|SOURCE: Sean Gardner, Getty Images|
The finish, Almirola’s first of the year, came in his 185th series start. It was his first in a Sprint Cup race since last fall at Loudon, 14 races ago.
The crash that gave Almirola the last-place run at Loudon was one of just two DNFs for the #43 team in 2015. Though they did not win a race, the team racked up three Top Fives and six Top Tens on the way to a 17th-place showing in points. In four seasons with Richard Petty Motorsports, Almirola has never once finished outside the Top 20 in the driver standings. Coming into the Martinsville race, Almirola had yet to finish better than a 12th in the Daytona 500, but had not run worse than a 24th at Las Vegas, keeping him a solid 13th in the standings with an unofficial spot in the Chase.
Next on the schedule was Sunday’s race at Martinsville, a track where the driver had seen both highs and lows. He finished 4th in the fall of 2012, led 53 laps in the fall of 2008, but in his 2007 debut at the track Almirola finished last with electrical issues on DEI’s #01 U.S. Army Chevrolet.
With STP as the title sponsor of the Martinsville event, Almirola would again drive a florescent red and Petty Blue Ford for the race. This year’s scheme resembled the cars the Pettys fielded in STP’s final years as primary sponsor in the late 1990s, including John Andretti’s Pontiac that secured Petty Enterprises its final victory in 1999. Amidst the STP-sponsored fervor for the Martinsville race, there was also a near disaster in Petty’s hometown of Level Cross. On Saturday, fire broke out at the Richard Petty Museum, but was contained before there were any injuries or severe damage.
Meanwhile, Almirola had timed in 21st in Friday’s opening practice session and secured the 20th starting spot with a speed of 96.244 mph. He remained 20th in Saturday’s second practice session, but was just 27th in Happy Hour.
For the first time since the season-opening Daytona 500, 40 cars showed up to fill the 40-car starting field. Joining the usual cast of characters was a second entry from Premium Motorsports, a black #55 Chevrolet driven by Reed Sorenson. Sorenson, whose car carried old door and roof numbers from Michael Waltrip Racing, didn’t turn a lap in qualifying, securing him the final starting spot in his first Cup start since another turn for Premium last October at Kansas.
On race day, Sorenson held the 40th spot for less than a lap before he got around Josh Wise in The Motorsports Group’s unsponsored #30 Chevrolet. On Lap 5, the race for 20th place between Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and David Ragan resulted in contact, sending Earnhardt’s #88 Nationwide Chevrolet spinning up the track with a flat left-rear tire. While the spin cost Earnhardt a lap that he would not get back for another 304 circuits, he did manage to claw his way out of 40th on Lap 42, when he caught and passed Sorenson’s #55. Sorenson lost a second lap around the 58th circuit, then moved past Josh Wise on Lap 77. Wise lost a third lap in the process, but moved past Sorenson again by the time the second caution flew for Michael Annett’s spin on Lap 92. Wise again retook it under the caution for Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s spin on Lap 139 and was five circuits behind by Lap 176. It appeared that the two black Chevrolets would wage war for the rest of the afternoon until a much more brightly painted car began to struggle.
Through the first half of the race, Almirola was struggling to keep pace with the leaders and quickly lost two laps of his own. On Lap 187, he slowed going down the backstretch with the engine sounding down a cylinder. He pulled into the pits, complaining of a possible ignition problem, and soon took last from Wise on Lap 189. Almirola returned to competition on Lap 195, but the engine problem only worsened, the car reporting on only five cylinders. The Petty team vowed to keep the #43 out there until the engine blew, but 11 laps down and slowing, they soon had to pull the car off the track. Almirola pulled into the garage a final time on Lap 222, just as another wreck drew Caution #4.
Denny Hamlin was running 5th when he wheel-hoped his #11 FedEx Express Toyota going into Turn 1, sending his car sliding and slamming into the outside wall. Hamlin was uninjured, but the right side of his Toyota was totaled, putting an abrupt end to his afternoon. The crash left him just 15 laps ahead of Almirola in the final standings. If the engine on the #43 held out long enough to drop Hamlin to last, Sunday would’ve marked the first time the #11 finished last in a Cup race at Martinsville since May 21, 1950, when Bob Apperson’s 1949 Oldsmobile blew an engine in the second-ever Grand National race on the half-mile track. Instead, Hamlin wound up 39th.
Finishing 38th was Wise, who pulled behind the wall on Lap 337 citing engine problems. 24 laps earlier, Wise was routed out of the groove by Martin Truex, Jr., and though he avoided contact with the wall, the fifth caution of the day was thrown. Curiously, it was this caution that gave back Earnhardt, Jr. his lap. 37th went to Sorenson, who lost fifteen laps but finished under power in a car without any clear damage. Rounding out the group in 36th was Joey Gase, who made his first Cup start at Martinsville in Go FAS Racing’s #32 Donate Life Virginia Ford. Gase himself avoided a wreck in the final stages, saving his car from a four-wheel drift down the backstretch.
*This was the first last-place finish for the #43 at Martinsville since April 1, 2007, when Bobby Labonte’s Cheerios / Betty Crocker Dodge finished under power, but 235 laps down, in the Goody’s Cool Orange 400.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #43-Aric Almirola / 206 laps / engine
39) #11-Denny Hamlin / 221 laps / crash
38) #30-Josh Wise / 326 laps / engine
37) #55-Reed Sorenson / 490 laps / running
36) #32-Joey Gase / 490 laps / running
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto, Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman, Cole Whitt, Josh Wise (1)
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) BK Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, Premium Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, The Motorsports Group (1)
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (4)
2nd) Ford, Toyota (1)