Thursday, June 29, 2017

CUP: Tommy Regan’s effort a throwback to West Series “combination races” at Sonoma

Tommy Regan
PHOTOS: Brock Beard
When browsing the entry list for last Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350, many took notice of the five drivers set to make their Cup Series debuts.  Four of the five were traditional “road ringers,” racers with road racing experience outside of NASCAR’s top three series: Israeli open-wheel turned Euro Series racer Alon Day, Ford factory driver Billy Johnson fresh from the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Grand-Am veteran Kevin O’Connell, and IMSA and SCCA competitor Josh Bilicki.

The fifth, Tommy Regan, was a different class of racer – a throwback to the days when K&N Pro Series West drivers were invited to race alongside Cup veterans.

The very first race for the K&N Pro Series West, held March 28, 1954 in Oakland, California, was a late model race which matched local drivers against Grand National stars like Lee Petty, Marvin Panch, and Dick Rathman.  In an effort to grow both series, these “combination races” counted toward the point standings of both divisions.  The result put tracks like Riverside, Ontario, Phoenix, and Sonoma on the Cup schedule.  It also introduced new talent in the Cup Series fields, including Ray Elder, Jim Robinson, and Bill Schmitt.

Up until the late 1990s, west coast Cup Series events were still “combination races” where several West drivers banged fenders with Cup regulars.  By 1994, the highest-qualified West driver was still guaranteed a starting spot by means of a provisional.  That year, the West provisional set the grid for the inaugural Brickyard 400, where Mike Chase bested 14 others from his region for the final starting spot.  Some of the drivers Chase beat, including Rick Carelli and Hall of Fame inductee Ron Hornaday, Jr., would go on to lay the foundation for the Camping World Truck Series.

While the K&N Pro Series West has continued to bring new talent to the Cup - most notably Kevin Harvick, Brendan Gaughan, and current Truck Series rookie Todd Gilliland – the west coast Cup races are no longer “combination races.”  Only at Sonoma does the K&N Pro Series West even share a weekend with Cup, and when they do, they run different cars on different tires in a completely separate race.

On the grid for qualifying
In 2012, Tommy Regan was in that Sonoma race, finishing 21st in a field of 30 driving a #44 Ultra Lube Toyota for car owner Marv Brown.  It was one of four starts that season for Regan, who since 2001 had been competing in weekly series races at the Altamont Speedway, a bullring not far from his hometown of Tracy, California.  “I was born and raised in like a horsepower family, not necessarily a professional racing family,” said Regan on Friday.  “We always had the v-drive boat in the garage and some ’69 Camaros, some Chevelles, and some drag racing in high school time and stuff like that.  But wanted to take it to the next level.”

Regan reached the next level in 2014, moving to Mooresville with sights set on his Truck Series debut.  Driving for car owner Christopher Long, who had entered trucks for current XFINITY Series owner-driver B.J. McLeod, Regan started 28th in the field of 36 at Iowa before ignition issues ended his run on the opening lap (LINK).  Undaunted, Regan improved over his next two starts, finishing 25th at Martinsville and a career-best 24th at Gateway.  His efforts became the subject of “Regan Motorsports,” a 2014 reality show on the Velocity Channel.

This year, Regan has made two Truck Series starts this season, driving as teammates to both Jennifer Jo Cobb and Norm Benning.  Along the way, he’s has become friends with current Cup Series car owner Rick Ware and helped out at their shop.  “I really enjoy – I’m not an official employee, but I really enjoy being there in the garage, working with the cars, and helping the setups.  It’s still really exciting to me.”

Regan obtained clearance to compete in Cup this season, and eyed making his debut at Sonoma.  When asked why this particular track, he said “I would say it’s the track I know the most.  I have the most experience here, I understand the most, and I’ve done the most laps here, so that’s what I felt comfortable with.”  A social media post first indicated that Regan would drive for Ware, but with Josh Bilicki’s deal already secured over the winter, the opportunity then came to drive for Premium Motorsports with Ware offering support.

“It’s been a culmination of about maybe 100 different things that finally came together,” said Regan.  “The stars needed to align for this deal and they did.  So excited to be here at Sonoma, my first Cup race., they really made – they stepped up to the plate to make this happen.  Capri Tools, I really couldn’t have done this without them.  Rick Ware was a huge help in helping my career to help me get here.”

While other newcomers were hoping for a Top 20 finish, Regan was mindful of the challenges that lay ahead in Sunday’s race.  “I’ve gone at it differently this time.  I’ve made it aware to everybody that this is my probationary, first time race.  I’m more looking for to follow through on the processes and fundamentals.  You know, I’m still building my foundation, we just started, and I don’t have expectations of high finishes.  My expectations are getting consistency and stability with our processes, our strategies, and really starting to work on that aspect of things.”

“This is our first race, so I kind of put all my focus on just this race.  I haven’t even looked towards the future past this.  But I do – my sponsors are all very happy, they say they want to re-up with me and the race hasn’t even started yet (laughs).”

Regan qualified 37th in Sunday’s 38-car field, and for much of the afternoon worked his plan.  He fell back at the start, holding down the last spot for most of the first stage and into the early laps of the second before Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s crash in Turn 4 (LINK).  He was just about two seconds ahead of race leader Martin Truex, Jr. when the first stage ended, and only lost the first of three laps late in the third stage.  He finished 34th with just a couple of scrapes on #55, and though his black driver’s uniform was soaked with sweat, he was just as excited.

Loading up after the race
“Oh my gosh, it was everything that I ever wanted,” he said.  “I just – if I could just keep it in one piece and, you know, I was just trying – I was learning so much because when I went out there, I had different lines than most of the people.  I’d tuck in behind Junior or tuck in behind Hamlin and be like ‘oh, that’s what they’re doing!’ (laughs).  You know, so it was mostly a learning curve.  My fastest lap was Lap 90 [of 110].  Yeah, so I had a tremendous amount of fun, I learned a lot, I kept getting faster.  Before my next race, I’ll definitely try and do some testing or sort of stuff and it’ll definitely help me out.”

“I wanted to be really respectful on the track.  When somebody was coming on the lead lap, you know, they were obviously faster than me, I would move over, but I’d tuck right in behind them when they got by and try and catch and learn as much as I can.”

When asked about the endurance side of the race, particularly after triple-digit temperatures earlier in the week, he said, “I was really impressed because I didn’t know what to expect because that was my first three-hour – what – three hour, fifteen minute race, so I trained really, really hard for a three-hour race over the past five months, and it really paid off ‘cause I didn’t get tired in the car and it was very enjoyable.  I mean, out of breath, you know, obviously, tired comes, but I wasn’t out of breath, my focus even at the end of the race was right on point and all that training really helped out. . .The end of the thing of the first tires, I was slipping and sliding, like I was on ice skates, it was like woah-woah-woah, and you’re moving over here, so it was really enjoyable.”

Regan was sure to thank his sponsors, who applauded him as he wrapped up his interview.  “You know, I wanna give a humongous shout-out to and Capri Tools.  They really helped my dream come true today.  I mean, I raced my first Cup race!  So it all begins now, and I’m just – today’s a great day.  I finished, what, 32nd? [34th].  That’s a win for me, buddy.”

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Preliminary Entry List Storylines: July Daytona

PHOTO: Source unknown
Coke Zero 400 at Daytona

After four consecutive short fields, including a track record 38 last Sunday in Sonoma, there will be exactly 40 cars attempting the 40-car field for Saturday’s Independence Day classic.  Most notable, however, is the lack of the #96 Toyota of Gaunt Brothers Racing, which attempted the previous two plate races with Canadian driver D.J. Kennington.  This week, Kennington is instead entered in Premium Motorsports’ #15 Chevrolet (teamed with Reed Sorenson, who moves back in the #55 Toyota).  Also missing is Rick Ware Racing, which failed to qualify for both Daytona and Talladega, then ran last Sunday with Josh Bilicki running 36th at Sonoma.

While the Gaunt and Ware teams are missing, the #75 Beard Motorsports has returned for its third-straight restrictor-plate attempt, and will again go with veteran driver Brendan Gaughan.  Gaughan turned in a strong 11th-place finish the last time out at Daytona, and perhaps would have been in position for another at Talladega had the car not suffered front valence damage at the start.

Also returning is Tommy Baldwin Racing, making its fifth start of the year and its first since J.J. Yeley ran 26th in the Coca-Cola 600.  Sponsorship from Golden Corral and driver Elliott Sadler return for the third of three plate starts, returning to the scene of a 20th-place run in February.

The other team returning is BK Racing’s #83, absent at Sonoma, but this week back with Ryan Sieg to make his third Cup start of the year.  Fresh off a career-best 2nd at Iowa, Sieg could be a dark horse to watch, particularly after his other battle for the lead in the XFINITY race at Talladega.  Corey LaJoie slides over from the #83 to the #23, the car driven last Sunday by Alon Day and before that by Gray Gaulding and Sieg.

Another dark horse will be Matt DiBenedetto, who finished a season-best 9th in this year’s Daytona 500.  The driver earned a solid 23rd-place finish at Sonoma, and will look to continue to build after a rough few weeks of late-race misfortunes.

Back behind the wheel this week is Darrell Wallace, Jr., who for the third time this year takes the controls of Richard Petty Motorsports’ #43 Smithfield Ford.  Wallace has made six Daytona starts in the XFINITY Series with a best of 6th in the February 2016 opener.  The team he’s driving for last took the checkered flag here in July 2014, when the Aric Almirola won the rain-shortened Sunday event.  With Almirola set to return in mid-to-late July, Wallace will look to make the most of Saturday’s race.

Jeffrey Earnhardt is back with Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group, and so is sponsor Hulu for the green #33 Chevrolet.  Earnhardt had a good run going in February’s Daytona 500, running near the Top 10 before a late-race crash left him 26th.  Coming into Saturday, that finish – his only prior Cup start at Daytona – remains his best run of the season.

Another driver to watch will be Cole Whitt, who like Earnhardt had a strong run going in February’s 500 before running out of gas on the final lap.  Whitt quietly finished 21st at Sonoma, came home 11th in this race last year, and still ran 18th despite the empty fuel tank early this year.  In 14 previous Daytona starts in the Cup Series, team owner Mark Smith has only finished better than Whitt’s 18th-place run two times – a 10th in 1991 with Bobby Hamilton, and a 15th in 1993 with Greg Sacks – both in the #68 Country Time Lemonade machine.

At Talladega, we saw several teams forgo an impound violation and change their cars from qualifying to race setup after the opening lap – most notably the #55 of Premium Motorsports and the #83 for BK Racing.  With exactly 40 cars on the list this week and no risk for any Open car to be sent home, it’s unlikely this strategy will be used this weekend.

Firecracker 250 at Daytona

43 drivers are entered to attempt the 40-car starting grid for the XFINITY race at Daytona.

As of this writing, the driver has yet to be announced for RSS Racing’s #93 Chevolet, the team dominating this year’s LASTCAR standings.  Jeff Green, the driver for each of the last four races and last-place finisher in three of them, is this week back in the #8 for B.J. McLeod.  No doubt, the team is looking to build on Green’s 10th-place finish at Talladega and Tommy Joe Martins’ sterling 11th-place run last week in Iowa.  McLeod is himself entered in place of Martins in the flagship #78.

Corey LaJoie is listed as pulling double-duty this weekend, this time running the XFINITY event in a fourth JD Motorsports entry, the #15 Chevrolet.  While “start-and-park” entries are rare at the restrictor plate races, they do still happen.  It is as yet uncertain whether LaJoie’s car will run the full race.  Another possible “start-and-park” candidate is the second King Autosport Chevrolet, the #92 for team owner Mario Gosselin, which was withdrawn last week at Iowa.  JGL Racing has entered a third Toyota, #26, for Scott Lagasse, Jr., but given Lagasse’s past runs at plate tracks, the car will run the distance.

Chris Cockrum looks to make his fourth start of the season and first since Talladega.  Back in his #25 Advanced Communications Group Chevrolet, Cockrum’s best finish of the season has been a 28th at Daytona, and the Florida track also saw his career-best 21st in 2015.

Also back on the list is ARCA veteran Mark Thompson, who runs Motorsports Business Management’s #13 Toyota alongside Timmy Hill in the #40.  The 65-year-old Thompson is a decade younger than 75-year-old Morgan Shepherd, who looks to rebound from a February DNQ to make his 21st XFINITY start at Daytona in his 50th anniversary season.

Casey Mears reprises his role as Aric Almirola’s relief driver in the #98 Fresh From Florida Ford.  Mears could be a dark horse to take the checkered flag – Almirola won this race last year in the Biagi car, and Mears has shown flashes of brilliance on the restrictor-plate tracks during his Cup career.

Speaking of dark horses, one cannot overlook any of the drivers who ran so well last Saturday in Iowa.  Garrett Smithley, Jeremy Clements, Dakoda Armstrong, Ross Chastain, and especially runner-up Ryan Sieg are all entered and could have something to say to the likes of Cup regulars Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, and Joey Logano.

Next Race: Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 at Kentucky
Thursday, July 6, 2017

While the entry list for this race has yet to be published, it is expected to include the #52 Halmar Friesen Racing entry for driver Stewart Friesen, which has skipped the previous two rounds in Gateway and Iowa.

Monday, June 26, 2017

CUP / WEST: LASTCAR Sonoma Garage Reports

No. 32 Can-Am / Kappa Ford
Started 27th, Finished 23rd

After finishes of 29th and 31st in two Sonoma starts driving BK Racing’s No. 83 Toyota, Matt DiBenedetto returned with Go FAS Racing.  “It’s been good,” DiBenedetto said of the transition to a single-car team, “it’s nice to have all the focus on our one deal and that team, so our performance has been great this year, we just had a lot of bad luck that really killed us in the points. So, I really feel like we should be 5 spots higher in the points based on how we performed, but we had a lot of issues four weeks in a row that caused some DNFs or not the finishes we needed, so things are just kind of out of my control. So yeah, we’ve been running great, growing as a team, so hopefully we get back on track and have a lot of good finishes.”

One of those rough afternoons came earlier this month at Pocono, where he pulled off the track in the final stages. “Yeah, actually I got sick the night before at Pocono, I ate something bad, so that kind of set me behind for the race. And then it went green flag for a really long time and so I just got really dehydrated early, but normally I’m really more hydrated.”

The triple-digit heat which gripped the Bay Area days before the race also brought to mind the issue of heat in the race car.  “Last year, I burned my feet here, so I had really bad blisters.  So we worked on the floor of the race car, I got some heat shields for my feet, so that was the main concern coming here, make sure that doesn’t happen again.  So it’ll definitely be a long one and the road courses create a lot of heat with the brakes and all.”

Like many of the other teams we spoke with, DiBenedetto’s goal was for a Top 20 finish.  “You know, I don’t know, it’s – road courses are a place where you can get a really good finish, so I enjoy them a lot, so I’d, you know, looking at it, if we could come out of here with like a Top 20 would be great, so that’s kind of our general goal here.”  Of this group, he came the closest to achieving his goal, finishing on the lead lap in 23rd.

No. 33 Chevrolet
Started 34th, Finished 29th

Said arrived at the Sonoma Raceway to drive the No. 33 Chevrolet for Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group, driving in place of Jeffrey Earnhardt.  According to the team, the sponsorship deal from Hulu was done after the team signed Boris to run both road course races.  We caught up with Said shortly after he arrived at the No. 33 garage stall on Friday, helmet in hand with his son next to him.  “I mean, it just kind of came up the last minute,” Said told of the deal to drive No. 33.  “[T]hey needed somebody more for a road course.  I mean, I’m surprised they called me being as I’m almost 55, but I’m really happy to be here.  I love – been racing 31 years, probably gonna be my last season doing NASCAR, but it’s just – gonna have a blast.”

While Hulu will back the No. 33 next Saturday in Daytona and for a few more races this season, the green car didn’t carry any logos on Friday.  By Saturday, came on board as part of a deal worked out between Said and Hendrick Motorsports.  “It’s not a front-running car, but I think it’ll be a good enough car.  Hendrick gave us a little help, because I’m partners with Rick Hendrick and the car dealers, so he gave us a motor and a few little pieces, so hopefully that’ll help us out a little bit.  I just can’t wait to go.”

Said will return to Cup this August at Watkins Glen for what may be the driver’s 54th and final Cup start.  He’s competed in the Truck Series since 1995 and XFINITY since 1998, winning one race in both series, and at Sonoma in 2003 claimed the first of two Cup pole positions while driving in place of the injured Jerry Nadeau.  The Watkins Glen car will be sponsored by Genessee Beer, which backed his last two starts at the Glen.

No. 23 Earthwater Toyota
Started 32nd, Finished 32nd

By taking the green flag on Sunday, Alon Day not only became the first Israeli driver to start a Cup Series race, but also marked the 16th different country to be represented in the Cup field at Sonoma.  Driving the No. 23 BK Racing entry in place of Gray Gaulding and Ryan Sieg, Day finished the race under power, but without much of the bodywork.  “Yeah, it was pretty difficult,” said Day, who was wearing the same yellow driver’s uniform for CAAL Racing in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series. “The Earthwater guys did a great job keeping the car - unfortunately half of the car is missing (laughs) - but we still did good in my opinion.  Was hoping for a caution that didn’t [come].  Next race, we’ll be stronger.”

An early spin in Turn 3, then an on-track incident made his car the first car to lose a lap.  The nose was so badly damaged that the hood threatened to come loose, forcing an unscheduled pit stop.  “Somebody spun in Turn 11, and everybody brake and someone bumped me from behind and I bumped the guy in front of me.  The hood got bent.”

During Friday’s press conference, Day said he liked NASCAR over other forms of racing because of the lack of dependence on electronic driving aids, thus putting the performance in the driver’s hands.  That said, he was surprised by the kind of racing the Cup Series produces.  “I think the aggression of the drivers, that’s the only thing that wasn’t – and the race is pretty long, but other than that. . .I got good experience, familiar more with the car.”

As of this writing, Day does not know what his plans are in NASCAR’s top three divisions, including the August race at Watkins Glen.  He will continue to run full-time in the Euro Series, whose next round will be in Holland on July 15.

No. 15 SBC Contractors / Apollo Opening Roof System Chevrolet
Started 36th, Finished 33rd

O’Connell joined Premium Motorsports to drive in place of Reed Sorenson in the No. 15 Chevrolet.  The Sonoma car’s primary sponsor was SBC Contractors, the Sacramento-area construction firm which last year sponsored Josh Wise and The Motorsports Group No. 30.  Speaking with SBC’s president on Friday, the company is looking into sponsoring the car in future races, including this November’s round in Phoenix.  The Premium Motorsports team also added several decals to the quarter-panels on Friday morning.

The team struggled in Friday's opening practice, missing most of the session because of a power steering issue that required replacing the power steering pump.

Replays after the race seemed to indicate O’Connell lost control of No. 15 as he and Kasey Kahne raced side-by-side on the final lap.  Headed into Turn 1, the two cars made contact, sending Kahne hard into the concrete traffic barriers.  O’Connell managed to reel his car in off Turn 1 and came home 33rd.  Unaware of his involvement in the incident, we only got a short quote from O’Connell as he walked back through the garage area after the checkers.

“You know, listen, it was everything I thought it would be,” said O’Connell.  “Those guys are great drivers and, you know, we tried to bring a small team and hold our own, I think we did that.  We’ll look to do some more.”  As with many drivers we spoke to, plans for Watkins Glen were still up in the air.  “We’re talking about the Glen and maybe going to Canada and doing something in the Truck Series.  Since he drove for Premium Motorsports on Sunday, this could mean that O’Connell will drive Premium’s No. 49 truck in Mosport, a truck currently driven by Wendell Chavous.

No. 51 Marriott Drywall / Climate Fieldview Chevrolet
Started 33rd, Finished 36th

Rick Ware Racing returned from a one-week hiatus at Michigan to make the team’s first Sonoma start.  Selected to drive over the past offseason was Wisconsin driver Josh Bilicki, another of the five drivers looking to make their Cup debut.  “Came together in the winter,” said Bilicki of the deal.  “Rick Ware saw my performance at Road America in the XFINITY Series, to be honest that was my only NASCAR start – my first NASCAR start.  So Cody Ware. . .got in touch with me over the winter and said ‘we’ve got this opportunity for you to run the road course if you’re interested,’ so I tossed the idea around to a few sponsors and we have Climate Fieldview and Marriott companies aboard, so they picked it up and that’s why we’re here.”

Bilicki had never before raced at the Sonoma track, but he had tested there just a few months before.  With NASCAR mandating the testing and no Goodyear tests scheduled at the track, however, Bilicki had to improvise.  “It was actually a 2001 NASCAR, a Hooters car, a Brett Bodine car, it was on Hoosiers.  You know, NASCAR mandates the tests, so you couldn’t test Goodyear tires, so a little bit of a different tire compound, but a big heavy car and about the same horsepower, so I think it was really beneficial and I think that’ll help me be a little more prepared than some of the other guys here.”

Earlier this season, Bilicki was slated to drive for XFINITY Series team Obaika Racing, running the No. 77 Chevrolet alongside former Cup Rookie of the Year Stephen Leicht in the No. 97.  We asked him about the Obaika team, which has been missing from the circuit since Bristol, and what happened.  “Unfortunately, I don’t. Yeah, I was set to drive three races this year with them and every race kind of fell apart, and I know the team kind of fell apart.  I’d like to see them back, but I have not heard from Victor or anyone else.”

“First goal is definitely to finish the race,” said Bilicki on Friday, “a Top 20 would be a success, I think a Top 15 would be a win for us.”  Although overheating issues left the team back in the running order, the young driver has more plans coming together, including a return to the Ware team for the Cup race at Watkins Glen.  He also is looking ahead to XFINITY races in the midwest.  “Yeah, we’re trying to put together a sponsorship deal, I ran the XFINITY Series last week with MBM Motorsports, we’re trying to line some more stuff up with that. I definitely want to try and do all three road courses, Chicagoland, some local tracks close to me in Wisconsin, so we’ll see.”

K&N Pro Series West
No. 20 Inglebright Racing Chevrolet
Started 12th, Finished 30th in Carneros 200

Part of Kevin Harvick’s weekend sweep was a victory in Saturday’s Carneros 200 for the K&N Pro Series West.  Here, the last-place battle was settled before the race ever began as Kevin O’Connell’s own plans for double-duty ended after Joe Nava’s team withdrew his No. 77 RC-1, Inc. Chevrolet.

First into the garage area was Nicole Behar, whose No. 33 Custom Welding & Fabrication Chevrolet had issues under the hood for multiple laps before she returned to the track.  Next was Jesse Iwuji, who lost the engine on his No. 36 Champion Parts / Lights Out / Bullet Proof Chevrolet.  Meeting Iwuji’s car behind the wall was veteran Jim Inglebright, who helped push his unsponsored yellow No. 20 behind the wall.

The 55-year-old Inglebright, a three-time winner in the West Series and winner of three consecutive Sonoma races on the Southwest Tour, was making his first and only start of the season.  He drove the same Chevrolet he debuted at Sonoma last year when it was No. 1, but it never turned a lap and was classified last.  This year, he started 12th, but had dropped through the field in the early laps.  He started to pass cars again, but slowed once more, forcing an unscheduled pit stop.  He sat on pit road for several laps, the car constantly shutting off every time it was fired.  Finally, the decision was made to take it to the garage, where he spoke with us.

“You know, it’s a new car,” said Inglebright.  “We actually had some issues last year with the oil tank, that’s why we didn’t even have a chance to race, we blew the motor up, so got that fixed.  But it gave me no warning.  I mean, practice was good, qualifying was good, warm-up, we take the green flag and I get to the top of Turn 2 there and the thing starts backfiring on me.  So I had to dive out of everybody’s way, not wreck everybody, and I was kind of hoping I could figure it out and get it cleaned up.   We tried a couple things down there on pit road, but it just wasn’t to be.”

“It’s really weird, yeah.  In all honesty, like under green, I could get it going, but it would cut off on me right like coming down the hill, just totally stop.  And I could get it going and it would take off again.  So I don’t know if – my motor guy says it’s like the crank sensor, the pick-up crank sensor he thinks is going down on it.  I mean, all we can do is take it to the shop, take a look at it, see what’s going on.”  When asked if the Gen-6 inspired car was more dependent on electronics, accounting for the issue, he said, “No, not really.  Not really, no.  It’s just – we haven’t had the opportunity to shake the bugs out of it.”

Unfortunately, Inglebright isn’t planning any more K&N Pro Series West races.  But he is planning to come back to run the Carneros 200 in 2018.  “Well, thank you, we’ll be here.”

CUP: Restart wreck leaves Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. last in Sonoma

ALL PHOTOS: Brock Beard
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. picked up the 4th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350 at the Sonoma Raceway when his #17 Fastenal / Louisville Ladders Ford was involved in a multi-car accident after 30 of 110 laps.

The finish, which came in Stenhouse’s 164th series start, was his second of the season and first since Dover, three races ago.  He now ties Cody Ware for the second-most last-place finishes in Cup in 2017.

As Stenhouse himself indicated during his post-race Sonoma interview, the Talladega winner came into the road course race coming off a streak of career-best finishes at other tracks.  One week after the hard hit at Dover, he ran 11th at Pocono (improving on his previous best of 15th on two occasions), then ran 8th at Michigan (where again 15th was his earlier mark).  15th in points, Stenhouse eyed a strong run at the Sonoma Raceway, where his previous best was a 20th in 2015.

Stenhouse started the weekend strong, putting up the 3rd-fastest time near the end of Friday’s opening practice (and was also the top Ford, trailing only the Toyotas of Martin Truex, Jr. and Denny Hamlin), then settled back to 24th in Happy Hour.  On Saturday, he secured the 22nd starting spot with a lap of 94.029mph, besting his previous qualifying mark of 24th in 2014.

After the accident that ended his race on Sunday, we asked Stenhouse about how his weekend had gone.  “Yeah, this was probably one of our better Sonoma practices, qualifying efforts, probably how the car felt during the race.  We felt good about what we had, just kind of biding our time until we got to the end of this race.”

Just 38 drivers arrived to attempt Sunday’s field, marking the shortest-ever Cup Series field in the 29 years of Cup racing at Sonoma.  Starting last was a frustrated Matt Kenseth.  During Friday’s opening practice, Kenseth’s #20 DeWalt FlexVolt Toyota lost an engine entering Turn 4.  Despite efforts to cool the motor in the garage, an engine change had to be made, meaning that Kenseth would have to start last regardless of qualifying speed.  Aware that he would have to start the race on the tires he used in qualifying, Kenseth exercised the same strategy as Austin Dillon earlier this year at Richmond, running one slow lap in qualifying to avoid taxing his tires.  With the starting line well past the qualifying cue, Kenseth never actually completed a lap, and did not have a qualifying speed.

On Sunday, Kenseth was joined at the rear by NASCAR Whelen Euro Series driver Alon Day.  Day made history as the first Israeli driver to make a Cup Series start, the 16th different country to be represented in a Cup Series field at Sonoma.  Day qualified 32nd in BK Racing’s #23 Earthwater Toyota, but was sent to the rear for missing driver introductions.  It made little difference.  By the time the green flag dropped, another first-timer had already dropped to the back: 37th-place starter Tommy Regan.  Regan, a native of nearby Tracy, California, was late getting started in the all-white #55 / Capri Tools Chevrolet.  After catching the field during the second pace lap, he accelerated a split-second later at the start, and was already behind by open track at the stripe.

Another rookie was next to take last – this time, full-timer Daniel Suarez in Joe Gibbs Racing’s #19 Stanley Tools Toyota.  On Lap 2, Suarez locked the brakes so hard entering Turn 11 that all four tires smoked heavily, forcing him to pit the next time by.  Suarez returned to the track 30 seconds behind 37th-place Regan and approximately two full corners ahead of the leaders.  Moments later, the same fate befell Suarez’ teammate Kyle Busch, who locked the brakes on his #18 M&M’s Caramel Toyota in the middle of Turn 11, forcing an unscheduled stop of his own.  Busch slotted back in line in 36th, ahead of both Suarez and Regan.  Suarez dropped Regan to last once again after catching him down the frontstretch at the end of the tenth lap, then passed Regan on the technical portion of the course the next time by.

Regan was still running in the 38th spot when the first caution fell on Lap 15, this time for actual contact in Turn 11.  Dale Earnhardt, Jr., making his 18th and final Sonoma start, started 10th and was running 8th spun his #88 Axalta / Fix Auto Collision Chevrolet heading into the corner.  Somehow, the #88 slid backwards between a pair of tire stacks - and directly into the path of a passing Danica Patrick’s #10 Code 3 Associates Ford.  This same contact also collected polesitter Kyle Larson, who was clipped in the left-rear and went for a spin of his own in the #42 Target / Coca-Cola Chevrolet.  While all three drivers were able to continue, the first caution flew, forcing a nine-lap sprint to the end of Stage 1.

Dale Jr. entered the last-place battle, albeit briefly, when he came down pit road under yellow on Lap 16.   On top of still another change of flat-spotted tires, the crew attended to a large dent in the passenger-side door.  Earnhardt returned to the track without losing a lap and was back up to speed within the five-minute “Crash Clock.”  Earnhardt was then caught speeding in Section 8 exiting pit road, which would keep him at the tail end of the field for Lap 17.  That time by, Tommy Regan, who joined a small group of cars in staying out, made his own pit stop, and re-took last from Earnhardt for the Lap 18 restart.  This time, Regan had a faster start, and he was soon following in the tire tracks of David Ragan’s #38 Shriners Hospital for Children Ford.  On Lap 20, Regan was 19.392 seconds behind the leader and steadily losing time to 37th until he was again running by himself.

Stenhouse’s first appearance in the last-place battle actually came on Lap 24, as he joined another group of cars looking to short-pit before the end of Stage 1.  He was then passed for last on Lap 25 by road racer Billy Johnson in Richard Petty Motorsports’ #43 Smithfield Ford, then on Lap 26 by Trevor Bayne in the #6 AdvoCare Ford, who all made it to pit road before it was closed.  Bayne just rolled off the end of pit road as the leaders entered Turn 11 to receive the stage-ending caution flag.

Additional pit stops under the yellow shuffled the running order once more, and it was again Regan’s #55 in last.  In front of him were Kyle Busch, who was caught speeding exiting pit road, and the #95 K-LOVE Radio Chevrolet of Michael McDowell, who made his own Segment 1 pit stop after the pits were closed, incurring a tail end penalty.  The Lap 30 restart saw all three cars get a slow start with Busch pinned behind McDowell and Regan checking-up not to hit both cars.

Loading up as the race restarts
That time by, Alon Day had begun picking through the field following his penalty, but spun off in the grass of Turn 3, dropping him briefly to the 38th spot.  At that moment, a three-wide race into Turn 4 triggered another multiple-car accident.  Following her incident with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Danica Patrick was in a tight battle for 20th when she found herself once again racing Earnhardt and Larson, who this time were side-by-side on her right.  Larson caught the inside curbing and bumped into Earnhardt, who then clipped and spun Patrick into the Turn 4 runoff area.  Patrick completed a slow 360-degree spin as Clint Bowyer slipped by.  Looking to follow Bowyer through was Stenhouse, who suddenly saw the hole close in front.  With Chase Elliott to his right, Stenhouse had nowhere to go but into Patrick’s left-rear, destroying the left-front of his car.

Stenhouse managed to limp onto pit road, where the crew briefly tried to effect repairs.  As the five-minute “Crash Clock” ticked away, and the #17 was the first to lose a lap, the damage to the left-front suspension proved too extensive.  The car was pulled behind the wall, out of the race, where the crew put it on rollers and loaded it onto the hauler.  Stenhouse, meanwhile, arrived at the infield care center by side-by-side ATV, where he walked in under his own power.  We got a word with Stenhouse as he finished interviewing with FOX, PRN, and Claire B. Lang’s “Dialed In.”

Interview outside the care center
“It’s a part of it.  Just being aggressive on restarts.  Tried to give and take, and felt like I gave a lot really through the first stage, and was trying to give during that second stage and, you know, just trying to set ourselves up for the final stage and just weren’t able to do that with crashes in front of us.  And I thought I had it cleared and just caught it at the last second.  So, it was a bummer way to end our day, the Fastenal guys worked really hard. . .You never want to end that way, but that’s part of racing sometimes.  You sometimes get lucky and miss them, and sometimes you don’t and we didn’t this time.”

Looking ahead to next Saturday and Daytona, where Stenhouse will make his first restrictor-plate start since his breakthrough Talladega victory, the driver mentioned “that Talladega car’s mine.  So, we got a new one, but should be just as good.”

After the rough to start to Sunday’s race, the third segment ran without a single yellow, stringing out the field of battered race cars.  With Stenhouse as the only retiree, any minor incident had catastrophic results.  Alon Day was the first driver to lose a lap as contact in Turn 11 damaged the nose of his car, loosening the hood to the point that it almost completely blocked his view.  When the yellow the BK Racing team waited for didn’t come, Day made an unscheduled stop, and returned without the hood and most of the right-front valence.

Day was lifted from 37th by, ironically, one of the best cars in the field.  3rd-place starter Martin Truex, Jr. won the opening stage and led 25 laps, becoming what Kevin Harvick later admitted was the team’s biggest challenge for the win.  But after 86 laps, Truex reported he’d dropped a cylinder, and the car smoked as he made it down pit road.  The crew looked under the hood and sent him back out, but when the smoke came back, he backed-up from pit exit and pulled into the garage.  The issue proved terminal, and he didn’t return to the race – the day’s only other DNF.

36th went to Josh Bilicki, who finished his first Cup start under power.  Like many drivers in the field, Bilicki’s #51 Marriott Drywall / Climate Fieldview Chevrolet suffered nose damage, but he managed to run as high as 7th as the field shuffled through its various strategies.  Unfortunately, the nose damage caused an overheating issue in the final laps, and he lost 10 circuits to the leaders as the crew tried to cool the car down.  Regardless, it was an important step forward for Rick Ware Racing, which returned for its first start since Pocono and came home under power for the first time since Charlotte.

JTG-Daugherty Racing also faced the highs and lows at Sonoma.  Teammates A.J. Allmendinger and Chris Buescher started 5th and 9th, respectively, and were running 1-2 during Segment 1.  Allmendinger took the lead from Buescher on Lap 19 and led for four circuits, but his #47 Kroger ClickList / Cheerios / Crisco Chevrolet struggled from there.  On top of a spin and damage to both the right-front and left-rear, Allmendinger had a voltage issue that required a battery change with 35 laps to go, dropping him four laps down.  He returned to the track, only to again discover the voltage dropping, but it soon leveled out.  He lost two more laps by the end of the race, pulling over to let faster cars by in Turn 2, and wound up 35th.

Rounding out the Bottom Five was Tommy Regan, three laps behind in the #55.  For more on Regan and his weekend, check back this week on for a special feature on the driver.

*This marked the first Sonoma Raceway last-place finish in the Cup Series for both Stenhouse and the #17.

38) #17-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 30 laps / crash

37) #78-Martin Truex, Jr. / 86 laps / engine / led 25 laps / won stage 1

36) #51-Josh Bilicki / 100 laps / running

35) #47-A.J. Allmendinger / 104 laps / running / led 4 laps

34) #55-Tommy Regan / 107 laps / running

1st) Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group (4)
2nd) Rick Ware Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing (2)
3rd) BK Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, Furniture Row Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Premium Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (9)
2nd) Toyota (4)
3rd) Ford (3)


XFINITY: No. 93 carries Jeff Green to 93rd last-place finish, then RSS Racing teammate Ryan Sieg nearly caps breakout night for series regulars

Jeff Green picked up the 93rd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s American Ethanol E15 250 at the Iowa Speedway when his unsponsored #93 RSS Racing Chevrolet fell out with electrical issues after 6 of 250 laps.

The finish, which came in Green’s 461st series start, was his fourth of the year and first since Pocono, two races ago.  He now moves within one finish of tying Jordan Anderson for the 2017 LASTCAR XFINITY Series lead and is just three away from scoring his 100th last-place finish across NASCAR’s top three divisions.

Green was this time one of 41 drivers on the preliminary entry list, a list which shrank by one following the withdrawal of King Autosports’ #92 Chevrolet.  The Mario Gosselin-owned team would place Dexter Bean in the team’s primary #90 BuckedUp Apparel Chevrolet for Bean’s first XFINITY start of the season.  Not only would all 40 remaining entrants qualify, but they would compete in a race entirely devoid of Cup Series full-timers, as the traditional interlopers were all on the other side of the country racing in Sonoma, California.

Green didn’t participate in Friday’s opening practice session, and according to the time sheets, his RSS Racing teammate Ryan Sieg shook down both his own #39 Ritchie Fresh Water Chevrolet and the #93 in Happy Hour.  Sieg put the #39 23rd on the sheet after 28 laps, and the #93 was 32nd after another two circuits.  Green climbed back aboard for qualifying, where he timed in 35th – the second spot set on Owner Points – with a lap of 128.012mph.  Sieg made Round 2 in qualifying and would roll off 22nd with a lap of 130.651mph.

Starting 40th that night was Mike Harmon in the Veterans Motorsports, Inc. #74 Dodge.  Harmon conceded the spot to Green by Lap 7, when the #93 pulled behind the wall with electrical issues.  Next to fall off the lead lap was Carl Long, who split practice time with MBM teammate Timmy Hill driving the #13 OCR Gaz Bar Toyota.  Long ended up driving the #13 on Saturday, and was three laps behind on the 17th circuit, holding down 39th.  Morgan Shepherd pulled his #89 Racing With Jesus Chevrolet behind the wall that same time by.  The final results indicate that Long ran two more laps after that, moving him to 38th before he, too, called it a night with brake issues.

37th went to Sam Hornish, Jr., making his first XFINITY start of the year in Penske Racing’s fleet #22 Discount Tire Ford.  A chance at another Iowa win went away, however, when he collided with polesitter Christopher Bell’s #20 ToyotaCare Toyota and slammed the outside wall with the driver’s side of his car.  2nd to Bell in Stage 1, Hornish was uninjured, but done for the night.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was JD Motorsports’ Harrison Rhodes, who lost the engine after 118 laps in his #01 Schwarze Industries Chevrolet.

At the end of the night, several underdogs had career nights.  Top of the list was Ryan Sieg, who found himself 2nd to race leader William Byron for the final 10-lap restart, and made several serious challenges for the lead before he ended up runner-up, 1.140 seconds behind.  The finish improved Sieg’s pair of career-best 3rd-place runs, both at Daytona.  His previous best at Iowa was a 12th in 2015.

Ross Chastain, who joined Sieg in making his Cup debut earlier this month at Dover, earned the first top-five of his career by finishing 4th in the #4 Georgia Watermelon Association Chevrolet.  The finish came in Chastain’s 87th series start, and improved on his previous career-best of 9th in the 2015 Daytona opener.  Joining him in the Top 10 was JD Motorsports teammate Garrett Smithley, 10th in the “Number Nuthin” – the #0 Adapt 2k Chevrolet.  While not a career-best for Smithley, who ran 8th in this year’s Daytona round, it was his first finish better than 22nd at Iowa.

Dakoda Armstrong finished 5th for the second-straight Iowa race, and this time did it in JGL Racing’s #28 WinField United Toyota – and after being sent to the rear for an unapproved tire change (joining Cole Custer and Elliott Sadler).  It was the best finish for James Whitener’s team since 2015 at Talladega, where J.J. Yeley finished 4th.

Prior to Saturday, Jeremy Clements had run no better than 14th in 13 previous Iowa starts.  He left Saturday with a 7th-place finish in his #51 Chevrolet for his first Top 10 of the year, and his first in any XFINITY Series race since last year’s 8th-place finish at Darlington.

Last, but not least, what a story for Tommy Joe Martins.  While fighting to develop his team in the XFINITY Series as well as Trucks, Martins returned for his third-straight start in B.J. McLeod’s #78 Chevrolet, bringing with him sponsorship from longtime backer Diamond Gusset Jeans.  From 30th on the grid, Martins made his way into the Top 10, running 10th in the final 10-lap sprint.  In the end, he came home a career-best 11th, besting his previous series mark of 14th at Talladega back in 2014.  It was also another season highlight for team owner McLeod, who earlier this year fielded Jeff Green’s 10th-place car at Talladega.

*Jeff Green has now finished last in seven of the 15 XFINITY Series races held at Iowa.
*This is also the second-consecutive last-place finish for RSS Racing’s #93 Chevrolet in this race.  Last year, it was Josh Reaume behind the wheel.

40) #93-Jeff Green / 6 laps / electrical
39) #89-Morgan Shepherd / 16 laps / vibration
38) #13-Carl Long / 18 laps / brakes
37) #22-Sam Hornish, Jr. / 78 laps / crash
36) #01-Harrison Rhodes / 118 laps / engine

1st) RSS Racing (10)
2nd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Kaulig Racing, Shepherd Racing Ventures, SS Green Light Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (14)


TRUCKS: J.J. Yeley secures 10th in NASCAR’s all-time last-place rankings

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
J.J. Yeley picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career in Friday’s M&M’s 200 at the Iowa Speedway when his unsponsored #57 Norm Benning Racing Chevrolet fell out with a busted oil pump after 3 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Yeley’s 26th series start, was his first of 2017 and his first in a Truck Series race since the 2013 Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead, 54 races ago.  The finish was also Yeley’s 21st across NASCAR’s top three divisions, giving him sole possession of 10th in the all-time LASTCAR rankings.  The finish broke a tie with Matt DiBenedetto and Mike Harmon.

When just 29 drivers were entered for Friday’s race, efforts were again made to fill out the field.  By Tuesday, the list had grown to 32 trucks with the addition of Joe Nemechek, who would race against his son in the #87 D.A.B. Constructors Chevrolet, a second Randy Young-owned Chevrolet, #20, for Tyler Young (Scott Lagasse, Jr. would drive in place of Young in the team’s primary #02), and Faith Motorsports’ #44 Sparrow Ranch on the Island Chevrolet for Donnie Levister.

But by Friday, Faith Motorsports had withdrawn the #44, as had Martins Motorsports, which planned a return to competition with Matt Mills in the renumbered #42 Thompson Electric Chevrolet.  Combined with the pre-planned withdrawal of Stewart Friesen and the #52 Halmar International Chevrolet, the list shrank to 30 – but not for long.  Beaver Motorsports popped up again, continuing their full-season efforts with Josh Reaume in the #50 Lodestar Guidance / Motorsports Safety Group Chevrolet.  Al Niece entered a second truck for the first time, putting T.J. Bell in the #38 Niece Equipment Chevrolet (as Austin Wayne Self drove the primary #45).  And owner-driver Norm Benning brought back the black #57 Chevrolet, tabbing Yeley to drive.

Benning’s #57 would be the fifth different truck Yeley would drive in as many attempts in 2017.  He finished 9th in a second Tim Self truck at Daytona, missed the cut at Atlanta in Mike Mittler’s #63, then made two starts for Copp Motorsports in the #83 at Charlotte and the #36 at Dover.  This week, Benning’s name on the roof was taped over with the name “Dick Dragon” written in white, Yeley’s moniker in the Chili Bowl.

Yeley didn’t participate in the first practice session on Friday, then ran a single lap of 118.805mph in Happy Hour, slowest overall (Brandon Jones topped the session with a lap of 135.251mph, more than three full seconds faster).

With now 33 trucks on the entry list, Yeley only had to best one truck to make the field.  He succeeded with a qualifying lap of 122.946 mph.  Bumped from the field was Jennifer Jo Cobb, who didn’t put up a time in her #0 Chevrolet.

Yeley missed driver introductions, and joined Jordan Anderson at the rear of the field prior to the start.  Anderson, once again piloting his fan-supported #1 Rusty’s Off Road Products Chevrolet for TJL Racing, had made unapproved adjustments during the impound weekend.  Both bumped up last-place starter Mike Senica, who was making his Truck Series debut in the #83 PB2 Powdered Peanut Butter Chevrolet.  The ARCA part-timer would go on to finish 21st, flagged off the track for running too slow in the final laps.  Anderson finished 15th, tying his season-best at Texas with his third-consecutive Top 20.

Taking last on the first lap was Ted Minor, who was making his first Truck Series start since 2014.  Minor’s #14 Edge Guard / ICRA Containment System Chevrolet for car owner Boyd Long was photographed being finished in the garage of someone’s home, the right-rear quarter-panel smoothed with Bondo.  Minor, who withdrew from Iowa last year, made the field this time around, and actually outpaced last-place starter Senica by nearly seven-tenths of a second.  On Lap 2, Minor moved past Joe Nemechek, who was now 12.035 seconds behind the leader.  A bid to break Nemechek’s tie with Morgan Shepherd for the second-most last-place finishes in NASCAR history ended on Lap 4, when Yeley followed Nemechek behind the wall on Lap 4.  This put Yeley in last with Nemechek 31st.

30th and 29th went to two more of the late entries with Tyler Young’s #20 out after 12 laps, then three circuits later T.J. Bell in the Niece #38.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Mike Mittler’s #36 Blue Lives Matter Chevrolet, this week driven by Kevin Donahue.  Kevin’s brother Kyle, who again drove Mittler’s flagship #63, has finished ahead of Kevin in his last two starts.

*This marked only the third time a Truck Series last-place finisher fell out because of an oil pump.  The other two occasions were April 17, 2004, when Chris Wimmer’s #63 Race Fans for a Cure Ford fell out after 26 laps of the UAW / GM Ohio 250 at Mansfield, and September 13, 2014, when Mike Harmon’s #74 Mike Harmon Racing Chevrolet retired on the opening lap of the Lucas Oil 225 at Chicagoland.

32) #57-J.J. Yeley / 3 laps / oil pump
31) #87-Joe Nemechek / 3 laps / rear gear
30) #20-Tyler Young / 12 laps / electrical
29) #38-T.J. Bell / 15 laps / electrical
28) #36-Kevin Donahue / 24 laps / brakes

1st) Copp Motorsports, Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing (2)
2nd) Halmar Friesen Racing, MB Motorsports, MDM Motorsports, Norm Benning Racing, TJL Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (9)


Thursday, June 22, 2017

6/25/06: Road ringer Tom Hubert scores three straight last-place finishes at Sonoma

PHOTO: Todd Warshaw, Getty Images
On June 25, 2006, Tom Hubert picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Nextel Cup Series career in the Dodge / Save Mart 350 at the Infineon Raceway when his #27 Interush Ford was involved in a multi-car accident on the opening lap of the 110-lap race.

The finish, which came in Hubert’s 11th series start, was his first of the season and his third in a row at the Sonoma event.

Born in Cottonwood, California, a three-hour drive north of San Francisco, Hubert began racing in NASCAR’s Featherlite Southwest Tour, a pavement Late Model division which ran on short tracks and road courses all over the west coast.  He made his series debut on July 25, 1987 at his hometrack, the 0.375-mile bullring of Shasta Speedway, and finished 9th in the field of 24.  In 1991, he made his first start at Sonoma when the series arrived as the companion event for the Winston Cup Series.  Again, Hubert impressed, leading 12 laps and finishing 4th in a race won by Ken Pederson.  From there, Sonoma became a favorite track for Hubert, as he seven of the next nine races there, winning the pole there in 1998.

At the same time, Hubert eyed a move up NASCAR’s ladder, and moved to Charlotte to pursue his dream.  He began as a pit crew member for various teams, including Bill Davis Racing and Dale Earnhardt, Inc.  He worked alongside Johnny Benson, Jr. during his own NASCAR career, first at Kurt Roehrig’s Truck Series team, where Hubert became shop foreman in 1997, and then as Benson’s tire changer at Bahari’ Racing, which fielded Benson’s #30 Pennzoil Pontiac.

In May 1997, Hubert returned to Sonoma to race in the Southwest Tour, then change Benson’s tires in Sunday’s Winston Cup race.  That weekend, he was tabbed by car owner Jim Wilson, whose team Triad Motorsports fielded the #78 Hanes / Diamond Rio Ford for Billy Standridge.  At the time, Wilson’s first full-season attempt in Cup wasn’t going very well.  Standridge had failed to qualify for six of the team’s first eight attempts and had finished no better than 21st in the other two.  With Standridge again struggling on the road course, Wilson tabbed Hubert to make sure it qualified.  Not only did Hubert succeed in this, but he put up the fastest time in second-round qualifying, putting #78 27th on the grid.  Impressed, Wilson let Hubert make his Cup debut that Sunday.  The driver recovered from two early spins and finished 28th in a field of 44.

News of Hubert’s performance reached his Truck Series boss Kurt Roehrig, who had the shop foreman replace Michael Dokken as driver of the team’s #18 Dana Corporation Dodge.  Hubert’s Truck debut came at the tough Colorado National Speedway on July 19, where he started 24th and finished 23rd.  The ride gave Hubert still another chance to race at Sonoma when the series made its own trip to the Bay Area in October.  There, he started 4th, led 14 laps during the middle stages, and finished 2nd, just under two seconds behind race winner Joe Ruttman.

1998 was Hubert’s biggest season yet.  In addition to his part-time efforts on the Southwest Tour, he’d been tabbed as Dale Phelon’s driver in the Truck Series, this time replacing Bryan Reffner in the #66 Carlin Burners & Controls Chevrolet.  Hubert began his run starting outside-pole at the Heartland Park Topeka road course, finished 5th at Gateway, then won the pole that fall at Sonoma.  He also made his first start in the NASCAR Winston West Series at Las Vegas, starting 11th and finishing runner-up to current Richard Childress Racing spotter Andy Houston.

During 1998’s annual Cup weekend at Sonoma, Hubert won the pole for the Southwest Series race and gave Kurt Roehrig his first Cup start in his first-ever attempt, snatching the 41st starting spot in the #19 Bradford White Ford.  Among the five drivers Hubert beat for the spot were Cup veterans Dave Marcis and Todd Bodine, road ringer Tommy Kendall, and current team owner Rick Ware.  Hubert got the white #19 into two more races the following year, a third-consecutive start at Sonoma joined by an impressive 4th-fastest time in qualifying at Las Vegas.  Only Bobby Labonte, Michael Waltrip, and Joe Nemechek put in faster times.  Back at Sonoma the following year, Hubert nearly won the Southwest Tour race, leading 7 laps and running 2nd to Kurt Busch with two laps to go before transmission issues and a loose left-rear tire dropped him back to 14th.

While Hubert transitioned from Truck Series to XFINITY competition in 2000, running a brace of races that year for Bill Davis Racing in place of Mike Borkowski, the “road ringer” label came to define his Cup career.  While Jerry Nadeau started outside-pole at Sonoma in 1998 for the struggling Elliott-Marino Motorsports, it was Hubert who drove in Nadeau’s place at Watkins Glen.  He ran 36th in the #13 FirstPlus Financial Ford that day after a late crash tore the fender from his car.  His next two starts at The Glen came with Penske Racing, a 33rd in 2000 driving in place of the injured Jeremy Mayfield, and a 22nd in 2002 taking over for Hut Stricklin in Bill Davis Racing’s #23 Hills Brothers Coffee Dodge.  Then in 2004 came Kirk Shelmerdine.

In 1993, Shelmerdine left Richard Childress Racing as Dale Earnhardt’s championship crew chief to pursue his own racing career, working his way through ARCA and the short-lived NASCAR Sportsman Series.  By 2002, he had a Cup Series team of his own, though he could only run a partial schedule and would often “start-and-park” to save the team’s limited resources.  In 2004, when several teams closed their doors, Shelmerdine suddenly had the opportunity to run the entire schedule.  And when the series came to Sonoma, the short-tracker Shelmerdine elected to have Hubert rive.

Hubert got Shelmerdine’s #72 Freddie B’s Ford into the show at Sonoma, but he was flagged off the track after five laps for running too slow.  While driver and team improved at the much faster Watkins Glen that August, finishing just one lap down in 29th, the black Ford lost oil pressure at Sonoma in 2005, handing Hubert his second-straight last-place finish in the event.  Undaunted, driver and team would return once again in 2006.

48 drivers arrived to attempt the 43-car field for the Dodge / Save Mart 350.  Back in the same black Ford that he ran the previous two years, Hubert put up a strong run in Friday’s opening practice, ranking 35th on the charts with a lap of 90.921mph ahead of five other drivers who weren’t locked-in based on the old “Top 35” rule.  He then found even more speed in qualifying, putting up a lap of 91.265mph, good enough for 30th on the starting grid.  The run bumped from the field Travis Kvapil in Furniture Row’s #78 Chevrolet; three other “road ringers:” Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving instructor Chris Cook in BAM Racing’s #49 DSI Dodge and both Front Row Motorsports cars with Grand-Am Corvette driver Johnny Miller in the #34 and Brian Simo in the #61, and second-generation racer Stanton Barrett.  Interush, the sponsor which backed Barrett’s brightly-colored #95 Chevrolet, then sponsored Hubert’s #72 as well as a young Californian named David Gilliland, who was making his Cup debut for Bryan Mullet after an upset XFINITY win that month at Kentucky.

On Saturday, Hubert skipped the Saturday morning practice, then ran slowest of the 40 cars to take time in Happy Hour.  He also ran the weekend’s companion race, the Blue Lizard Australian Suncream 200 for the Autozone West Series.  Driving the #10 Sunsweet Growers Dodge, Hubert started 11th and finished 5th in a race won by Cup regular Brian Vickers.

Starting 43rd and last for Sunday’s race was another local driver, Brandon Ash.  Ash, making his fourth Cup start and second of the season, was another impressive story in qualifying as he raced a 2004 Dodge into the field, his #02 sponsored by Sprinter Trucking, Inc.  During the pace laps, he was joined at the rear by rookie driver Martin Truex, Jr., who lost an engine on Dale Earnhardt, Inc.’s #1 Bass Pro Shops / Tracker Chevorlet.  Both held last for just a few seconds as a wild opening lap unfolded in front of them.  First to find trouble was outside-polesitter Jamie McMurray, who clipped the curb with his #26 Crown Royal Ford and spun through the dirt.  The cloud of dust caused Dale Jarrett to rear-end the #43 Cheerios Dodge of Bobby Labonte, who fell to last just behind McMurray.

As polesitter Kurt Busch gapped the field behind him, 18th-place starter Ken Schrader was working his way through the Esses, his #21 Little Debbie Ford trying to hold off the hard-charging Carl Edwards in the #99 Office Depot Ford.  Just before the drop at Turn 8 into Turn 9, Edwards loosened Schrader’s car, sending him into a spin.  The field scattered behind Schrader as they entered the blind corner, trying to figure out where the #21 would stop.  At the time, Hubert was racing Sterling Marlin for 29th when Schrader slid directly in Marlin’s path.  The two cars smashed head-on into the right-rear of Schrader’s car, destroying all three cars and forcing a red flag.  While all three drivers walked away, all three were also done for the afternoon.

40th went to Robby Gordon, whose #7 Menards / Energizer Chevrolet suffered damage, then crashed on the hairpin entrance to pit road in the closing laps.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Dave Blaney, who broke the driveshaft on Bill Davis Racing’s #22 Caterpillar Dodge.

As of this writing, the 2006 race at Sonoma was Hubert’s final Cup start.  He attempted to qualify for Shelmerdine two more times, but missed the cut at Watkins Glen in August 2006, then again in a new “Car of Tomorrow” at Sonoma in 2009.  His most recent XFINITY starts came during the ’09 season – a 41st at Watkins Glen and a 43rd at Montreal.  His most recent start in what is now the K&N Pro Series West also came in 2009, where he finished 7th of 40 drivers in the #25 Red Line Oil / Hall Fabrication / Muscle Milk Ford.

*Hubert is one of only three Cup Series drivers to finish last at the same track in three consecutive years.  The other two came after Hubert’s feat.  Joe Nemechek finished last at Fontana in the fall races of 2007 and 2008, then the spring race in 2009.  Michael McDowell finished last in three straight Chicagoland races in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
*This marked the second and, to date, most recent last-place finish for the #27 in a Cup Series race at Sonoma.

43) #27-Tom Hubert / 0 laps / crash
42) #14-Sterling Marlin / 0 laps / crash
41) #21-Ken Schrader / 0 laps / crash
40) #7-Robby Godon / 74 laps / crash
39) #22-Dave Blaney / 79 laps / driveshaft

*1997 Save Mart Supermarkets 300 at Sonoma, ESPN
*1999 Snap-On 200 at Sonoma, ESPN (posted on YouTube by Michael McIntyre)
*2006 Dodge / Save Mart 350 at Sonoma, FOX
*Harris, Mike. “Never heard of Tom Hubert? He’s starting fourth at Las Vegas,” Star-News, March 7, 1999.
*Jayski’s Silly Season Site

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Preliminary Entry List: Sonoma and Iowa

Toyota / Save Mart 350 at Sonoma

First, the bad news.  Just 38 drivers are entered in Sunday’s field for the first road course race of the season, the shortest-ever Cup field at the Sonoma Raceway.  It’s the shortest Cup field on a road course since August 8, 1993, when Dorsey Schroeder trailed a 38-car field at Watkins Glen.  Missing this week is Corey LaJoie and his #83 BK Racing Toyota, marking the first time in the team’s six-year history that they haven’t entered the #83 in a Cup Series race.

Now, the surprisingly good news.  Despite just 38 teams arriving at the track, there are going to be several new faces behind the wheel.  No less than five drivers will make their Cup Series debuts on Sunday, one more than the previous record in 2013 when Paulie Harraka, Alex Kennedy, Victor Gonzalez, Jr., and Justin Marks started this race.

Leading the group is 25-year-old Alon Day, who on Sunday will become the first Israeli driver to start a Cup Series race.  In 2015, Day moved from the Indy Lights Series to NASCAR, joining the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, which runs entirely on road courses.  He took three victories that year at the prestigious Autodromo dell’Umbria in Italy and Belgium’s Circuit Zolder, finishing 2nd in the standings behind Ander Vilarino of Spain.  Last year, he came stateside, making two starts each in the XFINITY and Truck Series.  He impressed in his XFINITY debut at a rain-soaked Mid-Ohio, finishing 13th in Carl Long’s Dodge after contending for the lead all afternoon.  His ride this week will be BK Racing’s #23 Earthwater Toyota, driven earlier this year by Gray Gaulding and Ryan Sieg.

Day joins a long list of international drivers who have raced in Cup at Sonoma, many some of the greatest road racers in the world: Max Papis (Italy), Hideo Fukuyama (Japan), Klaus Graf (Germany), Mattias Ekstrom (Sweden), Jan Magnussen (Denmark), Andy Pilgrim (England), Dick Johnson (Australia), Marcos Ambrose (Tasmania), Christian Fittipaldi (Brazil), Juan Pablo Montoya (Colombia), Marc Goosens (Belgium), Victor Gonzalez, Jr. (Puerto Rico), and Canadians Roy Smith, Patrick Carpentier, Jacques Villeneuve, and Ron Fellows.

Rick Ware Racing returns from their one-week hiatus at Michigan, and this week welcome Josh Bilicki and sponsorship from Marriott Hotels.  An SCCA and Spec Miata driver since 2011, the Wisconsin-born Bilicki has made four XFINITY starts with a best finish of 28th at Phoenix last fall.  This year, Bilicki was set to drive for Obaika Racing, which gave him his first start at Road America, but the deal fell apart as the team disappeared after Bristol.  The deal with Ware came soon after, and the #51 Chevrolet will now carry sponsorship from Marriott Hotels.

After two respectable runs by Darrell Wallace, Jr., Richard Petty Motorsports has elected to bring on a “road ringer” of its own in the form of sports car driver Billy Johnson.  Fresh off his second appearance in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where he and teammates Stefan Mucke and Olivier Pla finished 27th overall in Chip Ganassi’s Ford GT, Johnson looks to make his first NASCAR start since 2013.  That year, he made his fifth and most recent XFINITY race for Roush-Fenway Racing, a deal which began when he practiced Carl Edwards’ Ford at Road America.  Four of Johnson’s five XFINITY starts came on road courses at Watkins Glen, Road America, and Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the last of which producing his best finish of 8th.  While he’s never piloted a stock car at Sonoma, he’s one of the most experienced road course drivers in the field, having scored Grand-Am victories at Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen, and Road America.  Johnson joins a select group of road course upstarts who have piloted Petty’s #43, including fellow Grand-Am alums Christian Fittipaldi and Scott Maxwell.

Premium Motorsports has doubled-down on its new driver lineup, not only bringing back the #55 Chevrolet from a one-week hiatus at Michigan, but putting new first-time Cup drivers in both the #55 and the #15.  Replacing Derrike Cope in the #55 is local driver Tommy Regan, whose hometown of Tracy, California is 75 miles south-east of the Sonoma Raceway.  Regan is perhaps the greenest driver in the field, having made just six Truck Series starts with no finishes better than 24th, including a pair of last-place finishes.  What Regan lacks in experience he makes up for in enthusiasm.  Confusion reigned earlier this year when stories came out that Regan would drive Rick Ware Racing’s #51, even after Josh Bilicki was tabbed as driver.  The white #55 that Regan will drive resembles the picture from that promotion – a white Chevrolet with sponsorship from automotive part supplier Oscaro.

Joining Regan at Premium Motorsports is Kevin O’Connell, who replaces Reed Sorenson in the #15 Chevrolet.  Like Billy Johnson, O’Connell’s name should sound familiar to those who have watched the XFINITY Series compete on the road courses.  It was O’Connell who, in 2014, was tabbed by Rick Ware Racing to drive the #23 Shania Kids Can Chevrolet at Road America.  The result was a near-upset at the finish where only a resurgent Alex Tagliani was able to snatch away a runner-up finish, leaving him a strong 3rd behind Tags and race winner Brendan Gaughan.  The finish remains Ware’s best-ever finish in XFINITY and their only top-five finish.  Unlike many of the drivers listed above, O’Connell has actually raced stock cars at Sonoma before, finishing 15th and 20th in the 2007 and 2008 K&N Pro Series West events, and also ran 9th in Grand-Am here in 2006.

American Ethanol E15 200 at Iowa

Back on the short track in Iowa, 41 drivers are entered to attempt the 40-car field, the first time since last month at Charlotte where at least one car will be sent home after qualifying.  Rejoining the series this weekend is Quin Houff, who we last saw finishing 27th at Richmond in April.  Both Houff and Precision Performance Motorsports have impressed in their partial season this year, and look to continue that momentum at Houff’s first Iowa start.

Also welcome back two-time Iowa winner Sam Hornish, Jr., who this time resurfaces as driver of Penske Racing’s #22 Discount Tire Ford.  While the details of Hornish’s schedule this year are still to be determined, the current calendar includes both races at Iowa and the road course in Mid-Ohio.  Hornish won this race in a walk last year, leading 183 of 250 laps driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.  It will be interesting to see how the IndyCar champion does in his first race for Penske since 2013.

Another surprise on the list is Scott Lagasse, Jr., who this week gets a turn in Richard Childress Racing’s #3 Chevrolet (likely vacated as both Austin and Ty Dillon race in Sonoma).  Lagasse has been hot and cold in his two XFINITY starts this season, avoiding all the wrecks at Daytona to finish 6th, then getting caught up in one at Talladega to finish 34th.  He hasn’t made an XFINITY start at Iowa since 2009, when he ran 9th for Bryan Mullet in the #11 America’s Incredible Pizza / Fat Brain Toys Toyota.  Regardless, he has made the list with sponsorship from his cancer awareness initiative “Screen Your Machine.”  Ben Kennedy also returns from GMS Racing to drive for Richard Childress Racing, and will drive the #2 Rheem Chevrolet alongside Lagasse.

All eyes will certainly be on 22-year-old Ty Majeski, who makes his XFINITY Series debut this weekend in Roush-Fenway Racing’s #60 Ford.  Majeski has impressed in his young career, claiming his first of three consecutive ARCA Midwest Tour titles as a rookie in 2014 and finishing 4th in his ARCA debut at Madison International Speedway last June.  The Roush-Fenway development driver and NASCAR Next member has another good chance to turn heads this weekend as the distance between Sonoma and Iowa has kept away the Cup regulars.

Making his second XFINITY start this Saturday is Truck Series regular Christopher Bell, who we last saw finish 4th at Charlotte.  This time around, Bell slides over to Joe Gibbs Racing’s #20 ToyotaCare Toyota while Kyle Benajmin drives the #18 SportClips Toyota.

The only car on the list without an announced driver is King Autosport’s unsponsored #92 Chevrolet, which returned last week at Michigan for its first start of the season.  Josh Williams is the likely choice to make his sixth XFINITY start this weekend as he drove the car last week, finishing 34th.

Iowa 200 at Iowa

Iowa’s Truck Series race shows just 29 drivers for the 32-truck grid, marking the series’ third-consecutive short field.  The list is likely to increase by at least one as Beaver Motorsports’ #50 Chevrolet, run the last two weeks by Josh Reaume, is again not entered, while Jordan Anderson’s #1 Fueled By Fans Chevrolet, fielded by TJL Motorsports, has finally made the initial cut.  Also missing are the second Norm Benning truck, #57, driven by Tommy Regan last week (Regan will drive Cup in Sonoma); the #68 of Clay Greenfield, the #87 of Joe Nemechek, and the #44 Faith Motorsports entry.  While earlier reports indicated that Martins Motorsports sold the #44 to Faith, the Martins team has returned this Friday with the #42 Chevrolet, tabbing Faith’s previous driver Matt Mills to drive.  Last week in Gateway, Mills had been replaced by Donnie Levister in Faith’s #44.

Also returning this week is MDM Motorsports, which will have Brandon Jones drive the #99 SoleusAir Chevrolet in place of Timothy Peters.  Jesse Little will make his first Truck Series start since Dover in his family’s #97 Toyota, and will look to build on their 14th-place finish at “The Monster Mile.”  Austin Wayne Self returns for his first Truck Series start since Texas, this time as driver of Al Niece’s #45 Niece Equipment Chevrolet.  Harrison Burton makes his own return to Trucks since Dover, this time with Morton Buildings as sponsor of Kyle Busch’s #51 Toyota.

Friday will mark the return of Weatherford, Texas driver Ted Minor, who we last saw make three starts in 2014, then withdraw from the 2015 Iowa race.  In place of Joey Cefalia’s #12 FindIT Chevrolet which he drove for most of his starts, Minor is entered with a new team, the #14 Edge Guard Chevrolet fielded by Boyd Long, Jr.  With fields continuing to be short, the addition of new teams like this could not have come at a better time.

Mike Mittler is for the second-straight race the listed owner of both the #63 and #36 Chevrolets, but as of this writing, neither have a set driver, and the #36 is looking for sponsorship.  Last week at Gateway saw brothers Kyle and Kevin Donahue drive the two trucks with Kyle’s #63 finishing 16th and Kevin’s #36 out early with brake issues in 26th.

Following the practice crash and last-minute driver swap at Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing, Cobb is again entered in the team’s #0 Chevrolet with young Bryce Napier driving the #10 ASAP Appliance Services Chevrolet.

Finally, congratulations to ARCA part-timer Mike Senica, who will make his Truck Series debut this Friday in D.J. Copp’s #83 Chevrolet.  The 51-year-old Pennsylvania driver will carry sponsorship from PB2 Powdered Peanut Butter.

Monday, June 19, 2017

CUP: Danica Patrick’s late accident caps intense 197-lap last-place battle at Michigan

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
Danica Patrick picked up the 2nd last-place finish of her Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at the Michigan International Speedway when her #10 TaxAct Ford was eliminated in a multi-car accident after 190 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Patrick’s 169th series start, was her first of the season and her first in Cup since October 6, 2013, when her #10 GoDaddy Breast Cancer Awareness Chevrolet crashed on the opening lap of the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas, 129 races ago.

In the nearly four years since that race, the former IndyCar star has continued to struggle in her adjustment to stock car racing.  On the one hand, she’s earned some of the best performances by a female NASCAR driver, including a career-best 6th at Atlanta in 2014, and that fall at Talladega was leading in the final 15 laps.  But more than two-thirds of her finishes have been 21st or worse, several of them the result of brutal accidents.  Last year at Fontana, contact from Kasey Kahne turned her head-on into the Turn 1 wall at one of the fastest parts of the track.  The next month at Talladega, a multi-car accident sent her car careening head-on into the inside wall.  And this past spring at Kansas, a freak mechanical failure on Joey Logano’s Ford not only completely destroyed her Top 10 car, but also critically injured Aric Almirola.

