Sunday, October 30, 2016

CUP: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. gives #17 first last-place run at Martinsville

PHOTO: NBC Sports
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career in Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at the Martinsville Speedway when his #17 Louisville / Fastenal Ford was involved in a single-car crash after 21 of 500 laps.

The finish, which came in Stenhouse, Jr.’s 145th series start, was his second of the season and first since Kentucky this past July, 15 races ago.

Between Kentucky and Martinsville, Stenhouse had inched his way from 21st to 19th in the standings, buoyed by three Top Tens and two Top Fives.  His best of these finishes was easily his most emotional.  As a close friend of Bryan Clauson, who passed away in a USAC event in August, Stenhouse participated in a number of tributes.  At the Kokomo Speedway, he drove Clauson’s midget as the honorary pace car, then ‘parked it” in victory lane.  And at Bristol, he ran a paint scheme reminiscent of Clauson’s XFINITY Series car from 2008.  After going down two laps in the early stages, Stenhouse pulled a stunning rally in the closing stages, and tied his career-best finish with a 2nd to Kevin Harvick.  Then, last week at Talladega, he finished 5th, his second-consecutive Top Five in a restrictor-plate race.

Martinsville, however, has not been one of Stenhouse’s best tracks.  With the exception of a 15th-place finish in the fall of 2014, he had finished no better than 25th, and had yet to come home on the lead lap.  This past spring, contact from Regan Smith in Turn 2 sent him spinning into the outside wall, handing him a 32nd-place run.  Last week started just as rough.  After managing just 25th in last Friday’s opening practice, he spun in nearly the same spot during qualifying and crashed once more, sending the team to a backup car.  His warm-up lap of 92.997mph left him 39th on the grid, and the backup car penalty would drop him behind Michael Annett, who didn’t complete a timed lap in the #46 Pilot / Flying J Chevrolet.  Premium Motorsports’ second-consecutive withdrawal of Cole Whitt and the #98 team meant the remaining 40 drivers would all make the field.

On Sunday, Stenhouse was joined at the rear by Ryan Blaney, whose 15th-place #21 Virginia Tech Ford was sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments.  By the end of the first lap, both had moved ahead of Jeffrey Earnhardt, who was making his first Cup start at Martinsville in Go FAS Racing’s #32 Rain-X / Corvetteparts.net Ford.  The spot changed hands on the fifth time by, when Truck Series driver Gray Gaulding began to lose ground.  Gaulding, making his Cup debut in place of Josh Wise at The Motorsports Group, debuted a new paint scheme on TMG’s #30 with the Feed the Children foundation on board.  He was still in 40th - and on the lead lap - when the first caution fell on Lap 23.  Unfortunately for Stenhouse, it fell for him.

As he continued to claw his way through the field around the 30th spot, Stenhouse wheel-hopped into Turn 3 and once again switched ends, bashing the rear of his car so hard into the wall that the rear decklid buckled upward.  Stenhouse managed to drive back to the garage, but the crew soon found the damage to be too severe to continue, making his the first retirement of the race.

The low attrition that has come to define the 2016 Sprint Cup season continued on Sunday, and the remainder of the Bottom Five changed accordingly.  David Ragan surprised by making the third round of qualifying for the first time in BK Racing’s history.  He started 12th, the team’s best grid position in more than two years.  But on Lap 62, his #23 Dr. Pepper Toyota trailed smoke on the backstretch and drew the second caution, apparently done for the day.  However, the team got Ragan back out on Lap 133, 73 laps down, and he still ran fast enough to lose just three more by the end of the afternoon.  He moved up two spots from 39th to 37th, 76 behind.

Between Stenhouse and Ragan were 39th-place Gray Gaulding and 38th-place Reed Sorenson - the latter in Premium Motorsports’ #55 Chevrolet - who also returned to the track following extended stays in the garage.  Gaulding pulled behind the wall with around 170 laps to go with an apparent rear gear issue, the driver standing on pit road watching the race.  100 laps later, TMG managed to get Gaulding back out there, but when he trailed smoke in the final ten laps, the team called it quits.  Sorenson, meanwhile, had electrical issues that required at least two battery replacements, sending the #55 behind the wall on at least three occasions starting around Lap 215.  In the final stages, as Gaulding fell out, Sorenson returned, 93 laps behind, and ended up the final car to finish under power.

With three races to go, Sorenson holds a slim lead in the 2016 LASTCAR Cup Series standings in a Bottom Five tiebreaker with Matt DiBenedetto, 12-7.  Only the top 13 of the 21 drivers who have finished last this season are still mathematically in contention to take the title.

Rounding out the Bottom Five was a frustrated Carl Edwards, whose #19 SportClips Toyota lost a right-front tire and collided with the wall in Turn 3, triggering a caution during green-flag pit stops that led to a lengthy timing and scoring correction.  Edwards also returned to the track with the right-front fender removed, but still wound up two laps behind last-place starter Michael Annett, who made his own trip to the garage with brake issues.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the first last-place finish for both Stenhouse, Jr. and the #17 in a Cup race at Martinsville.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #17-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 21 laps / crash
39) #30-Gray Gaulding / 360 laps / rear gear
38) #55-Reed Sorenson / 407 laps / running
37) #23-David Ragan / 424 laps / running
36) #19-Carl Edwards / 477 laps / running

2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Premium Motorsports (5)
2nd) BK Racing, HScott Motorsports (4)
3rd) Richard Childress Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing, The Motorsports Group (3)
4th) Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports (2)
5th) Front Row Motorsports, Furniture Row Racing, Germain Racing, Go FAS Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing (1)

2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (20)
2nd) Ford (7)
3rd) Toyota (6)

2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

TRUCKS: Truck debut of Josh White, NASCAR’s first U.S. Marine driver, ends with bizarre accident

PHOTO: @MikeN328
Josh White picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career in Saturday’s Texas Roadhouse 200 at the Martinsville Speedway when his #1 Hurricane Master Garage Doors / LiftMaster Chevrolet fell out in a single-truck accident after 45 of 200 laps.  The finish happened in White’s series debut.

The 25-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran from Charleston, West Virginia got his start in ARCA, first through the ARCA Truck Series, and then into the ARCA Racing Series itself.  His team owner was fellow veteran Wayne Hixson, who fielded his #3 Chevrolets.  White made his first start for Hixson at the Illinois State Fairgrounds on August 18, 2013, where he finished 31st in a field of 34.  His best finish in 19 career ARCA starts came at the same track two years later, where he finished 21st.

Like Hixson, Jennifer Jo Cobb has supported veterans through her racing team, most notably her foundation Driven2Honor.org.  When the opportunity came to hire the first U.S. Marine to compete in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions, she jumped at the opportunity, announcing on October 3 that White would make his debut at Martinsville.  He was originally scheduled to drive Cobb’s #10, but by the time the series rolled into Virginia, he moved to the #1 co-owned by Cobb and MAKE Motorsports.  Brad Foy, who missed the field last year, would run the #10 in Cobb’s place.  By race weekend, he’d attracted a number of sponsors, including LiftMaster, which has also sponsored Kasey Kahne’s Cup effort in two races this season.

With many new drivers like White trying their hand at NASCAR, Martinsville has traditionally been one of the Truck Series’ most difficult fields to make.  True to form, White was one of 38 drivers on the preliminary entry list who would contend for one of the 32 spots.  The effort became somewhat easier when Mike Harmon withdrew his #74, his effort and driver Joshua Reeves moved to Bolen Motorsports’ #66.  Chuck Buchanan, Jr., who has three times missed the show at Martinsville, also pulled his #87 Spring Drug Chevrolet.  But by moving from the #10 to the #1, which ranked higher in Owner Points, White had more than a good chance of making the field.

The Owner Points ranking turned out to be crucial.  After running 72 laps in both sessions, White ran slowest overall in each.  He showed gradual improvement in both practices through qualifying, but was still the slowest truck in time trials with a lap of 88.797mph.  However, the Owner Points were just enough to put him into the 31st spot.  His teammate Foy, driving the #10, ended up the fastest truck to be sent home.  The three trucks joining him were led by 31-year-old Casey Smith, who made his series debut at Iowa and was now trying to get Al Niece’s #45 Niece Equipment / Autry Grading Chevrolet int the field.  Modified driver Kyle Soper came just short of giving Jim Rosenblum his first Martinsville start since 2003.  The lone Toyota to miss the show was Donnie Levister in the #62 Shawn Magee Designs machine.

Starting 32nd and last on the field was Travis Kvapil, who drove MAKE Motorsports’ other truck, the #50 Bully’s Truck Stop / Bad Axe Clothing Chevrolet.  Kvapil did not complete a lap in qualifying, was sent to the rear along with White for unapproved adjustments, and, due to an illness, would hand over the wheel to Dexter Stacey under the first caution.  It was a much better weekend for Kvapil than it appeared - on Wednesday, his young sons Carson and Caden both claimed championships at the Millbridge (North Carolina) Speedway.

Meanwhile, White fell to last by Lap 10, and lost his third lap on the 30th.  Despite a few close calls as the leaders caught him, he held his own and settled into his own pace.  But on Lap 50, as he entered Turn 1, his #1 lost control and backed hard into the outside wall.  Just three seconds later, Kyle Donahue, also making his series debut for Mike Mittler, backed his #63 Agile Network Chevrolet into the fence at nearly the exact same spot.  Both trucks were done for the afternoon with White, more laps down than Donahue at the time both wrecked, taking the last spot.

Kevin Donahue’s older brother Kyle, who made his own debut for Bobby Dotter, fell out just after halfway with engine trouble.  29th went to last week’s Talladega runner-up Spencer Gallagher, whose #23 Allegiant Travel Chevrolet for GMS Racing crashed on Lap 108.  Joshua Reeves in the Harmon-Bolen #66 rounded out the Bottom Five.

For more on Josh White, check out his website: http://joshwhiteracing.blogspot.com/

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #1 in a Truck Series race since March 28, 2015, when Travis Kvapil’s #1 Bubba Burger / Kioti Tractors Chevrolet broke the rear gear after 83 laps of the Kroger 250.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
32) #1-Josh White / 45 laps / crash
31) #63-Kyle Donahue / 48 laps / crash
30) #07-Kevin Donahue / 115 laps / engine
29) #23-Spencer Gallagher / 179 laps / running
28) #66-Josh Reeves / 191 laps / running

2016 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing (7)
2nd) Kyle Busch Motorsports, Tommy Joe Martins (2)
3rd) AWS Racing, Bolen Motorsports, Brandonbilt Motorsports, GMS Racing, Jim Rosenblum Motorsports / FDNY Racing, MAKE Motorsports, NEMCO Motorsports, Norm Benning Racing, ThorSport Racing (1)

2016 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (16)
2nd) Toyota (4)

2016 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

CUP: Open Team Roundup - Martinsville (October)

SOURCE: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
QUALIFIED

#21 Wood Brothers Racing
Driver: Ryan Blaney
Started 15th, Finished 19th

For the 24th time this season and the third race in a row, Blaney finished highest among the Open teams, and by a significant margin.  Starting 15th, but sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments, the Virginia Tech colors picked their way through the field.  Blaney was one of a handful of drivers to stay out during the first caution for Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s accident, and the decision to improve track position proved a good one.  With just five cautions on the day, Blaney lost two laps, but held on to third-straight Top 20 finish.  Next week, he heads to Texas, where he finished 29th in the spring, but qualified a strong 7th.

#93 BK Racing
Driver: Matt DiBenedetto
Started 27th, Finished 32nd

When Dylan Lupton returned to make his third Cup start of the season, DiBenedetto moved from his chartered #83 to BK Racing’s part-time Open #93 team.  Both cars carried sponsorship from E.J. Wade Construction - Lupton’s car red over black, DiBenedetto’s black over red.  When Premium Motorsports withdrew Cole Whitt’s #98 car, leaving 40 drivers for 40 spots, both teams qualified with DiBenedetto ten spots ahead of Lupton.  In the end, DiBenedetto finished one spot and one lap behind Lupton, his car slowing and coming to pit road in the race’s final moments, narrowly avoiding a race-changing caution.  Lupton has never made a Cup start at Texas while DiBenedetto ran 34th in April.  Ryan Ellis is scheduled to bring the #93 back at Phoenix in two weeks with returning sponsor ScienceLogic.

UPDATE (Oct. 31): Ellis is also entered in the #93 at Texas with Dylan Lupton in the #83, leaving DiBenedetto without a Cup ride.

#55 Premium Motorsports
Driver: Reed Sorenson
Started 34th, Finished 38th

For the second-straight race, Reed Sorenson stood alone for Premium Motorsports, and once again was saddled by trips to the garage area.  This time, electrical issues including at least two battery changes forced him behind the wall around Lap 215, and he returned to the track on Lap 261, 55 circuits behind.  Sorenson made at least two more trips to the garage in the race’s second half, returning 75 down, then 93 down by Lap 459.  He did not lose another lap, and came home the final car under power.  Next week, Sorenson looks to improve on his 36th-place showing in the spring Texas race.

#30 The Motorsports Group
Driver: Gray Gaulding
Started 36th, Finished 39th

Gaulding made his Cup debut on Sunday, and The Motorsports Group (TMG)’s #30 made a rare start in a car that wasn’t flat black.  Fighting a tight-handling car, Gaulding managed to keep his nose clean.  Slowly losing laps to the leaders, he pulled behind the wall with around 170 laps to go, apparently due to a rear gear issue.  The problem apparently ended the driver’s day as Gaulding was photographed standing in the pits, his car falling to 38th on Lap 386.  But he managed to return to competition around Lap 430.  He almost made it to the finish, but with four laps to go was off the track once more trailing smoke, retired with rear gear issues.  Josh Wise, the team’s full-time driver, finished last at Texas in April and is expected to return next week.  Gaulding will wrap up the season with TMG at Phoenix and Homestead.

DID NOT QUALIFY

None.

WITHDREW

#98 Premium Motorsports
Driver: Cole Whitt
2016 Team Stats: 28 starts, 3 DNQs, 2 withdrawals

For the second-straight race, Premium Motorsports withdrew the #98 team on Friday, leaving Cole Whitt out of Sunday’s field.  If driver and team return next week at Texas, Whitt will look to defend his 30th-place finish from the spring.

DID NOT ENTER

#26 BK Racing
#35 Front Row Motorsports
#40 Hillman Racing
#59 Leavine Family / Circle Sport Racing
#99 Roush-Fenway Racing

None of the other part-time Open teams attempted the race in Martinsville.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

10/20/02: Remembering the "Hideo Fukuyama Racing Project”

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
On October 20, 2002, Hideo Fukuyama picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Speedway when his #66 Standing Together / World Berries Ford fell out with crash damage after 400 of 500 laps.  The finish came in Fukuyama’s second series start.

Born August 13, 1955 in Owase of Japan’s Mie prefecture, Fukuyama honed his racing skills on the road courses.  At 22, he claimed his first of five racing championships on the Japanese circuits - the 1979 Formula Libre 500 division.  While winning races and titles in touring cars and, in 1997, the 1997 Super GT GT300 class championship, he branched out into international competition.  Four times, he competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans: 1988, 1995, 2000, and 2001.  In the 2000 race, when he teamed with fellow drivers Atsushi Yogo and Bruno Lambert, the group drove their Porsche 911 GT3-R to a class win in the GT division.

Fukuyama’s first exposure to NASCAR came through the series’ three Japanese exhibition races run between 1996 and 1998.  The inaugural event, run on the Suzuka Circuitland road course, introduced Fukuyama to team owner Travis Carter, who invited the driver to take a turn in the #23 Camel Powered Ford raced during the season by Jimmy Spencer.  Fukuyama started 18th in the 27-car field, but a late crash left him 22nd.  Though he was disappointed, none other than Dale Earnhardt came by to cheer him up.  “You should come to America and race.  Your driving is very good,” Fukuyama recalled through an interpreter.  The words guided the next phase of his career.

Fukuyama competed in the other two Japan exhibitions, improving his finish both times.  He ran 21st in the return to Suzuka, then 17th in the 1998 round at Twin Ring Motegi, the same day Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. raced together for the first time.  He ranked second of four Japanese drivers in the ‘97 running and led the four in ‘98.  Fukuyama also made two starts in the Winston West Series (now K&N Pro Series West), finishing 19th at Pikes Peak and 15th in a 1999 race at Motegi.

After Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona, Fukuyama became more motivated than ever to reach the Winston Cup Series.  “I am here to keep a promise,” he said.  A program known as the “Hideo Fukuyama Racing Project,” or HFRP, was founded with the purpose of reaching that goal.  The pre-Kickstarter effort collected funds, and now looked for a team.

In 2002, the 47-year-old Fukuyama reunited with team owner Travis Carter, whose team was now co-owned by Carl Haas.  Despite the new investment, the Carter-Haas team had been in dire financial straits all season after K-Mart pulled its sponsorship of both cars.  The time was right to give Fukuyama his chance.  “I was impressed with Hideo when he drove for me in Japan and continue to be impressed with his ability to adapt and drive these race cars,” he said.  “He’s very methodical and thinks things through.”  Though Fukuyama’s proficiency with English was limited, Carter wasn’t concerned about a language barrier.  “He understands more words than he can speak.  We’ve worked on specific words and what they mean.”

Following three tests at Dover in August and September, Carter agreed to a three-race deal in the closing months of the 2002 season.  In keeping with NASCAR’s rule to have new drivers compete on tracks no longer than one mile in length, Fukuyama’s first attempt would come at Dover, followed by Martinsville and Rockingham.  His blue No. 66 Ford didn’t have a major sponsor for Dover, only small backing from World Berries.  Across the quarter-panel and rear bumper, four characters in Japanese Kanji spelled out Fukuyama’s name - the first two for his last name, the second two for his first. On the hood were the Japanese and American flags crossed at the poles, beneath them the words “Standing Together.”

If a sponsor could be found, Carter planned to have Fukuyama return in 2003.  A report in September 2002 even indicated that Fukuyama could receive backing from Toyota, who at the time considered entering Cup competition in 2005.

Despite his time testing, Fukuyama struggled to make the adjustment to the fast Dover track. His #66 Ford ranked slowest in the weekend’s three practice sessions.  But with the help of Geoffrey Bodine, who also raced for Carter that July, Fukuyama closed the gap, improving from 141mph to 145.  He would need every ounce of speed to make the show - 46 cars arrived to attempt the 43-car field, and Fukuyama had an early draw as the 5th car out.   “It’s a very, very difficult track,” he said.  “It’s something I never experienced in the past.”

Right when it counted most, the rookie put up his fastest lap of the weekend at 153.074mph.  This was just enough to take the final spot from owner-driver Brett Bodine, who had run out of provisionals for his #11 Hooters Restaurants Ford.  Fukuyama would now become the first Japanese driver to ever qualify for a NASCAR race.  “I want to learn about the NASCAR system and the NASCAR environment,” he said.  “I promise that I will drive for everybody’s safety.”  At one of NASCAR’s most difficult tracks, he did just that.  Fukuyama finished 39th, out with transmission issues, but came home ahead of Jerry Nadeau, Bobby Labonte, Daytona 500 champion Ward Burton, and Fukuyama’s own teammate Todd Bodine.  Next came Martinsville.

Carrying the same paint scheme from Dover, Fukuyama came to NASCAR’s shortest track with an even steeper task in qualifying.  Following the late entry of Carl Long’s #59 Check-Into-Cash , he was now one of 48 drivers competing for the 43-spot grid.  Though he wasn’t the slowest car in the opening practice session, he did fall to the rear in the second and once again had to fight for his spot.  Again, he prevailed, snagging the last provisional for the 43rd and final position.  Joining Long’s post-entry on the DNQ list were owner-drivers Morgan Shepherd and Kirk Shelmerdine, plus Brian Rose and Ryan McGlynn, who were both attempting to make their Cup debut.  Tony Stewart wondered if Fukuyama knew what he was getting into.  “This will probably be the longest day of his life,” he said.

The NASCAR Busch Series race at Memphis, scheduled the previous day, was postponed to Sunday, forcing a couple driver changes.  Kenny Wallace’s ride in the #23 Hills Brothers Dodge for Bill Davis Racing went to Geoffrey Bodine.  Jamie McMurray, who stunned everyone with his first career victory just days before, climbed out of the injured Sterling Marlin’s #40 Marines / Coors Light Dodge, handing over the seat to Mike Bliss.  Steve Grissom climbed aboard Petty Enterprises’ #44 Georgia-Pacific Dodge, but he filled-in for Jerry Nadeau for a different reason.  Four days before the race, Nadeau broke at least two ribs in a go-karting accident and was out for the rest of the season.

Cool temperatures and a freshly-ground inside groove resulted in a competitive battle for last place.  On Lap 6, Fukuyama was 7.413 seconds behind race leader Ryan Newman when Ricky Rudd slowed off Turn 4 with a flat left-front tire.  The caution didn’t come out, so Rudd was forced to pit under green, dropping him to last as the first car to be lapped.  On the 7th circuit, the Jim Smith-owned #7 Sirius Satellite Radio Dodge of Casey Atwood slowed in Turn 1 with a flat left-rear tire.  Again, the caution didn’t come out, and the stop cost him a lap as well.  By Lap 30, Rudd had passed Atwood for 42nd, and Atwood had gone down a second lap.

Fukuyama, himself a lap down, retook the 43rd spot by Lap 79, and went down a second lap by the 90th.  He was three down by Lap 191, four by Lap 286, and five by Lap 312, but managed to stay out of trouble during any of the first ten cautions.  Nearing the 400-lap mark, the race had managed to be both clean and physical - spins and flat tires, not accidents, were the cause for the caution.  This kept all 43 cars on track well into the final stages.  On Lap 408, Fukuyama was still in last, but had lost just his eighth lap.  No one else was down more than three.  Alan Bestwick, Benny Parsons, and Wally Dallenbach, Jr. had just finished saying how pleased they were with how he’d stayed out of everyone’s way.  Then it went sideways.

Heading through Turn 3, Fukuyama lost control and backed hard into the outside wall, caving in the left-rear of his car.  He managed to get #66 rolling again, but then pulled behind the wall, done for the day as the first retiree.

The only other driver to fall out that Sunday was Bill Elliott, whose #9 Dodge Dealers / UAW Dodge for Evernham Motorsports brought out the final caution with a wreck on the frontstretch. Joe Nemechek came home 41st, just four laps down in Hendrick Motorsports’ #25 UAW-Delphi Chevrolet.  Relief drivers Steve Grissom and Geoffrey Bodine, both three laps down, rounded out the Bottom Five.

Roush Racing’s Kurt Busch, who started a distant 36th, took the checkered flag that day, holding off a furious challenge by Johnny Benson, Jr.  As of this writing, a Ford has not won at Martinsville since.

In his next attempt at Rockingham, Fukuyama missed the field, but over the offseason he did acquire sponsorship from, of all companies, Kikkoman Soy Sauce.  The plan was for an “ABC” effort - that is, ARCA, Busch Series, and Cup - during which time Fukuyama would be eligible for Rookie of the Year.  He began the year in the third Cup race of the season at Las Vegas, where he actually bumped fellow rookie Greg Biffle from the field in qualifying and finished 33rd.  The first of three ARCA starts came the next month at the Nashville Superspeedway, where he qualified a strong 6th before a multi-car crash left him 34th.  Incidentally, the win that day went to an 18-year-old Kyle Busch, who had also won the pole in a Rick Hendrick-prepared Chevrolet.  On May 23, he earned his career-best finish in a stock car by coming home 16th in the ARCA race at Charlotte.

On the Cup side, Fukuyama had been handed a pair of consecutive DNQs at Fontana and Richmond, but looked ahead to the first road course of the season at Sonoma.  True to form, he made qualifying a nail-biter, securing the 43rd and final spot.  And, once again, he sent another present-day Cup driver home - Paul Menard, who was entered in a #33 Turtle Wax Chevrolet fielded by Andy Petree Racing.  Unfortunately, the race once again did not go well.  At the start of the race, the knob broke off the top of his gearshift, and shifting gears became a painful exercise.  Just past the halfway point, #66 stalled on the track with a busted rear end, leaving him last once more.  Following a “did not start” in July’s ARCA race at Pocono, Fukuyama was slated to run the Cup race at Watkins Glen.  The deal fell apart, however, and his Cup effort was effectively over.  Toyota wouldn’t enter Cup competition for nearly four years.

Fukuyama returned to Japan and once again competed in the Japanese Super GT Series.  This time, in addition to running Porsches, he also raced Chevrolets and Fords.  He also began a career as a television racing announcer.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the first time the #66 finished last in a Cup race at Martinsville since April 8, 2001, when the engine let go on Todd Bodine’s #66 K-Mart Blue Light Special Ford after 12 laps of the Virginia 500.  The number would not finish last there again until March 30, 2014, when Joe Nemechek broke J.D. McDuffie’s record for most Cup Series last-place finishes.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
43) #66-Hideo Fukuyama / 400 laps / crash
42) #9-Bill Elliott / 424 laps / crash
41) #25-Joe Nemechek / 496 laps / running
40) #44-Steve Grissom / 497 laps / running
39) #23-Geoffrey Bodine / 497 laps / running / led 5 laps

SOURCES
*2002 Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville, NBC
*Brinster, Dick. “Earnhardt’s advice guided Fukuyama,” Herald-Journal, September 21, 2002.
*Jayski’s Silly Season Site
*Fukuyama, Carter Interview - Motorsport.com, September 20, 2002.
*Meixell, Ted. “Lepage tours ‘Monster Mile’ at 155.757mph to earn Busch Series pole,” The Morning Call, September 21, 2002.
*Racing-Reference.info
*Stiglich, Joe. “Japanese racer living a dream in NASCAR,” Sunday Free Lance-Star, June 22, 2003.
*Wikipedia - Hideo Fukuyama

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Jack Sellers (1944-2016)

SOURCE: Brock Beard
Last night, K&N Pro Series West driver Jack Sellers, a veteran of 32 seasons and 282 starts, passed away at age 72.  If you’ll excuse me for personalizing this piece, I’d like to share some memories of a man I’ve come to know these past couple years.

In 2014, while preparing to cover the NASCAR weekend at the Sonoma Raceway, I watched the 1990 Banquet Frozen Foods 300, the second-ever Winston Cup race on the California road course.  This was the era of “companion races,” where the two Winston Cup stops at Sonoma and Phoenix invited drivers from the Winston West Series - now the K&N Pro Series West - as a points-paying race.  Of the 44 starters in the race, 10 were West Series regulars, including the driver who started last.  His name was Jack Sellers.

That day at Sonoma, Sellers was driving a bright green Buick, a former Quaker State machine that Ricky Rudd piloted during his time with King Racing, a single-car team formed by drag racing legend Kenny Bernstein.  It was a rear-steer backup car Rudd had on hand for the inaugural race at Phoenix, the day when he lost an engine while leading, handing Alan Kulwicki his famous first win.  Sellers chose car #44 since that was his age when he bought it the previous year. Sponsorship came from Coca-Cola by way of a curious family connection.  Sellers’ grandfather, Nathan M. Sellers, was the first to sell the soda in Northern California in 1927.  His bottling plant, built that year in Sacramento, has remained in the family ever since.

Sellers made his first Cup start that day, but was by no means a rookie.  He’d been active in the Winston West Series for more than five seasons with a best finish of 7th on another road course, the Spokane Grand Prix Course, in 1987.  His Sonoma debut came after six Winston Cup DNQs, including the final three Cup events at Riverside International Raceway.

Sellers’ first Cup race didn’t go as planned.  On the first lap, he pulled #44 behind the wall, complaining of an oil leak that filled his car with smoke.  Repairs took longer when the car fell off the jack.  On Lap 4, as Ricky Rudd led the field in his new Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Sellers’ car lost an engine in the Esses, spun 180 degrees, and backed hard into the tire barriers.  Uninjured, Sellers managed to finish repairs on his car and come home under power.  He passed four cars by the checkered flag - including King Racing’s new driver Brett Bodine.

Sellers was an older driver on the circuit, but by no means unusual.  The 1990 Winston West championship - his second in a row - went to 54-year-old Bill Schmitt, who had run companion events in NASCAR since 1975.  And of course, there was the ageless 62-year-old Hershel McGriff, a fixture in NASCAR since 1950, who would compete in the West division until age 84.  Sellers also helped young drivers get their start.  In June of 1990, a 32-year-old Ron Hornaday, Jr. took his second West Series green flag in a Sellers-prepared Buick.

As it happened, my neighbor, a race fan himself, was one of Sellers’ volunteer crew members.  He remembered the driver as a “party animal” who enjoyed racing so much that he didn’t really worry where he finished.  Working at the Evergreen Speedway on July 12, 1992 stood out in his mind, and he shared his pictures from pit road.  In a race where Junior Johnson teammates Bill Elliott and Sterling Marlin competed against the series regulars, he noticed Sellers was being lapped quite regularly.  He predicted he was losing 10 laps for each 100 run.  By the end of the 500-lap race, Sellers did end up 50 laps behind, but still earned a respectable 11th.  In time, Sellers would nickname himself "Back of the Pack Jack."

Little did I realize at the time that Sellers was still active in the K&N Pro Series West, preparing to make his 266th career start at the same Sonoma track.

The first time I met Jack Sellers, history had repeated itself.  On Lap 46 of the Carneros 200 at Sonoma, Sellers put a wheel off in Turn 9, lost control, and slammed nose-first into the barriers.  I left the media center and hurried over to the garage area just as the tow truck brought his red #15 MedActive Oral Care Chevrolet into the garage area.  Sellers, still inside, was helped out of his car by a single crewman.  He was okay, but the car was done.  With no one else around, it was easy to walk up to him for a quick word.  Having interviewed early retirements in the past, I wasn’t expecting much, but he was eager to talk.

“I fouled up,” he said.  “I was coming down the chicane going down into the last two turns coming through the Esses just as you make the sweeping left as you’re coming down the hill and I got too far to the left and got two wheels off and it bit me.  I did a 180 and went into the tires.  I’m all right.  We were having fun and I was really doing what I wanted to do and I was starting to move a little and I couldn’t ask for a better weekend, then I made it such a bad finish.”

We ended up having a nice conversation about his career, which had now reached its thirtieth year.  He told me about the old Ricky Rudd car and his runs in Cup, including the inaugural Brickyard 400.  He was 48 when he bought that Chevrolet Lumina, so car #48 it became.  He still had it at his shop as a show car and planned to run it in vintage events.

The last time I saw Sellers was this past June at Sonoma, this time on pit road during Friday’s practice session.  He was even busier at the track, keeping a close eye on the three cars he had in the field.  One of his young drivers was out putting his #15 through its paces.  He was 71 now, but just as sharp as ever.  He remembered our conversation from two years earlier.  “I was going by a guy and he put me in the dirt and just whoo!  Hit it hard!” he said.

Over some fresh fruit the team brought to the track, we talked about his cars and his team.  He said he didn’t like using his age as a number anymore, so decided to run anything with a 5 instead.  He also had a close eye on one of his competitors.  “Well, I’m fine,” he said, “but I keep getting taken out by the 84 car.  He took me out twice last race.”  We didn’t talk long.  He had his game face on, that competitive fire in his eyes, making sure his cars were dialed in.  I wished him good luck and went on my way.

In 282 career West Series starts - the most of any driver in series history - Sellers never won a race, nor finished in the Top 5.  He matched his career-best 7th from 1987 five other times, most recently at Evergreen in 2013.  His 32nd and final Top 10 came at Iowa in 2014, where he finished 10th.  That same year, he finished 9th in points - his first Top 10 in the standings since 1994 - a crowning achievement for one of the series’ most experienced veterans.

On behalf of LASTCAR.info, I would like to offer our condolences to the family and friends of Jack Sellers.  He exemplified the spirit and determination of NASCAR’s owner-drivers, a fixture in the garage who raced out of love for the sport.  Sonoma won’t be the same without him.

SOURCES:
1990 Banquet Frozen Foods 300 - First Caution, ESPN
Jack Sellers on Racing-Reference.info
Sacramento Coca-Cola Bottling Co., Inc.  
RacingWest Interview with Jack Sellers

Sunday, October 23, 2016

CUP: Martin Truex, Jr., first Talladega polesitter to finish last since 2001, eliminated from Chase with engine failure

SOURCE: @MattWeaverSBN
Martin Truex, Jr. picked up the 5th last-place finish of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career in Sunday’s Hellmann’s 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway when his #78 Bass Pro Shops / Tracker Boats Toyota fell out with engine failure after 41 of 192 laps.

The finish, which came in Truex’s 401st series start, was his first of the season and first in a Sprint Cup race since another early engine failure at the 2014 Daytona 500, 103 races ago.

What Truex, Jr. and Furniture Row Racing have done between their two most recent last-place finishes has been nothing short of remarkable.  After a difficult 2014 season both on and off the track where his girlfriend Sherry Pollex went through cancer treatment, Truex, Jr. roared back in 2015, claiming his first victory in more than two years at Pocono, one of eight Top Fives and 22 Top Tens.  His torrid pace continued through the fall, culminating with a spot in the Final 4, a 12th-place finish at Homestead, and a career-best 4th in the final standings.

This year, Furniture Row Racing’s technical alliance moved from Richard Childress Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing, and with the move from Chevrolet to Toyota came new part-time sponsorship from Bass Pro Shops.  The new black-and-orange car debuted in the Daytona 500, which Truex nearly won until a last-corner, last-moment surge from Denny Hamlin in a photo finish.  Truex scored his first win of the season with perhaps the most dominant performance in NASCAR history, leading 392 of 400 laps in the Coca-Cola 600 after winning the pole.  Another crown jewel win came in the Southern 500, and he cruised into the Chase with wins in two of the first three races at Chicagoland and Dover.

When the series returned to Charlotte, however, driver and team began to struggle.  Driving the same car from the 600, Truex never led and finished just 13th, then ran 11th at Kansas, where he led 172 laps before late trouble during the spring.  Heading into Talladega, Truex, Jr. sat sixth in points, just 13 points over the bubble, and would need a strong run to earn his way into the Round of Eight.  In qualifying, Truex, Jr. seemed headed in the right direction.  He won the pole for what would be Toyota’s 1,000th NASCAR national series race.  Controversy reigned, however, as it was reported that front jack screws were confiscated from the #78 before qualifying, potentially encumbering his finish with a post-race point penalty.

43 drivers were originally slated to attempt Sunday’s field, which would have been the biggest entry list since the Daytona 500.  Would have, that is, had The Motorsports Group not withdrawn Josh Wise on Monday, then Premium Motorsports pulled Cole Whitt on Friday.  When qualifying was done, David Gilliland was the only driver who missed the field, his #35 Dockside Logistics Ford from Front Row Motorsports missing the field by just under two-tenths of a second.

Starting last on Sunday was David Ragan in the #23 sweetFrog Toyota, but he soon had company.  Three Joe Gibbs Racing cars driven by Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, and Kyle Busch all fell to the rear and would remain there for the day, looking to advance with their existing point cushions.  Joining them was Reed Sorenson, who had qualified a surprising 12th in Premium’s second car, #55.  Driving what appeared to be the #98 that Cole Whitt nearly got into the Top 5 during the spring race, Sorenson was fastest in the first round of qualifying, then anchored the final round.

Unfortunately, Sorenson’s lap was due to a different kind of oil Premium used just for qualifying and would not be appropriate for the race.  With NASCAR’s impound rules in place, the #55 team decided against changing the oil after qualifying, and would instead replace it during the race.  A similar strategy was used in 2008 by the Wood Brothers, who locked-in their driver Jon Wood with a fast qualifying lap, then pulled behind the wall in the early laps to re-attach belts removed from the motor to improve speed.  As with Wood, Sorenson pulled behind the wall on the first lap for the oil change, dropping him to last.  He returned to the track on Lap 13, 12 circuits behind, and ran the rest of the race in the Bottom Five.

Truex, Jr., meanwhile, led 2 of the first 13 laps, then remained near the front as Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott battled for the top spot.  During this green-flag run, Truex, Jr. noticed a vibration which he originally believed to be a tire.  He managed to make it down pit road for his first scheduled stop, but the vibration was still there, and NASCAR reported there was smoke coming from the side of his machine.  Then, on Lap 42, it all went wrong.  The engine let go, and #78 pulled to the inside of Turn 1, flames coming from beneath his car.  The problem was terminal, and Truex, Jr. was done for the day.

Low attrition meant that Truex, Jr. was not officially eliminated from the Chase, however, until the end of the race, when many of his fellow Chase drivers survived with good enough finishes.  Many, that is, except 38th-place Brad Keselowski.  Continuing on his dominance from the spring race and needing a strong run after a late crash at Kansas, Keselowski was untouchable, locking-up the bonus point for most laps led by pacing 90 of the first 145 laps.  Debris on the grille of his #2 Miller Lite Ford caused him to surrender the lead to Ryan Blaney in order to clear it away, but it was too late.  Heading down the backstretch, his engine let go as well, ending his own Chase hopes.

39th went to Casey Mears, who wrecked at pit entrance with Greg Biffle and Jeffrey Earnhardt on Lap 114.  37th went to Sorenson, who came home 12 laps down, still under power.  Also going the distance was 36th-place Alex Bowman - barely - who spun from the Top 10 on Lap 187, damaging the underside of his #88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet.  Next week at Martinsville, the #88 will again be driven by Jeff Gordon, the defending winner of the event.

Turning heads on Sunday was Brian Scott, who ran near the front most of the day and steered his #44 Goody’s Ford to a 2nd-place finish, even threatening to take the win from leader Joey Logano.  It was a tremendous run both for driver and team, one week after Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Aric Almirola picked up his second last-place run of the year.  Almirola also finished in the Top 10 on Sunday, coming home 8th.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #78-Martin Truex, Jr. / 41 laps / engine / led 2 laps
39) #13-Casey Mears / 113 laps / crash
38) #2-Brad Keselowski / 144 laps / engine / led 90 laps
37) #55-Reed Sorenson / 179 laps / running
36) #88-Alex Bowman / 191 laps / running

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*Truex is the first polesitter to finish last in a Cup race at Talladega since April 22, 2001, when Stacy Compton’s #92 Kodiak Dodge, fielded by Melling Racing, also led 2 laps and lost the engine after 116 laps of the Talladega 500.  An interesting side note: Compton’s crew chief that day was Chad Knaus.
*Truex is the first driver to finish last with at least one lap led since November 3, 2013, when Michael McDowell’s unsponsored #98 Phil Parsons Racing Ford led 1 lap of the AAA Texas 500 at Texas, then retire with a vibration after 27 circuits.

2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Premium Motorsports (5)
2nd) BK Racing, HScott Motorsports (4)
3rd) Richard Childress Racing, The Motorsports Group (3)
4th) Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports, Roush-Fenway Racing (2)
5th) Front Row Motorsports, Furniture Row Racing, Germain Racing, Go FAS Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing (1)

2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (20)
2nd) Ford, Toyota (6)

2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

TRUCKS: John Hunter Nemechek’s first last-place finish drops him from Chase; Caleb Roark clinches third-straight LASTCAR title

SOURCE: Motorsport.com, NASCAR Media
John Hunter Nemechek picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career in Saturday’s Fred’s 250 at the Talladega Superspeedway when his #8 Fire Alarm Services Chevrolet lost the engine after 13 of 94 laps.  The finish came in Nemechek’s 49th series start.

The 19-year-old son of Joe Nemechek, the all-time leader in Sprint Cup last-place finishes, and named for the late John Nemechek, who lost his life in a tragic accident at Homestead in 1997, has enjoyed a meteoric rise through NASCAR’s ranks.  Driving for his father’s team and, later, with his uncle’s number, Nemechek made his Truck Series debut in 2013, finishing 16th at Martinsville.

Nemechek’s first Top Ten came at Dover in 2014, and he threatened to win the following round at Gateway before a late crash left him 15th.  With limited sponsorship, and his father leaving Cup racing to focus on the team exclusively, Nemechek ran just 18 of the 23 races in 2015, but broke through with his first victory at Chicagoland.  With a 12th-place spot in points despite a part-time effort, Nemechek returned to the series this season for his first full campaign.

This year, Nemechek picked up right where he left off, winning the second round at Atlanta, his first pole at Iowa, then took a controversial victory at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park when he bumped, wrecked, then literally fought Cole Custer for the victory.  The wins vaulted Nemechek to a spot in the Truck Series’ inaugural Chase, but with finishes of 9th and 16th in the first two rounds, he would all but need a win in the elimination round at Talladega to make it to the Round of 6.

Fire Alarm Services joined the NEMCO effort for the sixth time in 2016, and the neon-hued #8 Chevrolet showed speed early.  He ran 16th-fastest in the opening practice, jumped to 5th in Happy Hour, and rolled off 11th on the grid with a lap of 176.477mph.

Nemechek was among 39 drivers originally slated to attempt the 32-truck field.  The Wednesday before the race, Terry Jones withdrew his #30 J-AAR Toyota after he suffered an off-track injury. Norm Benning, whose #6 Chevrolet has made only three starts this season, withdrew his truck soon after, along with Mike Harmon's #74 RAM.  Bolen Motorsports, which fielded a Harmon entry at Las Vegas, brought their white #66 truck back to the track, only this time with Ross Chastain in his first series race of 2016.  Bolen's popular Jordan Anderson will return at Texas for a fan-supported effort, then run the Homestead finale. (Bolen details updated two hours after press time with additional info).

When the dust settled, 36 drivers remained for qualifying, and four missed the race: Ryan Ellis in Mike Mittler’s primary truck, the #63 Theme Park Connection Chevrolet; Parker Kligerman, taking his first turn of the year in place of Caleb Holman behind the wheel of Charlie Henderson’s #75 Anderson Maple Syrup / Food Country USA Toyota; and the two Jennifer Jo Cobb entries of Cobb and Clay Greenfield, the latter in the #10 1-800-PAVEMENT Chevrolet.

Greenfield’s attempt left Caleb Roark without a ride, effectively ending his streak of four-consecutive last-place finishes, the longest in Truck Series history.  However, when Tommy Joe Martins did not finish last on Saturday and, in fact, dodged a big wreck and scored his second-best finish of the year with a strong 16th, Roark extended another streak by becoming the first driver to score three consecutive LASTCAR Truck Series Championships (not two, as previously reported - how about that?).  Roark joins Jeff Fuller, Jeff Green, and Michael McDowell as the only four NASCAR drivers to score three LASTCAR titles in a row.

Starting last on Saturday was Cody Ware, who returned to the Truck Series for the first time since Canada as driver of his father’s #07 Lilly Trucking / Dashub Chevrolet.  Joining him at the rear were fellow Chevrolet drivers Dylan Lupton, Tommy Joe Martins, and Travis Kvapil, all sent to the back for making adjustments during the impound.  The opening laps saw last place change hands between Ben Rhodes in ThorSport’s #41 XPO Logistics Toyota, the second Mittler truck - a #36 Lucas Oil Racing TV Chevrolet for Bobby Gerhart, and Kvapil’s #50 Bad Boy Mowers Chevrolet for MAKE Motorsports.  Kvapil took the spot on Lap 5, and by Lap 13 had completely lost the pack, leaving him 9 seconds behind the leaders.  The next time by, he was saved by a caution.

Running near the front of the pack, Nemechek’s #8 suddenly erupted in white smoke and pulled to the inside of the track.  The engine had let go.  Immediately dropped to last as the first truck to be lapped, he pulled into the garage area, done for the afternoon, and eliminated from the Chase.

31st went to Cody Coughlin, whose Kyle Busch-prepared #51 JEGS / JET Toyota broke driveshaft and stalled in Turn 2, drawing the second yellow of the afternoon.  30th-place Brandon Hightower drew the fourth caution when a spinning Dylan Lupton in the #02 Randco / Young’s Building Systems Chevrolet sent him hard into the inside wall just past the start/finish line, destroying Hightower’s #71 Advanced Fleet Services Chevrolet.  29th belonged to polesitter Cole Custer, who along with 28th-place John Wes Townley and 12 other drivers were gobbled-up in the day’s biggest wreck in Turn 1 on Lap 60.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the first last-place finish in a Truck Series race for the #8 since November 5, 2004, when Chase Montgomery’s #8 Gladiator Garageworks Dodge was involved in a crash after 40 laps of the Chevy Silverado 150 presented by Valley Chevy Dealers at Phoenix.  The number had never before finished last in a Truck race at Talladega.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
32) #8-John Hunter Nemechek / 13 laps / engine
31) #51-Cody Coughlin / 34 laps / driveshaft
30) #71-Brandon Hightower / 51 laps / crash
29) #00-Cole Custer / 58 laps / crash / led 2 laps
28) #05-John Wes Townley / 59 laps / crash

2016 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing (6)
2nd) Kyle Busch Motorsports, Tommy Joe Martins (2)
3rd) AWS Racing, Bolen Motorsports, Brandonbilt Motorsports, GMS Racing, Jim Rosenblum Motorsports / FDNY Racing, MAKE Motorsports, NEMCO Motorsports, Norm Benning Racing, ThorSport Racing (1)

2016 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (15)
2nd) Toyota (4)

2016 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

Open Team Roundup - Talladega (October)

SOURCE: @Reed16Team
QUALIFIED

#21 Wood Brothers Racing
Driver: Ryan Blaney
Started 15th, Finished 11th

In honor of the late Neil Bonnett, who also drove the Wood Brothers’ iconic Purolator Mercury, Blaney brought back his retro driver’s uniform from Darlington to wear at Bonnett’s home track.  He also showed the same speed from the spring race, running in or near the Top 5 for much of the afternoon, and led 3 laps - his first since Chicago.  On Lap 145, he took the lead from Brad Keselowski, who pulled over to get debris off the nose of his #2 Miller Lite Ford, then slotted between Blaney and Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano.  Moments later, Keselowski’s engine let go, leaving him 38th and out of the Chase.  Blaney, however, came just one spot short of his ninth Top 10 of the season.  Next week, he returns to the Wood Brothers’ home track at Martinsville, where Blaney came home 19th in the spring.

#99 Roush-Fenway Racing
Driver: Ryan Reed
Started 18th, Finished 26th

Ryan Reed came to Talladega looking to make his Sprint Cup debut while also bringing back Roush-Fenway’s #99 team for the first time since Carl Edwards’ final start with the team at Homestead in 2014.  On Friday, it was also announced that Reed signed a multi-year extension to drive for Roush-Fenway’s XFINITY team, where he’s currently ranked 6th in points for the second round of the division’s new Chase format.  On Saturday, Reed secured a spot in the Cup race, coming just short of the final round of qualifying.  He ran as high as 10th in the final laps, then was shaken out in the sprint to the finish.  As of this writing, Reed and the 99 team aren’t slated to make any more Cup races in 2016.

#93 BK Racing
Driver: Matt DiBenedetto
Started 35th, Finished 27th

With Bobby Labonte back in Go FAS Racing’s chartered #32 Ford, rookie Jeffrey Earnhardt moved into BK Racing’s #83, carrying his second tribute to his late grandfather Dale Earnhardt.  This moved DiBenedetto to the Open #93 team with which he finished last in the season-opening Daytona 500.  Without any points to rely on, DiBenedetto made the cut - barely - besting David Gilliland for the final Open spot by less than one-tenth of a second.  As with the two Open drivers ahead of him, DiBenedetto also flirted with a strong finish, running just outside the Top 10 in the final laps, then came home one spot behind Reed on the lead lap.  Next week at Martinsville, Bobby Labonte is not expected to enter, so DiBenedetto and Earnhardt are expected to return to their respective Open teams.  DiBenedetto finished 29th at the short track in the spring.

UPDATE (Oct. 24): Dylan Lupton is entered in the #83 at Martinsville, so DiBenedetto will once again need to get the #93 in on time.

#55 Premium Motorsports
Driver: Reed Sorenson
Started 12th, Finished 37th

Reed Sorenson began the weekend strong in qualifying, leading the first round and starting 12th.  It was the first time he’d started better than 36th all season, and the first time he’d started better than 35th since the 2015 Daytona 500.  Incidentally, Sorenson’s second round lap of 188.300mph was nearly 1.4 seconds off Martin Truex, Jr.’s pole speed, but by making Round 2, he could fall no further.  Unfortunately, the race didn’t end that way.  Not knowing if they would make the race, Premium Motorsports used a different kind of oil for qualifying, meaning that the oil would have to be changed for the race.  Not wanting to violate NASCAR’s impound rules, they decided to change the oil after taking the green flag, similar to what the Wood Brothers did with driver Jon Wood during Cup plate races in 2008.  During the pace laps, Sorenson pulled to the rear of the field along with the Gibbs cars of Busch, Kenseth, and Edwards, and by the end of Lap 1, had pulled into the garage.  He returned to the track on Lap 13 and ran the rest of the race.  Without a big crash, he only passed three cars.  Next week, Sorenson returns to Martinsville, where Premium debuted the #55 team in the spring, and looks to best his 37th-place finish there.

DID NOT QUALIFY

#35 Front Row Motorsports
Driver: David Gilliland
2016 Team Stats: 2 starts, 2 DNQs

After challenging for a Top 5 late in the spring race, Gilliland was handed his first DNQ since the Daytona 500.  He ran mid-pack in both practice sessions, then anchored the field in qualifying, one-tenth of a second slower than the next Open team, the #93 of Matt DiBenedetto.

WITHDREW

#30 The Motorsports Group
Driver: Josh Wise
2016 Team Stats: 27 starts, 4 DNQs, 1 withdrawal

On Monday, October 17, it was announced that The Motorsports Group would withdraw their #30 from Talladega, following three unsuccessful attempts at the restrictor-plate races this season.  Then on October 20, it was announced that Truck Series driver Gray Gaulding will make his first three Cup starts in the #30 during this year’s Chase races at Martinsville, Phoenix, and Homestead.  The car will also carry a new look with backing from the Feed The Children foundation.  Wise will likely run the remaining event at Texas, but his plans for 2017 are as of yet unclear.  Next season, whoever will drive will again look to give TMG its first restrictor-plate start in Cup during their third appearance in the Budweiser Duels.  At Martinsville this past spring, TMG finished 38th with Wise.

#98 Premium Motorsports
Driver: Cole Whitt
2016 Team Stats: 28 starts, 3 DNQs, 1 withdrawal

Following Wise’s withdrawal, 42 drivers were still set to compete for the remaining 40 spots, including Whitt, who in May was challenging for his first Top 10 on the final lap.  However, on October 21, Premium withdrew Whitt’s entry and kept in Reed Sorenson’s #55.  Like The Motorsports Group’s #30, it’s the first time Premium’s #98 has been withdrawn this season.  If Whitt returns to Martinsville next Sunday, he will look to improve his 30th-place run in April.

DID NOT ENTER

#26 BK Racing
#40 Hillman Racing
#59 Leavine Family / Circle Sport Racing

None of the other part-time Open teams attempted the race at Talladega.  These three in particular, which have not been entered in a race since the Daytona 500, are unlikely to return in the season’s remaining four events.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

5/3/87: Chet Fillip’s engine failure comes minutes before terrifying Talladega wreck

SOURCE: ESPN Classic
On May 3, 1987, Chet Fillip picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Winston 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway when his #81 Warr Valves Ford fell out with engine trouble after 3 of 178 laps.  The finish came in Fillip’s 21st series start.

Fillip’s obscurity is surprising given his diverse racing career.  In many ways, he has much in common with the late Bryan Clauson due to his similar experience in NASCAR, IndyCar, and USAC midget racing.  Fillip got his start in stock cars and modifieds, competing alongside his father Marvin at the Arena Park Raceway in his native Texas.  During this time, Fillip also drove some of the most spectacular supermodifieds of his era, low-slung machines with massive wings and cramped cockpits.

In 1982, Fillip teamed with Texas businessman Tom Mitchell with eyes on making the Indianapolis 500.  His car with a red nose and blue body, sponsored by Mitchell’s Circle Bar Truck Corral and R.V. Park, made 11 IndyCar starts, including back-to-back 500s in 1982 and 1983.  While Fillip finished just 24th in the former and last in the other, he did earn a career-best 10th at the Milwaukee Mile in 1985.

Circle Bar stayed as a sponsor with Fillip in 1983 when he looked to make his first NASCAR Winston Cup start in the Daytona 500.  Unfortunately, the #13 Buick, fielded by 1977 LASTCAR Cup Series Champion Earle Canavan, was one of nine withdrawn during SpeedWeeks.  Undaunted, Fillip returned four months after his final IndyCar start to attempt the 1985 finale, the Atlanta Journal 500.  Reunited with Tom Mitchell, Fillip snagged the 36th starting spot in qualifying and finished 25th.  Among the ten drivers Fillip bested in qualifying were series veterans Doug Heveron, Jim Sauter, Blackie Wangerin, and Bobby Wawak.

Fillip and Mitchell returned to NASCAR in 1986 to run a partial season, attempting 18 of the 29 races.  The team remained with Ford, carried the same blue-and-red Circle Bar livery from IndyCar, and changed the car number from #31 to #81.  This time, the team didn’t withdraw, and Fillip lined up 15th in the 31-car field for the second 125-mile qualifier.  With only a 20th-place finish, Fillip once again went home empty-handed, this time as one of 21 drivers, including Michael Waltrip, Alan Kulwicki, and Davey Allison.  Fillip rebounded after Daytona, making all 17 of his remaining starts.  His best finish of the year came at Pocono on July 20, where he came home 12th - three positions better than his open-wheel start there in 1984.

Fillip and the #81 returned in 1987, though this time with owner-drivers Mike Potter and Buddy Arrington as co-owners.  Arrington and Potter, along with Slick Johnson and Eddie Bierschwale, would share driving duties with Fillip for their second partial season.  Fillip entered the car in Daytona with new sponsor Marshall Batteries.  Now behind the wheel of one of Ford’s sleek new Thunderbirds, Fillip held fast to a 13th-place finish in his Twin 125 securing him the 26th spot in his first-ever Daytona 500.  And though engine troubles cut short his run after just 19 laps, Fillip joined an elite fraternity of drivers who had started both of America’s signature 500-mile races.  With a 24th-place showing in the following race at Rockingham, Fillip prepared to return to superspeedway racing at Talladega, where he finished 23rd and 28th the year before.

As at Daytona, perilous unrestricted speed was the big story for the Winston 500.  It was in qualifying for this race that polesitter Bill Elliott set NASCAR’s all-time record speed of 212.809mph, more than one full mile per hour over outside-polesitter Bobby Allison.  Among the 41 drivers who filled the starting grid, only the last two - 40th-place Steve Christman for car owner Tom Winkle, and 41st-place Jimmy Means, who didn’t complete a lap - did not break the 200mph mark.  Blackie Wangerin and Ronnie Sanders missed the cut, while seven other drivers, including J.D. McDuffie, withdrew.  Fillip’s #81, carrying new sponsorship from Warr Valves, secured the 31st spot with a lap of 205.295mph.

When the race started, Jimmy Means’ #52 In Fisherman / Turtle Wax Pontiac got a slow start and he held down the last spot as he tried to rejoin the pack.  Then, on Lap 4, smoke began to billow out of Fillip’s #81.  The caution flew as the leaders headed into Turn 1 with Fillip, trailing fluid, slowing at the entrance to pit road.  Not wasting any time on pit road, Fillip pulled behind the wall, where the team soon discovered the problem was terminal.  40th went to Geoffrey Bodine, who made an unscheduled stop just three laps after the restart.  The Hendrick Motorsports crew lifted the hood of Bodine’s #5 Levi Garrett Chevrolet, then the crew pushed his car behind the wall as well, done with engine trouble.  “We’ll get it right one of these days,” said Bodine.

The rest of the Bottom Five was filled by the day’s most spectacular - and terrifying - moment.  During the Fillip caution, outside-polesitter Bobby Allison told the ESPN crew by radio that his #22 Miller American Buick was handling well.  Coming down to complete Lap 21, Allison had just slipped behind Buddy Baker into the 5th spot when the right-rear tire came apart midway through the tri-oval.  The explosion turned Allison sideways, and the rear end of the car caught the air.  Just a few hundred feet from the flagstand, Allison’s car backed into the catchfence, tearing the car to pieces and ripping down a length of the protective fencing.  The field tried to slow to avoid him, but speeds were so high that another nine drivers were caught up in the debris field, spinning and crashing into each other.  One of them, the #1 Bull’s Eye Barbecue Sauce Chevrolet of Ron Bouchard, made contact with Allison.  Fortunately, all drivers involved, as well as those in the stands, were unharmed.  Allison, Bouchard, and Cale Yarborough, also eliminated in the wreck, rounded out the final five spots.

After an extensive delay, Bobby Allison’s son Davey, making his 14th career start, took his first career victory in a race shortened ten laps by approaching darkness.

After Talladega, Fillip finished 13th of 34 drivers in his lone appearance in the Winston Open exhibition race, missed the field for the Coca-Cola 600, and made just three more starts, including two for owner-driver Buddy Arrington in the #67 Pannill Knitting Ford.  His last race, also at Talladega, secured him a 20th-place finish.  The Potter-Arrington team made its final Cup start with Slick Johnson at North Wilkesboro on October 4.  Johnson finished last in the race, again due to engine trouble.

Following his NASCAR career, Fillip made the move to USAC sprint car competition, winning nine races, including the Little 500 at Indiana’s Anderson Speedway.  He then moved his family to nearby Avon, Indiana and continued to find success on the short tracks.  In 2006, he claimed the inaugural championship in the Premier Racing Association, a series he helped found, driving a car he both designed and manufactured.  Fillip, now 59, remains active in USAC racing today, and in 2008 took the checkers in a race at Richmond International Raceway.

As of 2014, Tom Mitchell’s Circle Bar R.V. Park is still in business in Ozona, Texas.  A modest museum contains at least three red-and-blue cars Fillip drove in NASCAR and IndyCar competition, including his #81 Ford Thunderbird from 1986.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*As of this writing, Fillip is one of eight drivers to finish last in both a NASCAR Cup Series race and the Indianapolis 500.  The others are Pancho Carter, Larry Foyt, Cliff Hucul, Jim Hurtubise, Juan Pablo Montoya, Johnny Rutherford, and Tony Stewart.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #81 in a Cup Series race since September 17, 1978, when Jabe Thomas’ #81 Louise Smith Chevrolet pulled out after 1 lap of the Delaware 500, the official reason listed as the driver “quit” the race.  Following another last-place run for the Fillip team in 1987, the #81 would not finish last in another Cup race until June 15, 1997, when Kenny Wallace’s #81 Square D Ford dropped an engine during the Miller 400 at Michigan.
*This was Fillip’s only NASCAR last-place finish.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
41) #81-Chet Fillip / 3 laps / engine
40) #5-Geoffrey Bodine / 11 laps / engine
39) #22-Bobby Allison / 21 laps / crash
38) #1-Ron Bouchard / 22 laps / crash
37) #29-Cale Yarborough / 22 laps / crash

SOURCES
*1987 Winston 500, ESPN
*Colorado Racing Memories
*Johnson, Bryan. “Chet Fillip: Racing’s Jack of All Trades,” Fun City Finder, November 2, 2010.
*Motorsport.com
*Racing-Reference.info Profile: Chet Fillip
*TrackForum.com: Chet Fillip
*Wikipedia: Chet Fillip

Sunday, October 16, 2016

CUP: Aric Almirola and Petty team’s difficult 2016 continues with Kansas crash

SOURCE: NBC Sports
Aric Almirola picked up the 8th last-place finish of his NASCAR Sprint Cup career in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at the Kansas Speedway when his #43 Smithfield Ford fell out with damage from a multi-car accident after 36 of 267 laps.

The finish, which came in Almirola’s 210th series start, was his second of the year and first since Martinsville, 25 races ago.

One year after he finished 17th in points with three Top Fives and six Top Tens, Almirola came into Kansas in desperate need for a turnaround.  26th in the standings coming into the race, Almirola had finished no better than 12th in the Daytona 500 and scored four more DNFs since Martinsville, all due to crashes.  His teammate, rookie Brian Scott, had fared even worse, standing 34th in points with all five of his DNFs resulting from wrecks.  About the only positive from the Richard Petty Motorsports camp was Almirola’s win in July’s XFINITY race at Daytona, which came driving for Biagi DenBeste Racing.

But historically, Kansas has been one of Almirola’s best tracks.  In the 2012 running of the fall race, he started 5th and led 69 laps before an accident left him a disappointing 29th.  Three consecutive top-ten finishes followed.  This past weekend proved more of a struggle.  Almirola ran 25th, 29th, and 35th in the weekend’s three practices and managed only 35th on the grid with a lap of 184.824mph.

Starting 40th on Sunday was Josh Wise in The Motorsports Group’s #30 Curtis Key Plumbing Chevrolet.  During the pace laps, he was joined by Regan Smith, who had a new transmission in his #7 Fire Alarm Services Chevrolet; Reed Sorenson, who missed driver introductions, but had already qualified 39th in Premium Motorsports’ #98 Harrahs North Kansas City Toyota, and Kurt Busch, who damaged his #41 Monster Energy Chevrolet in the grass during Happy Hour and was sent to a backup car.  Once the green flag fell, all three quickly dropped Wise to 40th by the end of Lap 1.

The next change for 40th occurred on Lap 3, when Joey Gase slipped to the back in his fifth Cup start of the season.  In keeping with his advocacy for organ donors, Gase’s #32 Ford, sponsored by the Midwest Transplant Network, was covered in painted hand prints and signatures from fans who turned out at a charity event.  The distinctive-looking white car fell to the rear, and by Lap 16 was the first to be lapped.  Wise retook the spot from Gase on the 21st circuit by apparently making an unscheduled stop, costing him another two laps for a total of three.

Almirola entered the picture on Lap 37, when trouble broke out in Turn 4.  Coming off the corner, Almirola’s #43 found itself in a three-wide battle with Brian Scott’s #44 in front and David Ragan’s #23 Dr. Pepper Toyota closing fast in the rear.  First Almirola and Scott, then Ragan and Almirola made contact, sending the #43 into a spin.  The spin destroyed the nose of Ragan’s car and flattened both of Almirola’s right-side tires.  While Ragan’s crew was able to make quick repairs, costing just two laps, Almirola’s tires came apart, tearing up both the right-front and right-rear of his machine.  After several minutes of trying, the Petty team retired Almirola from the race around Lap 95, securing him the 40th spot.

Wise ended up 39th, eliminated when an apparent right-front tire failure sent him crashing into the outside wall on Lap 115.  Chase contender Brad Keselowski found himself a disappointing 38th in the final running order after he lost control racing Denny Hamlin off Turn 4 on Lap 190.  Keselowski slid into the grass, tearing away the car’s nose and radiator.  On Lap 221, the Penske Racing crew managed to get the #2 Miller Lite Ford back on track, but the damaged engine let go, drawing another yellow and knocking out the car for good.  Jamie McMurray’s 31 Cessna Chevrolet, the last car running under power, had a tire issue of his own send him into the Turn 4 wall, ultimately costing him 34 laps.  Ragan rounded out the Bottom Five.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #43-Aric Almirola / 36 laps / crash
39) #30-Josh Wise / 108 laps / crash
38) #2-Brad Keselowski / 190 laps / crash / led 1 lap
37) #1-Jamie McMurray / 233 laps / running
36) #23-David Ragan / 258 laps / running

2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Premium Motorsports (5)
2nd) BK Racing, HScott Motorsports (4)
3rd) Richard Childress Racing, The Motorsports Group (3)
4th) Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports, Roush-Fenway Racing (2)
5th) Front Row Motorsports, Germain Racing, Go FAS Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing (1)

2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (20)
2nd) Ford (6)
3rd) Toyota (5)

2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

XFINITY: Timmy Hill’s second-straight last-place finish comes at Kansas

SOURCE: Jonathan Ferrey, Getty Images
Timmy Hill picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Motor Speedway when his #40 CrashClaimsR.us Toyota fell out with electrical issues after he completed 11 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Hill’s 100th series start, was his second in a row.

Hill and teammate Brandon Hightower rejoined Motorsports Business Management (MBM) as one of 40 drivers on the preliminary entry list.  On Thursday, October 13, the list grew to 42 with the addition of Obaika Racing’s #77, driven by Matt Waltz, and #97 with Ryan Ellis aboard.  When Ellis and Waltz swapped rides in Happy Hour, the engine on #77 let go, and the team labored into the evening to drop in a new one.  Hill, meanwhile, ran 26th and 27th in the two practices, then secured the 28th stating spot with a lap of 172.667mph.

At the back of the field, Josh Wise made his eighth XFINITY Series attempt of the season, climbing aboard TriStar’s “start-and-park” #10 Toyota in place of Matt DiBenedetto, who on Saturday finished a strong 11th in a rare full-race run for TriStar.  Wise turned four laps in qualifying, but was nearly four-tenths of a second short of making the cut.  Other than two withdrawals, the #10 had not missed a race since Texas in April.  Sent home along with him was owner-driver Morgan Shepherd, the first DNQ for his #89 Racing For Jesus Chevrolet since Richmond last month.

Starting 40th on the grid was Hightower in MBM’s #13 Premier Recycling Dodge.  Hill pulled into the garage during the opening green-flag run, followed by Hightower during the first caution on Lap 59.  The caution fell for fluid coming from Matt Waltz’s #97 Vroom! Brands Chevrolet as engine troubles continued to plague Obaika Racing.  Waltz managed to make 126 laps before retiring in 37th with teammate Ryan Ellis rounding out the Bottom Five in 36th, electrical issues the listed cause.  Between the two Obaika and two MBM cars in 37th was Derrike Cope, who struggled with engine and transmission issues before exiting near the halfway mark.

Blake Koch continued a dream season with upstart team Kaulig Racing, leading the opening practice session, starting 9th and finishing there, moving him within seven points of championship leader Elliott Sadler.  Just two years after winning the 2014 LASTCAR XFINITY Series championship, Koch is now in position to join Jack Ingram, Tommy Ellis, and Jeff Green as the only drivers to score both NASCAR and LASTCAR titles in the XFINITY division.  Green himself enjoyed a strong 21st-place showing in only the third race this season where B.J. McLeod has fielded his #99 Ford.  It was Green’s best XFINITY finish at Kansas since 2003, when he ran 11th for Herzog-Jackson Motorsports.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #40 in an XFINITY Series race at Kansas.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #40-Timmy Hill / 11 laps / electrical
39) #13-Brandon Hightower / 62 laps / transmission
38) #70-Derrike Cope / 91 laps / transmission
37) #97-Matt Waltz / 126 laps / engine
36) #77-Ryan Ellis / 142 laps / electrical

2016 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) TriStar Motorsports (18)
2nd) Motorsports Business Management (4)
3rd) RSS Racing (3)
4th) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Inc., JD Motorsports (2)
5th) Chip Ganassi Racing (1)

2016 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Toyota (20)
2nd) Chevrolet (7)
3rd) Ford (2)
4th) Dodge (1)

2016 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

CUP: Open Team Roundup - Kansas (October)

SOURCE: Getty Images
QUALIFIED

#21 Wood Brothers Racing
Driver: Ryan Blaney
Started 17th, Finished 14th

For the first time since New Hampshire last month, an Open team finished inside the Top 15, and for the first time since then, that driver was Ryan Blaney.  Starting 17th on the grid, Blaney returned to competitive form, hanging around the Top 20 for most of the day.  When Brad Keselowski wrecked spectacularly down the front stretch on Lap 190, the Wood Brothers decided to keep their driver out, handing him 5th on the grid for the restart.  Blaney slipped back to 10th, pitted for fresh tires, and held on in the final laps for his third Top 15 of the Chase.  Blaney will continue to pursue his first career win next Sunday at Talladega, where he finished 9th in May.

#55 Premium Motorsports
Driver: Cole Whitt
Started 36th, Finished 33rd

For the third time this year, Premium Motorsports teammates Cole Whitt and Reed Sorenson swapped rides.  Whitt traded car numbers, but not cars: he climbed aboard the black-and-red Chevrolet which he raced to a 36th-place finish at Chicagoland, Becker Trailers replacing Moen as sponsor.  Like Blaney, Whitt returned to his early-season form, battling for a lead-lap finish.  He went down a lap on the 20th circuit, got the Lucky Dog on Lap 45, and on Lap 95 had climbed to 28th, still on the lead lap.  Only in the final stages did Whitt slip in the order, losing five laps, but remaining second among the Open teams.  If Whitt makes his eighth start at Talladega next week, he will look to improve on an 18th-place run in the spring that threatened to be his first Top Ten before he was caught up in Kevin Harvick’s last-lap wreck.

#98 Premium Motorsports
Driver: Reed Sorenson
Started 39th, Finished 34th

Driving the all-black #98 Toyota with sponsorship from Harrah’s North Kansas City (a strange addition given that the race was sponsored by its own trackside Hollywood Casino), Sorenson came home one lap and one position behind his teammate.  Sorenson did not compete in this spring’s race at Talladega, where Michael Waltrip finished a solid 12th, but Sorenson did finish 22nd for Premium during July’s race at Daytona.

#30 The Motorsports Group
Driver: Josh Wise
Started 40th, Finished 39th

Once again, Josh Wise started shotgun on the field, and while he avoided a last-place finish, he left Kansas with his second DNF in three races.  On Lap 18, Wise became the second driver to be lapped (after Joey Gase in the #32 for Go FAS Racing).  An apparent unscheduled stop on Lap 21 dropped him down another two, and he trailed by three as he continued on.  Six laps down on Lap 115, Wise slapped the wall in Turn 4, drawing the fourth caution of the afternoon.  Though Wise was uninjured and managed to drive to the garage, The Motorsports Group (TMG) was done for the day.  Next week, Wise looks to give TMG its first-ever restrictor-plate start.  Three of the team’s four DNQs this season (excepting Indianapolis) came on the superspeedways.

UPDATE: The Motorsports Group withdrew on Monday.

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

None of the other part-time Open teams attempted the race in Kansas.  Next week at Talladega, however, Roush-Fenway Racing will enter a fourth car, #99, for XFINITY Series driver Ryan Reed to attempt his Cup debut.  Also listed is Front Row Motorsports’ #35, driven by David Gilliland during the season’s previous three restrictor-plate races.

UPDATE: Also returning is BK Racing's #93 with Matt DiBenedetto as Jeffrey Earnhardt will run a specaial Dale Earnhardt tribute in the Chartered #83. Bobby Labonte will once again drive Go FAS Racing's Chartered #32.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

10/10/04: Kirk Shelmerdine’s political “bumper sticker” lands him in hot water

SOURCE: Mattswad Photobucket
On October 10, 2004, Kirk Shelmerdine picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Nextel Cup career in the Banquet 400 presented by ConAgra Foods at the Kansas Speedway when his #72 “Vote For Bush” Ford fell out with clutch issues after 3 of 267 laps.

The finish, which came in Shelmerdine’s 20th series start, was his second of the season and first since the June race at Michigan, 15 rounds prior.

The Philadelphia-born Shelmerdine is most often known for his role as Dale Earnhardt’s crew chief, a position he held from 1982 through 1992, during which time Earnhardt earned four of his seven series titles.  What isn’t discussed as much is Shelmerdine’s own racing aspirations, which he pursued after leaving Richard Childress Racing.  The genesis may have been with Childress himself, who fielded a Cup car for Shelmerdine during the Budweiser NASCAR 400, the final Cup event at the Texas World Speedway in College Station.  Childress, who was still racing at the time, finished 14th in his #3 while Shelmerdine pulled off track in the identical #8 after 2 laps.  The “start-and-park” role Shelmerdine filled that day would also come to define the latter part of his career.

Shelmerdine began 1993 in the ARCA Racing Series, where he roared from the 37th spot in the ARCA 200 at Daytona to finish a strong 3rd behind Jeff Purvis and Loy Allen, Jr.  He would end the year with three Top Tens in four starts, along with his first pole that fall at Atlanta.  In 1994, owner-driver Jimmy Means invited Shelmerdine to race in Winston Cup, and he took Means’ #52 to a 26th-place run at Talladega and a 22nd in the Winston Open exhibition race at Charlotte.  He also made four Busch Series starts that year, highlighted by a 17th at Daytona, and in 1995 matched that 17th in his Truck Series debut at Bristol.

In 1998, Shelmerdine finally earned his first ARCA Series triumph at Atlanta, taking the checkers with Kenneth Appling, who fielded his first ride in the series.  It was the first time Shelmerdine won a race since his tenure in the ill-fated NASCAR Sportsman Series, where he claimed victories in his final two years as a crew chief.  He followed this up with a second win at Charlotte on October 6, 1999, and a third followed in 2003, when that year’s Charlotte event was shortened by rain after 66 laps.  That time, Shelmerdine drove for another veteran owner-driver, James Hylton.

In 2002, Shelmerdine returned to Cup and Busch competition for the first time in nearly a decade, missing the cut for the Daytona 500 with owner Stan Hover, then coming home 31st in Busch for Jay Robinson, the current owner of Premium Motorsports.  In the summer of 2002, he made his first start as a Cup Series owner-driver, debuting his #27 Ford sponsored by Naturally Fresh Foods, who previously backed 1992 Winston Cup champion Alan Kulwicki.  After withdrawing from the Coca-Cola 600 entry list and missing the cut at Chicagoland, Shelmerdine broke through with back-to-back starts at Loudon and Pocono.  Both times, he failed to finish, pulling out after 10 and 81 laps with mechanical issues.  Shelmerdine tried and failed to get Junie Donlavey into the 2003 Daytona 500, then set his sights on 2004.

The spring of 2004 was a strange time for NASCAR.  The excitement of a new title sponsor in Nextel and a new championship format in “The Chase” was tempered by an economic recession and the loss of several full-time Cup teams.  Shelmerdine’s #72 was one of just 45 entries who attempted the Daytona 500.  Shelmerdine missed the cut by finishing last in Gatorade 125 Race 2 while Andy Hillenburg was sent home after Race 1.  He was among the cadre of so-called “field fillers” at Rockingham, keeping the field at a full 43 by starting 41st, but pulled off the track after 19 laps, leaving him 42nd.  He would make the next five races before his second DNQ at Martinsville, but each time he pulled off the track in the early laps.

That May, Shelmerdine attempted a full-race run in his return to the Winston Open.  His #27 car carried sponsorship from RacingUnderdogs.com, a site devoted to “field filler” news, with “Vote For Kirk” on the hood to get fans to vote Shelmerdine into the main event.  He avoided involvement in the grinding 11-car wreck at the green flag, but ended up crashing himself after 25 laps.

Aside from the clear “start-and-park” strategy, one of the reasons for Shelmerdine’s struggles was the rules package in place for his team.  Ford had introduced a new aero package for the 2004 season.  To provide an incentive for teams to use it, those who didn’t had to have their rear spoilers shaved down, making their old cars too hard to handle.  This singled-out “field fillers” like Shelmerdine, who acquired old cars from other teams.  Thus, throughout his career, Shelmerdine’s race weekends were marred with hard qualifying crashes, most notably at Pocono in 2002, Bristol in 2004, Richmond in 2005, and Charlotte in 2006.  As if this wasn’t bad enough, the fall of 2004 saw Shelmerdine embroiled in, of all things, a political controversy.

During the first Nextel Cup Chase, the Ford Shelmerdine drove used to belong to Greg Biffle at Roush Racing.  This car appeared to have the right 2004 sheet metal, and in fact still had the red-white-and-blue patriotic scheme from Biffle’s new sponsor, the U.S. National Guard.  Without a sponsor and with the 2004 Presidential Election coming up that November, Shelmerdine arrived at Loudon for Race 1 of The Chase with “Bush / Cheney ‘04” on his rear quarter-panels.  President George W. Bush was scheduled to attend the Loudon race, his second of the year following the Daytona 500, but a series of deadly hurricanes in Florida forced him to cancel.  Regardless, the decals stayed on.

“I’m very much against the liberal ways when it comes to politics,” said Shelmerdine.  “This was the best way to make our little statement.”  According to at least one article by the Washington Post, this proved a curious statement to make: Shelmerdine hadn’t even registered to vote.

Advertisements for political candidates in NASCAR were nothing new.  In 1960, owner-driver Roy Tyner carried a bumper sticker for the John F. Kennedy / Lyndon B. Johnson ticket with the slogan “Democrats Are For You.”  In 1987, part-time Cup racer Charlie Baker had “Carring in ‘88 Lt. Gov.” on the quarter panels of his #93 Chevrolet. In 1992, during a "start-and-park" effort for Means Racing at Darlington, Johnny McFadden's #53 Pontiac had a hood logo that read "Richard Bridges U.S. Senate." Even Richard Petty, who celebrated his 200th victory carrying a “Reagan / Bush ‘84” banner next to President Ronald Reagan, also applied a small “Bush / Quayle ‘92” decal in front of the rear tires of his iconic #43 for his final Daytona race in July of 1992.

However, Shelmerdine’s paint scheme landed him in hot water - not with NASCAR, but with the Federal Election Commission (FEC).  The complaint filed with the FEC alleged that Shelmerdine had violated federal election law by not reporting a donation to a federal candidate valued at over $250.  A debate ensued over whether or not the advertising was truly worth this much.  On the one hand, NASCAR was riding a peak of popularity with Nextel as new title sponsor and the first Chase underway, making the real estate on any car that much more valuable.  On the other, Shelmerdine used the decals because he didn’t have a sponsor, and his team was so underfunded that it wouldn’t be on the track for very long, never mind in victory lane.  In the end, the FEC didn’t sanction Shelmerdine, but instead sent him a letter of admonishment warning him not to do it again.  The scheme ran through the fall race at Atlanta, the final event before the election, and were removed.

The Post supported the FEC’s decision, though at the same time belittled the value of NASCAR’s sponsorship.  “There has to be a better use of FEC resources than investigating bumper stickers.”

More than a decade later, those “bumper stickers” have evolved into several full-on paint schemes (likely with the proper paperwork completed by the team).  In 2014, Mike Curb, Richard Petty’s car owner in 1984 who also worked on the Reagan campaign, devoted Josh Wise’s paint scheme for the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona to the campaign of Charlie Crist, who was running to be governor of Florida.  NASCAR forced Curb to remove the decals from Wise’s Ford.  However, the so-called “NASCAR Dads” demographic has given us paint schemes for other candidates including Rick Perry (#71 of driver Bobby Labonte), Rick Santorum (#26 Tony Raines), and now Donald Trump (#08 Korbin Forrister).  A second Donald Trump scheme, with Truck Series driver Austin Wayne Self, is slated for Talladega in two weeks.

The 2004 race at Kansas marked the fourth appearance of the “Vote for Bush” car and the only time it finished last.  He ran slowest in the weekend’s first two practice sessions, sat out “Happy Hour,” and ran 165.853mph in qualifying, more than two seconds off the lap of pole and race winner Joe Nemechek.  The lap still secured Shelmerdine the 42nd spot on the grid based on Owner Points, putting him ahead of four DNQs: 41-year-old Mike Garvey, who was looking to make his Cup debut, Mike Wallace in Gary Keller’s #35 Chevrolet, Carl Long for Raynard McGlynn, and fellow owner-driver Morgan Shepherd in his #89 Racing With Jesus / Red Line Oil Dodge.

Starting last at Kansas was Stanton Barrett, who one year later would give Front Row Motorsports its first Cup Series start.  That day at Kansas, Barrett drove for another start-up team, the #94 AmercInn / Racer’s Edge Ford belonging to Dave Watson.  In the late 1970s, Watson made five Cup starts as a driver, but retired suddenly at Atlanta when a tragic accident on pit road killed one of his crewmen.  Barrett’s start at Kansas would be Watson’s final start as an owner.  Sterling Marlin took last from Barrett on the first lap, his #40 Coors Light Dodge having snapped a driveshaft that fell on the track.  Shelmerdine pulled off the track under the resulting yellow, and retook 43rd from Marlin when #40 returned from the garage.

42nd went to Larry Gunselman, who drove for still another “start-up” NASCAR team owned by William Edwards.  Gunselman’s turn in the #98 Mach One Inc. Ford ended with suspension issues after 26 laps.  Behind 41st-place Barrett was 40th-place Hermie Sadler, who ran his own #02 SCORE Motorsports Ford for 38 circuits before rear end troubles.  Todd Bodine rounded out the Bottom Five for car owner Don Arnold in the #50 Arnold Development Companies Dodge.

In all, Shelmerdine’s team ran a career-most 21 of 36 races in 2004.  The only time his #72 finished under power that year was at Watkins Glen, where “road ringer” Tom Hubert finished one lap down in 29th.  In five of those remaining 20 DNFs, #72 was flagged off the track for failing to maintain minimum speed.  But between Hubert, Shelmerdine, and modified racer Ted Christopher, who made a one-off at Loudon, Kirk Shelmerdine Racing managed to attempt the entire 2004 schedule, finishing the year with 14 DNQs.  The team, running the #27 once more, attempted another 16 races in 2005, but made just one each with Hubert, Christopher, and Shelmerdine, never running more than 33 laps before retiring.

2006 proved to be the highlight of Kirk Shelmerdine Racing.  While Chevrolet introduced a new body style for its Monte Carlo that year, Shelmerdine entered the race in an unsponsored black Chevrolet with the 2005 nose.  As in his four previous attempts to make “The Great American Race,” the odds were very much against him.  57 other drivers arrived to challenge for one of the 43 spots, and when Bill Elliott, Travis Kvapil, Hermie Sadler, and Terry Labonte locked themselves in, Shelmerdine would have to race his way into the field.  The one thing he had going for him was his ranking on the speed charts.  His lap of 185.361mph ranked him 3rd among those not locked-in, meaning he still had a chance of making the show depending on where the other outsiders finished.  In Duel Race 1, Bill Elliott raced in, locking Gordon into the show.  And when Gordon himself raced in during Duel Race 2, Shelmerdine - 21st of 29 in Race 2 - secured the 42nd starting spot for his first Daytona 500.

Shelmerdine’s ride became the feel-good story of SpeedWeeks 2006.  He’d already acquired sponsorship from Apex Electric for the Duels, and his former boss Richard Childress paid his tire bills in exchange for logos for Childress Wineries on #27.  When the heavily-overcast race was done, Shelmerdine rolled home in 20th spot - not only a career-best Cup finish, but his first on the lead lap.  The run netted him a $272,008 share of the purse, enough to attempt a limited schedule.  He made the next two plate races at Talladega and Daytona, but an early crash in the former ultimately led him to park the latter.  He would not make another Cup race.

The last hurrah for Kirk Shelmerdine Racing came in 2010.  After finding reasonable speed in his all-black #27 Toyota, Shelmerdine stepped aside for Duel Race 1 and installed Todd Bodine to race his way in.  On the final lap, driver and team were once again on the cusp of making it.  The battle for the “Final Transfer Spot” fell to Bodine and Max Papis in Germain Racing’s #13 GEICO Toyota.  Coming off Turn 4, Papis slipped ahead, bringing John Andretti’s #34 with him.  Bodine, who had come from the rear of the 27-car field after the driver change, had just barely missed the cut.  After a handful more starts, including one more with Tom Hubert at Sonoma, Shelmerdine’s team closed, and the contents were auctioned off that September.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*The #72 would not finish last in another Cup Series race until October 14, 2006, when Mike Skinner’s #72 Dutch Quality Stone Chevrolet was involved in a Lap 2 crash during the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte.  Shelmerdine’s run remains the number’s only Cup last-place run at Kansas.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
43) #72-Kirk Shelmerdine / 3 laps / clutch
42) #98-Larry Gunselman / 26 laps / suspension
41) #94-Stanton Barrett / 30 laps / vibration
40) #02-Hermie Sadler / 38 laps / rear end
39) #50-Todd Bodine / 66 laps / steering