Thursday, May 26, 2016

5/25/97: Todd Bodine, in relief of brother Geoffrey, ends up with #7 team’s third-straight last-place finish

On May 25, 1997, Todd Bodine picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when his #7 QVC Ford lost an engine after 47 of 333 laps.  The finish came in Bodine’s 81st series start.

Todd Bodine was participating in his sixth season on the Winston Cup tour.  The youngest of the three Bodine brothers from Chemung, New York (joining Geoffrey and Brett) was a standout in what is today the NASCAR XFINITY Series, scoring seven wins in his first five seasons, including a 3rd-place spot in the 1992 championship behind Joe Nemechek and Bobby Labonte.

Frank Cicci, his XFINITY Series owner, also gave Todd his first Cup start at Watkins Glen that year.  Though an early crash left his #34 Diet Pepsi Ford 37th, it marked the first time since Rusty, Mike, and Kenny Wallace raced together at Phoenix the previous fall that three brothers raced against each other in a Cup event, and the Bodines did so at their home track.

The next time the Cup Series came to Watkins Glen, Todd took over for Dick Trickle in the #75 Factory Stores Ford fielded by longtime Cup owner Butch Mock.  After a ten-race stretch through the end of the 1993 season, Bodine signed with Mock for a full-year run in 1994.  That year, Todd earned his first Top Ten - a 6th in the spring race at Martinsville - and his first Top Five - a 5th at Loudon in July.  He finished the year with a career-best 3rd in the Atlanta finale, putting a ribbon on a 20th-place showing in the series standings, also the best of his career.  In 1995, Todd took his first Cup victory - in a non-points race - winning the Winton Open and finishing 17th in the main event.

By 1997, however, all three Bodine brothers were starting to struggle in Cup.  Todd was released by Mock at the end of the 1995 season, and for the next two years made a few starts as a journeyman, driving in relief of Bill Elliott, Robert Pressley, and Ricky Craven in addition to a three-race stint with Blair Motorsports.  Brett Bodine bought Junior Johnson’s #11 team in 1996, but after losing sponsor Lowe’s to Richard Childress Racing, was trying to make ends meet with funds from the Close Call Phone Card company.  Oldest brother Geoffrey also had a team of his own - having purchased Alan Kulwicki’s team after the owner-driver’s untimely death in 1993 - and had full-time sponsorship from the QVC home shopping network.  In 1996, Geoffrey scored the 18th Cup victory at Watkins Glen.  It would be the last of his career.

For years, engine failures and crashes had been the bane of Geoffrey’s team, preventing him from a run at the championship.  Those problems grew worse during the spring of 1997, when his team failed to finish six races in a row.  The streak began with back-to-back crashes at Bristol and Martinville, where he started 8th and 3rd but went home 33rd and 29th.  It continued with back-to-back last-place finishes, starting with Sonoma on May 4.  Again, Geoffrey qualified well - 7th on the grid - but the engine let go after just 10 of 74 laps.  It was also the last time a Cup driver finished worse than 43rd in a race - the field allowed a 44th starter for the top-qualifying Winston West competitor, Larry Gunselman.  The next week at Talladega, the engine let go at Talladega, leaving the #7 in 43rd.

Geoffrey was slated to run the next round at the Coca-Cola 600, having finished 11th in The Winston all-star race the week before, but he was injured in a crash during Wednesday’s practice.  Todd, who finished 7th in the Busch Series race at Charlotte, was tabbed as his replacement.  Todd put the backup car 41st on the grid for the 42-car race.  Five drivers missed the show: Chad Little in the green-and-gold #97 John Deere Pontiac then owned by Greg Pollex, Mike Wallace for current part-owner Joe Falk, Ed Berrier for the Sadler Brothers, Bobby Hillin, Jr. In Doug Bawel’s #77 Jasper Engines / Federal Mogul Ford, and Dave Marcis’ #71 RealTree Camouflage Chevrolet.

Starting at the back of the field was Hut Stricklin in the #8 Circuit City Ford for the Stavola Brothers.  Todd fell to the rear after the first couple laps, then caught back up and marched his way to 36th.  Jeremy Mayfield took a turn at the back in th #37 K-Mart / RC Cola Ford owned by Michael Kranefuss, who the next year would align with Roger Penske to expand Penske’s Cup team to its current two cars.  Suddenly, coming off Turn 2, Todd slowed with smoke trailing behind the #7.  Geoffrey, just about to be interviewed by the TBS reporters at the time of the incident, was visibly dejected.

Finishing 41st was Robby Gordon, attempting his first full season in Felix Sabates’ #40 Coors Light Silver Bullet Chevrolet, who crashed on Lap 184.  40th-place Sterling Marlin in the Morgan-McClure owned #4 Kodak Film Chevrolet wrcked on the backstretch on Lap 149.  Kenny Wallace in 39th wrecked on Lap 113 in his #81 Square D Ford, returned along with Marlin to the track, but fell out four circuits after Marlin.  38th-place Ken Schrader led 15 of the first 42 laps, but lost several laps and wound up a disappointing 38th.  Persistent rains shortened the 600 to just under 500 miles with Jeff Gordon taking a narrow victory over Rusty Wallace.

The next week at Dover, Geoffrey returned to the #7 team, but his bad luck continued.  A three-car crash on Lap 241 with Bobby Hillin, Jr. and Dick Trickle took all three cars out of the race.  This time, Hillin was credited with the 43rd and final position, narrowly edging Geoffrey for his team’s fourth-straight last-place showing.

That August, Todd reunited with Frank Cicci at Watkins Glen and surprised everyone by winning the pole - the first of five in Todd’s career.  He signed on for another full-time ride in 1998, the Bob Hancher-owned #35 Tabasco Pontiac, but the turmoil within the team led to him leaving the car at mid-season.  Again, Todd impressed as a journeyman, finishing the year with another 5th-place run at Atlanta driving for Joe Falk.  Another full-time ride came in 2001, when Todd replaced the retiring Darrell Waltrip in Travis Carter’s #66 K-Mart Blue Light Special Ford.  He scored three more poles that season and a pair of Top Fives, but when K-Mart filed for bankruptcy in early 2002, he was left without a sponsor for Las Vegas.  Still, Todd prevailed, putting his blank blue Ford on the pole for the 400-miler.  Following his 2004 LASTCAR Cup Championship, Todd made just more 16 Cup starts, the most recent of which at Michigan in August 2011 for HP Racing LLC.

Todd found his greatest on-track success in the Truck Series.  He’d already scored top-ten finishes in all of his five starts in the series in 1995, and in 2004, was ready to give it another try.  He crossed paths with owner Bob Germain at Richmond, and right away finished 4th, followed by wins at Fontana and Texas.  For the next nine years, Bodine would score two championships in 2006 and 2010 and 22 wins, all but one of which coming with Germain Racing.  Now a TV analyst, Bodine has made a total of 241 Cup starts, most recently at Michigan in 2011, 331 XFINITY starts, including Darlington just last year, and 220 Truck starts.

Of his 37 combined victories in NASCAR’s top three divisions, perhaps the most memorable of Todd’s career came at Darlington in 2003, when he and Jamie McMurray tangled off Turn 4 racing for the lead.  Just as in several of his other strongest runs, the #92 Chevrolet Todd drove that day did not have a primary sponsor.

*This marked the first last-place finish for both Todd Bodine and the #7 in a Cup race at Charlotte.

42) #7-Todd Bodine / 47 laps / enigne
41) #40-Robby Gordon / 186 laps / crash
40) #4-Sterling Marlin / 188 laps / crash
39) #81-Kenny Wallace / 192 laps / crash
38) #33-Ken Schrader / 231 laps / running / led 15 laps

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