Combined with persistent sponsorship issues following the departure of internet domain service GoDaddy in 2015, including the alleged contract breach – then re-negotiation for future races – by fig bar company Nature’s Bakery – the frustration has clearly taken its toll.  Last week at Pocono, where Patrick ironically turned in her second-best finish of the year with a 16th – she made the news after confronting a fan who booed her for not signing an autograph.  Coming into Michigan, where her best Cup finish was a 13th in her rookie season in 2013, Patrick sat just 30th in the standings with a lone Top 10 after this month’s crash-marred race at Dover.

Carrying sponsorship from TaxAct, which last partnered with her at Texas, Patrick arrived as one of just 37 drivers looking to start the race, the shortest Cup field at Michigan since that number rolled out on June 16, 1985.  38 were originally entered, but Rick Ware Racing then withdrew their #51 Chevrolet, likely in response to driver Cody Ware’s persistent back pain suffered during the race at Pocono.  Patrick turned in 24th in Friday’s opening practice, secured 23rd on the grid with a lap of 197.775mph, then ran 25th and 24th in Saturday’s two sessions.  While the team continued its search for speed, Patrick did avoid the fate of three of her fellow competitors: crashes in practice sent Landon Cassill, A.J. Allmendinger, and Jimmie Johnson to backup cars.

Starting 37th and last on Sunday was Ty Dillon, whose 24th-fastest lap in qualifying was disallowed for illegal body modifications discovered by NASCAR.  During the pace laps, Dillon’s #13 Twisted Tea Chevrolet was joined not only by the backup cars of Cassill, Allmendinger, and Johnson, but also Daniel Suarez, sent to the rear for an unapproved tire change, and Patrick’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, whose crews made illegal body modifications to the #4 and #41 Fords on race morning.

When the green flag dropped, A.J. Allmendinger was in the rear in his backup #47 Kroger ClickList / Nature Valley / Crest Chevrolet.  What unfolded was one of the most competitive LASTCAR battles in recent memory, a race which wasn’t settled until just moments before the checkered flag.

On Lap 3, Allmendinger caught and passed the #33 Hulu Chevrolet of Jeffrey Earnhardt, who that time by was 10.046 seconds behind the leaders.  Earnhardt re-passed Allmendinger the next time by, then on the fifth circuit the spot went to Ryan Sieg, making his return to Cup since his strong debut at Dover.  Sieg’s drive in place of Gray Gaulding aboard the #23 Dr. Pepper Toyota moved him past Landon Cassill on Lap 6.  Having wrecked his #34 Morristown Drivers Service, Inc. Ford on Friday, Cassill’s backup was a bright yellow #34 Ford with all the Love’s Travel Stops logos removed and MDS applied to the quarter-panels.  The first caution on Lap 8 for an errant garbage bag on the frontstretch briefly put Jimmie Johnson to last in his #48 Kobalt Tools Chevrolet, back to Cassill on Lap 9, then back to Earnhardt on Lap 10.

Prior to the Lap 11 restart, both Earnhardt and Reed Sorenson voluntarily fell to the rear of the field.  Sorenson’s #15 Chevrolet fielded by Premium Motorsports picked up sponsorship from Corrigan Oil, which was originally slated to sponsor Rick Ware Racing’s #51 before the team withdrew.  Much of the remaining laps of Stage 1 saw these two drivers trade the last spot.  Sorenson took it for the first time on Lap 12, and began to lose touch with Earnhardt and the rest of the field.  By Lap 22, however, Earnhardt started falling back as well, and Sorenson reeled him in, making the pass off Turn 4 on the 24th circuit, just before the competition caution.  Earnhardt re-passed Sorenson after pit stops, and Sorenson once again caught and passed the #33 – this time in Turn 3 – on Lap 32.

The next last-place contender was 8th-place runner Erik Jones, who made an unscheduled green-flag stop on Lap 41.  Ironically, it was Jones’ #77 5-hour Energy Toyota which was the first car to be lapped, and he would spend much of the rest of the day fighting his way back into contention.  More than a full straightaway behind Earnhardt for 36th, Jones wasn’t able to get by Earnhardt until Lap 54, but by then was out of Lucky Dog contention as the leaders finally caught the cars in front of him.  Jones would eventually get his lap back and climb his way to a well-earned 13th-place finish.

At the end of Stage 1, lengthy pit stop by the BK Racing team dropped rookie Corey LaJoie and his #83 JAS Expedited Trucking Toyota to the last spot.  When the race restarted on Lap 68, this put LaJoie in position to fight Sorenson for 36th, a battle which continued until Lap 72, when the #83 worked its way past Sorenson down the backstretch.  Front Row Motorsports then re-entered the fight, first when David Ragan took the position on Lap 79, then an unscheduled stop for Cassill on Lap 82, resulting in Cassill becoming the first driver two laps down.  Ragan then pitted his #38 Shriners Hospitals For Children Ford on Lap 106, and became the first driver three laps down.  Jeffrey Earnhardt pitted the #33 on Lap 111, and held the spot at the end of Stage 2.

Earnhardt beat Sorenson off pit road under the yellow, and the latter brought the #15 down a second time to top off the fuel tank.  Though both Sorenson and Earnhardt now three laps down to the leaders, they once again went to work racing each other.  On Lap 128, Sorenson was all over the bumper of Earnhardt, and he got by four circuits later.  The two remained locked in their battle, even as the leaders caught and passed them both, putting the two Chevrolets down a fourth lap on Lap 144.  Earnhardt then put Sorenson back to last on Lap 150, just moments before the caution fell for Ryan Sieg’s spin through the Turn 3 grass.  The incident, combined with the wave-around for Sorenson and Earnhardt, put the #15, #33, and Seig’s #23 all on the same lap, turning the 50-lap shootout for last place from a two-car battle to three.  On the Lap 154 restart, it was Sieg who fell to the rear, but he zipped by Sorenson down the backstretch.  Three laps later, Sorenson caught Sieg as he struggled to pass the 34th-place Earnhardt, who was holding fast on the high lane.  By Lap 166, Sieg had finally dispensed with Earnhardt, who still had Sorenson to contend with.  Once again, both drivers fell down a fourth lap, this time to Kyle Busch on Lap 170.

On Lap 174, with just 26 to go, Earnhardt made what was likely to be his final pit stop, dropping him five laps down.  Sorenson followed three laps later and lost his own fifth lap, putting him on the same circuit as Earnhardt.  By that point, yet another contender entered the picture.  Bristol last-placer Chris Buescher pulled his #37 Kingsford / Bush’s Best Beans Chevrolet behind the wall for an apparent mechanical issue.  Although FOX reported that Buescher was the first driver out of the race, taking last on Lap 181, he returned to the track six laps down just in time for the race to restart with 14 to go.  Now one lap behind both Sorenson and Earnhardt, both now battling for 35th, Buescher still looked to lock-up the first last-place run for #37 at Michigan since 2009.

The ensuing restart threatened to bring in still another contender when Clint Bowyer scraped the Turn 1 wall in his #14 Haas Automation Ford.  However, quick work by the Stewart-Haas Racing crew got Bowyer back on track and up to speed inside the five-minute Crash Clock, and he restarted on the lead lap in 25th.  Thus, when the race restarted on Lap 191, Buescher still held last by one lap over both Sorenson and Earnhardt.  It was only on this restart that Danica Patrick entered the picture.

When the race restarted, Pocono winner Ryan Blaney made a bid for his second-consecutive top-five finish.  But the tricky inside groove was too slippery all race, and his #21 Omnicraft Auto Parts / Quick Lane Ford washed up the track, directly in the path of Kevin Harvick’s #4 Jimmy John’s Ford.  Harvick slowed, but caved-in the nose of his car, and the field fanned-out four and five-wide around the two cars, backing up everyone from 11th on back.  Finding an opening down low, Patrick made her move to the inside of the #19 Stanley Tools Toyota of Daniel Suarez, who was also contending with Darrell Wallace, Jr. in the #43 Smithfield Ford.  At that exact moment, Suarez crossed Wallace’s nose, turning him directly into Patrick’s path.  The two made contact, and Patrick slid straight into the inside wall, destroying her #10.  Patrick climbed from the car unhurt, the only driver who failed to finish Sunday’s race.  The lead-lap Patrick officially took last from Buescher on Lap 197, just three circuits from the finish.

Buescher came home six laps down in 36th.  The battle between Sorenson and Earnhardt ended with the #15 in front, putting Sorenson 34th in front of 35th-place Earnhardt.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was 33rd-place Ryan Sieg, still one lap ahead of Sorenson and Earnhardt.

While the size of the field was disappointing and the race for the lead proved forgettable, Sunday’s battle for last place revealed just how competitive a race can be, even if it’s only for 37th.  At one of the sport’s fastest and most aerodynamically-sensitive tracks, even the lapped machines managed to stay close enough together to contend for every spot right down to the end.  It is this writer’s hope that this is a positive sign going forward, and that it will encourage more teams to join the sport and develop their programs.

*Patrick’s 190 laps complete set a record for the most laps run by a last-place finisher at Michigan.  The previous record was set last August by Clint Bowyer, who ran 160 laps and still came home under power in HScott Motorsports’ #15 5-hour Energy Chevrolet.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #10 in a Cup Series race at Michigan since June 23, 1991, when Derrike Cope’s #10 Purolator Chevrolet lost an engine after 2 laps of the Miller Genuine Draft 400.  Cope, who has made nine Cup starts so far in 2017, was not entered Sunday in Premium Motorsports’ #55.

37) #10-Danica Patrick / 190 laps / crash
36) #37-Chris Buescher / 194 laps / running
35) #33-Jeffrey Earnhardt / 195 laps / running
34) #15-Reed Sorenson / 195 laps / running
33) #23-Ryan Sieg / 195 laps / running

1st) Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group (4)
2nd) Rick Ware Racing (2)
3rd) BK Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, Furniture Row Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Premium Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (9)
2nd) Toyota (4)
3rd) Ford (2)