Thursday, March 16, 2017

11/12/06: The story of Brandon Whitt and his lone Cup start at Phoenix

On November 12, 2006, Brandon Whitt picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Nextel Cup career in the Checker Auto Parts 500 Presented by Pennzoil at the Phoenix International Raceway when his #72 Dutch Quality Stone Chevrolet fell out with rear end trouble after 123 of 312 laps.  The finish came in Whitt’s series debut.

The older cousin of fellow California native Cole Whitt, who runs full-time for TriStar Motorsports in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Brandon Whitt cut his teeth in the NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour with sponsorship from Moen Faucets.  On October 25, 2001, an 18-year-old Whitt made his series debut at Phoenix and finished 14th in the 42-car field.  The next year, he scored three top-ten finishes and a season-best 5th at the Cajon (California) Speedway, earning him 9th in the season standings and a narrow victory over Steve Belletto for Rookie of the Year.

In 2003, Whitt made his national touring debut in the Craftsman Truck Series.  Like his Southwest Tour entry, his Chevrolet Silverado was fielded by Clean Line Motorsports, a team owned by his father Daniel.  Sponsorship came from McMillin Homes, the Cure Autism Now foundation, and Moen Faucets, the latter having backed Whitt’s efforts on the Southwest Tour.  His series debut came March 23, 2003 at the Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, where he’d finished 11th the previous year.  Whitt’s #38 IPS / In-sink-erator / Simpson Chevrolet came home 19th of 36, and was followed by a season-best 13th that summer in Fontana.

The next year, Whitt and Clean Line switched to Ford and went full-time in Trucks.  He improved on his career-best finish with a 12th at Martinsville and came home 19th in the standings.  2005 saw another manufacturer change to Toyota, along with new partners in Tom DeLoach and retired crew chief Jeff Hammond.  The combination formed was renamed from Clean Line to Red Horse Racing, which continues to run today with drivers Brett Moffitt and Timothy Peters.

Coming into July, Whitt was struggling to find consistency.  25th in points with six DNFs, including five crashes in a seven-race span earlier in the year, the team struggled to close out good finishes.  “It was frustrating because we were running so well,” said Whitt that year.  “The team was really coming together, but. . .we just couldn’t make it through those last 15-20 laps when everything was happening.”  Then the team came home 6th at Kentucky.  “Finally, we reached the point where we could put it together, and we started making it to the end of races and getting some good finishes.”

The next race after Kentucky came on July 23, the O’Reilly 200 Presented by Valvoline at the tight three-quarter oval in Memphis.  The weekend started as well as it could, the driver earning his first career pole and leading the opening 46 laps.  But Ron Hornaday, Jr. had taken the lead on Lap 130, and even with a green-white-checkered finish caused by Debroah Renshaw, it looked as though Whitt would have to settle for 2nd.  Then, on the final lap, Jimmy Spencer spun in Turns 3 and 4, and Hornaday slowed in the smoke.  The two made contact, causing Hornaday to spin as Whitt sped to the finish line, a winner in his 46th career start.

Among those celebrating with him in victory lane that night in Memphis was Greg Biffle, who followed a similar path to Cup.  “I love Truck racing,” he said.  “So I’d been watching him [Whitt] have good runs.  You could tell the win was right around the corner. . .He doesn’t do anything stupid.  He was really using his head.  He got in the back of Hornaday a little bit but kept his cool, got back in the throttle and didn’t lose a position.”  For Biffle, his racing career had gone full circle - he was at the track scouting talent, just as Benny Parsons had for him before he teamed with Roush Racing in 1998.

In 2006, however, Whitt was out of a ride, replaced by David Starr at Red Horse Racing.  He first turned to ARCA, looking to get Ted Campbell’s #57 CLR Racing Ford into the season-opening Daytona ARCA 200, but ended up mired in a tremendous list of 27 DNQs.  That September at Chicagoland, he returned in his own unsponsored #51 Chevrolet and qualified an impressive 4th, but a multi-car crash left him 31st.  As the year neared its end, it appeared he would have to look ahead to 2007 for another opportunity.  Then he got a call.

In 2006, businessman Bryan Mullet invested in Morgan Shepherd’s team, Faith Motorsports, which at the time was fielding #89 Dodges in the Cup Series.  The deal brought in sponsorship from Dutch Quality Stone, which Shepherd’s car carried as a sponsor through the first nine rounds of the season.  After missing each one of those races, however, the two parted ways, and Mullet fielded his own team, CJM Racing, with car #72.

Following a DNQ with Kertus Davis in the Coca-Cola 600, CJM’s next Cup effort came that June at Sonoma, where Mullet offered a ride to new NASCAR phenom David Gilliland.  Gilliland, fresh off his upset Busch Series win at Kentucky, leaped at the chance to race Cup at a track both he and father Butch (and now son Todd) have all competed on in the K&N Pro Series West.  Driving an old 2004 Dodge Intrepid, Gilliland not only qualified 31st for his first Cup attempt, besting five teams, but missed the wild first-lap accident to come home 32nd.  The finish paved the way for Gilliland’s next offer with Yates Racing, where that August he replaced Elliott Sadler as driver of the #38 M&M’s Ford.

Mullet, meanwhile, switched from Dodge to Chevrolet and made two more races with veteran Mike Skinner at Charlotte and Martinsville, but crashes left his #72 just 43rd and 39th at the finish.  For the November race at Phoenix, Mullet looked for another driver, and during a trip to the Texas Motor Speedway met Brandon Whitt.

The effort to make the race would again prove difficult.  51 drivers arrived to make the 43-car field, and without a rank in the Top 35 in Owner Points, Whitt would have to best eight of the other “go-or-go-homers,” including Morgan Shepherd.  After running just 44th in opening practice, Whitt put up a lap of 130.985mph in qualifying, good enough for 37th on the grid, and ahead of all the drivers he had to beat.

Sent home were Jason Leffler, looking to make his first Cup start in over a year in the #71 Fort McDowell Resort Destination Chevrolet for Braun Racing; Roush development driver Todd Kluever in the #06 3M Vikuiti / Sharp AQUOS Ford; Morgan Shepherd’s #89; West Coast driver Brandon Ash in the #02 Sprinter Trucking, Inc. Dodge; Kevin Lepage for Front Row Motorsports in the #34 Oak Glove Co. Chevrolet, Kenny Wallace for Furniture Row Racing in the #78 Chevrolet; Derrike Cope (that year’s LASTCAR champion) in Raynard McGlynn’s #74 Sundance Vacations / Dodge; and Jeremy Mayfield in a one-off for James Finch driving the #09 Miccosukee Gaming & Resorts Dodge.

It was a coming home of sorts for Whitt, who returned to the scene of his Southwest Tour debut in 2001, and made him the 77th different driver to qualify for a Cup race that season.  41st in Saturday practice, then 31st in Happy Hour, the driver looked for a good finish on Sunday.

Starting 43rd and last that day was 1989 winner Bill Elliott, who secured the Past Champions Provisional driving a throwback #37 Melling Auto Parts Dodge for car owner John Carter of R&J Racing.  He was joined at the back by Robby Gordon, sent to the rear in his #7 Harrah’s Chevrolet due to an engine change, and could have been joined by others for driver changes.  A bout of the flu had spread through the garage, and drivers Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, and Scott Riggs were still feeling the effects.  Busch had Brandon Ash on standby as his relief driver.

By Lap 3, 43rd spot belonged to veteran driver Chad Chaffin, who that year was driving a second car, #61, for Front Row Motorsports.  Chaffin’s struggle for speed in practice continued on race day, and by Lap 21 he was already 21.580 seconds behind race leader Kevin Harvick.  Whitt took 43rd from Chaffin by Lap 37, and appeared to be the first driver a lap down before Lap 53.  Last place changed hands once more when Greg Biffle pitted his #16 National Guard Ford for a vibration in his right-front tire.  The stop, which revealed his right-front worn to the cords, cost him two laps.  By Lap 101, Whitt had retaken last from Biffle and was six laps behind by Lap 129.  He pulled behind the wall soon after, and was out by Lap 144.

42nd went to Michael Waltrip, whose difficult transitional season between Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in 2005 and his own team in 2007 continued with a persistent smoking problem, then engine failure on his Doug Bawel-owned #55 NAPA Auto Parts Dodge after 234 laps.  41st went to Mike Bliss, whose own engine went away on BAM Racing’s #49 Dodge.  Rounding out the Bottom Five were 40th-place Jamie McMurray in Roush Racing’s #26 Irwin Industrial Tools Ford and Dale Jarrett’s #88 UPS Ford for Yates Racing, both knocked-out in a multi-car frontstretch wreck triggered by Tony Stewart on Lap 274.

Following a DNQ in the season finale at Homestead, Whitt and Mullet looked ahead to 2007 for a bid at the Daytona 500.  The team, still sponsored by Dutch Quality Stone, remained with Chevrolet and had acquired an engine from Richard Childress Racing.  The preliminary press release also indicated Whitt would attempt the ARCA 200 once more, driving his own #51 Toyota.

“I still can’t believe where I was sitting just last year to where I am at in 2007,” said Whitt before SpeedWeeks.  “To be able to go to Daytona and race (in any series) is an incredible feeling but to be able to go to Daytona and compete in the NNCS … there are no words.  I’m thankful for this opportunity.  The team is ready to put what we’ve learned in the off-season to good use.  We know what we need to do heading into Daytona and I think that realistically this team is capable of making a great showing.”

While Whitt made the ARCA 200, finishing 34th after a crash on Lap 37, the run at the Daytona 500 fell short.  Lining up 29th of 31 in Race 1 of the Gatorade Duels, Whitt came home 21st – on the lead lap, but out of the race.  The team attempted the next two rounds in Fontana and Las Vegas, but after missing both races, driver and team pulled out of Cup.  As it turned out, Whitt’s last-place run at Phoenix marked the last time the #72 ran a Cup Series points race until this year’s Daytona 500, when cousin Cole Whitt’s 18th-place finish marked the series return of TriStar Motorsports.

Following a one-off return to Red Horse Racing that fall at Atlanta, where he ran 23rd, Whitt turned to the XFINITY Series, where he made 31 starts over the next two seasons.  Driving the #61 and #62 Fords for Charles Shoffner’s team Specialty Racing, Whitt’s best finishes were a pair of 20th-place performances at Dover and Nashville in 2009.

Though he hasn’t raced in NASCAR since, Whitt’s underdog status endures.  “Adversity will teach you something,” he said after his win in 2005.  “Every time something happened, I learned something.  The feel right before a tire blows out, for instance.  There were things I had never experienced before.  For me, I learned the different feels of stuff that was about to happen or could’ve happened.  From that aspect, there were a lot of pluses that came out of what seemed at the time like bad luck.”

It’s also interesting to note that, back in 2005, Whitt proposed a Chase format in the Truck Series.  In an interview published November 21 of that year, he suggested “a seven-race Chase, beginning with 10 eligible drivers.  At each race, the field would be narrowed, leaving only two drivers to compete for the title at the final race.”  The current format, introduced last year, is nearly identical.

*This marked the 12th and, to date, most recent last-place finish for the #72 in a Cup Series race, and the number’s only last-place run at Phoenix.

43) #72-Brandon Whitt / 123 laps / rear end
42) #55-Michael Waltrip / 234 laps / engine
41) #49-Mike Bliss / 262 laps / engine
40) #26-Jamie McMurray / 272 laps / crash
39) #88-Dale Jarrett / 289 laps / crash

*“CJM Racing profile,”, June 22, 2006.
*“Daytona Duel: Brandon Whitt preview,”, February 9, 2007.
*Dutton, Monte. “Patience Pays Off: Whitt’s breakthrough shows he’s learning how to pick his spots.” The Bryan Times, September 1, 2005.
*Dutton, Monte. “Veteran Rudd finally decides to call it quits … we think.” Ludington Daily News, November 21, 2005.
*Jayski’s Silly Season Site
*Ryan, Nate. “Who’s Next? NASCAR champ Greg Biffle sees potential in driver Brandon Whitt.” Spirit of Jefferson Farmer’s Advocate, December 15, 2005.
*“SWS: Stockton99: Brandon Whitt race remarks,”, April 30, 2002.

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