Thursday, November 3, 2016

11/6/05: Mike Skinner trails at Texas with R&J Racing, secures LASTCAR title

On November 6, 2005, Mike Skinner picked up the 7th last-place finish of his NASCAR Nextel Cup Series career in the Dickies 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway when his #37 Patron Tequila / Dodge fell out with a broken rear end after 151 of 334 laps.

The finish, which came in Skinner’s 238th series start, was his third of the season and second in a row, following an early crash during the previous round at Atlanta.

Long before “The Gunslinger” ever became the 1997 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year or the inaugural Truck Series champion in 1995, Skinner’s NASCAR career began in 1986.  The Californian dirt tracker and former pit crew member joined the Zanworth Racing Team, which fielded a plain white pre-86 Pontiac Grand Prix for three races.  On April 27 of that year, Skinner finished 22nd in his series debut, the last car to finish under power.  His first start in the Busch Series came at Darlington the following season, where he ran 27th in an Oldsmobile.

Over the next six seasons, Skinner earned his stripes driving for other small teams.  He made six starts with the late Thee Dixon, who would later help Carl Long get his start in Cup.  In 1990, two years before Jeff Gordon’s first turn in the DuPont Chevrolet, Dixon’s #13 Glidden Paints Chevrolet turned heads with a radical florescent paint scheme with bright pink and blue rims.  In 1994, he joined a driver rotation at Jimmy Means Racing that included Dale Earnhardt’s crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine, Brad and Brian Keselowski’s father Bob, and Busch Series veteran Brad Teague.

Skinner’s most famous ride, the #31 Lowe’s Chevrolet fielded by Richard Childress Racing, came about after an exploratory five-race stint in 1996.  He finished 12th in his team debut at Rockingham, then in ‘97 became the first rookie polesitter of the Daytona 500 since Loy Allen, Jr. three years earlier.  Though he finished just 30th in points, Skinner cruised to Rookie of the Year honors over Jeff and David Green, and would remain with Childress for the next few seasons alongside Dale Earnhardt, then Kevin Harvick.

From 1997 through the better part of 2001, Skinner earned 10 Top Fives with Childress, including a career-best 2nd to Jeff Gordon at Talladega in 2000.  He won four non-points races, including the final two exhibition events in Japan, a Busch Series race at Atlanta, and 16 of his 28 career Truck Series victories.  But Skinner’s first Cup points win continued to elude him.  He came close several times, perhaps none closer than Atlanta in 2000, when the engine let go after he’d led 191 of 325 laps.  Then a series of serious accidents, culminating with a wreck in the inaugural Chicagoland event in July 2001, ultimately cost him his ride with Childress.  Curiously, at Loudon that November, in Lowe’s final race with Childress, his replacement Robby Gordon claimed his own first win.

From 2002 onward, Skinner returned to his roots, driving for NASCAR’s small single-car teams.  He began with Morgan-McClure, during the team’s final years with sponsor Kodak.  He ran the full season, but managed just 31st in points, and he was let go midway through 2003.  He then became MB2 Motorsports’ primary substitute driver for Jerry Nadeau, who suffered a career-ending crash at Richmond that spring, and took the pole in the #01 U.S. Army Pontiac when the series returned to the three-quarter-mile oval.  By 2004, Skinner was back in the Truck Series full-time, this time with Toyota, whose fleet Tundra model had just hit the track.  He made just one Cup start that season - a one-off for his old boss Richard Childress - yielding a 22nd-place run in the Daytona 500.

The events that led to the topic of this article were set in motion during SpeedWeeks 2005.  That year, 55 drivers arrived in Florida to attempt the 43-car field, including a slew of small teams that developed from start-ups the previous year.  One of these teams was John Carter's R&J Racing, a team that crafted its brand-new #37 Dodge Charger in a cramped little shop.  The team signed Kevin Lepage to drive in the 500, but didn’t pick up any sponsorship.  That is, until the Second Gatorade Duel 150, where Lepage roared from 20th to 3rd.  Patron Tequila signed for the 500, and Lepage impressed once more, earning the Lucky Dog with 31 laps to go, then catching the lead pack on the final lap for a 9th-place finish.  Lepage’s career-best finish was worth a $307,138 share of the purse, aiding the team’s efforts to run the full season.

Skinner was also among the 55 drivers at Daytona, and also impressed with a lightly-regarded team.  Bill Davis Racing had some magic of its own in Florida, taking the 2002 win with Ward Burton, then parlaying pit strategy into a 3rd-place finish for Scott Wimmer in ‘04.  Wimmer was back in the #22 Caterpillar Dodge for ‘05, and Skinner - now driving for Davis in Trucks - would be his teammate in an unsponsored #23.  Skinner lit up the scoreboard in qualifying, earning himself the 8th starting spot in Duel Race #1, and like Lepage, stormed to a 3rd-place finish behind DEI teammates Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  Argent Mortgage, which funded Danica Patrick’s IndyCar effort that year, signed with Skinner for the 500, where he’d roll off alongside Lepage in Row 3.  With 11 laps to go in the main event, Skinner was still a factor in the finish when several cars wrecked on the restart.  Unable to steer clear in time, the #23 piled in and slid to a stop in the infield.  He finished the day a disappointing 30th.

