Sunday, May 28, 2017

XFINITY: Stephen Leicht – XFINITY race winner and Cup ROTY – continues to fight through “start-and-park” doldrums

PHOTO: @j66anderson
Stephen Leicht picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Hisense 300 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when his unsponsored #93 RSS Racing Chevrolet fell out with electrical issues after 11 of 200 laps.

The finish, which happened in Leicht’s 81st series start, was his first of the season and his first in an XFINITY Series race since July 28, 2012, 156 races ago, when his unsponsored #47 Chevrolet for The Motorsports Group had engine trouble on the opening lap of the Indiana 250 at Indianapolis.

Prior to this season, we last saw Leicht when he was declared the 2012 Cup Series Rookie of the Year.  It was the third in a series of small rookie fields, and the first since 1992 where the winner didn’t attempt to run the entire season.  Leicht drove 15 of 36 races for Joe Falk’s team Circle Sport, a car which ran the #33 for the half of the season where Richard Childress Racing didn’t enter the #33 in its place.  Leicht’s limited schedule and season-best 26th at Watkins Glen was still enough to beat Josh Wise for the title.  Wise drove 30 races in Front Row Motorsports’ #26, but “start-and-parked” for a large part of the schedule, finishing no better than a 30th at Sonoma.

Leicht also found himself on “start-and-park” duty in the XFINITY Series.  He made five starts in a fourth entry fielded by Curtis Key’s The Motorsports Group (TMG), finishing no better than 41st in TMG’s #47 Chevrolets.  His last-place finish that year at Indianapolis came quicker than the others.  During a pace lap interview with JR Motorsports Jackman Eric Ludwig, Leicht was seen driving down pit road behind him, then making the left turn into the garage.  He also made four Truck Series starts for Mike Hillman’s team.  There, he also exited early each time, finishing no better than a 30th at Michigan.

It must have been a frustrating turn of events for Leicht, whose NASCAR career began as a development driver for Yates Racing.  In 2007, he earned a breakthrough XFINITY Series victory at Kentucky, leading to a 7th-place finish in points, and for the next two years shared a ride at Richard Childress Racing.  Perhaps for this reason, he was absent from NASCAR for more than five years.  He returned to his short track roots in the CARS Late Model Tour, earning a pole at Hickory in 2015 and a best finish of 7th on two occasions – at the Motor Mile (Virginia) Speedway and the Concord (North Carolina) Speedway.

This past January, Victor Obaika announced that Leicht would be part of its new driver lineup for his two-car XFINITY effort.  Leicht would drive the flagship #97 Vroom! Brands Chevrolet with the #77 soon after entered for Josh Bilicki.  But Leicht’s return proved to have more in common with his time driving for TMG than with Yates.  After a DNQ for the Daytona opener, Leicht made the next four rounds, but each time fell out in the first 24 laps, most often due to parking, and finished no better than 37th.  The #77 withdrew or failed to qualify in all four of its entries, and Josh Bilicki soon left the team to driver Rick Ware Racing’s Cup entry in June’s upcoming race at Sonoma.  At Bristol, reports indicated that Obaika’s hauler was turned away at the entrance for arriving just moments before opening practice.  As of this writing, the Obaika team hasn’t entered an XFINITY race since.

Before Thursday’s opening practice at Charlotte, Leicht still didn’t have a ride, but was then tabbed to drive in place of current LASTCAR XFINITY leader Jordan Anderson in RSS Racing’s #93 Chevrolet – yet another “start-and-park” entry.  Leicht ran 39th-fastest of the 42 entrants in the first practice, skipped Happy Hour, and locked himself into the 30th starting spot with a lap of 175.228mph.  Anderson, who returned to drive for his mentor and Truck Series owner Mike Harmon, was one of the two drivers bumped from the field, joining Talladega standout and last-place record holder Jeff Green in B.J. McLeod’s #78 Chevrolet.

Starting 40th on Saturday was Dakoda Armstrong, who along with Brad Keselowski were unable to get through inspection in time to make a qualifying run.  Both were joined by Keselowski’s Penske teammate Ryan Blaney, sent to the rear for the team allegedly manipulating the decals on the car, and Carl Long, who replaced Austin Wayne Self in his #40 Dodge after final practice.

Long was running last on Lap 3 when the first caution fell for an accident between frontrunners Ryan Reed in the #16 Lilly Diabetes Ford and Christopher Bell’s #18 Sirius XM Toyota.  Daniel Hemric also made contact with the outside wall in his #21 Blue Gate Bank Chevrolet.  On top of it all, Austin Dillon was also sent to the rear when his #2 Rheem Chevrolet beat polesitter Justin Allgaier to the stripe at the start.  When the dust settled, Bell took last on Lap 5 followed by Hemric on Lap 6.

By the Lap 8 restart from the wreck, Leicht had fallen back to 40th for the first time, 6.762 seconds behind the leaders.  On Lap 10, that gap widened to 9.073 seconds, or more than two-tenths behind 39th-place Timmy Hill in Carl Long’s second Motorsports Business Management entry.  On the 11th circuit, Leicht was 25.737 seconds behind the leader, now 15 seconds behind Hill, and the next time by headed to the garage, done for the day.

39th went to Long, who smacked the outside wall on Lap 22 after an apparent blown tire.  38th went to Hill, his #13 Toyota out with electrical issues.  GMS Racing’s outspoken Spencer Gallagher ended up 37th after his #23 Allegiant Airlines Chevrolet was involved in its second crash in as many races.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was 36th-place Michael Annett, whose #5 Pilot / Flying J Chevrolet wrecked just moments before JR Motorsports teammate Elliott Sadler.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #93 in an XFINITY Series race at Charlotte since May 23, 1998, when Dave Blaney’s Amoco Pontiac crashed after 7 laps of the Carquest Auto Parts 300.  It was also Leicht’s first last-place finish at the track.

40) #93-Stephen Leicht / 11 laps / electrical
39) #40-Carl Long / 21 laps / crash
38) #13-Timmy Hill / 22 laps / electrical
37) #23-Spencer Gallagher / 166 laps / crash
36) #5-Michael Annett / 177 laps / crash

1st) RSS Racing (7)
2nd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Kaulig Racing, SS Green Light Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (10)


No comments: