Thursday, March 10, 2016

4/23/05: Carl “Long Shot” Long loses engine, Sauter impresses in first Phoenix night race

On April 23, 2005, Carl Long picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series career in the Subway Fresh 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway when his #00 Buyer’s Choice Auto Warranties Chevrolet lost the engine after he completed 52 of 312 laps.

The finish, which came in Long’s 15th series start, was his first of the season and his first in a Cup Series race since November 18, 2001, when his #85 Boruff Chrysler / Film Storage Dodge crashed after 15 laps of the NAPA 500 at Atlanta.

Long, known by his fans as the “Long Shot,” is appropriately named.  Much like NASCAR’s  owner-drivers decades before him, he took the long way into NASCAR, rising from street stocks and late models in the 1980s and 90s to the Slim Jim AllPro Series (now the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southeast Series) in 1997.  The next year, he signed with Mansion Motorsports, owned by the late Thee Dixon, finishing 23rd in his ARCA debut at Charlotte, 31st in his Truck Series debut at Bristol.  The next year, he attempted to make both his Winston Cup and Busch Series debuts, but missed both races.  The fight to make the show would come to define Long’s career.

Long first broke through in Cup early in the 2000 season when he made the field for one of the series’ biggest races - the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.  He had not only secured 35th in the 43-car field, but also bumped five established teams: Bud Moore Engineering, Petty Enterprises, Donlavey Racing, Travis Carter Racing, and Marcis Auto Racing.  However, despite the importance of the occasion, Long handed over his ride to Darrell Waltrip, who had failed to qualify for his last run in the 600.  Long’s kind gesture meant that he would have to wait another four months - until Dover in September - to make his series debut.  And when he did, he crashed after 12 laps after tangling with Scott Pruett.

Long and Dixon continued to struggle to make races for the next two seasons, making just five more starts in 28 attempts before the two parted in early 2002.  Long’s prospects weren’t looking much better in the Busch and Truck Series, where he’d only made a combined seven starts in the same span.  Blanked after two failed Cup attempts in 2003 with only three combined Busch and Truck starts the same year, Long was anxious for an opportunity - when the economy lent an unexpected hand.

A recession in 2004 hit the Cup Series hard, and NASCAR wasn’t sure they were going to have a full 43-car field for the second race with new sponsor NEXTEL.  Long was one of the drivers called into action, and he brought to Rockingham an old 2001-bodied #46 Dodge sponsored by a local car dealership.  To say the afternoon didn’t go as planned would be an understatement.  Long was 10 laps down on the 265th circuit when he was caught in a collision between Joe Nemechek and Bobby Labonte, sending his car tumbling down the backstretch.  Long was uninjured, but his car was totaled.  The crash put Long back in the news, and in the days before Kickstarter, fans sent Long money to get back on his feet.  He picked up a ride from Hermie Sadler the next week at Las Vegas and went on to make another four starts that year, including one at Loudon in a brand-new #46 Dodge.

Late in the 2004 season, Long began to drive for Raynard McGlynn, who wanted to move his Truck Series program to Cup.  Long gave McGlynn the first of his 21 series starts that June at Pocono, finishing 41st after an early crash.  The two returned to the track in 2005, but despite skipping the first two rounds at Daytona and Fontana, they were again struggling to make races.  Long was again competing against a greater number of start-ups, including John Carter’s R&J Racing, which with Kevin Lepage stunned in a 9th-place finish in the Daytona 500, and Bob Jenkins’ upstart Front Row Motorsports, which employed seven different drivers during its first season.  Long finally broke through at Bristol, but his #00 overheated after just 37 laps.  Following their third DNQ of the season at Martinsville, the team set its sights two races ahead to Phoenix.

Phoenix, historically the penultimate race of the Cup Series championship, had been awarded a second date in 2005, and the track would host a night race for the first time.  Long squeezed his way into the historic event in the 41st spot, besting three teams.  Joining local drivers Steve Portenga and Brandon Ash among the DNQs was Hermie Sadler, now driving for the struggling #66 team owned by Jeff Stec.  Six years later, Stec would be charged with loan fraud in connection with his chain of Peak Fitness gyms which funded Sadler’s ride.

Starting 43rd was Robby Gordon, then in his first year as a NEXTEL Cup owner-driver following his release from Richard Childress Racing.  Gordon’s #7 Harrah’s Chevrolet had lost an engine in practice, as had Kevin Lepage in R&J Racing’s #37, and he and Mike Wallace’s drive for Morgan-McClure joined Gordon at the rear due to unapproved adjustments.

Robby Gordon trailed when the race went green, but by Lap 7, Long was 43rd, 8 seconds behind race leader Kurt Busch.  On Lap 12, the first caution flew for a spin on the backstretch.  Heading into the dogleg, Sterling Marlin’s #40 Coors Light Dodge bumped Jason Leffler’s #11 FedEx Express Chevrolet into a spin, and Travis Kvapil’s #77 Kodak / Jasper Engines Dodge smacked the outside wall while trying to pass up high.  Though Marlin suffered damage to the right-front of his machine, it was Leffler who fell to last as a result.  Leffler lost a lap for repairs, and when the race restarted, his car smoked with a persistent tire rub.   On Lap 22, Long was still 42nd in front of Leffler, but was 13 seconds back of the leader and one second behind 42nd-place Stanton Barrett in Front Row Motorsports’ #92.  By Lap 44, Long had lost a lap to the leaders and was clearly off the pace, letting cars pass to the high side.  On Lap 58, Long was behind the wall with engine trouble, four laps down, with Robby Gordon down 3 laps in 42nd.  Gordon continued on to finish 37th, 50 circuits behind, but Long never re-entered the race.

42nd went to Matt Kenseth whose #17 DeWalt Power Tools Ford lost a right-front tire entering Turn 3 o Lap 167 and clobbered the outside wall, ending his night.  Kenseth’s teammate Greg Biffle was among the leaders after he put his #16 Subway / National Guard Ford 3rd on the grid, but he shunted another car on pit road so hard that the other car’s rear bumper bar punctured his radiator, leaving him 41st after just 172 laps.  Another crash finished off Travis Kvapil’s damaged #77 during the final caution on Lap 239 when he was turned by Mike Bliss’ #0 NetZero / Best Buy Chevrolet off Turn 4, sending Kvapil spinning into the path of Scott Wimmer and the #22 Caterpillar Dodge.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Casey Mears, whose #41 Target Dodge lost a right-front tire on Lap 222, sending him into the Turn 1 wall.   Mears and the Chip Ganassi Racing team came home under power, 69 laps down.

Michael Waltrip made headlines when he finished a close 2nd to race winner Kurt Busch.  Waltrip’s #15 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet was the same chassis teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. drove to the previous two Phoenix wins - Junior came home 4th.  Clint Bowyer also impressed in his Sprint Cup debut, coming home a quiet 22nd in Richard Childress’ part-time entry, a neon-colored #33 Sylvania Chevrolet.  But the underdog story of the evening went to Johnny Sauter, who earned his first top-ten finish with a 9th driving Phoenix Racing’s #09 Miccosukee Gaming & Resorts Dodge.  It was the best finish for the Finch team on the Arizona track and their best performance since Mike Wallace finished 9th in the rain-shortened 2003 Daytona 500.

Carl Long, meanwhile, entered 21 of the 2005 NEXTEL Cup season’s final 28 races, but qualified for just seven of them, earning a season-best 32nd at Bristol and Atlanta - the only two races they finished under power that year.  By season’s end, McGlynn released Long in favor of Derrike Cope, who in just nine starts in 2006 finished last six times, a single-season record that stood for three years.  That same season, both Long and McGlynn both made their final starts in a Cup points race: Long’s came August 26, 2006 at Bristol, where he came home 41st in an unspsonsored #34 Chevrolet for Front Row Motorsports.

Long attempted to make just three more Cup Series points races through 2009, but what happened in the exhibition weekend for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race only made his efforts much more difficult.  Long was again in his #46, which that year was painted green and gold to resemble his first late model he raced from 1993 through 1995, and to celebrate a 16-year relationship with sponsor Romeo Guest.  During the opening practice for the Sprint Showdown qualifier, Long blew an engine.  It was an unfortunate setback for Long, who would have to surrender an outside-pole spot in the Showdown after rain washed out qualifying, forcing the grid to be set by the draw before qualifying.  Long banged the nose of his #46 in the early laps of the Showdown and lost the second motor, leaving him last in the race.

On May 20, four days after the All-Star Race, NASCAR handed Long the harshest penalty in the sport’s history: a 12-race suspension, the docking of 200 driver and owner points, and a $200,000 fine.  NASCAR cited that Long’s first engine, which he’d acquired from fellow Dodge team Gillett-Evernham Motorsports, was too big, exceeding the 358 cubic inch maximum by 0.17ci.  Long sought an appeal, stating that the discrepancy wasn’t intentional, but that the block distorted due to the extreme heat resulting from its failure.  In the end, Long’s 12-race suspension was scaled back to 8, but the $200,000 fine stood.  And despite the help of fans and drivers alike, including David Reutimann, Long has been unable to pay the oppressive fine, and has been kept from the Sprint Cup garage as a result.  Long’s penalty remains the biggest in NASCAR history, exceeding even Michael Waltrip Racing’s infamous jet fuel infraction in 2007.

Today, Long still competes part-time in NASCAR as an owner-driver, though now in the XFINITY Series.  Last year, Long aligned with Canadian Tire Series racer Derek White, and both do business under the name Motorsports Business Management.  Just last year, Long finished 26th with the team at Kentucky - his best-ever showing in the series.

*This was the first last-place finish for the #00 in a Cup Series race since November 16, 1997, when Buckshot Jones’ Aquafresh Pontiac crashed after 38 laps of the NAPA 500 at Atlanta.  The number had never before finished last in a Cup race at Phoenix.

43) #00-Carl Long / 52 laps / engine
42) #17-Matt Kenseth / 164 laps / crash
41) #16-Greg Biffle / 172 laps / overheating / led 2 laps
40) #77-Travis Kvapil / 237 laps / crash
39) #41-Casey Mears / 243 laps / running

No comments: