Hendrick Chevrolet struggled in his Martinsville debut.  He lost the primary ignition early and with it, the use of the rev limiter, lost several more laps with a broken rear end, then suffered more electrical issues on the way to a 35th-place finish.  In his next 17 Martinsville starts, Johnson never finished worse than 9th and scored six of his eight victories.

Marcis Auto Racing continued to struggle through the rest of the 2002 season.  The team made just four of its remaining seven attempts with Trickle and both Jay and Tim Sauter, but finished no better than Tim’s 34th that fall at Dover.  The Marcis team’s final start came with Jay Sauter that fall at Talladega - another last-place finish after a Lap 46 crash.  While the team closed its doors in 2003, Marcis himself remains very active in motorsports.  He currently runs a hot rod shop in Arden, North Carolina and can be seen competing for land speed records.  Still wearing his trademark wingtip shoes, Marcis pursues his records in a modified #71 stock car which resembles the very same car he ran in the 2002 Daytona 500.

Hillenburg is also still active in racing.  Following one more run with Marcis in the 2002 Winston Open, his next Cup attempt was in 2004, when he came just short of putting Junie Donlavey’s team into one more Daytona 500.  He then filled out fields driving the #80 Commercial Truck & Trailer Ford for Hover Motorsports.  At Darlington, Hillenburg’s lapped machine was spun by Tony Stewart, sending Hillenburg into the path of Jeff Gordon, triggering a wreck that was one of the hardest Gordon had experienced to that point.  Though a victim in the incident, Hillenburg was very up-front in accepting blame, apologizing to Gordon and his fans for the wreck.  He made just two more starts that year at Bristol and Martinsville, but DNQ’d for the next six attempts.

But Hillenburg’s greatest contribution to the sport was his 2007 purchase of Rockingham Speedway, scene of his Cup debut in 1991.  He brought racing back to the track for the first time since his run for Hover in 2004 and eventually a Camping World Truck Series date in 2013.  Today, Hillenburg continues to run his racing school at the track.  He also fields a part-time entry in the ARCA Racing Series.  Ed Pompa and Richard Doheny ran his two cars at Daytona, finishing 30th and 17th, respectively.

*This was the first last-place finish for the #71 in a Cup race at Martinsville since April 29, 1984 when Mike Alexander’s turn in Dave Marcis’ #71 Action Vans Oldsmobile ended after a crash just 1 lap into the Sovran Bank 500.  Alexander was running the full season in the #71 that year as Marcis had signed to drive for Butch Mock for 1984.  This race is more popularly known as the day Rick Hendrick scored his first victory as a team owner with Geoffrey Bodine in the #5.
*This marked the first time a Cup driver finished last due to clutch issues since February 23, 1997, when Loy Allen, Jr.’s #19 Child Support Recovery Ford fell out after 68 laps of the Goodwrench Service 400 at Rockingham.  It hadn’t happened at Martinsville since April 24, 1994, when Jeff Burton’s #8 Raybestos Ford left the Hanes 500 after 286 laps.

43) #71-Andy Hillenburg / 9 laps / clutch
42) #43-John Andretti / 209 laps / engine
41) #12-Ryan Newman / 257 laps / overheating
40) #26-Frank Kimmel / 282 laps / crash
39) #25-Jerry Nadeau / 341 laps / overheating / led 42 laps

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