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 that offseason, 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.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*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.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
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

Friday, March 25, 2016

OPINION: Catch-36: Many chartered teams grew by "start-and-parking"

Tommy Baldwin Racing, 2009
SOURCE: motorsport.com
Five races into the Sprint Cup season and already the RTA’s new Charter system has taken its toll.  Only three Open teams returned from Daytona, and they'll perhaps remain the only three next Sunday at Martinsville for yet another short field.  Regardless, earlier this month at Las Vegas, Darrell Waltrip beamed that this year’s field “is the strongest we’ve ever had.”

This sentiment has been shared by other media members and fans alike.  Many are repeating the RTA’s line that the Charters have successfully prohibited the act of “start-and-parking,” forcing the entire field to run full races and full seasons.  What’s curious about this is how many of the Chartered 36 were “start-and-park” teams as recently as 2014, and may not even exist today had the practice been off the table.  Let’s crack open the LASTCAR yearbook and see which teams had the most pimples:

Front Row Motorsports, which today holds two medallions for Chris Buescher and Landon Cassill, joined the Sprint Cup Series in 2005 as an underfunded single-car team which changed its number on a near-weekly basis.  They never made the field for the Daytona 500 until 2008, when John Andretti raced his way in as a “go-or-go-homer” in the final corner of his qualifying race.  The team never ran a full season until 2009, and only then was able to because they bought a spot in the Top 35 from DEI’s closed #15 team.  Even then, Front Row fielded a second “start-and-park” car, #37, which scored six last-place finishes that year alone.  This parking expansion team returned in 2011, when it exited early 15 times as car #55, and another 29 times in 2012 as #26 with then-rookie Josh Wise.

Germain Racing, which holds a medallion for Casey Mears, also benefitted from the “start-and-park” method.  A fixture in the Camping World Truck Series since 2004, Germain debuted in the Cup Series as a part-time team at Las Vegas in 2009, where Max Papis finished 36th.  The next year, the team eyed their first full-season run, but sponsorship from GEICO wasn’t enough to get them through the year.  The solution was to have Papis park in at least nine races during the season to supplement his remaining full-race attempts.  In 2011, when Mears took over for Papis in the #13, Germain added a full-time “start-and-park” entry to fund it.  Four different drivers parked Germain’s backup #60 in all 20 of its starts, allowing the #13 to run full races weekly.  The #60 disappeared in 2012, when Germain switched from Toyota to Ford.

HScott Motorsports has two medallions for drivers Clint Bowyer and Michael Annett.  One was acquired from Premium Motorsports, the conglomerate of several teams including Phil Parsons Racing and NEMCO Motorsports, teams which from 2009 through 2013 amassed a combined 64 Sprint Cup last-place finishes.  The other came through the efforts of James Finch, who sold his decades-old Sprint Cup and XFINITY effort to HScott owner Harry Scott, Jr. in late 2013.  Like Front Row, Finch’s team was a prolific part-time effort for years, and like Germain, was a team that in 2004 and again in 2009 chose to “start-and-park” in several races in order to build itself into a full-time team, which it accomplished in 2011.  Even in the eight races before Brad Keselowski’s breakout win at Talladega in April 2009, Finch's program failed to qualify four times, parked in another three, and crashed the week before at Phoenix.

Tommy Baldwin Racing, which has Regan Smith’s medallion, stands as perhaps the last of the latest crop of Sprint Cup start-up teams.  In 2009, Baldwin brought his XFINITY Series program to Cup, joining start-ups like PRISM Motorsports, NEMCO Motorsports, Max Q Racing, and Mayfield Motorsports which acquired cars and crews from teams that folded over the offseason.  Baldwin’s #36 was among the slowest in the lead-up to that year’s Daytona qualifying races, but veteran Scott Riggs latched onto the lead pack and raced the car into the show.  Despite a 25th-place finish in the 500, sponsorship woes and DNQ’s forced Riggs to “start-and-park” beginning that spring at Richmond.  Like Germain, Baldwin enlisted a second car #35 that was parked to fund the #36 in 2010, and when that deal fell through, the #36 parked in its place.  It wasn’t until 2011, during Dave Blaney’s breakout performance in the Daytona 500, that Baldwin’s team ran full races on a consistent basis.  Even so, Baldwin’s team has enlisted the aid of a “start-and-park” teammate as recently as late 2014, when his #37 Chevrolet finished 43rd due to early exits in five of its ten starts.

Circle Sport - Leavine Family Racing, which has Michael McDowell and Ty Dillon share a medallion, debuted as a part-timer at Texas in the spring of 2011 with Truck Series veteran David Starr, who came home 38th.  When Scott Speed replaced Starr for their return to Texas in 2012, he parked after 13 laps, earning the first of five last-place finishes in at least 19 “start-and-park” efforts over the next two seasons.  It wasn’t until 2014, when McDowell signed with the team, that the car finished under power on a consistent basis.  But it was not until this year, when they merged with Joe Falk’s team Circle Sport, that the team will now make a bid at their first full Sprint Cup season.  Curiously, 2015 was also the first time - and the last - that Falk’s car qualified for every Cup race run that season since he joined the circuit in 1997.

JTG-Daugherty Racing, its charter securing A.J. Allmendinger’s spot in the field, has never been a “start-and-park” team in the 258 races dating back to Marcos Ambrose’s 17th-place finish in JTG’s Cup debut at the 2009 Daytona 500.  However, just five months after that 500, Kelly Bires parked their XFINITY Series ride after 2 laps at Chicago, the first of 16 early exits that season, yielding two last-place finishes.  Following two more one-off starts with Ambrose, including a victory at Watkins Glen, the XFINITY program parked for good, and the team has only run Cup since.

BK Racing, which has two medallions for David Ragan and Matt DiBenedetto, also didn’t join the Sprint Cup Series as a “start-and-park” team.  When Ron Devine and Wayne Press acquired the assets of Team Red Bull’s two-car team over the 2011-2012 offseason, they qualified two cars in the Daytona 500 with Landon Cassill and David Reutimann, their 22nd and 26th-place finishes beginning a full-season, full-race two-car run.  However, just two years later, BK entered a third car, #93, as a “start-and-park” entry.  That third team made six starts in 2014 and finished last in five of them with four different drivers.  The next year, the car became a fully-funded third team with then-rookie Jeb Burton.

The list goes on and on.  Brad Keselowski’s first 20 XFINITY Series starts came driving for Brad Coleman in a #23 Chevrolet that finished last twice, including a Lap 1 exit at Mexico City.  Danica Patrick’s team at Stewart-Haas Racing came about because Tommy Baldwin volunteered the owner points to his primary team in 2012 while he parked a second car part-time.  Even Richard Childress’ 285th and final Cup start as a driver in 1981 came driving a backup #41 Mountain Dew Buick for Junior Johnson at Riverside, a car he parked after Darrell Waltrip’s matching #11 fired up, allowing Waltrip to secure his first Winston Cup.

One would be quick to point out that none of these teams or drivers “start-and-park” anymore.  But if that matters, this should, too: in 2015, there were no more Sprint Cup “start-and-parks.”  None.  From 2009 through 2013, Phil Parsons Racing scored more last-place finishes in Cup than anyone else, but last year they trailed just one field because of an actual race-ending crash at Kentucky.  Twice in 2015, Premium Motorsports fielded a car that couldn’t start the race, and both times they got it to fire and rejoin the event, even when they were too many laps down to improve even one position.  And the only three last-place finishes by a team without a Charter in 2016 were by Hillman Racing, which lost three engines in three fully-funded cars.  Yet still, "start-and-park" teams are viewed as some kind of threat to the sport.  It's a clear attempt to stifle competition from programs looking to rise through the ranks as they have.

NASCAR, the media, and especially the RTA need to stop using “start-and-park” teams as some kind of boogeyman to justify the Charter system.  Small teams are the victims of this decision, not the cause.  NASCAR has always been a sport of haves and have nots, but for decades there was always a chance of upward mobility - no matter how slim - for those who stuck it out.  What the RTA has done with its charters is created an artificial barrier to prevent stories like those listed above from ever happening again.  And I believe both the quality of the field and the culture in the garage will suffer for it.  In fact, it already has.

Remember this: more likely than not, the team in victory lane today was the same one that pulled behind the wall on Lap 3 only a few years ago.  And if today’s Charter system had been around back then, you may have never known the driver behind the wheel.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

9/25/49: Otis Martin trails first “Strictly Stock” race at Martinsville

SOURCE: Robert Mitchell, StockCar.RacersReunion.com
On September 25, 1949, Otis Martin picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Strictly Stock career during the 200-lap race at Martinsville Speedway when his #4 1948 Buick retired for unknown reasons after 16 laps.

That day, H. Clay Earles’ iconic paperclip track was barely two years old.  It was six years before the surface was paved and seven before the first 500-lap race was held.  Just 15 cars would brave 200 bumpy laps on the flat dirt oval, but each would become a part of history.  Martinsville Speedway is the only track from NASCAR’s first “Strictly Stock” season to remain on today’s calendar.

Martinsville was also the sixth of the eight races run that year.  34-year-old Alabama driver Robert “Red” Byron had only run four of the previous five events, but was well on his way to etching his name on the first championship trophy.  A dirt track star who was wounded while serving with the Air Force during World War II, Byron had wheeled his black #22 Oldsmobile to victory in the second round at the Daytona Beach-Road Course and had only once finished worse than 3rd.  Under NASCAR’s developing point structure, this put Byron 140 points ahead of fellow dirt track legend Bob Flock.

As of this writing, the Martinsville race is one of only two events from 1949 where the starting order is known.  Curtis Turner took the pole ahead of Flock and Byron.  Starting 9th was Otis Martin.

Martin was a local driver, his birthplace of Bassett, Virginia just under 11 miles from the Martinsville track.  He and younger brother Leonard “Pee Wee” Martin were among the 33 starters in the season opener on the Charlotte dirt track - Otis came home 20th, Pee Wee in 28th.  The older Martin began the year running an old 1948 Ford, #19, and two months after overheating problems at Charlotte improved to an 8th-place run at the one-mile Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough, North Carolina.  For Martinsville, Martin would switch to Buick in what was to be Raymond Lewis’ first Strictly Stock start as a car owner.

What happened to Martin’s car that day in 1949 has been lost to history.  All that is known is he took the 15th spot from last-place starter Archie Smith, a 20-year-old from North Carolina who was making his 2nd and final Strictly Stock start.

The next retiree was Bob Flock, who lost 2nd in points to Bill Blair as a result.  Meanwhile, Red Byron took the win by three laps over Petty family patriarch Lee Petty, and would go on to become NASCAR's first Strictly Stock champion.

Following Martin and Flock in the Bottom Five was Georgia driver Slick Smith, whose burly 1947 Hudson crashed out when he tangled with the Buick of Bob Flock’s younger brother Fonty.  Rounding out the group was New Jersey native Kenneth Wagner, who was making his Strictly Stock debut in a #15 Lincoln dubbed the “Moyer Co. Special.”

Martin competed in 23 Strictly Stock races during a seven-year career, earning a career-best 6th driving a Mercury with car #100 in his 1953 return to the Charlotte dirt track.  The Martinsville race remained his only last-place finish.  He made his final start in the 1954 Southern 500, where he finished 25th in a field of 50 driving a Chrysler numbered 48.  Martin died the very next year at just 37 years old.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*The #4 wouldn’t finish last in NASCAR’s top division again until April 27, 1952 when Roscoe Thompson’s #4 Air Lift 1951 Oldsmobile crashed after 12 laps of a rain and darkness-shortened 198-lapper at Central City Speedway in Macon, Georgia.
*The #4 wouldn’t finish last at Martinsville again until April 23, 1978, when Gary Myers’ #4 Spencer’s Baby Wear Chevrolet fell out with a broken transmission after 13 laps of the Virginia 500.  As in 1949, the margin of victory was three laps - this time Darrell Waltrip over Neil Bonnett.  The number hasn’t finished last there since, and as of this writing, current #4 driver Kevin Harvick has yet to trail a Sprint Cup points race.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
15) #4-Otis Martin / 16 laps / unknown
14) #7-Bob Flock / 90 laps / unknown
13) #28-Slick Smith / 103 laps / crash
12) #47-Fonty Flock / 103 laps / wheel
11) #15-Kenneth Wagner / 129 laps / running

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

CUP: Open Team Roundup - Fontana

SOURCE: NASCAR Media
The 39-car list remained the same at Fontana, where the “West Coast Swing” wrapped up for 2016.  Through the race’s early stages, it looked as though the three Open teams would finish in the same order for the fourth time in a row.  But the frantic final laps scrambled the field, lifting one member to a surprising finish.

QUALIFIED

#98 Premium Motorsports
Driver: Cole Whitt
Started: 36th, Finished: 26th

Cole Whitt’s dogged determination finally paid off at Fontana, where he and Premium Motorsports led the Open drivers for the first time.  Whitt lost a lap in the early stages, but fought hard to not go down another for the rest of the afternoon.  At the halfway point on Lap 100, he was still just one lap back in the 31st spot, seventh among those contending for the Lucky Dog spot.  On Lap 122, when Danica Patrick wrecked off the nose of Kasey Kahne, Whitt was one of many drivers to earn the wave-around, and the following debris caution on Lap 156 preserved his return to the lead lap.  In the final laps, he outlasted Ryan Blaney and came under power with the car intact.  Fontana marked Whitt’s best Cup finish since last July at Daytona and ties for the third-best ever for team owner Jay Robinson since he crafted his current team from NEMCO Motorsports and Michael Waltrip Racing at the start of 2014.

In the next race at Martinsville, Whitt looks to make his sixth start at the short track, where he finished a career-best 18th for BK Racing in the fall of 2014.  Robinson’s team could use the experience - their Martinsville debut during the spring 2014 race saw Joe Nemechek, driving Robinson’s #66, break the late J.D. McDuffie’s record for the most Sprint Cup last-place finishes.

#21 Wood Brothers Racing
Driver: Ryan Blaney
Started: 14th, Finished: 35th

For the first time in 2016, Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers did not finish best in class among Open teams.  This was a big surprise not only because of their back-to-back top-ten finishes, but because how strong they continued to run at Fontana.  Blaney timed in 14th, but was as high as 3rd in practice, when they trailed Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards in Happy Hour.  Halfway through the race, Blaney was still 11th, knocking on the door of giving the team it’s best-ever showing at a track where, prior to Saturday’s XFINITY Series race, their driver had never before competed.  With five laps to go, Blaney was still 13th and on the lead lap when the day’s tire issues finally bit him, sending the #21 into the Turn 3 wall.  Blaney made it to pit road, but the car was too damaged to continue.  It was Blaney’s first Cup DNF since last fall at Texas.

In two weeks at Martinsville, the Wood Brothers are expected to make their 110th start at Martinsville and first since 2011, when Trevor Bayne came home 35th.  Again, the #21 has not finished inside the Top 10 at the track since 2005, when Ricky Rudd finished 7th that spring.  But this time, their driver may be an ace up their sleeve: in five Truck Series starts at the bullring, Blaney has three 5th-place finishes and an 8th in his 2012 debut.

#30 The Motorsports Group
Driver: Josh Wise
Started: 37th, Finished: 36th

Though Wise and The Motorsports Group continue their search for speed, Fontana marked another milestone as he, Blaney, and Whitt were all sponsored for the first time.  Wise, whose hometown is nearby Riverside, brought on Sacramento-area builders SBC Contractors as an associate on the rear quarter-panels.  Wise finished the race ten laps down, but wasn’t the first to fall behind the leaders.  It was the chartered entries of Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, Brian Vickers, and Chris Buescher who all had tire issues in the early laps.  The “overtime” period following Kyle Busch’s own late-race tire failure, combined with Blaney’s misfortune a few lap earlier, also gave Wise the chance of finishing second among the Open teams.  In the end, Wise finished on the same lap as Blaney, but one position behind.

Two weeks ahead at Martinsville, The Motorsports Group will make its first Martinsville attempt since their DNQ with Ron Hornaday, Jr. last year, the same event where Wise last started at the short track en route to a 30th-place finish.  Wise’s best Martinsville finish in Cup remains a 25th-place showing in the fall of 2014.

DID NOT QUALIFY

None.

DID NOT ENTER

#26 BK Racing
#35 Front Row Motorsports
#40 Hillman Racing
#59 Leavine Family / Circle Sport Racing
#93 BK Racing

The five teams which last attempted the Daytona 500, three races ago, were again not on the entry list for Fontana.  When the series returns after this week’s Easter break, it will be interesting to see if some of the missing Open teams will brave banging up their cars at the short tracks of Martinsville, Bristol, and Richmond, or wait until the wild card at Talladega.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

CUP: Scary crash nets Larson first last-place finish since 2014

SOURCE: Jeff Gross, Getty Images
Kyle Larson picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California when his #42 Target / Cottonelle Chevrolet was involved in a hard single-car crash that ended his race after 46 of 205 laps.

The finish, which came in Larson’s 80th series start, was his first of the season and his first in Cup since August 17, 2014, when he crashed after 94 laps of the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan, 53 races ago.

The 2014 Michigan crash was one of only a few hiccups during an impressive first season for the California native.  Larson won Rookie of the Year that season on the heels of eight Top Fives, 17 Top Tens, and a 17th-place showing in Driver’s Points.  He also broke through with two victories in the XFINITY Series, the first of which coming at the Auto Club track.  Last year, Larson slipped just two positions in the points, but scored six fewer Top Fives and seven less Top Tens as his first Cup victory continued to elude him.  Coming into Sunday’s race, Larson sat 17th in points once more, unable to find consistency after a 7th-place finish in the Daytona 500.

On Friday, Larson put up the 13th-fastest time in the opening practice and broke into the final round of qualifying, earning the 7th spot on the grid.  Following a 23rd-fastest time in Saturday’s morning session, he looked to find speed again in Happy Hour when disaster struck.  Larson scraped the wall in Turn 4 and was rear-ended by the fast-approaching Greg Biffle, causing heavy damage to both cars.  The Chip Ganassi team decided against going to a backup car and instead began to rebuild the rear of Larson’s #42.  Meanwhile, Larson would turn in an 8th-place finish in Saturday’s wild XFINITY Series race, having led twice for five laps.

At the start of Sunday’s Cup race, 39th in the fourth-consecutive short field went to Jeffrey Earnhardt and Go FAS Racing’s #32 Can-Am / Kappa Ford. By the end of Lap 1, Earnhardt had passed Josh Wise, whose #30 Chevrolet for the first time carried outside sponsorship from California building company SBC Contractors.  On Lap 7, Michael Annett took a turn in 39th when his #46 Pilot Chevrolet for HScott Motorsports lost touch with the pack, but he slipped past Wise the next time by.  Wise held the spot until Lap 16, when Kurt Busch pitted his #41 Haas Automation / Monster Energy Chevrolet after damage suffered from contact with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., costing Busch a lap.  Busch’s teammate Brian Vickers took the spot next on Lap 26 when his #14 Janssen / Arnie’s Army / Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet hit the wall much harder, but the caution didn’t fall until two circuits later when Chris Buescher’s #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford lost a tire and broke loose in Turn 2.

On the Lap 32 restart, Buescher slipped behind Busch and Vickers to take the 39th spot, but tire problems continued to shuffle the order.  Next to fall back was Kasey Kahne, who had to pit his #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet after a melted bead on his right-rear tire.  Kahne and Buescher both picked up speed again, first dropping Earnhardt’s #32 to 9th on Lap 43, then Wise on Lap 45.  Wise was still holding 39th, three laps down, when the caution flew again on Lap 49.

Kyle Larson was struggling with handling issues and running 27th, just a few laps away from being passed by the leaders.  As Larson led Regan Smith down the backstretch, the #42’s left-rear tire came apart.  Larson swerved, nudged the outside wall, then headed straight toward the SAFER barrier along the inside fence, nearly collecting Smith in the process.  The blown tire damaged Larson’s brakes, and the car hit the wall head-on at nearly full-speed, lifting all four wheels off the ground.  Larson walked away sore, but uninjured, while his car was done for the day.

Finishing 38th on Sunday was Danica Patrick, whose #10 TaxAct Chevrolet tangled with Kasey Kahne entering Turn 1 and slammed head-on into the outside wall in another frightening crash.  37th went to Greg Biffle, who lost a cylinder on the ensuing restart then trailed smoke from the pipes while at the tail end of the lead lap.  Wise ended up 36th, still under power but 10 laps in arrears, followed by fellow Open driver Ryan Blaney in the #21 Motorcraft / Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford, his Top-15 run K.O.’d by a hard smack to the Turn 3 wall in the final moments.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This is the first last-place finish for both Larson and the #42 in a Cup race at the Auto Club Speedway.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
39) #42-Kyle Larson / 46 laps / crash
38) #10-Danica Patrick / 120 laps / crash
37) #16-Greg Biffle / 146 laps / engine
36) #30-Josh Wise / 195 laps / running
35) #21-Ryan Blaney / 195 laps / crash

2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) 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, The Motorsports Group (1)

2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (4)
2nd) Toyota (1)

XFINITY: Matt DiBenedetto parks for TriStar in XFINITY Series return

SOURCE:Rubbin's Racin' Forums
Matt DiBenedetto picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s TreatMyClot.com 300 by Janssen at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California when his unsponsored #10 TriStar Motorsports Toyota lost its brakes after 2 of 150 laps.

The finish, which came in DiBendedetto’s 50th series start, was his first of the year and his first since July 12, 2014, when his unsponsored #46 The Motorsports Group Chevrolet fell out with brake issues after 1 lap of the Sta-Green 200 at New Hampshire, 54 races ago.

In exchange for a few start-and-park efforts, including Loudon, DiBenedetto took the controls of Curtis Key’s primary #40 Chevrolet and turned in a few impressive runs late in the 2014 season, including an 11th at Road America and 13th in Mid-Ohio.  Driver and team parted ways at over the offseason, and both eyed a first-time Cup effort.  While Key’s The Motorsports Group struggled to only two starts, DiBenedetto put together a respectable rookie season with BK Racing with an 18th at Talladega his best of 33 starts.  Fresh off his first Daytona 500 start, where a crash left him last, DiBenedetto is now attempting his first full Cup season.

Fontana marked DiBenedetto’s first start in the XFINITY Series since he left TMG.  This time, he would again be called upon for “start-and-park” duties, replacing Jeff Green, the preliminary entry of the #10 Toyota.  Like Green has in many of his starts, DiBenedetto did not participate in the opening practice, and he turned in the 36th-best time in Happy Hour on Friday.  The car improved in qualifying, earning the 30th spot after a single lap of 171.686 mph.

Missing the race were Carl Long in Motorsports Business Management’s #13 Dodge and Morgan Shepherd, handed his first DNQ since last year’s Homestead finale.  Withdrawn was Todd Peck’s second B.J. McLeod entry, and for the second-straight week, Peck and his X-treme pH Sports Water sponsorship would run on Rick Ware’s #15 Ford.

DiBenedetto pulled behind the wall under green after completing just two laps.  16 circuits later, fellow Cup regular Josh Wise exited with a vibration on his #40 ww.a1tickets.ca Toyota, MBM’s other entry.  Finishing 38th was David Starr, whose recent string of bad lick in the #44 Zachry Toyota continued with an engine failure that drew the second caution of the race.  37th-place Ray Black, Jr. found himself in a harmless spin off Turn 4, but a flat tire dug in the nose of his #07 ScubaLife / CDA.edu Chevrolet, and the damage left him with his worst finish of the young season.  Rounding out the Bottom Five in 36th was Dylan Lupton, whose second RSS Racing entry #93 cited crash damage.

DiBenedetto went on to start 33rd in Sunday’s Cup race and finish 27th, his second-best effort of the year behind a 20th-place showing last Sunday at Phoenix.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*Despite the driver change, TriStar Motorsports continues a streak of four consecutive last-place finishes in the 2016 NASCAR XFINITY Season, all of which with the #10 Toyota.  It’s also TriStar’s third last-place finish in a row in this event.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #10-Matt DiBenedetto / 2 laps / brakes
39) #40-Josh Wise / 18 laps / vibration / led 1 lap
38) #44-David Starr / 30 laps / engine
37) #07-Ray Black, Jr. / 44 laps / crash
36) #93-Dylan Lupton / 56 laps / crash

2016 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Jeff Green (3)
2nd) Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Preece (1)

2016 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) TriStar Motorsports (4)
2nd) JD Motorsports (1)

2016 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Toyota (4)
2nd) Chevrolet (1)

Friday, March 18, 2016

OPINION: How a 40-start cap would improve all three of NASCAR’s top divisions

SOURCE: NASCAR Media
Last week, I broke down the problem facing the XFINITY Series, how the Cup regulars invading the division are suffocating the series regulars and inhibiting driver development.  This week, I offer my solution: a mandatory cap of 40 starts for every driver who competes in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions.

Under this universal system, a “start” in a NASCAR race shall be treated as one of a bundle of tickets which, once used by a driver, cannot be refunded.  The plan is simple and plays no favorites: whether you’re Kyle Busch or an up-and-comer in the Truck Series, everyone has 40 starts.  A driver - not a team - earns these tickets whenever he or she is approved for his NASCAR license - whether over the offseason or in the middle of the year.  Regardless of when a driver earns them, they expire at season’s end in November.  A driver can only get another 40 tickets on the same year-by-year basis as their license - no more, no less.

Why 40?  Because it limits Cup drivers the most - the very purpose of this proposal.  The most prolific invaders of the XFINITY Series are perennial contenders for the Sprint Cup Championship, which under current NASCAR rules means that the driver must attempt all 36 races.  With a 40-race cap, Cup drivers aren’t prohibited from running XFINITY or Truck races - even the richest events on the schedule at Daytona, Talladega, Texas, and Indianapolis - but are incurred the strictest limit on how often they do so.  This also makes clear to sponsors that they are prohibited from funding a Cup driver those four times, eliminating the temptation to pour all their assets into one Cup driver.

The 40-race cap also doesn’t punish XFINITY and Truck Series regulars.  In fact, the size of the schedule itself gives them added lee-way: both divisions have shorter seasons than Cup, and thus more starts they can use in the other two divisions.  With this rule in place under the current schedule, a full-time XFINITY driver has seven extra starts - three more than a Cup regular - while a Truck driver has 13 - nine more than in Cup.  This makes logical sense since XFINITY and Truck Series drivers - unlike their Cup superiors - need to run more NASCAR races in order to hone their skills.  With Cup invasions by any one driver reduced, XFINITY and Truck drivers are given greater opportunity to win their own races by competing against fellow regulars.

Best of all, by making a driver’s number of available starts a known value, it makes that XFINITY or Truck driver more marketable to sponsors whose ad budget with the Cup drivers has been slashed by the same system.  With added funding comes better performances, and a better chance of the XFINITY or Truck regular ascending through the ranks.  The first drivers to ascend will be the series regulars of both the XFINITY and Truck Series, teams with the most funding and resources.  As they then enter the Cup Series and are themselves prohibited from running more than a few races in the lower ranks, the lesser-knowns struggling to make ends meet will take their place.  These underdogs will then contend with other upwardly-mobile drivers for Cup teams, a cast of characters that continues to change.  This increased fluidity of the divisions means greater competition, and thus a better racing product.

Meanwhile, Cup Series regulars are given little choice but to focus on their Cup efforts, which will enhance the quality of racing in the sport’s most elite division.  This would put some of the Cup Series’ youngest stars on par with its most prolific title contender.  From the start of the 2006 season through the end of 2015, Kevin Harvick ran 197 XFINITY races and 37 in Trucks while Kyle Busch made 256 in XFINITY and 111 in Trucks.  Yet both drivers only won their first Sprint Cup in the last two years.  By then, Jimmie Johnson - who made just 12 XFINITY races and 1 in Trucks during the same span - had won all six of his.

The most important aspect of this rule is its enforcement, which must be absolute and consistent.  For this rule to work, NASCAR’s sanctioning body must make sure a driver’s 40 starts remain non-transferrable, that is, they stay with that driver.  Starts cannot be sold from one driver to the next, just as a completed check cannot be claimed by another person.  Starts must thus be treated differently from qualifying spots, Top 35 positions, and now Charter medallions, which are all marketed without regulation in a way that disproportionately favors the richest teams.  This is essential to the success of the rule - without it, Cup drivers will continue to pillage the lower divisions for pennies on the dollar by encouraging small teams to take the short money.

Further, in the wake of the Chase exemptions granted to both Kyle and Kurt Busch last year, NASCAR must also resist the temptation to grant exemptions regarding how many starts a driver has.  Clearly defining the “use” of a start is critical for this purpose, and it must also obey the above rule of non-transferability.  My suggestion is that a start is “used” when the driver cranks the car at the start of the race - the same standard already in use for determining who is credited with earning driver points in the official race results.  This allows for situations where a relief driver is called prior to the race - but not afterwards.  It also favors small teams who often DNQ or lose their only car in a practice crash and are thus unable to start the race - both situations which do not constitute a “use” of any of their 40 starts.  Otherwise, there is to be no exception - any misfortune after the start, no matter how soon - including a “start-and-park,” means the start has been used and cannot be re-used.

The 40-start rule is a simple solution to not only save the XFINITY and Truck Series from irrelevancy, but a way to improve the quality of Cup fields.  Just as importantly, it’s an opportunity for NASCAR’s sanctioning body to assert itself by consistently enforcing its own rules.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

5/3/98: Fontana crash nets Bill Elliott first last-place finish in 12 years

SOURCE: Terry Callahan, The Auto Channel
On May 3, 1998, Bill Elliott picked up the 5th last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the California 500 presented by NAPA at the California Speedway when his #94 McDonald’s Ford crashed after 84 of 250 laps.

The finish, which came in Elliott’s 535th series start, was his first since April 27, 1986, when his #9 Coors Ford lost an engine after 42 laps of the Sovran Bank 500 at Martinsville.

Bill Elliott’s fourth and fifth last-place finishes bridged two completely different eras in Elliott’s career.  In 1986, he was in his fifth year driving for Harry Melling.  Over those first few seasons, the pair broke through with a win at Riverside in 1983, won the first of 16 “Most Popular Driver” awards in 1984, claimed the first-ever Winston Million in 1985, and would later in 1986 win the only All-Star Race not run at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  Still, it would be another two seasons before Elliott claimed his lone Winston Cup.

By 1998, Elliott was an owner-driver, just as he had before signing with Melling.  He fielded his #94 for three seasons, then in 1998 added a second car in a partnership with Dan Marino.  The First Plus Financial-sponsored entry was driven by rookie Jerry Nadeau.  At the same time, Elliott was still looking for his first victory since 1994, his final year driving for Junior Johnson.  Elliott’s bright red McDonald’s Ford had threatened on several occasions, most notably the 1997 Daytona 500 and Southern 500, where both times he was bested by Jeff Gordon in the closing laps.  However, Elliott was also saddled by injuries, the worst of which a broken femur suffered at Talladega in 1996 which forced him to miss seven races - the first Cup fields he’d missed since 1982.

One week before the Fontana race, when the series again rolled into Talladega, Elliott and team were off to one of their strongest starts in years.  For one thing, the team was expanding.  Rookie Jerry Nadeau drove a full-time second team, a #13 FirstPlus Financial Ford co-owned by Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, and at Elliott entered a third team for Talladega, the #89 McRib Ford, a 1997 Thunderbird driven by test driver Dennis Setzer.  For another, Elliott himself was finishing well.  Driving one of the sleek new 1998 Ford Tauruses, Elliott began the year with a 10th-place showing in the Daytona 500 and had never finished worse than 15th in the next seven races, earning him a solid 7th in the driver standings.

In the closing stages of the Talladega race, Elliott was still among the leaders and racing Dale Earnhardt for 4th when disaster struck.  Ward Burton made contact with Earnhardt, turning him left into Elliott’s right-rear.  Both cars turned hard right and were sent so hard into the outside wall that they were stuck belly-to-belly with Elliott’s roof grinding against the concrete barrier.  Both Elliott and Earnhardt walked away from the multi-car melee, though Earnhardt suffered minor burns while Elliott bruised his sternum.  Elliott’s 39th-place finish dropped him just one spot in points to 8th, but he looked to Fontana, where he’d run out of gas and finished 32nd in the 1997 inaugural, for a rebound.

Elliott qualified 12th for the Fontana race, his third-best start of the young season.  Four drivers missed the field: Dave Marcis in his #71 RealTree Chevrolet, Rich Bickle in Cale Yarborough’s #98 Thorn Apple Valley Ford, Tony Raines in Kurt Roehrig’s 2nd attempt to get his #19 into the show, and Las Vegas last-placer Hut Stricklin for the Stavola Brothers.

Starting last was Dale Earnhardt, just the fourth of five times in his career that he would start 43rd in a Cup Series race.  Earnhardt had a good run in Happy Hour, however, and by the time he entered Turn 1, he had begun to climb through the field.  Last place then belonged to 42nd-place starter Wally Dallenbach, Jr., who relieved regular driver Todd Bodine in the #35 Tabasco Pontiac.  By Lap 12, Elliott’s teammate Jerry Nadeau had fallen to 43rd, followed on Lap 17 by owner-driver Brett Bodine in the #11 Paychex Ford.  Bodine was the first to lose a lap, lost another by Lap 37, then a third by Lap 45 as the field prepared to make green-flag stops.

Elliott, meanwhile, was struggling.  On Lap 2, he was running on the high side of a three-wide battle with Darrell Waltrip and Morgan Shepherd when he was forced up into the loose stuff in the high lane.  Shepherd’s 46 First Union Chevrolet broke loose as well, and Elliott had to slow down to avoid hitting him.  Around Lap 56, Elliott was lapped by race leader Rusty Wallace, then was trapped by a debris caution that slowed the field nine circuits later.  He restarted 7th in line, but the leaders went three-wide around him again, keeping him from getting his lap back.  On Lap 85, he had fallen back even more when trouble broke out in front of him.

Dale Jarrett had a miserable weekend in Fontana.  He was suffering a stomach virus, and had then lost his primary car in a hard qualifying crash entering Turn 4.  On Lap 85, he had managed to bounce back into the 13th spot when his car sputtered and trailed smoke just short of the start-finish line.  When he entered Turn 1, the car then erupted in smoke, triggering a wreck behind him.  Kyle Petty lost control of his #44 Hot Wheels Pontiac, spun up the track, and clipped Elliott’s Ford.  This time, Elliott slammed the outside wall head-on hard enough to lift all four tires off the track.  Just as at Talladega, Elliott was slow to exit the car as the nose of his Ford ignited, but he managed to walk away.  Cleanup took so long that the red flag came out.

Dale Earnhardt spun during the wreck as he slowed to avoid Elliott and Petty, and ended up colliding with his Richard Childress team car, the #31 Lowe’s Chevrolet.  The #31’s regular driver Mike Skinner was absent from the race due to a neck injury.  In his place was Mike Dillon, the same driver who relieved Earnhardt after his first-lap loss of consciousness during the 1997 Southern 500.  For Dillon, father of current drivers Austin and Ty Dillon, it was to be his only Cup start, and the damage left him 35th, 11 laps down to race winner Mark Martin.  Earnhardt, meanwhile, managed to recover to finish 9th while his team, Dale Earnhardt, Inc., finished 5th with Darrell Waltrip in the #1 Pennzoil Chevrolet.  Prior to Fontana, DEI had never finished better than 15th.

Elliott, Petty, and Jarrett were the first three retirees from the race and filled the first three spots in the Bottom Five.  Finishing 42nd was rookie Kevin Lepage, whose #91 Fluidyne Automotive Chevrolet owned by Joe Falk slowed down the backstretch on the restart, went behind the wall for repairs, then returned to the track only to exit a short time later with an oil leak.  Rounding out the group was Derrike Cope, who brought out the fourth caution of the afternoon when his #30 Gumout Pontiac crashed in Turn 2 on Lap 155.

In spite of two back-to-back crashes, Elliott only missed one race in the 1998 season, and it wasn’t due to his injuries.  The day before the September race at Dover, his father George passed away, and Elliott handed driving duties over to a rising star of the Busch Series - Matt Kenseth.  Kenseth stunned with a 6th-place finish that day, and he and Busch Series team owner Robbie Reiser returned the following summer to debut a new Jack Roush team, the #17 DeWalt Power Tools Ford, with Reiser as the crew chief.

Elliott, meanwhile, continued to show flashes of brilliance with his #94 McDonald’s team, earning four more Top Fives and seven Top Tens over the next two seasons.  He was then signed to drive for Ray Evernham’s new Dodge team for 2001, and the McDonald’s sponsorship went to Cal Wells, who funded what was to be an abbreviated rookie campaign for Truck Series regular Andy Houston, who today is Austin Dillon’s spotter.  Elliott made his 828th and most recent Cup start at Daytona on July 7, 2012, finishing 37th in a one-off for Turner Motorsports.  His son Chase would join the series less than three years later.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This was the first last-place finish for the #94 in a Cup race since July 6, 1991, when Terry Labonte quit after 8 laps of the Pepsi 400 at Daytona.  It was another interesting last-place story.  Labonte’s #94 Sunoco Oldsmobile qualified 41st and last in the field, and in the race’s early stages he had difficulty keeping up with the pack.  Labonte reported engine problems, but when he pulled off the track, the Billy Hagan-owned team didn’t find anything wrong.  The story is that the team brought the wrong car to the track, and that this mistake was somehow not caught in the lead-up to the race.  Curiously, that race also marked Bill Elliott’s final win with Harry Melling, and his last in the #9 until his Evernham entry took the checkers at Homestead in 2001.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
43) #94-Bill Elliott / 84 laps / crash
42) #44-Kyle Petty / 85 laps / crash
41) #88-Dale Jarrett / 86 laps / engine
40) #91-Kevin Lepage / 93 laps / oil leak
39) #30-Derrike Cope / 153 laps / crash

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

CUP: Open Team Roundup - Phoenix

Ricky Rudd, 2005
SOURCE: USA Today
For the third-consecutive race, the NASCAR Sprint Cup field remained at just 39 cars and featured the same three survivors of the Charter system.  An optimistic reason for why that 40th spot remains available could be the “West Coast Swing” itself, since travel costs from the Charlotte-area shops can be the highest.  Perhaps, then, some of the Open teams from Daytona will return when the series shifts back to the east coast.  However, more realistically, it could mean that the most negative predictions are true - 39-car entry lists are the new norm, and they could continue to shrink through the season.

QUALIFIED

#21 Wood Brothers Racing
Driver: Ryan Blaney
Started: 12th, Finished: 10th

One week after Ryan Blaney’s best-career Cup finish on a 1.5-mile track, both driver and team had reason to celebrate.  Blaney edged Jimmie Johnson’s backup car to finish 10th, tying Elliott Sadler’s 2002 run for the second-best Phoenix finish by the Wood Brothers team (the best beign Morgan Shepherd’s 7th-place run in 1995).  It was both Blaney’s first back-to-back Cup Series Top 10s as well as the first pair for the Woods since October 2005, when Ricky Rudd put the #21 Ford in the 9th spot at Kansas and Charlotte.  Blaney now heads to Fontana 12th in points, a surprising member of the provisional Chase roster.  It will be Blaney’s first start in NASCAR’s top three divisions at the Fontana track, and it will be a new experience for his team as well.  In 18 starts at the facility, the Wood Brothers have just one Top 10 - another 9th by Ricky Rudd in 2005 - and haven’t competed there since 2011, when Trevor Bayne came home 30th.

#30 The Motorsports Group
Driver: Josh Wise
Started: 37th, Finished: 34th

Josh Wise gave owner Curtis Key his best-ever finish in Cup, improving by one position over his own 35th-place showing at Las Vegas.  Just as he had in Atlanta and Vegas, Wise lost laps early as he struggled to find speed, but remained on track all afternoon, and like at Vegas was able to pass a number of retiring Charter cars.  In the end, four Chartered cars were in Wise’s rear view mirror - including two from Richard Childress Racing - along with fellow Open driver Cole Whitt, who Wise finished ahead of for the second race in a row.  These are small steps, but important ones - especially as Key continues to search for sponsorship.

#98 Premium Motorsports
Driver: Cole Whitt
Started: 34th, Finished: 36th

Just as he did at Atlanta, Whitt fought hard to stay on the lead lap during the opening stages of Sunday’s race.  With sponsorship from Rinnai Tankless Water Heaters, yet another returning sponsor of Whitt from his BK Racing and Front Row Motorsports days, he clawed his way from 38th to 34th on Lap 26 before Kyle Busch finally put him a lap down.  Whitt remained just ahead of Josh Wise for much of the race, but his Chevrolet began to run hot in the final stages.  With about 70 laps to go, Whitt’s car trailed steam and had to pull off the track in the final laps.  While it was Whitt’s second DNF in a Cup points race this season, it also marked the first time that no Open team finished last in 2016 - Ryan Newman secured the spot early for Richard Childress.

DID NOT QUALIFY

None.

DID NOT ENTER

#26 BK Racing
#35 Front Row Motorsports
#40 Hillman Racing
#59 Leavine Family / Circle Sport Racing
#93 BK Racing

The five teams which last attempted the Daytona 500, three races ago, were again not on the entry list for Phoenix.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

CUP: Tire problems leave Ryan Newman with first last-place run since 2008

SOURCE: NASCAR
Ryan Newman picked up the 8th last-place finish of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career in Sunday’s Good Sam 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway when his #31 Grainger Chevrolet crashed after he completed 51 of 313 laps.

The finish, which occurred in Newman’s 516th series start, was his first of the season.  He hadn’t finished last in Sprint Cup since October 5, 2008 - 263 races ago - when his #12 Alltel / Samsung HDTV Dodge for Penske Racing lost an engine after 48 laps of the AMP Energy 500 at Talladega.  Newman’s Richard Childress Racing entry is also first of the RTA’s chartered 36 to finish last in 2016.

A 17-time race winner who two years ago finished a close 2nd to Kevin Harvick for the Sprint Cup Championship, Newman began the 2016 season with a frustrating SpeedWeeks.  A late-race crash in the Sprint Unlimited left him 19th in a field of 25, his Daytona 500 car was damaged in a practice wreck four days later, and an engine failure in Can-Am Duel #2 left him last in the race, 38th on the grid for the season opener.  Newman then recovered where it mattered most, finishing 11th in the 500, qualifying 4th at Atlanta, and placing 13th at Las Vegas.  He came into Phoenix - site of his Cup debut in 2000 - 17th in the point standings, and looked to put on a good run for Grainger in its first 2016 appearance as the #31’s sponsor.

Newman put up the 19th-fastest time in Friday’s opening practice and missed the cut for the pole in qualifying, settling for 20th with a speed of 136.576 mph.  He ran 28th in Saturday’s first practice session, then 18th in Happy Hour.

Starting 39th in NASCAR’s third-consecutive short field was XFINITY Series regular Joey Gase, set to make his first Cup start of the season.  He again returned to the #32 Ford fielded by Go Green Racing, which this time didn’t have a sponsor when the team prepped it at Las Vegas.  By qualifying, the Donate Life America program, Gase’s XFINITY sponsor at Jimmy Means Racing, had signed on, followed soon by fellow Means sponsor JT Concrete, Inc. and LifeCell.  During the pace laps, Gase was joined by three drivers sent to the rear: Kasey Kahne, who lost an engine on his #5 Great Clips Chevrolet, Michael Annett, sent to a backup #46 Pilot Chevrolet following a practice crash, and four-time Phoenix winner Jimmie Johnson, whose #48 Lowe’s Pro Services Chevrolet was totaled in qualifying when the steering wheel came off.

By the end of Lap 1, Gase had reassumed the 39th spot and held it until Lap 3, when Gase passed Atlanta last-placer Josh Wise and his #30 Key Realty Group Chevrolet.  On Lap 9, Clint Bowyer made an unscheduled green-flag stop for a loose wheel on his #15 5-Hour Energy Chevrolet and was the first to lose a lap, going down two by the time he rejoined the race.  Bowyer was still trailing the field when trouble found Ryan Newman on the 52nd circuit.  Newman, in 27th and racing Trevor Bayne for the Lucky Dog, lost a right-front tire heading into Turn 3 and slammed the outside wall.  The wreck brought out the first yellow of the afternoon, and the #31 was towed behind the wall.  The crew attempted repairs, but by Lap 150, the FOX Sports leaderboard indicated he was out of the event.

Finishing 38th on Sunday was Newman’s teammate Paul Menard, whose #27 Richmond / Menards Chevrolet wrecked in nearly the same spot and from the same cause, drawing the second yellow on Lap 107.  Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. clobbered the Turn 1 wall even harder on Lap 164, his #17 Fastenal Ford shortened in the right-front and barely able to return to the pits.  36th went to Cole Whitt, his first DNF of the season, when his lapped #98 Rinnai Tankless Water Heaters Chevrolet overheated in the final laps.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Casey Mears, his #13 GEICO Chevrolet fighting electrical gremlins on Lap 132 that sent him behind the wall for more than 40 laps before he returned to the track.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This is Newman’s second last-place finish in a Cup race at Phoenix.  On April 12, 2008, Newman’s #12 Alltel Dodge started on pole for the Subway Fresh Fit 500 and led 37 of the first 49 laps before a fiery engine failure ended his night after 134 circuits.
*This is the first last-place finish for the #31 in a Cup race at Phoenix.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
39) #31-Ryan Newman / 51 laps / crash
38) #27-Paul Menard / 104 laps / crash
37) #17-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 161 laps / crash
36) #98-Cole Whitt / 236 laps / overheating
35) #13-Casey Mears / 268 laps / running

2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Newman, Cole Whitt, Josh Wise (1)

2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) BK Racing, Premium Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, The Motorsports Group (1)

2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (3)
2nd) Toyota (1)

XFINITY: Jeff Green scores third-straight Phoenix last-place finish

SOURCE: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
Jeff Green picked up the 86th last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Axalta Faster. Tougher. Brighter. 200 at the Phoenix International Raceway when his unsponsored #10 TriStar Motorsports Toyota fell out with a vibration after 5 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Green's 424th series start, was his third of the season and third in a row.  Green, who now has 91 last-place runs across NASCAR’s top three divisions, has finished last in 22 of the past 27 XFINITY Series races dating back to last May at Charlotte.

Green and his identical #10 Toyota continued on the “West Coast Swing” as one of 42 entrants for the Phoenix event.  After passing on the opening practice session, he turned in a solid 29th-fastest lap in the second session, skipped Happy Hour, then in qualifying once again avoided having to rely on a provisional, securing the 29th spot with a lap of 130.928 mph.  Missing the race were Josh Reaume, back in place of Carl Long in Motorsports Business Management’s #40 Toyota, and Todd Peck, his second-consecutive DNQ in B.J. McLeod’s #99 X-Treme pH Sports Water Ford.

Peck was then tabbed as driver of Rick Ware Racing’s #15 Ford, an entry slated to be driven by Truck Series regular Ryan Ellis.  Ellis wrecked hard in qualifying, and without a backup car just minutes before the race, it appeared the #15 would secure the last spot as a “did not start.”  B.J. McLeod acquired Ellis’ starting spot for Peck and renumbered his own identical black #99 Ford as the #15, putting McLeod’s driver back in the race with the owner points going to Ware.  The net effect of this was Peck starting his 3rd career XFINITY Series race from the 40th and final spot.  Peck was joined at the back by McLeod himself in his #78 Ford and Dakoda Armstrong in JGL Racing’s #28 Toyota, both moved there for unapproved adjustments.

By the end of Lap 1, the group was passed for last by David Starr, whose #44 Zachry Toyota was involved in the first caution of the race.  As Starr raced into Turn 3 alongside Ray Black, Jr.’s #07 ScubaLife / CDA.edu Chevrolet, the two cars made contact, sending Starr into the outside wall and spinning to the apron.  During the caution, both Starr and Black pitted with Starr’s #44 still in last, followed briefly by Peck’s #15 on Lap 4.  Just before the Lap 6 restart, Jeff Green, who had fallen to 39th by that point, pulled his car behind the wall, securing him the last-place finish.  Peck went on to finish 37th, but under power, 12 laps behind race winner Kyle Busch.

The only other retiree joining Green in the garage was Morgan Shepherd, who prior to the start gave up his 30th spot on the grid and fell to the rea in his #89 Racing With Jesus Chevrolet.  Shepherd pulled off the track six laps after Green.  Mike Harmon ended up 38th, but finished under power for the third consecutive race following his DNQ at Daytona, each time doing so in his black #74 Dodge.  Behind 37th-place Todd Peck was 36th-place D.J. Kennington, the two-time NASCAR Pinty’s Series Champion making his first XFINITY start in nearly five years.  The Canadian drove Motorsports Business Management’s only car in the field, the #13 Northern Provincial Pipelines / Clark Construction Dodge, which came home 10 laps behind the leaders.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marks Green’s third-consecutive last-place finish at Phoenix.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #10-Jeff Green / 5 laps / vibration
39) #89-Morgan Shepherd / 11 laps / overheating
38) #74-Mike Harmon / 182 laps / running
37) #15-Todd Peck / 188 laps / running
36) #13-D.J. Kennington / 190 laps / running

2016 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Jeff Green (3)
2nd) Ryan Preece (1)

2016 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) TriStar Motorsports (3)
2nd) JD Motorsports (1)

2016 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Toyota (3)
2nd) Chevrolet (1)

Friday, March 11, 2016

OPINION: “Start-and-win” drivers are destroying the XFINITY Series

SOURCE: AP / SportingNews.com
“Names are made here.”

The current slogan of the NASCAR XFINITY Series presents the division as the stock car racing equivalent of Triple-A baseball or the NBA D-League, a place where up-and-comers vie for a chance at the majors.  But the XFINITY Series differs from its stick-and-ball equivalents in one important way: it allows elite drivers to race against the less-experienced series regulars.  On paper, this doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.  Since the XFINITY Series runs different cars from Sprint Cup and under different rules, drivers from both divisions have to contend with different types of inexperience.  As the cream of the XFINITY crop contends for wins against the Cup invaders, the other regulars benefit by being able to follow in the tire tracks of their Cup rivals.

It’s debatable if this format worked in the past.  But it’s undeniable that it’s not working now.

Most of the XFINITY Series regulars only see the Cup guys for a few moments each race - first when they open up a lead, then when they come around again to put them a lap down.  This is the sad reality for nearly three-quarters of the field, ranging from longtime team owners Johnny Davis and Jimmy Means to start-ups like Obaika Motorsports.  For these teams, a 15th-place finish is often the best they can expect at most tracks where Cup guys show up to compete.  Despite their consistency and persistence, many of these teams struggle with sponsorship and have to “start-and-park” backup cars just to make ends meet.  Even family-owned RSS Motorsports, whose driver Ryan Sieg has worked wonders with virtually no funding, still loses laps to Cup regulars.  Meanwhile, the slowest of the XFINITY drivers, including veterans like 74-year-old Morgan Shepherd, pull out early most every week.

The situation isn’t much better for XFINITY regulars who signed with Cup teams like Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress, and Roush-Fenway.  The “battles” between Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski against Daniel Suarez and Darrell Wallace, Jr. are lopsided at best and unfair at worst.  In the Sprint Cup Series, a Top 5 or a Top 10 is a tremendous accomplishment, especially if earned by a new face.  But, despite the advertising, that simply isn’t the case in the XFINITY Series.  Top-tier series regulars are expected to win by their teams and sponsors alike, and to race at the same level as their Cup counterparts.  After all, to a sponsor, if their driver is being supported by a team that contends for wins regularly in Cup and can’t win, then the weak link must be the driver, right?

What happens too often is the Cup team gets impatient, and the new driver loses his ride to the next guy in line.  Landon Cassill was once a development driver for Hendrick Motorsports while Josh Wise filled out the schedule for Danica Patrick at JR Motorsports.  Both achieved modest results, but lost their rides in short order, leaving them to run “start-and-park” efforts in Cup for Max Q Racing and Front Row Motorsports, respectively.  It has taken both Cassill and Wise more than five years to climb the ladder once more, and though they now run full-time in Cup, both still race with limited funding.

The sad part is that Cassill and Wise are the lucky ones.  Consider Danny O’Quinn, Jr. and Todd Kluever, both development drivers for Roush-Fenway Racing who were each released in 2007 after a season and a half on the tour.  Just two years after their release, O’Quinn could only get a ride parking XFINITY cars for D’Hont-Humphrey Motorsports while Kluever, once in position to edge David Ragan for Mark Martin’s Cup ride, had disappeared altogether.  The turnover rate in the XFINITY Series - especially for the sport’s biggest teams - is now so fast that many drivers are released before they’ve really had a chance to take advantage of the opportunity.  Names may be made in the XFINITY Series, but they can be forgotten just as quickly.

The simplest solution to fix all this is to bring the XFINITY Series in line with other minor league sports: keep the top athletes out and let the series regulars give the division an identity of its own.  But anyone who suggests this is invariably shouted down by drivers, teams, media, and fans alike.  This remains the most frustrating and befuddling aspect of the entire controversy: the belief there isn’t one at all, despite so much evidence to the contrary.  What perplexes me the most is that many of the most vocal opponents are also those who despise “start-and-park” drivers, claiming that they are undeserving of what little purse money they claim.  They refuse to see the Cup invaders as the true cause of the XFINITY Series' woes; “start-and-win” drivers who are all but assured victory - and the majority of the purse - before the race even starts.

Sure, we all want to see the stars of the sport, but that’s why we have elite divisions in the first place.  It’s no fun to watch one Cup driver run away with a race - we want to see them race against their peers for the biggest prize.  If the XFINITY Series’ brand of athletic perversity is okay, then why doesn’t Stephen Curry shoot 3-pointers over the heads of a D-League NBA team?  Why doesn’t Madison Bumgarner pitch fastballs past a Triple-A batter?  Why, then, do so many think nothing of it when Kyle Busch leads 199 of 200 laps of an XFINITY race?

The other day, Dave Moody linked a Twitter conversation that touched on this question.  In it, Brad Keselowski’s spotter Joey Meier opined that “there is a list of successful drivers that don’t get a chance without the enticement of a bigger name for a few of those races.”  Keselowski agreed, thanking Dale Earnhardt, Jr. “[f]or running a few races that enticed sponsors to help launch my racing career.”  Meier pointed to Keselowski’s response, and Martin Truex, Jr.’s support of it, concluding “If anyone doubts that CUP guys get sponsors and race Xfinity to help up and comers. 2 drivers that would disagree.”

At first, Meier’s final point makes sense.  In order to compete in the XFINITY Series, an up-and-coming driver needs a team to give him a car, and that doesn’t just happen on its own.  To field an XFINITY car, the team needs to sign a sponsor.  But his logic breaks down from there.  Simply put, there’s no clear causal link between a Cup driver running in the XFINITY Series and an up-and-coming teammate getting sponsorship of his own.  In other words, what exactly “entices” a sponsor?

Perhaps Meier means the Cup driver’s performance will endear the Cup driver’s sponsor to the team, and the sponsor will then want to fund the up-and-coming driver in other races.  The problem with this racing version of “trickle-down economics” is that it’s not a given that a sponsor who funds an XFINITY Series team will be able to spend more on that team.  A number of XFINITY Series team sponsors are only there because it’s a more affordable option than Sprint Cup: a multiple-race deal in XFINITY may only cover one or two races in Cup.  It’s misleading to tell an up-and-comer there will be funding for him if he just lets the Cup guy use it first.  Further, a sponsor’s loyalty to a driver and a sponsor’s loyalty to a team aren’t the same thing, and having one doesn’t guarantee the other.  In both Cup and XFINITY, sponsors have followed a driver from one team to the next.  For example, when Justin Allgaier was released from HScott Motorsports, sponsor Brandt came with him to JR Motorsports, and Clint Bowyer filled Allgaier’s spot with his own sponsor, 5-Hour Energy, freed from the closed Michael Waltrip Racing.

Or maybe Meier is instead saying the Cup driver’s performance will yield such a big return on the sponsor’s investment that other sponsors will sign with the up-and-coming driver simply because he’s on the same team as the Cup driver.  This again assumes that sponsors care more about teams than drivers, which isn’t always true.  It also assumes sponsors will act against their own interest.  Just because the XFINITY Series is supposed to promote new talent doesn’t mean the sponsor has to agree to do so.  It’s far more likely that other sponsors will see a Cup driver’s dominance in an XFINITY race as a sign they need to sponsor him and not the new guy.  As businesses, sponsors are mindful of risk, and at the end of the day, the sponsor wants the biggest return it can get - the return they are certain to get with an established Cup star.  By allowing a sponsor to fund a Cup driver in XFINITY, the teams create the very problem that makes it so hard to fund up-and-comers in the first place.

On the other hand, maybe Meier isn’t saying there’s a link at all.  Maybe he means that when a Cup driver runs in the XFINITY Series, he is vouching for the up-and-comer.  Here, the chain of causation completely falls apart: why is it that the best way a Cup driver can vouch for an up-and-comer, and thus get that new driver sponsorship, is to race in the XFINITY Series himself?  Why can’t he just broker a sponsorship deal back at the shop, then step aside on race day?  When interviewed about his dominant 2006 XFINITY title, Kevin Harvick pointed to the sponsors themselves, saying that the sponsor signs with expectations, and that those expectations include races where the Cup driver competes in XFINITY.  But where do those expectations come from?  They don’t come from nowhere - they’re negotiated by both the sponsor and the team.  Both sides have a say in what the money will be spent on.  As vital as sponsorship is to a race team, I just don’t buy that the team doesn’t have bargaining power of its own.  In reality, a Cup driver has never been required to run XFINITY on an up-and-comer’s behalf.  It’s just been so commonplace for so long that it feels like there’s a rule where none exists.

Even if there was a link between Cup drivers running XFINITY and up-and-comers getting sponsors, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex, Jr.’s XFINITY Series experiences aren’t the best examples.  Keselowski and Truex’s XFINITY Series careers were exceptional in that they both raced for and received support from Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the sport’s most popular driver.  The name  - not the fact that name ran XFINITY races for them - was what got them through the door.  Keselowski, to his credit, points this out.  Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself - everyone’s been hired based on a recommendation, myself included.  And getting a high-powered recommendation is something to be congratulated for - they’re not easy to get.  And that’s exactly the problem.  They’re not easy to get.  There’s just one Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and only so many rides and sponsors he can help drivers secure.  It’s naive to think that any other driver - much less any team - has the same pull to help up-and-comers.  It's just not an option for the vast majority of the field.  The proof is in the series itself, and the widening disparity between the haves and have nots.  But still, many just refuse to acknowledge the problem.

I’m not saying that the XFINITY Series needs to be a completely level playing field.  It's impossible.  Racing, after all, is a competition, and some teams and drivers are going to have more resources, bigger sponsors, more success, and just plain better luck.  I’m not even saying that Cup teams don’t have a right to be in XFINITY.  Every business needs to diversify to survive, and teams have an important interest in developing talent.  But letting the Cup Series drivers bludgeon the XFINITY regulars week after week does nothing to help the teams, the sponsors, or the sport.  When a Cup driver takes the win and the headlines, it hides the accomplishments of the series regulars and dooms them to remain second-class citizens in their own division.  The result is a poor racing product with no identity or purpose of its own.  It’s unsustainable, unwatchable, and long overdue for a major overhaul.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

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

SOURCE: motorsport.com
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.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*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.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
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