Sunday, February 26, 2017

CUP: Matt Kenseth finishes last for the first time in nearly eight years

Matt Kenseth picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series career in Sunday’s 59th Annual Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #20 DeWalt FlexVolt Toyota was involved in a multi-car accident after 103 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Kenseth’s 615th series start, was his first in a Cup race since March 1, 2009, during the Shelby 427 at Las Vegas.  That day, 284 races ago, Kenseth’s #17 USG Ford lost an engine after 6 laps, putting an end to a two-race winning streak that included his first of two Daytona 500 victories.

Kenseth’s move from Roush-Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013 continues to pay dividends.  That season was his winningest to date, seven checkered flags en route to a close 2nd in the championship hunt to Jimmie Johnson.  Another championship bid in 2015 stirred a fierce rivalry with Joey Logano, culminating in a crash at Martinsville that took Logano out of the title hunt and parked Kenseth for two races.  He recovered nicely last season, winning only twice but coming just short of the Final Four at Homestead.

This year, Kenseth arrived in Florida with a familiar-looking black-and-gold paint scheme.  For the first time since his victory in the 2009 running, DeWalt Power Tools would be his Daytona 500 sponsor.  The car ran 14th-fastest in opening practice and vaulted him to the second round of qualifying, 9th overall, with a speed of 192.016mph.  A 5th-place finish in Race 1 of the Can-Am Duels secured him 9th on the grid for the 500, and he ran 15th and 2nd in the following two practices before sitting out Happy Hour.  Combined with an 11th-place showing in the Clash, Kenseth was a favorite to win his third Daytona 500.

Starting 40th on Sunday was Elliott Sadler in his first start for Tommy Baldwin Racing.  Having sold their charter late last season, Baldwin scaled back to a part-time effort in 2017, and Sadler locked himself into his first 500 since 2012 with a fast lap in qualifying.  Edged by D.J. Kennington for a transfer spot in Duel Race 2, Sadler fell back on that speed and rolled off in the rear.  He was shortly joined by Jimmie Johnson, Paul Menard, and Ryan Blaney, who were all sent to backup cars after Thursday’s Duels.

When the green flag flew, last place switched to Brendan Gaughan, making his first 500 start since 2004.  Coming off a strong 5th-place finish in the XFINITY race the night before, Gaughan had also locked himself in on speed for an Open team.  Car owner and oil businessman Mark Beard, an aspiring racer in the 1980s, assembled a team over the offseason, acquiring an engine and chassis from Richard Childress Racing.  As fast as his car was, Gaughan began to lose the draft and followed Jimmie Johnson two-tenths of a second behind the pack.  Johnson’s #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet switched places on Lap 3, followed by rookie Erik Jones’ #77 5-hour Energy Toyota on Lap 4.

On Lap 7, when Matt DiBenedetto trailed in the #32 E.J. Wade Ford during his first start for Go FAS Racing, the tail end of the field began to break up.  Following Jeffrey Earnhardt in The Motorsports Group’s first-ever points race on a plate track (with the Charter from Circle Sport), DiBenedetto and Earnhardt’s #33 Starter Chevrolet fell from eight-tenths behind the pack on Lap 8 to nearly 10 seconds back on Lap 12.  DiBenedetto retained the spot until the 14th circuit, when Joey Logano’s #22 Shell / Pennzoil Ford pitted from 4th for a loose right-front wheel.  The stop nearly put Logano a full lap down, though he managed to stay right in front of the leaders as others began to short-pit.

Next to take 40th was rookie Daniel Suarez.  On Lap 19, the defending XFINITY Series champion crossed paths with Erik Jones on pit road, and Suarez’s #19 ARRIS Toyota was the first car to be lapped.  He had lost a second circuit when the first caution fell on Lap 29 for an accident involving fellow rookie Corey LaJoie in the #83 Dustless Blasting Toyota.  LaJoie’s crash damage suffered in a pit entrance miscue was repaired quick enough under NASCAR’s new Five Minute Rule that he remained on the lead lap and Suarez stayed last.

Another last-place contender arrived in the form of David Ragan.  Back with Front Row Motorsports after nearly two seasons, Ragan acquired last-minute sponsorship for his #38 from Camping World and showed speed in his Duel.  Unfortunately, a tight race between himself and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on Lap 51 caused Ragan to smack the outside wall off Turn 4.  Ragan still managed to make it around the track without a caution and returned inside of five minutes, but cost him two laps to the leaders, dropping him to last behind Suarez on Lap 53.  For the next 40 laps, Ragan would continue to lose ground after several lengthy green-flag stops.  He was three down on Lap 60, five down on the 85th, eight down on the 95th, and 12 down on the 102nd.  One of the only cars multiple laps down, Ragan looked poised for his first Daytona 500 last-place finish since 2012.

Then came Lap 104.  Leading at the time was Segment 1 winner Kyle Busch, weaving through lapped traffic ahead of Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  Kenseth recovered from an early pit penalty to join his teammate up front, which looked like the right place to be as Segment 2 neared its finish.  Suddenly, Kyle Busch’s #18 M&M’s Toyota broke loose in Turn 3, blocking the path for Jones and Kenseth.  All three cars collided, and Kenseth was struck in the rear by Ty Dillon’s #13 GEICO Chevrolet.  Earnhardt, Jr. was also involved, as was Sadler, who suffered cosmetic damage.  Of those wrecked, Busch, Jones, and Kenseth were unable to continue and, under NASCAR’s new wrecked car policy, could not return to the race.  Kenseth, ranked behind Jones and Busch, led the group down the rankings.  On Lap 115, Kenseth took 40th from Ragan for good.

Jones and Busch finished 39th and 38th, respectively, followed by Earnhardt, Jr., who turned into the garage after the ensuing red flag.  Rounding out the group was Canadian D.J. Kennington, whose #96 Lordco Auto Parts / Castrol Toyota was eliminated in the fifth caution on Lap 129.  After dodging LaJoie’s wreck earlier in the race, Kennington entered Turn 3 when Jamie McMurray turned Jimmie Johnson, triggering the day’s biggest pileup.  Kennington hugged the low line and slowed down, but couldn’t avoid the rear of Johnson’s car.  The two made contact, tearing up the right-front of the #96 and sending him behind the wall.

Taking the victory on Sunday was Kurt Busch, who bounced back from a last-place finish in the Clash to earn his first-ever restrictor-plate points race victory.  Matt DiBenedetto recovered to finish 9th, the best finish for owner Archie St. Hilaire since his series debut in 2012.  Brendan Gaughan came home 11th, bouncing back from a late-race spin in an impressive debut for the Beard Oil team.  And 18th-place Cole Whitt led 3 laps late and hung onto a Top 10 until the final moments, handing TriStar Motorsports its best Daytona 500 showing since Loy Allen, Jr. won the pole and finished 22nd in 1994.

The 500 also marked the 784th and final Cup start for Michael Waltrip.  Ranked 14th in the all-time last-place standings with 17 career NASCAR last-place finishes, but none since 2008, the two-time Daytona 500 winner finished an impressive 8th in his Aaron’s Toyota.  It was not only Waltrip’s best finish since 2013, but also handed Jay Robinson’s team Premium Motorsports its first-ever Top 10 finish in Cup.

*This marked the fourth last-place finish for the #20 in the Daytona 500.  All four occasions came during the time Joe Gibbs Racing used the number: 2002 and 2007 (Tony Stewart), 2009 (Joey Logano), and 2017 (Kenseth).  As of this writing, Logano has not finished last in another Cup points race since.
*This marked Kenseth’s first last-place finish at Daytona.

40) #20-Matt Kenseth / 103 laps / crash
39) #77-Erik Jones / 103 laps / crash
38) #18-Kyle Busch / 103 laps / crash / led 18 laps / won segment 1
37) #88-Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  / 106 laps / crash / led 8 laps
36) #96-D.J. Kennington / 127 laps / crash

1st) Joe Gibbs Racing (1)

1st) Toyota (1)


UPDATE: Added details from Kenseth's performance through the first part of SpeedWeeks 2017.

XFINITY: David Starr and McLeod teammates sweep bottom three positions of brutal Daytona wreckfest

David Starr picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Powershares QQQ 300 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #99 Striping Technology Chevrolet fell out with engine troubles after 4 of 124 laps.  The finish came in Starr’s 98th series start.

A four-time Truck Series winner with nearly two decades of experience, Starr broke into the XFINITY Series at Talladega on April 15, 2000, when his Wayne Day-prepared #16 31-W Insulation Pontiac finished next-to-last after an early crash.  After eight seasons of running no more than seven races a year, Starr joined TriStar Motorsports in 2014, where he split time in the #44 Toyota with several other drivers.  His best run of the year again came at Talladega, where he led inside the final ten laps before settling for 9th.  The run earned him a full-time ride with TriStar in 2015, when he finished 16th in points.  But seven races into the season, Starr and TriStar parted ways, and the veteran rounded out the year running a second car for RSS Racing.

This year, Starr signed with owner-driver B.J. McLeod, who went full-time in his #78 Ford last year.  For their 2017 effort, McLeod put Starr and fellow former TriStar driver and current last-place record holder Jeff Green in two of his Chevrolets – Green in a flat black #8 Chevrolet and Starr in a white #99.  Starr’s sponsor would be Striping Technology, who backed some of his rides for RSS.  Driving McLeod’s own #78 would be 21-year-old Clint King, who ran three races for Rick Ware racing last fall.

Starr, King, and Green were among the 44 drivers who would compete to make the 40-car entry list.  Starr ran 34th in the opening practice, 21st in the second, and secured the 33rd spot in qualifying, the last secured by speed, with a lap of 178.781mph.  Starr’s teammates Clint King (38th) and Jeff Green (40th) also made the race, putting three McLeod cars in the field for the first time.  Missing the race were ARCA veteran Mark Thompson for Motorsports Business Management, Stephen Leicht, who was moved from Obaika Racing’s withdrawn #77 to the #97, and owner-drivers Mike Harmon and Morgan Shepherd.  Shepherd’s #89 Chevrolet ran a special black-and-gold paint scheme in honor of his 50th year in NASCAR.

Green’s black McLeod #8 started 40th, and briefly took 39th from Mario Gosselin’s #90 Orlando Longwood Auto Auction Chevrolet.  By the end of the first lap, however, Green had suddenly dropped off the pace, 5.169 seconds behind the field.  An electrical issue caused him to slow onto the apron in Turns 3 and 4.  As he limped onto pit road, Starr also slowed in Turn 1, drawing the first caution.  Reports indicated Starr was trailing fluid, sending him to the garage.  Green’s own mechanical issues were repaired, and after he returned to the track on Lap 6, three circuits behind, he passed Starr for 39th the next time by.

Unfortunately, Green was soon eliminated in the first of a series of grinding wrecks on Lap 23.  When Scott Lagasse, Jr.’s #24 FDOT Toyota bumped Tyler Reddick’s #42 Broken Bow Records Chevrolet, the field closed up, gobbling 19 cars.  Green, who had earned both his laps back under early cautions, was left wrecked in the grass along with teammate Clint King, leaving all three B.J. McLeod cars in the final three positions. Cole Custer and Spencer Gallagher, who both took hard hits in the wreck, rounded out the Bottom Five.

*This marked the first time in NASCAR history where the #99 finished last in both the XFINITY and Truck Series point races on the same weekend.
*The #99 had not finished last in an XFINITY Series race since May 26, 2007, when David Reutimann’s #99 Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota lost an engine after 4 laps of the Carquest Auto Parts 300 at Charlotte.

40) #99-David Starr / 4 laps / engine
39) #8-Jeff Green / 22 laps / crash
38) #78-Clint King / 22 laps / crash
37) #00-Cole Custer / 22 laps / crash
36) #23-Spencer Gallagher / 22 laps / crash

1st) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Inc. (1)

1st) Chevrolet (1)


TRUCKS: Tommy Joe Martins left with second-straight Daytona last-place finish

Tommy Joe Martins picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career in Friday’s NextEra Energy Resources 250 at the Daytona International Speedway when his unsponsored #99 MDM Motorsports Chevrolet was involved in a multi-truck accident after 1 of 100 laps.

The finish, which came in Martins' 26th series start, was his first in a Truck Series race since last year at Kansas, 19 races ago.

The scrappy owner-driver from Mississippi enters his fourth Truck Series season looking to build his program, Martins Motorsports.  Last year, Martins’ silver #44 made 20 of the season’s 23 races, leading seven laps and coming home 23rd in points, but a season-best 18th at Gateway was saddled with eight DNFs.  In between, Martins has offered an intimate look at the life of an owner-driver through his blog.    

On February 9, following the departure of sponsor Diamond Gusset Jeans, Martins Motorsports announced a partnership with Brandonbilt Motorsports, the family-backed effort that fielded Brandon Brown’s #86 last year.  As part of the arrangement, Brown would drive Martins’ #44 at Daytona with sponsorship from SunFrog Shirts.  Martins, meanwhile, picked up a ride with MDM Motorsports.  The all-white #99 Chevrolet was fielded by Ranier Racing with MDM, which in 2016 entered rides for Austin Dillon and Brandon Jones, was arranged by Shane Huffman, and Matthew Miller was the listed owner.

Martins ran 30th in opening practice and remained 30th in qualifying with a lap of 173.832mph.  Thanks to MDM’s guaranteed starting spot, Martins secured the third of four provisionals based on Owner Points, placing him 30th on the grid for Friday night.  Unfortunately, Martins’ own #44 Brandon Brown turned out to be one of ten drivers who failed to qualify.  Those who joined Brown on the early ride home were Chris Fontaine, T.J. Bell, Bryan Dauzat, Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jennifer Jo Cobb, Parker Kligerman, and fan favorites Norm Benning and Jordan Anderson.

Starting 32nd on Friday was Travis Kvapil, locked-into the field based on the Past Champion’s Provisional in Beaver Motorsports (former MAKE Motorsports) #50 Florida Lottery Chevrolet.  He lost the spot during the pace laps to Wendell Chavous, who pitted Premium Motorsports’ #49 Peak Nutritional Products Chevrolet and surrendered the 28th position.  When the green flag flew, Chavous trailed a single-file pack that began to lose touch with the leaders.  Fortunately, this kept all of them clear of trouble that broke out on Lap 2.

Heading into Turn 1, the #29 Cooper Standard Ford of16th-place starter Chase Briscoe bumped Noah Gragson’s #18 Switch Toyota, triggering a fourteen-truck wreck that completely clogged the track.  Picking his way through from the back, Martins nearly had the wreck cleared when Tyler Young’s #02 Randco Chevrolet slid in front, collecting both trucks.  The damage proved too severe to attempt a five-minute repair, handing Martins with his second-consecutive last-place finish in the Truck Series opener.

Next week at Atlanta, Martins will return to his #44, looking for a much-needed turnaround.

The rest of the Bottom Five was filled by the Lap 2 accident.  31st went to Canadian dirt tracker Stewart Friesen, whose #52 Halmar International Chevrolet was prepared in cooperation with Tommy Baldwin Racing.  30th went to Ross Chastain, who raced Bolen Motorsports’ #66 Rugged Cross Blinds / Waterfront Services Chevrolet.  29th belonged to owner-driver Clay Greenfield in his #68 1-800-PAVEMENT / BH Holmes Construction Chevrolet.  Rounding out the group was Ryan Truex in the #16 SeaWatch International Toyota.  

*This marked just the third last-place finish for the #99 in Truck Series history, and the first since May 30, 2003, when Carl Edwards’ unsponsored #99 Roush Racing Ford crashed with Rich Bickle after 5 laps of the MBNA Armed Forces Family 200 at Dover.  The number had never before finished last in a Truck Series race at Daytona.

32) #99-Tommy Joe Martins / 1 lap / crash
31) #52-Stewart Friesen / 1 lap / crash
30) #66-Ross Chastain / 1 lap / crash
29) #68-Clay Greenfield / 1 lap / crash
28) #16-Ryan Truex / 1 lap / crash

1st) MDM Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (1)


UPDATE: Added details of Martins' most recent last-place finish; correction on MDM team owner.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

CUP: Reed Sorenson’s battle for transfer spot ends with Premium Motorsports’ second-straight last-place finish in Duel Race 1

PHOTO: @NascarWorldNews
(UPDATE (Nov. 20, 2017): Results have been updated long after this race to indicate Chris Buescher classified last due to disqualification, and Martin Truex, Jr. next-to-last also by DQ. Buescher has since been added in place of Sorenson to the updated rankings).

Reed Sorenson finished last in Thursday night’s Can-Am Duel Race 1 at the Daytona International Speedway when his unsponsored #55 Toyota was involved in a multi-car crash after 48 of 60 laps.

The struggles of Sorenson have matched those of the Open teams he’s driven for in the aftermath of NASCAR’s new Charter system.  At this time last year, Sorenson attempted to drive Hillman Racing’s #40 CRC Brakleen Chevrolet into the 500 field, but finished 21st of 24 drivers and missed the show.  He returned five rounds later at Martinsville to fill out the short Cup fields in a second Premium Motorsports car, and for the rest of the season finished no better than 22nd.  The lone highlight of the season came at Talladega in the fall, where he paced Round 1 of qualifying, but ended up 32nd after the team decided to make post-qualifying adjustments during the race.

This year, Sorenson and his new-bodied 2018 Toyota returned to the superspeedway in an unsponsored Open team.  The #55’s Charter, previously leased to HScott Motorsports, had now been sold to Furniture Row Racing to give rookie Erik Jones a guaranteed starting spot in the team’s new second car.  This again made qualifying critical as the top two Open teams would be locked in on speed.  Sorenson put up the 38th-fastest time in opening practice, besting three Open teams, and in qualifying ran a lap of 187.332mph.

The time trial lap ranked him 37th of the 42 drivers, third among the Open teams, and just three-tenths of a second behind Elliott Sadler for the second locked-in spot.  Thus, Sorenson would have to race his way into the 500 field, or count on the locked-in cars of Sadler and Brendan Gaughan to race in.

Sorenson’s lap placed him 19th on the 21-car grid for Thursday’s Duel Race 1, but a transmission change sent him to the back of the field.  This proved critical because the Open team he needed to beat was waiting for him.

Qualifying last in the field for Race 1 was Corey LaJoie.  The son of two-time XFINITY Series champion Randy, LaJoie secured a ride in BK Racing’s #83 Dustless Blasting Toyota, previously driven by Matt DiBenedetto.  When BK leased the #83’s Charter to TriStar Motorsports’ #72 driven by Cole Whitt, LaJoie was unable to lock himself in on speed and needed to race his way in.  By the end of Lap 1, LaJoie had passed Sorenson, who was now 1.8 seconds behind the leaders.

On Lap 3, Sorenson passed the black #75 Beard Oil Chevrolet of Brendan Gaughan.  Locked into his first 500 field since 2004 on his qualifying speed, Gaughan lay in the back for much of the race, apparently intending to save his car for Sunday.  Gaughan lost touch with the lead pack and was 2.263 seconds behind the rest of the field by Lap 8.  He held the spot until Lap 12, when Joey Logano made an unscheduled stop for a vibration caused by a loose right-front wheel.  The stop cost Logano a lap.  On the 20th circuit, Logano worked over teammate Brad Keselowski to get his lap back, but when Kyle Busch rooted him out of the draft, Logano settled for the Lucky Dog on Lap 27.

Under the caution, the last spot bounced between Matt DiBenedetto, whose #32 EJ Wade Construction Ford was too fast on pit road, and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who pitted his #17 Fastenal Ford after everyone else.  When the green flew on Lap 31, Brendan Gaughan had again taken the last spot, and was once again one second behind the field the next time by.  On Lap 50, Gaughan looked to nail down the first last-place finish for the #75 in the history of the Duels when trouble broke out ahead of him.

Sorenson parlayed pit strategy to try and lock himself into the field.  A fuel-only spot lifted him to the 7th spot, six cars ahead of LaJoie, and though he made light contact with the wall off Turn 1, the #55 managed to stay with the leaders.  On the 50th lap, LaJoie hadn’t moved forward, but Sorenson had slipped back to 13th, directly in front of the #83.  With ten laps remaining, the battle for the 39th spot in the 500 was set to heat up.  With a big push through the tri-oval from Kyle Busch, LaJoie looked to the middle lane, trying to make it three wide between Sorenson and Paul Menard.  But the hole closed and the two Open cars made contact.  Sorenson collided with Menard, then slid head-on into the inside wall.

While the new stretch of SAFER barrier added after Kyle Busch’s terrible XFINITY wreck saved Sorenson from injury, his spot in the 500 was no longer in his hands.  Frustrated, he had to wait until the end of Race 2 to see if his speed would be good enough to still get the backup car into the show.  Unfortunately for him, D.J. Kennington’s #96 Lordco / Castrol Toyota edged the locked-in Open car of Elliott Sadler in Race 2, bumping Sorenson from the race.  Kennington’s effort secured the two-time Pinty’s Series champion his first Daytona 500 spot in just his second Cup start.  Kennington will start 30th on Sunday.

Menard’s damaged #27 Menards / Peak Chevrolet managed to complete repairs in enough time to rejoin the race, one lap down at the finish, locking up 37th in the field.  Gaughan came home 19th, the final car one lap down, and will start 39th on Sunday.  LaJoie avoided damage in the tangle with Sorenson and Menard to finish 18th, one spot behind BK Racing teammate Joey Gase.  LaJoie will start 35th while Gase starts 33rd.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #55 in the Can-Am Duels since February 12, 1976, when Canadian driver John Banks’ #55 Banks Alignment Dodge crashed after 2 laps of Duel Race 1.  It was Banks’ only 500 attempt after three previous starts, including a last-place run in the 50-car field at Talladega in 1975.
*This was Sorenson’s first last-place finish in the Can-Am Duels, but the second in a row for Premium Motorsports.  Last year, Cole Whitt trailed Race 1 after a late-race crash.  This year, Michael Waltrip, the beneficiary of a Charter purchased from HScott Motorsports’ defunct #15 team, will keep Premium Motorsports in Sunday’s field.  The two-time 500 winner will start 32nd on Sunday in his 784th and final Cup start.

21) #55-Reed Sorenson / 48 laps / crash
20) #27-Paul Menard / 59 laps / running
19) #75-Brendan Gaughan / 60 laps / running
18) #83-Corey LaJoie / 60 laps / running
17) #23-Joey Gase / 60 laps / running

CUP: Timmy Hill’s first Daytona 500 bid ends with engine trouble

PHOTO: @RickWareRacing
(UPDATE (Nov. 20, 2017): Results have been updated long after this race to indicate A.J. Allmendinger classified last due to disqualification. Allmendinger has since been added in place of Hill to the updated rankings).

Timmy Hill finished last in Thursday night’s Can-Am Duel Race 2 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #51 Spoonful of Music Foundation / Bubba Burger Chevrolet lost an engine after 29 of 60 laps.

Hill arrived in Florida for his first-ever attempt to make the Daytona 500 field.  In 48 previous starts, his best finish was a 22nd at Kansas in 2012, when he drove for Frankie Stoddard.  He made his Cup debut at Las Vegas earlier that season, driving for Rick Ware Racing in the #37 Ford.  Ware, a longtime car owner in road racing, XFINITY, and Truck Series competition, had attempted the 500 field that year with veteran Mike Wallace behind the wheel, but missed the show.  In the five years since, Ware continued to field XFINITY and Truck Series rides while Hill split time across all three of NASCAR’s top divisions.

This year, Hill and Ware have reunited once more for Ware’s second Cup effort.  On January 20, it was announced the team will run full-time as an Open team with driving duties shared between Hill, Stanton Barrett, and road racer Kevin O’Connell.  The cars and equipment were acquired from Tommy Baldwin Racing, which scaled-back to a part-time operation to focus on a Truck Series effort.  The Spoonful of Music Foundation, a non-profit organization to improve the lives of ailing adolescents, signed on for SpeedWeeks, and Bubba Burger partnered with the team for this and at least a handful of other races.

Hill ranked 41st in opening practice, slowest of the six Open teams and second-slowest overall, ahead of Jeffrey Earnhardt for Circle Sport / The Motorsports Group.  The struggles continued in qualifying, where Hill anchored the charts with a lap of 184.102mph.

Hill’s lap put him last in the 21-car field for Race 2, though he was joined by Michael Waltrip’s #15 Aaron’s Toyota, sent to the rear due to a transmission change.  When the green flag dropped, Waltrip fell to the back entering Turn 1, but soon conceded last to Elliott Sadler.  Sadler, who like Brendan Gaughan in Race 1 had locked his #7 Golden Corral Chevrolet into the field on speed, was also pacing himself in the back, saving his car.  By the third lap, Sadler had lost touch with the leaders, 2.7 seconds behind the pack.

Joining Sadler behind the pack was Hill, whose #51 seemed to be struggling with speed.  On that same third lap, Sadler moved around him on the backstretch, and Hill slotted in behind.  By Lap 7, Sadler had left Hill behind, and his Chevrolet was now 15 seconds behind 20th-place Jeffrey Earnhardt in the #33 Little Joe’s Autos / Curtis Key Plumbing Chevrolet.  Hill linked up with Earnhardt, but continued to lose ground to the lead pack.  The 24th time by, the leaders caught and passed the pair in Turn 1.  When the competition caution fell on Lap 27, this gave the Lucky Dog to Earnhardt, pinning Hill a lap down for the final half of the race.

On the Lap 31 restart, Hill pulled down pit road with apparent engine trouble, then took his car behind the wall.  Not fast enough to get in on speed, Hill was the first driver to be officially eliminated from the 500 field.  Sorenson joined him after the last-moment heroics of D.J. Kennington.

20th in the final running order went to Ryan Blaney, who led three laps in the Wood Brothers’ #21 Motorcraft / Quick Lane Tire 7 Auto Center Ford, but suffered damage in a tangle with Jimmie Johnson on Lap 43, leaving him 38th in the 500 field.  Erik Jones came home 19th and will start 36th, having rear-ended A.J. Allmedinger’s car in the chain-reaction caused by the Johnson-Blaney incident.  Jeffrey Earnhardt, the final car on the lead lap, will start 34th in the first restrictor-plate points race for The Motorsports Group’s Cup effort.  TMG secured a Charter through Circle Sport, who in 2016 partnered with Leavine Family Racing.  Waltrip rounded out the Bottom Five and will roll off 32nd.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #51 in the Can-Am Duels.

21) #51-Timmy Hill / 29 laps / engine
20) #21-Ryan Blaney / 55 laps / crash / led 3 laps
19) #77-Erik Jones / 59 laps / running
18) #33-Jeffrey Earnhardt / 60 laps / running
17) #15-Michael Waltrip / 60 laps / running

2/20/77: Fire and water - Bobby Wawak’s checkered past at Daytona

SOURCE: Daytona Beach News-Journal
On February 20, 1977, Bobby Wawak picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #32 Encyclopedia Britannica Chevrolet caught fire after 3 of 200 laps.  The finish came in Wawak’s 38th series start.

Wawak, a native of Villa Park, Illinois, made the move from drag racing to stock cars when he was 19 years old.  After six seasons of running competitively on short tracks like Mance Park Speedway and O’Hare Stadium, Wawak made the move to the national circuit, racing in both USAC and NASCAR.  His Cup debut came in the 1965 Southern 500 at Darlington, driving a #4 Mercury he prepared himself.  Wawak started 27th in the 44-car field, but came home 36th after early engine troubles.

Wawak’s second start in the series was yet another endurance match – the 1967 World 600 at Charlotte – and he finished a strong 13th.  His first Top 10 (a 10th) came that July at the third-mile bullring of Oxford Plains Speedway.  He finished the ’67 season 31st in points with a season-best 7th, again at Charlotte, despite making only 14 of the 49 races.  He also won a 25-lap qualifying race that at Rockingham that October, starting from pole and edging Neil Castles by two carlengths.

Following a brief departure from NASCAR, during which time he scored the 1974 late model title at the Illiana (Indiana) Motor Speedway, Wawak teamed with car owner John Gwinn for a 20-race stint in 1976.  The result was the best Cup season of the driver’s career: in the 19 races he made in the #36 Chevrolet, Wawak racked-up nine Top Tens and set a new career-best finish of 6th at Ontario, good enough for 22nd in the standings.  The duo continued their success into 1977, finishing 18th in the season opener at Riverside, then set their sights on Wawak’s first Daytona 500 start.

SpeedWeeks 1977 started on a promising note as Wawak made the Top 10 in qualifying, securing him the 5th spot in the first qualifying race.  But with ten laps to go, the engine on his #36 Encyclopedia Britannica Chevrolet let go, leaving him 25th.  Despite his initial speed, the finish put him out of the Daytona 500, one of 24 sent home from a gargantuan entry list.  Fortunately, the Gwinn team had a backup plan: they’d entered a second car, #32, driven by Georgia racer Henley Gray.  Gray, who made the field with a sterling 9th-place finish in Race 1, was by Sunday swapped out for Wawak.  Thus, Wawak rolled into the 17th starting spot in his #36, a new engine under the hood and the “6” hastily repainted into a “2.”

The 42nd and final starting spot that day belonged to another independent, New Jersey driver D.K. Ulrich and his unsponsored #40 Chevrolet.  But just three laps into the race, the caution fell for trouble in Turn 4.  As Wawak held fast in the middle of the pack, he suddenly spotted smoke, then flames inside the cockpit.  A fuel line had come loose, starting a raging blaze in front of the firewall.  Wawak turned his car hard to the left, slowing down as best he could, and climbed out while the car was still rolling.  As the flaming Chevrolet nosed hard into the inside wall, Wawak walked away in shock.  In photographs, he appeared unharmed, but for a pair of severely damaged gloves – except he wasn’t wearing any.  As it turned out, the flames left him with third-degree burns to both hands and his forehead.  The accident all but ended the practice of racing without gloves in NASCAR, which veterans claimed prevented them from having a good feel over the steering wheel.

“It was like sitting in front of a blow torch,” said Wawak.

Finishing 41st that afternoon was Johnny Rutherford (curiously, that year’s last-place finisher of the Indianapolis 500), whose #77 t.edwards Happy Legs Chevrolet suffered a vibration after 29 laps.  Road racer Elliott Forbes-Robinson, who made his Cup debut that day in Ferrel Harris’ #87 Rossmeyer Dodge, exited after 44 laps with engine trouble.  Blown power plants rounded out the Bottom Five with Canadian Roy Smith in Dick Midgley’s #29 Mercury Marine Chevrolet and prolific owner-driver Buddy Arrington in his #67 Sub-Tropic Dodge.

The accident curtailed Wawak’s 1977 season.  He returned at Martinsville, just two months later, but again finished last with rear end trouble.  From there, he fielded his own Chevrolets, running #74 and soon adopting a distinctive bright yellow paint scheme.  In 1981, he honored Louise Smith, the first lady in racing, by running the “Louise Smith Special” with her #94 on the door.  The next year, he led his first Cup Series laps, pacing the field for Laps 101 and 102 of the Southern 500.  He began to share his ride with other drivers, including road racer Jim Fitzgerald who in his Cup debut at Riverside in 1986 set an age record for oldest driver to start a race, a record he’d beat at the track one year later with Hendrick Motorsports.  After a difficult 1987 season where he finished no better than 19th in eight starts, Wawak again looked to the Daytona 500 for a rebound.  As in 1977, he would be entering two cars – John Linville, a Busch Series veteran (and father of DeLana Harvick), would run the #74 while Wawak ran #57.  And, again, near-tragedy would stop him short.

On Lap 6 of the first 125-mile qualifier, Wawak’s Chevrolet again lost fluid, this time spilling water beneath his rear tires.  Heading into the third corner, Wawak lost control and slammed hard into the wall.  “I never blacked out or anything,” he said.  “The engine dumped the water out and I went straight into the wall.  It happened on one of the fastest parts of the track.”  Wawak spent six days in the Halifax Medical Center with two crushed vertebrae in his back and severe eye injuries.  Curiously, it was during these same Twin 125s that J.D. McDuffie, whose gloves were stolen before the race, also suffered severe burns during his own serious wreck in Race 2.

“I’m not sure what’s on my agenda,” said Wawak in 1988, “I’ve got everything here a big budget team has to go racing but if I don’t find a sponsor, I’ll have to leave racing.”  Having all but lost sight in his right eye, Wawak never raced again, but did remain in the sport.  His team continued on through 1990, fielding cars for Randy LaJoie and Mike Potter at Dover and Pocono.  When the team closed, Wawak later worked for Hendrick Motorsports, handling show car duties for the team.  On April 17, 2004, Wawak passed away at age 64.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #32 at Daytona and the last at the track until July 5, 2003, when Ricky Craven’s Tide Pontiac crashed after 49 laps of the Pepsi 400.  The number had not finished last in Cup since March 30, 1969, when Dick Brooks’ 1969 Plymouth lost the engine after 38 laps of the Atlanta 500 at Atlanta.
*This marked the third, most recent (and hopefully final) time the last-place finisher of a Cup race was listed out with “fire” as the cause.  The previous two occurred on August 22, 1956 at the Norfolk (Virginia) Speedway to Joe Bill McGraw and May 6, 1962 at the Concord (North Carolina) Speedway to Rex White.

42) #32-Bobby Wawak / 3 laps / fire
41) #77-Johnny Rutherford / 29 laps / vibration
40) #87-Elliott Forbes-Robinson / 44 laps / engine
39) #29-Roy Smith / 45 laps / engine
38) #67-Buddy Arrington / 51 laps / engine

Borden, Brett. “Unfortunate events force some stubborn drivers to change,”, May 22, 2008.
Kalwasinski, Stan. “Bobby Wawak,”
Kelly, Godwin. “For Wawak, 30 years of race driving ends in a heartbeat,” The Times-Journal, June 30, 1988.
YouTube – 1977 Daytona 500 Footage from the stands including crash and fire

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

CUP: Remembering underdogs of the Can-Am Duels (2001-present)

SOURCE: KrazyRiggs; Scott Riggs Fan Site
This Thursday's running of the Can-Am Duels at Daytona will see four Open teams compete for the final two spots in this year's Daytona 500.  Among them are Timmy Hill, who gave his car owner Rick Ware his only Cup start at Las Vegas in 2012, and Canadian star D.J. Kennington with start-up team Gaunt Brothers Racing.  These teams, and the "go-or-go-home" battle they'll wage, stir memories of others who came before.

2001 – Jeff Purvis
A journeyman driver with just 46 Cup starts at the time, Purvis stepped away from Cup in 1997 to focus his attention on what is today the NASCAR XFINITY Series.  There, he continued to have success with car owner James Finch and his Phoenix Racing Team, scoring two XFINITY victories at Richmond and Michigan.  In 2001, Finch eyed a return to Cup competition, looking to attempt the four restrictor-plate events as both he and Purvis did in ’96.  The team acquired at least one Ford from Bill Elliott’s owner-driver operation after Elliott joined Ray Evernham’s Dodge factory effort.  The car, painted white with a red roof and few decals, would again have Purvis behind the wheel.  But the 52-car entry list was stacked with fully-funded rides, and Purvis’ speed was good enough for 25th in the 26-car field for Race 1.  Needing track position when a late caution flew, Purvis stayed out along with Derrike Cope.  When the green came back out, the two cars slid back, but Purvis held on to finish 8th, locking him into the big show.  Unfortunately, an early tire failure left him last in the tragic 500.

2002 – Dave Marcis
The death of Dale Earnhardt weighed heavily on his friend and fellow competitor Dave Marcis, who decided to end his 35-year career with one more attempt to make the 500 field.  The ageless owner-driver (61 during SpeedWeeks 2002) had won five races in 882 starts and made an incredible 32 consecutive starts in the 500 from 1968 through 1999, all while wearing his trademark wingtip shoes.  Richard Childress Racing, who provided Marcis with cars in the latter part of his career, prepared him a silver-painted RealTree Chevrolet for his final run, but after missing the last two 500s, a starting spot wasn't guaranteed.  22nd-fastest in qualifying, Marcis rolled off 11th in Race 2, then actually gained four more spots to finish 7th, not far behind Childress drivers Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon.  Marcis earned the 14th starting spot in his final 500, but engine woes left him 42nd after 79 laps.  Marcis still owns the silver car today and fine-tunes it at his shop for land speed records.  

2005 – Kevin Lepage
When Morgan-McClure Motorsports couldn’t find a steady sponsor to replace Kodak Film, Lepage, the team’s 2004 driver, pieced together a partial Cup and XFINITY effort to get him through the rest of the year.  At Bristol that August, Lepage found his way to the unheralded R&J Racing, a single-car operation operated out of a tiny shop by team owner John Carter.  One of a handful of start-up teams to spring up during the offseason recession, R&J finished no better than 27th all season and weren’t expected to play a role in the following year’s Daytona 500.  Still, the team dropped a new Dodge Charger body on their #37, brought it to Florida, and after starting 20th in Race 2, rocketed up to a 3rd-place finish, more than enough to lock themselves into the 500.  But they weren’t done yet.  Lepage kept his nose clean on Sunday, earned a Lucky Dog on Lap 169, and caught the leaders in time to snag a 9th-place finish, Lepage’s career-best.  The $307,138 in winnings, combined with last-minute sponsorship from Patron Tequila, carried the team through the entire ’05 season, and Carter fielded Cup cars until the 2009 finale at Homestead.

2006 – Kirk Shelmerdine
Another underdog inextricably tied to “The Intimidator” was Kirk Shelmerdine, Earnhardt’s crew chief from 1982 through 1992.  Eager to try his own hand behind the wheel after a one-off driving for Childress in 1981, Shelmerdine left the team to pursue a career in XFINITY, Truck, and Late Model Sportsman Series competition.  He made his next Cup start in 1994, finishing 26th in a one-off for Jimmy Means at Talladega, and in 2002 started his own Cup Series team, Kirk Shelmerdine Racing (KSR).  Like R&J Racing, KSR started at just the right time, and with fields short, Shelmerdine was able to attempt the full 2004 season with limited funding.  “Attempt” was the proper word, for Shelmerdine’s #27 and #72 Fords never finished a race under power all season and the driver finished no better than 37th.  KSR made just three starts in 2005 before gearing up for an unlikely bid in the 2006 Daytona 500.  Though his black #27 did not have the current 2006 Chevrolet sheet metal, Shelmerdine ran 32nd-fastest of 58 drivers in qualifying, giving him an outside chance of locking himself in on speed.  When he finished just 21st of 29 in Race 2, however, it appeared he was going to be sent home.  But when Robby Gordon raced his Chevrolet into the first transfer spot, Shelmerdine was locked-in on speed – 42nd on the grid.  With tires purchased by Childress, whose winery was promoted on the car in exchange, Shelmerdine avoided the late-race carnage to finish 20th, his own career-best.  The effort, worth $272,008, allowed KSR to continue to attempt races through the summer of 2010.

2007 – James Hylton
Though he’s the only member of this list whose attempt did not result in him earning a spot in the Daytona 500, James Harvey Hylton cannot be forgotten.  Arguably the most successful independent driver in NASCAR history, Hylton had made 602 Cup starts from 1964 through 1993, including 15 starts in “The Great American Race.”  72 years young in 2007, Hylton had become a regular in the ARCA Racing Series, but surprised everyone by announcing in January his intent to make his first 500 start since 1983.  If he made the show, Hylton would break the record set by 65-year-old Hershel McGriff as the oldest driver to start a Cup race.  Like Marcis before him, Hylton’s car owner J.C. Weaver acquired a car from Richard Childress, a bright orange Chevrolet previously driven by Robby Gordon in 2004.  With his traditional #48 taken by defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, Hylton took car #58, and carried logos for, appropriately, Weaver’s “Retirement Living” network.

Hylton anchored the charts in testing and was second-slowest in time trials, besting Mike Wallace, who had mechanical trouble.  With a tremendous entry list of 61 drivers, this put Hylton 30th in the 31-car field for Race 1.  Just like Purvis in 2001, Hylton parlayed pit strategy to run as high as 8th on a restart with 11 laps to go, holding fast to the first transfer spot.  But when another caution forced a six-lap sprint to the finish, Hylton’s transmission broke, and he was shaken out of the draft.  He came home 23rd in the race, one of 18 sent home on Thursday.  Two years later, Hylton made a second attempt to make the 500 field, but when mechanical issues prevented his car from completing a practice lap, the team was forced to withdraw.  Hylton remained in ARCA through the 2013 season, and Brad Smith drove his Ford to a 17th-place finish in last Saturday’s Daytona opener.

2009 – Scott Riggs & Jeremy Mayfield
The recession that plagued the early part of NASCAR’s 2004 season returned with a vengeance in 2009, spawning another generation of start-up teams.  Eight of the 56 teams which showed up for SpeedWeeks hadn’t even existed just weeks before.  Among them were the cars driven by Cup veterans Scott Riggs and Jeremy Mayfield.  Like Lepage, Riggs impressed during the 2005 Daytona 500, finishing 4th for MBV Motorsports, but lost his ride following Tony Stewart’s 2008 purchase of HAAS-CNC Racing.  Mayfield was Riggs’ HAAS teammate that same season, but was released just seven rounds into the year.  Riggs landed with veteran crew chief Tommy Baldwin, who resurrected his XFINITY Series program into a start-up Cup team.  Mayfield acquired a handful of Toyotas and started his own team, Mayfield Motorsports.  Both drivers and teams struggled through the week – in fact, both Mayfield’s #41 All Sport machine and Riggs’ unsponsored #36 were the slowest in Happy Hour.  But in Race 1, Riggs finished 8th, second-highest among Toyotas, while Mayfield finished 9th in Race 2.  Both drivers not only made the 500, but would fill out Row 9.  Riggs finished 25th in the rain-shortened event while Mayfield wound up laps down in 40th.  While controversy later claimed Mayfield’s team and career, Riggs has raced in NASCAR as recently as 2014.  Elliott Sadler locked Baldwin’s team into this year’s 500 on speed.

2010 – Mike Bliss
“I wanna cry,” said the Oregon driver who finished 13th in 2007 Race 1.  After scratching and clawing his #49 BAM Racing Dodge through the pack, Mike Bliss had come just short of nipping Boris Said for a spot in the Daytona 500.  It was the latest in a series of frustrations.  After years of bouncing between Cup, XFINITY, and Truck Series competition, Bliss landed his first full-time Cup Series ride in 2005 with HAAS-CNC.  He earned two Top Tens that season and led five laps, but his year was most known for being spun out of a win in the NEXTEL Open by Brian Vickers.  Following the near-miss in 2007, Bliss again focused on XFINITY, scoring his second career win at Charlotte in 2009.  The following year, Daytona called once more with an opportunity to drive Tommy Baldwin’s #36 Wave Energy Drink Chevrolet.  Bliss was fast in practice, but a crash totaled his primary car.  Forced to run the same car Riggs raced into the field the year before, the team got the car ready just in time to start 15th in Race 2’s field of 27.  And after 60 laps, Bliss jumped to 13th – locking him into the 500.  Though an early crash left him 42nd, Bliss’ excited interview after the Duels was clearly a career highlight.  “We’re in the Daytona 500 with this Wave Energy Drink car!” he said proudly.

2011 – Brian Keselowski
The image of two Dodges, locked at their bumpers in tandem draft, remains one of the most enduring in recent memory.  In back was Brad Keselowski, Penske Racing’s newest star, having climbed aboard the flagship #2 Miller Lite Dodge vacated by new teammate Kurt Busch.  In front, driving a white #92, was big brother Brian.  The Dodge, according to the eldest Keselowski, once belonged to Evernham Motorsports in 2006, and had a new body bolted onto it at the family’s Michigan shop, K-Automotive Motorsports.  The previous year, K-Automotive claimed the LASTCAR championship with driver Dennis Setzer, the team start-and-parking through the XFINITY Series season, likely in preparation for this jump to Cup.  The car was slow in every session, “it would not hunt,” said Brian, and was perhaps the biggest longshot on the entry list.  But younger brother Brad linked up early in Race 2, pushing the sluggish #92 from last in the 24-car field to a stunning 5th.  The Cinderella story attracted competing sponsorship proposals from Golden Corral and Discount Tire.  A brand-new engine was offered, but had to be turned-down because it wouldn’t fit the car’s old engine mounts.  Unfortunately, as so often happens in the 500, an early crash eliminated Keselowski, leaving him 41st.

2015 – Reed Sorenson
Most recently comes the strange tale of Xxxtreme Motorsports, aka Team XTREME Racing, and the up-and-down week the team endured.  Johnathan Cohen’s single-car operation first hit the track in 2012, debuting sharp-looking paint schemes with new sponsorship from No Label Watches.  The team brought on a collection of journeyman drivers, including David Reutimann, Scott Riggs, J.J. Yeley, and Timmy Hill.  2015 would mark the team’s first-ever attempt to make the 500 field, and they tabbed Sorenson, the 5th-place finisher in 2008, to drive.  Sorenson, just 31st of 42 in pre-qualifying practice, needed a strong performance in time trials.  What he got instead was a wrecked race car.  NASCAR’s ill-fated restrictor-plate group qualifying format wreaked havoc that Sunday, and Sorenson was in the wrong place at the wrong time in a tangle with Clint Bowyer.  It took a tremendous effort to get the next #44 ready for Thursday’s qualifying races, but the team pulled it off, and Sorenson lined up 20th in the 24-car field for Race 2.  After a green-white-checkered finish, Sorenson finished a strong 7th and ran 33rd in the 500.  Unfortunately, this was the twilight for Cohen’s team.  A bizarre race car theft at Atlanta, followed by financial woes, caused the team to close by summer.  Sorenson will again attempt Sunday’s 500, this time driving for Premium Motorsports.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

CUP: Kurt Busch’s Monster Energy Ford finishes last in title sponsor’s first race

SOURCE: Sporting News
Kurt Busch finished last in Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash at the Daytona International Speedway when his #41 Monster Energy / HAAS Ford was involved in a multi-car accident after 16 of 75 laps.

Sunday’s race marked Busch’s fourteenth appearance in the Clash and his first in a Ford since 2005.  Stewart-Haas Racing announced the manufacturer switch last year after eight seasons with Chevrolet.  Busch would be joined by two of his three teammates in the Clash – fellow 2016 Chase driver Kevin Harvick and 2013 Daytona 500 polesitter Danica Patrick.  Clint Bowyer, now behind the wheel of Tony Stewart’s #14, was not permitted in the 17-car field.

Busch did not participate in Friday’s opening practice for the Clash and ran just 12th in the second session.  He was awarded the 10th spot in the field by random draw.  

Starting 17th and last in Sunday’s event, postponed from Saturday night by rain, was Chris Buescher.  The winner last August at Pocono who squeezed his way into the Chase, Buescher moved from Front Row Motorsports to JTG-Daugherty Racing, debuting JTG’s first-ever second team.  An arrangement had been worked out where Buescher would drive for JTG for one year, and his #37 Kroger Click List Chevrolet would be locked-in to each race using the Charter from Roush-Fenway’s closed #16 team.  The expectation is that Buescher will again drive a Ford in 2018.

When the green flag flew, Buescher got a slow start, and by the time the field entered the backstretch, he had already lost the draft.  Completely alone, Buescher was 1.672 seconds behind the leader at the end of Lap 1, 11.69 seconds behind by Lap 12, and 21.66 seconds back on Lap 16.  The remainder of the Top 16 stayed close together in a two and three-wide pack until trouble broke out.

On Lap 16, Kurt Busch was running 11th when Jimmie Johnson broke loose coming off Turn 4.  His #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet cut hard to the left, clipping the right-rear of Busch’s Ford.  The contact hooked Busch hard to the right, sending him head-on into the outside wall.  His black machine careened into the grass, digging up the turf before sliding to a stop.  Busch was uninjured, but he was done for the day.  The caution prevented Buescher from losing a lap, and he went on to finish a surprising 9th.

Johnson finished next-to-last, his damaged car losing control in the same spot on Lap 48 and slamming the inside wall.  It was his sixth-consecutive DNF in the Clash.  Rounding out the Bottom Five were Martin Truex, Jr., whose #78 5-hour Energy Extra Strength Toyota crossed the nose of 14th-place Kyle Larson’s #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet.  Reports indicate that Larson retired soon after because too many crewmen came over the wall to repair his #42, though the listed cause is "damage."  13th-place Denny Hamlin was actually leading on the final lap, but took himself out blocking Brad Keselowski’s bid for the lead.  Hamlin’s damaged #11 FedEx Express Toyota stopped halfway down the backstretch. 

*This marked the first last-place finish for both Busch and the #41 in the Clash at Daytona.  It is also the second in a row for Stewart-Haas Racing, joining Kevin Harvick last year.

17) #41-Kurt Busch / 16 laps / crash
16) #48-Jimmie Johnson / 48 laps / crash
15) #78-Martin Truex, Jr. / 60 laps / crash
14) #42-Kyle Larson / 61 laps / damage
13) #11-Denny Hamlin / 74 laps / running / led 48 laps

Thursday, February 16, 2017

2/11/90: Jimmy Hensley, Hurricane Hugo, and the 1990 Busch Clash at Daytona

On February 11, 1990, Jimmy Hensley finished last in the 1990 Busch Clash at the Daytona International Speedway when his #20 Crown Petroleum Oldsmobile finished under power, one lap down, after 19 of 20 laps.

The story of Hensley’s Clash appearance is the result of both the best and worst timing.  On September 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo slammed into South Carolina, killing 27 people and causing billions of dollars in damage.  The next day, activities at the Martinsville Speedway seemed a distant afterthought as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series arrived for first-round qualifying in the Goody’s 500.  It certainly was for Hensley, who that day left for work from his home in nearby Ridgeway to perform his full-time job of driving a fuel-oil delivery truck.

Such was the life for Hensley, a down-to-earth man whose calm exterior masked an impressive racing resume.  He made his Cup debut at the Martinsville track on April 30, 1972, when he finished 33rd for owner Junie Donlavey.  When he returned to the same track that fall, he finished an impressive 5th.  All but four of his next 21 Cup starts came at the sport’s shortest track, where he scored another seven Top Tens for various owners, including himself.  All this on top of a strong Busch Series career dating back to 1982 and his first of five wins up to that point.  Again, he excelled at the sport’s tightest bullrings, taking the checkers at Hickory, South Boston, Indianapolis Raceway Park, and of course, Martinsville.

That September weekend in 1989, Hensley sat 20th in Busch Series points.  After driving for four different teams at the start of the year, he’d picked up a ride in Dwight Huffman’s #70 Buick.  His best run of the year came at Hickory, where he won the pole, led 3 laps, and finished 6th.  That Saturday at Martinsville, he would again drive Huffman’s car in the Zerex 150 - pending, of course, the weather.  He had no plans to run the Winston Cup event and, in fact, hadn’t competed in the series since a one-off for Buddy Arrington 17 months earlier.  That all changed when he got a phone call.

While Hurricane Hugo missed Martinsville, it snarled-up air traffic, preventing several drivers from making it out to the speedway.  Among them was Dale Earnhardt, who was looking to expand his 102-point lead over Rusty Wallace for the season championship.  At the request of Richard Childress, Hensley turned around and headed back to the track, where first-round qualifying would go on as scheduled.  Quickly, the Childress team made preparations for Hensley to put up a qualifying time and get the iconic #3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet into the show.

On the first lap, Hensley nearly wrecked, but managed to put together what he thought was a “pretty good” run the second time around.  Running down the backstretch on his cool-down lap, he suddenly noticed the other crews were cheering him on.  Hensley, one of the last drivers out to qualify, had put #3 on the pole.  “All I can say is when I brought it in, I was just all teeth coming down pit road,” said Henlsey. “It was the highlight of my career, just to drive the car, let alone to put it on the pole.”  When Dale Earnhardt finally arrived at the track, he couldn’t wait to celebrate with his relief driver.  The two shook hands with Earnhardt saying “You’re gonna be in the Busch Clash!”

Per the team’s arrangement, Hensley did not run the Cup race at Martinsville and handed the wheel to Earnhardt, who inherited the pole and finished 9th (Hensley was credited with last as a “did not start” for the same car).  However, since Hensley retained credit for the pole, Richard Childress arranged to enter a second car for him to drive in the 1990 Busch Clash.  That plan also changed by the start of the season.

By the end of 1989, Hensley attracted sponsorship from Crown Petroleum, which looked to expand their presence in NASCAR.  The sponsorship would fund both a full-time Cup and Busch Series team in 1990, both of them fielded by car owner Dick Moroso.  The Cup effort would be driven by Moroso’s 21-year-old son Rob, who won the Busch title after a tight points race in 1989.  Hensley would drive the Busch effort, earning the veteran his first full-season effort in the division since 1988.  Both would run identical red-white-and-blue Oldsmobiles with Moroso #20 and Hensley #25.  To sweeten the deal, Hensley would drive Moroso’s car in the Busch Clash.

“(It’s) like icing on the cake,” said Hensley of the Clash opportunity, “A lot of guys go for a long time and will never be in that race.  I drove one Winston Cup car last year for two laps, and here I am in the Busch Clash.”  Hensley earned the pole for the Clash by random draw, but kept his goals realistic.  “If I run 10th, then I run 10th.  But I do want to run good, and not for me.  I want to do it for the team.  That would really mean a lot to me to be able to do it for them.”  While Hensley drew the pole, his car, the only Oldsmobile in the small 10-car field, struggled for speed in practice.  Still, he looked to make the most of what would be his first-ever NASCAR start on a superspeedway.  Ironically, Earnhardt wouldn’t be in the Clash - Hensley’s pole was the only one the Childress team earned in all of 1989.

Starting alongside Hensley on the front row was Greg Sacks, whose Hendrick Motorsports-prepared #46 Chevrolet carried the green-and-yellow City Chevrolet scheme to be use in the upcoming Paramount Pictures film “Days of Thunder.”  Sacks, who earned the lone wild-card spot among 15 drivers fastest in second-round qualifying in 1989, was one of the consultants for the film, and he would run the car in two other Cup and Busch points races, often carrying bulky movie cameras for the film’s action shots.  Two more “camera cars” would log laps - unscored - during the 500: Bobby Hamilton in character Cole Trickle's #51 Mello Yello Chevrolet and Tommy Ellis in Russ Wheeler’s #18 Hardee’s Chevrolet.

Starting 10th and last in the field was Mark Martin, who debuted a new look on his Roush Racing Ford with former Hendrick backer Folger’s as the sponsor of his #6.  Tied for the most poles with fellow six-timer Alan Kulwicki in 1989, Martin didn’t stay there for long.

When the green flag flew, Hensley led at the stripe, but started to lose ground to Sacks in the outside lane.  Leaving the tri-oval, the car suddenly bogged down, shooting a puff of smoke from the driver’s side exhaust.  The gear lever broke off, jamming the car in third gear.  Running in tow behind him in 3rd, Ken Schrader had to react fast.  “Hensley took off real good when they dropped the flag and then slowed down real fast,” said Schrader.  “I almost clipped him but managed to swerve around and get in behind Sachs(sic).”  “I thought I was going to get run over,” said Hensley.  “The whole thing just broke off.  I couldn’t get it out of third gear.”

Hensley plummeted to the back, split on either side in the middle lane.  By the time the leaders entered the backstretch, he was barely out of Turn 1, hopelessly out of the draft.  Schrader disposed of Sacks on Lap 4 and proceeded to run away with the caution-free race.  All ten cars finished under power while Hensley lost a lap in Turn 2 with two to go.

The rest of the 1990 season was the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for the Dick Moroso team.  Hensley scored a Busch Series win at Nazareth and rounded out the year 2nd in points, 200 markers behind champion Chuck Bown.  The final three of his nine career wins would come the next year.  Meanwhile, Rob Moroso struggled through his full-time Cup effort and in September lost his life in a traffic accident.  At season’s end, Moroso became NASCAR’s first posthumous Rookie of the Year, awarded the title over fellow Oldsmobile driver Jack Pennington.

Though he never ran a full season in Cup, Hensley remained a fixture in NASCAR, particularly at its shortest and most difficult tracks.  In 1992, he replaced Chad Little at Cale Yarborough Motorsports and claimed his own Rookie of the Year title.  It was Hensley who was named by Alan Kulwicki to drive in his place should anything happen to him, and he did following Kulwicki’s tragic death in a 1993 plane crash.  In 1995, he turned his attention from Cup and Busch to the new Craftsman Truck Series.  49 years young, Hensley made his debut in the series’ first race at Bristol, then the next year earned Most Popular Driver.  He soon joined Petty Enterprises, wheeling his #43 Dodge to two victories at Nashville and, of course, Martinsville.  The latter in 1999 was particularly sweet - John Andretti’s come-from-behind effort in Sunday’s Cup race made it a weekend sweep for the Pettys.

Most recently, Hensley competed in the 2010 Scotts EZ Seed Shootout at Bristol, finishing 6th in the field of 12.

*This marked the fourth last-place finish for Oldsmobile in the Clash and the first time since Donnie Allison’s #12 The 5 Racers Oldsmobile also came home a lap down in 1981.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #20 in the Clash and the only one until 2009, when Joey Logano’s Home Depot Toyota crashed after 4 laps.

10) #20-Jimmy Hensley / 19 laps / running
9) #15-Morgan Shepherd / 20 laps / running
8) #27-Rusty Wallace / 20 laps / running
7) #7-Alan Kulwicki / 20 laps / running
6) #6-Mark Martin / 20 laps / running

Glick, Shav and Harry M. Horstman, “Motor Racing Busch Clash: Just a Day at Beach for Schrader,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1990.
Keim, Bob. “Hensley polesitter for Busch Clash,” UPI Archives, February 10, 1990.
Macenka, Joe. “Jimmy Hensley Gets His Break,” Associated Press, February 4, 1990.
Pearce, Al. “Hensley Continues Streak of Luck Draws Busch Clash Pole Position,” DailyPress, February 9, 1990.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

OPINION: NASCAR's vendetta against small teams continues with new wreck repair protocol

"Sorry, Dale.  You're done."
Today, news broke about the latest of NASCAR’s sudden series of rule changes for 2017.  Cars damaged in accidents, unable to be repaired on pit road in five minutes, cannot return to the track once they’ve gone to the garage.  This seems like a small change until you look at it within the context of the overall direction of the sport.  I would argue it’s yet another step toward squeezing small teams out of NASCAR’s elite division.

In early 2016, the RTA’s new Charter system instituted a field reduction in Cup from 43 cars to 40.  The official reason was to eliminate “start-and-park” teams.  This was demonstrably false - “start-and-park” teams had completely disappeared from Cup by 2015, and those same teams were running full races.  When the field reduction kicked in, those teams suddenly had an even slimmer chance of making the race.  To make ends meet, many of these teams merged while others closed entirely.

The Charter system also created a class system among the teams.  A pre-selected 36 of the remaining 40 were guaranteed a starting spot in every race.  This privilege also gave the 36 a new asset which could be sold or leased, and could only be lost by a low point ranking over five seasons.  The new lower class, now called “Open Teams,” had none of these benefits.  To have any hope of growing their program or attracting sponsors, they would have to buy or lease a Charter, or hope after five years to end up with one.  All this burden was added on top of the already daunting task of operating an underfunded team.

The 2016 season showed just how difficult it was for “Open Teams” to make ends meet.  Just 44 cars arrived in Florida for the Daytona 500, and for the next four races, there weren’t enough cars showing up to even meet the 40-car minimum.  It’s telling that all season long not one start-up team joined the circuit to fill the gap.  Only when existing programs like BK Racing and Premium Motorsports added an extra Open car could the 40-car minimum be reached.

The difficulties aren’t limited to the Open Teams.  Despite its promise to improve the financial security of its biggest franchises, Chartered teams near the bottom of the rankings are also struggling.  Tommy Baldwin Racing sold their Charter before Homestead, and their Cup plans beyond the Daytona 500 are unknown.  HScott Motorsports closed its doors at season’s end, and its Charter went on the market.  Richard Petty Motorsports was unable to keep its second team going after Brian Scott retired.  BK Racing endured puzzling financial difficulties and lost both their full-time drivers.  Many of the new teams we’re now seeing, including the second teams for Furniture Row Racing and JTG-Daugherty Racing, only exist because they acquired Charters from teams that closed.  That hardly sounds like progress.

This brings us the 2017 rules changes, and the wrecked car rule revision in particular.  One of the hallmarks of stock car racing - especially compared to open-wheels - is the durability of the cars, and the ability of teams to get them back out there.  Crowds cheer when a damaged car makes it back out on track, even if it’s been dozens of laps.  The teams don’t just do this for fun, either - every position means they earn a greater share of the purse (amounts which the RTA also made secret as part of the Charter deal).  By restricting the ability to come back out, another glass ceiling has been erected, cutting off still another stream of income for smaller teams.

And it is the smaller teams who bear the brunt of this new rule.  Which teams wreck the most often?  Those with limited resources or inexperienced drivers.  Which teams can’t repair their car on pit road in five minutes?  The same ones.  Which teams suffer the most when one of their cars is wrecked?  You guessed it.  Just like the Charter system, which was built on the myth that super-teams like Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing were in any danger of shutting down, this new crash protocol won’t hurt the big guys, either.  Something else is going on here, and I think NASCAR is being disingenuous when they say it’s in the name of competition.

I believe we are in the midst of a dramatic restructuring geared toward slashing the number of teams that make up the grid.  It started when the RTA reduced field sizes from 43 to 40.  It will continue when the Open Teams can’t hold out any longer, bringing it back to 36.  It will shrink again when the lower-end Chartered teams have no choice but to cash out.  With no start-up Open Teams to sell their Charter to, they’ll sell to the big teams instead.  Through an expansion of current technical alliances, the big teams will only get bigger until, one day, everyone will drive one of a couple dozen cars owned by a handful of owners - the big-name brands who didn’t need the Charter’s protections in the first place.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  This sport owes its life to its underdogs, to those who may not have had the speed, but had the heart.  By making it as difficult as possible for anyone to follow their path and denying its rough-and-tumble past, they are tearing the soul out of stock car racing.