As the 2005 season unfolded, Skinner and R&J Racing both faced the same obstacles.  Skinner remained with Bill Davis through Indianapolis, making five starts but finishing no better than 29th.  John Carter kept Lepage in R&J’s #37 through the July race at Pocono, and in the crash-filled Coca-Cola 600, driver and team turned heads once more.  Appropriately painted with the cartoon character Underdog, the #37 Dodge earned three Lucky Dogs in the race’s second half, dodged the night’s many wrecks, and finished a strong 12th.  But with no other finish better than 25th, Lepage was let go.  The car, which still had a number of starts left with Patron on the hood, passed from “road ringer” Anthony Lazzaro to Tony Raines, then Jimmy Spencer, then at Atlanta fell to Mike Skinner.  In another curious twist, the wreck that eliminated Skinner from the Atlanta event involved Lepage.

In the final weeks of the 2005 season, entry lists were still as large as ever.  51 drivers were scheduled to arrive, and only Mike Garvey and Stan Boyd withdrew before qualifying.  Skinner found some speed in R&J’s Dodge, turning the 23rd-best lap in the opening session and 12th in the second before falling to 38th and 42nd on Saturday.  By then, Skinner was in the field, having secured 28th on the grid with a lap of 189.367mph.  Ryan Newman, driving Roger Penske’s #12 Alltel Dodge, took the pole at 192.947mph, but crashed and was forced to start from the rear in a backup car.  Newman’s misfortune was also Carl Long’s, who wrecked Raynard McGlynn’s #00 Chevrolet and withdrew during time trials.  Long went home along with Reed Sorenson, who one week earlier made his Cup debut at Atlanta for Chip Ganassi, Stuart Kirby, Johnny Sauter for Phoenix Racing, owner-driver Robby Gordon, and P.J. Jones, who drove a #92 Chevrolet fielded by Front Row Motorsports.

Starting last in the field was Mike Wallace, who now drove for Morgan-McClure in the #4 Lucas Oil Products Chevrolet.  On Lap 5, the spot belonged to Jimmy Spencer, who was racing for Don Arnold in the #50 Allied Steel Structures Dodge.  Under green on Lap 49, race leader Greg Biffle, battling to stay in Chase contention, pitted the #16 National Guard Ford with a vibration and became the first driver to lose a lap.  By Lap 60, Skinner entered the fray, losing two laps himself and slipping behind Biffle.  Biffle’s problems continued with a spin on Lap 81, but last place ended up going back to Jimmy Spencer on the restart.

On Lap 153, Kasey Kahne made a second green-flag pit stop in his #9 Dodge Dealers / UAW Dodge for a replacement battery, then a few laps later went behind the wall with a possible missing alternator belt.  Kahne had a miserable weekend in Texas, having also blown a right-front tire while leading the Busch Series race.  Skinner, still laps down, pulled into the garage moments after Kahne.  Both Skinner and Kahne were done for the day, having completed the same number of laps.  Skinner scored the last-place finish, and would go on to secure the 2005 LASTCAR Cup Series Championship.  Kahne, then in just his second full year on the tour, would wait another decade before his first Cup Series last-place run at Pocono, his 417th series start.

The afternoon’s only other retiree was Michael Waltrip, who also lost the engine on his #15 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet in the closing stages.  40th went to rookie driver Kyle Busch, multiple laps down in Hendrick Motorsports’ #5 Carquest Chevrolet.  Jimmy Spencer finished under power as well to round out the Bottom Five.

This third last-place finish of 2005 secured Skinner the year’s LASTCAR Cup Series Championship.

The 2005 NASCAR season saw Skinner score his first two Truck Series wins since 1996, taking Davis’ #5 Toyota Tundra to victory lane in back-to-back races at Bristol and Richmond.  He’d win another ten times over the next four seasons, coming just short of a second title in 2007.  His 231st and most recent start came in 2012.  In Cup, he’d also drive part-time for another nine teams.  He helped shake down Team Red Bull’s Toyotas for A.J. Allmendinger in 2008, “start-and-parked” to help Casey Mears and Germain Racing in 2011, and in 2012 gave Jimmy Means his first Cup start as an owner since 1994.  His 286th and most recent start in the series came with Phil Parsons Racing at Michigan on August 19, 2012, when he came home 39th.

*Skinner would go on to finish last in two more Cup races at Texas: in 2009, driving for TRG Motorsports, and in 2011 for Germain Racing.
*This marked the first and only last-place finish for the #37 in a Cup Series race at Texas.

43) #37-Mike Skinner / 151 laps / rear end
42) #9-Kasey Kahne / 151 laps / engine
41) #15-Michael Waltrip / 294 laps / engine / led 1 lap
40) #5-Kyle Busch / 325 laps / running
39) #50-Jimmy Spencer / 327 laps / running

Jayski's Silly Season Site - 2005 Dickies 500

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