Sunday, April 30, 2017

CUP: Dark horse favorite Erik Jones eliminated in early crash at Richmond

Erik Jones picked up the 1st last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at the Richmond International Raceway when his #77 GameStop / Prey Toyota was involved in a single-car crash after 4 of 400 laps.  The finish came in Jones’ 11th series start.

The fact that Jones, now competing in his first full season in Cup, was a dark horse pick to win on Sunday speaks volumes about his talent.  In 2013, he won his first ARCA race at Berlin in his 13th start.  He made his Truck Series debut later that year, winning in his fifth start at Phoenix for Kyle Busch Motorsports, then in 2014 came home 7th in his XFINITY debut at Chicagoland.

In 2015, Jones made an unexpected Cup debut at Bristol, driving in relief of Denny Hamlin, then a month later at Kansas made his first start in place of Kyle Busch.  Jones led a lap that night and was still competing for the lead when he crashed with just over 70 laps to go.  With seven Truck Series wins and the 2015 title, plus another six checkered flags in XFINITY, Jones was signed to debut a second team for Furniture Row Racing, running alongside Martin Truex, Jr.

After a mid-race crash left him next-to-last in the season-opening Daytona 500, Jones began a streak of five consecutive Top 15 finishes, including a season-best 8th at Phoenix.  Last week at Bristol, he looked poised to score his first Cup victory - and a weekend sweep with XFINITY - running inside the Top 5 for much of the distance before a wreck on Lap 422 left him 17th.  With that run in his back pocket, even more eyes were watching him at Richmond.

Jones was one of just 38 drivers looking to make the race, the shortest Cup field at Richmond since that number of cars took the green on September 9, 1995.  He ran 2nd to teammate Truex in opening practice – despite a spin and a nudge into the outside wall in Turn 2 - and qualified 20th with a speed of 118.948mph.  He sat out Saturday’s XFINITY race, handing over the wheel of his Joe Gibbs Racing entry to newcomer Kyle Benjamin, and led Saturday morning practice, followed by a 4th in Happy Hour.

Starting 38th and last on Sunday was Austin Dillon in the #3 AAA Chevrolet.  Dillon was served a qualifying penalty after Bristol when his car failed to pass LIS inspection five times, meaning he would start at the rear regardless of speed.  With NASCAR’s rule requiring drivers take the green on the tires they use in qualifying, Dillon took a single slow lap on Friday at just 82.792mph, more than 10 seconds off Matt Kenseth’s pole speed.  Dillon’s lap actually would have taken the pole at Richmond – on April 13, 1969 (polesitter David Pearson turned a lap on the old fairgrounds configuration of 82.538mph).  Dillon’s penalty also cost him pit stall selection and 30 minutes in practice.  Crew chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe was also absent from the track, preparing the team’s #3 for next Sunday’s race at Talladega.  Sammy Johns sat on the pit box.

When the green flag fell, Dillon and his fresh tires passed 37th-place starter Timmy Hill in the #51 SleepFresh Mattress Chevrolet for Rick Ware Racing, dropping Hill to last by the exit of Turn 2.  At that same moment, Erik Jones found himself in a three-wide battle off the same corner, passing Kasey Kahne and Danica Patrick.  Kahne slid into Jones off the corner, forcing Jones into the wall and costing him a handful of spot.  On Lap 5, as the field poured into Turn 3, Jones had regained the lost positions to the 20th spot, a tire went down as he ran the high lane, sending him hard into the outside wall.  Jones was uninjured, but his #77 was towed behind the wall, done for the day.

Finishing 37th was the #47 Kroger ClickList / Butterfinger / Cheerios Chevrolet of A.J. Allmendinger, 67 laps down, his first of two trips to the garage for an overheating rear gear that had to be swapped out.  36th went to outside-polesitter Ryan Blaney, who lost a tire with 22 laps to go, chased his #21 Motorcraft / Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford up the track, and smacked the outside wall.  35th belonged to Jeffrey Earnhardt, debuting new sponsor Towne Bank on his #33 Chevrolet, one lap behind Timmy Hill in 34th.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #77 in the Cup Series since June 8, 2014, when Dave Blaney’s #77 Amy R. Fochler / Ford finished under power, 18 laps down, in the Pocono 400 at Pocono.  The number hadn’t finished last at Richmond since September 12, 1998, when Robert Pressley’s #77 Jasper Engines Ford was involved in a multi-car crash after 33 laps of the Exide NASCAR Select Batteries 400.

38) #77-Erik Jones / 4 laps / crash
37) #47-A.J. Allmendinger / 333 laps / running
36) #21-Ryan Blaney / 378 laps / crash
35) #33-Jeffrey Earnhardt / 392 laps / running
34) #51-Timmy Hill / 393 laps / running

1st) Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group (3)
2nd) BK Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, Furniture Row Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Rick Ware Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (6)
2nd) Toyota (3)


No comments: