|ALL PHOTOS: Brock Beard|
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 OscaroParts.com / 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|
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|
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 LASTCAR.info 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.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
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)
2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (9)
2nd) Toyota (4)
3rd) Ford (3)
2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP