|PHOTO: SS Green Light Racing Facebook|
Ray Black, Jr. is another of the XFINITY Series’ lightly-regarded young guns who is looking to make a name for himself with an underdog team. The bright red-white-and-blue Chevrolets he’s campaigned for Bobby Dotter in Truck and XFINITY competition in 2014 reflect the driver’s two passions: scuba diving and racing. The former came about through his youth in Florida, where his father taught him how to dive. The latter started with video games, then at age 14 a championship in the Florida Mini Cup Racing Association. Late models came next, then the opportunity to drive for Dotter in the Truck Series in 2014. Hitting the track at Martinsville, Black finished 24th in a field of 36, six laps down, but under power. His first Top 5 came the following year in his Daytona debut, where he trailed only Tyler Reddick, Erik Jones, Scott Lagasse, Jr., and Austin Theriault. Dotter’s team SS Green Light Racing had been active in the Truck Series since 2004, and to date has made a combined 305 starts. Black’s run at Daytona remains the team’s sixth and most recent Top 5 finish.
On top of an 11th-place finish in the 2015 Truck Series standings, Black made his XFINITY Series debut that year, driving for Rick Ware in the fall race at Texas. There again Black managed to come home under power, eight laps down, in the 27th spot. The effort led to Bobby Dotter fielding a full-time XFINITY ride for Black in 2016, marking the first time one of his drivers would run more than five races since 1995, when Dotter himself drove full-time, yielding a 14th-place spot in the standings. Back in ’95, Dotter earned a pole at Charlotte, two Top Fives, and 6 Top Tens. Last year, Black finished no better than 14th in the August race at Bristol.
This year, Black returns for a second XFINITY Series season, but has continued to struggle for strong finishes. Following an 18th-place finish at Daytona, he’d run no better than 25th until just last Saturday at Richmond, where he again took the 18th spot. Prolific sponsor ScubaLife, which backed nearly all of Black’s XFINITY and Truck efforts, has also appeared to be scaling back its support. At Texas and Richmond, the red-white-and-blue car was replaced with a black Chevrolet carrying sponsorship from GlobalHBOT.org (whose site is currently under construction). The black car would return at Talladega, this time with sponsorship from the Double D. Meat Co.
Black was one of 42 drivers to make the preliminary entry list, a list reduced by one when RSS Racing withdrew the #93 “start-and-park” entry which scored the previous five last-place finishes with Jordan Anderson and Jeff Green. Of the 41 remaining cars, Black ran 35th in Friday’s opening practice, then sat out Happy Hour, where just 20 drivers took laps. He secured the 34th spot in Saturday’s field, his lap of 176.878mph requiring him to take the first of six positions determined by owner points.
Starting last on Saturday was all-time last-place record holder Jeff Green, who was back aboard B.J. McLeod’s #8. McLeod, the only driver who failed to qualify, had placed Green in his team’s road course car, an all-white Toyota which closely resembled Green’s prolific “start-and-park” cars from TriStar Motorsports. Just as in his previous starts for McLeod, however, Green would not be parking. Carrying McLeod’s sponsorship from Truckwork, Green would actually end up enjoying one of his best performances in years.
Green avoided the early wrecks and found himself leading a second pack of cars near the end of the race. This put Green in position to inherit first place on Lap 72 when the leaders made green-flag stops. On Lap 74, Green was still out front, and had led multiple laps in a single XFINITY race for the first time since November 16, 2002, when he won the pole and led five laps at Homestead. On Lap 78, Green had been out front for six laps, the most laps he’d led in the XFINITY Series since Rockingham on November 2, 2002, when he led 133 laps and came home 6th. From that race until Sunday, Green had scored 82 of his 90 career XFINITY last-place finishes. In the end, Green came home 10th, having been out front for 18 green-flag laps – two more than 3rd-place Joey Logano and five more than race winner Aric Almirola. It was also the best finish for car owner B.J. McLeod, whose previous best was a 17th by David Starr just last week.
Green began his march through the field early. The first car he passed was Morgan Shepherd in his black-and-gold #89 Racing With Jesus / Visone RV Chevrolet. By the time Shepherd entered Turn 1, the four cars in front of him were racing four-wide for position. Shepherd began to lose touch with the pack, running 3.318sec behind the leader on Lap 1, then 4.180 behind on Lap 2. The third time by, Mike Harmon took the spot in his #74 Dodge and began to fall back even further, trailing by 6.273sec on Lap 3, 10.075sec on Lap 4, and by Lap 5 was back 13.666, nearly four seconds behind 39th-place Shepherd.
Black entered the picture (albeit during the commercial break) on Lap 7. Running 35th at the time, Black’s car began pouring smoke and took a trip to the garage area. The caution flew for fluid coming out of his machine. An engine issue was the listed cause, and Black was done for the afternoon.
The remaining spots in the Bottom Five were filled by a grinding Lap 21 crash. Contact between cars in the middle of the lead pack triggered a nine-car backstretch melee. 39th-place Spencer Gallagher suffered heavy nose damage to his #23 Allegiant Airlines Chevrolet. Daniel Hemric ended up 38th with the right-rear heavily battered on his #21 Blue Gate Bank Chevrolet. 37th went to Brandon Jones, the nose of his #33 Nexteer Automotive Chevrolet stoved-in by the inside wall. Rounding out the group was William Byron in the #9 Liberty University Chevrolet. Byron managed to return to the track inside the five-minute “Crash Clock,” but with heavy front end damage couldn’t meet minimum speed and was parked after 12 more laps.
For more on Ray Black, Jr., check out his website: http://rayblackjr.com/
*This marked just the ninth XFINITY Series last-place finish for car #07, the first at Talladega, and the first in any XFINITY race since August 1, 2009, when the PMC Life Chevrolet of Mike Harmon fell out with brake trouble after 6 laps of the U.S. Cellular 250 at Iowa.
*This marked only the second XFINITY last-place finish for SS Green Light Racing. The other took place at Richmond on April 25, 2014 with Jimmy Weller III.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #07-Ray Black, Jr. / 7 laps / engine
39) #23-Spencer Gallagher / 20 laps / crash
38) #21-Daniel Hemric / 20 laps / crash
37) #33-Brandon Jones / 20 laps / crash
36) #9-William Byron / 32 laps / crash
2017 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) RSS Racing (6)
2nd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Kaulig Racing, SS Green Light Racing (1)
2017 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (9)
2017 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP