|PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums|
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.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
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
2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
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)
2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (9)
2nd) Toyota (4)
3rd) Ford (2)
2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES TITLE CONTENDERS