|PHOTO: FOX Sports, @RPMReport|
The finish, which came in Earnhardt’s 36th series start, was his fourth of the season and first since Texas, five races ago.
Since Texas, Earnhardt and the Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group team have continued to struggle near the back of the field. A 27th-place finish at Bristol came within just one position of equaling the driver and team’s season-best 26th in the Daytona 500. Talladega seemed like a good place to recapture that restrictor-plate magic, but contact at the start of the race forced early-race repairs that left him laps down, ultimately leading to an engine failure that left them 28th. At the same time, the team has continued to put together sponsorship packages for their black-and-silver Chevrolet, including Towne Bank, which joined at Richmond and would return for both the Monster Energy Open and the 600.
|PHOTO: NASCAR, @JEarnhardt1|
With the withdrawal of Carl Long’s #66 Chevrolet, Earnhardt and the remaining 39 other entrants were all guaranteed starting spots in Sunday’s field. On Thursday, Earnhardt ranked 38th in the opening practice session, slowest of the 36 Chartered entries, and secured the 38th starting spot in qualifying, turning the slowest lap of the session at 176.459mph (nearly three full seconds slower than polesitter Kevin Harvick’s lap of 193.42mph). Earnhardt remained 38th in Saturday’s second practice session, then was one of five drivers to sit out Happy Hour.
Starting 40th on the grid was rookie driver Corey LaJoie. LaJoie’s #83 Hope For The Warriors Toyota, last in the Monster Energy Open the previous week, didn’t complete a qualifying lap as the car couldn’t get through inspection in time. Also left in the back was point leader Kyle Larson, who damaged his #42 Target Chevrolet in practice with a slide into the Turn 2 wall. Joining them in the rear would be Kasey Kahne’s #5 LiftMaster Chevrolet, dropped from 24th due to a rear gear change, and Ty Dillon’s #13 GEICO Military Chevrolet from Germain Racing, dropped back from 27th for an unapproved tire change.
By the first corner, LaJoie, Larson, Kahne, and Dillon had all passed Derrike Cope, who was making his first Cup points race at Charlotte since 2004. Cope’s #55 Toyota, fielded by Premium Motorsports, picked up a number of sponsors by race day, including the Twin Peaks Restaurant, Internetwork Engineering, Sagebrush Steakhouse, and returning sponsor Xchange of America. Fighting handling issues, Cope steadily lost touch with the rest of the field. By Lap 3, Cope was nine seconds behind the leaders, 17.3 behind on Lap 7, and on the 15th circuit was the first to be lapped by race leader Kyle Busch, who moved to his inside in Turns 1 and 2. Already, Cope was more than a full corner behind Jeffrey Earnhardt, who was holding down 39th, but with problems of his own.
Earnhardt’s #33 started smoking a few laps into the race, stopped briefly, then by the time Kyle Busch caught him in Turn 3 on Lap 19, the car’s rear end came apart, dousing the track in rear end fluid and metal debris. Earnhardt fought to maintain control and pull to the inside, but not before debris damaged the front valence of Erik Jones’ #77 5-hour Energy Toyota and Chase Elliott’s #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet. Elliott’s car slowed suddenly past the start/finish line, a fire having broken out behind the front tires. Behind him, a fast-closing Brad Keselowski was unable to slow his #2 Miller Lite Ford in time. Caught in Earnhardt’s fluid, Keselowski slammed into Elliott at nearly full speed, destroying both cars. Unable to return to the pit road, both were done for the day.
Earnhardt made it back to the garage area, where the team set to work on the rear end of the car. While both Elliott and Keselowski’s cars were quickly taken off NASCAR.com’s RaceView program, Earnhardt’s was still shown in the garage area through all of Stage 1 – even as FOX indicated Earnhardt was out of the race. One lap behind Keselowski and Elliott since Kyle Busch lapped him at the time of the caution, Earnhardt needed to complete just two more laps to pass both Keselowski and Elliott. If he did, Keselowski, ranked 39th after the accident, would be handed his first-ever Cup Series last-place finish in his 281st series points race. By Lap 106, however, Earnhardt’s car was taken off RaceView, and did not return to the race, securing the last-place finish. Keselowski and Elliott remained 39th and 38th, respectively.
37th went to Matt DiBenedetto, whose #32 Cosmo Motors Ford crashed hard on Lap 143, just before heavy rains delayed the race for nearly two hours. Rounding out the Bottom Five was Ty Dillon, who after frequent mid-race pit stops exited with a rear end issue of his own.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #33 in a Cup race at Charlotte since October 11, 1981, when Harry Gant’s Skoal Bandit Pontiac, then fielded by Hal Needham, started outside-pole next to Darrell Waltrip, only to break the crank after 4 laps of the National 500.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #33-Jeffrey Earnhardt / 18 laps / rear end
39) #2-Brad Keselowski / 19 laps / crash
38) #24-Chase Elliott / 19 laps / crash
37) #32-Matt DiBenedetto / 139 laps / crash
36) #13-Ty Dillon / 242 laps / rear end
2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group (4)
2nd) BK Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, Furniture Row Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Premium Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Rick Ware Racing (1)
2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (8)
2nd) Toyota (4)
2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP