Sunday, June 4, 2017

CUP: This time, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. saves Brad Keselowski from first Cup last-place finish

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s AAA 400 Drive For Autism at the Dover International Speedway when his #17 Little Hug Fruit Barrels Ford was eliminated after two accidents knocked him out of the race after 62 of 406 laps.

The finish, which came in Stenhouse’s 161st series start, was his first of the season and his first since a crash last fall at Martinsville, 16 races ago.

One-third of the way through the 2017 season, and it’s already been a career year for the 2013 Cup Rookie of the Year.  Following strong runs at Phoenix (4th), Bristol (9th), and Richmond (4th again), Stenhouse stormed into Talladega, snatched the pole away from Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and held off a furious 22-car pack to the finish.  The victory, which he “Parked It” as dedication to his close friend and competitor Brian Clauson, secured the Mississippi driver his first start in the All-Star Race since 2013, where he finished 14th of 20 after the final round of eliminations.  With another solid finish in the Coca-Cola 600, Stenhouse arrived at Dover 13th in points with just one fewer Top 5 and Top 10 than he scored in all of 2016.

With the added success came new sponsorship, and Stenhouse’s #17 Ford carried a new look at the “Monster Mile.”  In the tradition of his popular bright orange Sunny Delight paint scheme, the car carried the multi-colored graphics for another children’s fruit drink, Little Hug Fruit Barrels.  The new car showed speed early, putting up the 11th-fastest lap in Friday’s opening practice, then making the final round of qualifying, where he settled on 12th with a lap of 155.999mph.  He improved to 9th on Saturday morning, then remained 13th in Happy Hour, and seemed assured of another Top 15 finish on Sunday.

Just 39 drivers arrived in Delaware to attempt the race, marking the shortest Cup field at Dover since September 19, 1993, when 37 drivers took the green (and driver-turned-broadcaster Phil Parsons finished last after an early crash).  Trailing the odd-numbered grid was Jeffrey Earnhardt, who like Stenhouse debuted an exciting new sponsor in the Hulu online streaming service.  Joining Earnhardt at the rear was 14th-place starter Jimmie Johnson, whose Hendrick Motorsports crew had to make a last-minute rear gear change on Sunday morning.

By the end of the first lap, Jeffrey Earnhardt was last once more, 7.8 seconds behind the leaders.  He held the spot until Lap 3, when Cody Ware fell to the rear in Rick Ware Racing’s #51 ECU Pirates Chevrolet.  Ware, making his first start in a points race since Atlanta, was 15.313 seconds behind the leader on the sixth lap, and was the first to go down a circuit to the leader the 14th time by.  He was still last on Lap 17, when the first caution unfolded in front of him.  XFINITY Series regular Ryan Sieg, making his Cup debut in place of Corey LaJoie in the #83 JAS Expedited Trucking Toyota, spun in Turn 2.  Ware’s spotter shouted instructions quickly, and Ware sped by on the high side, narrowly avoiding a collision.  The pass dropped Sieg to last.  If he stayed there, BK Racing’s #83 would finish last in two consecutive spring races at Dover.

But the battle for last wasn’t over yet.  When the Sieg caution fell, Stenhouse stayed out, and he inherited the lead on Lap 19.  On the Lap 22 restart, Martin Truex, Jr. made quick work of the #17, taking the lead.  Though running the same set of tires from qualifying, Stenhouse managed to hold down 3rd spot until Lap 48, when a right-side tire blew, sending him hard into the Turn 3 wall.  Quick repairs allowed the crew to get Stenhouse back on track within the five-minute “Crash Clock,” but the car wasn’t running as well as before.  In fact, on Lap 63, another tire blew, slamming Stenhouse hard into the wall off Turn 4.  This time, the #17 made the left-hand turn into the garage area, ending his afternoon.  On Lap 64, when he was three laps down, Stenhouse took last place from Sieg, two laps in arrears.  Sieg would go on to finish 26th.

38th went to Brad Keselowski, who for the second-straight Cup points race narrowly averted his first-ever last-place finish.  Once again, it was a crash that eliminated his strong #2 Wurth Ford, this time after contact from Kurt Busch, whose #41 Haas Automation / Monster Energy Ford broke loose under Kyle Larson on the Lap 66 restart following Stenhouse’s second crash.  Busch ended up 37th as, like Stenhouse, he narrowly avoided the Crash Clock only to lose another tire, trigging a second, more serious accident.  36th went to Landon Cassill, whose own right-front tire failure on Lap 218 began a series of scrapes with the outside wall that soon forced him out of the race.  Ware rounded out the Bottom Five, out with handling issues just short of three-quarter distance.

The last-lap overtime pileup that ended Sunday’s race under caution ruined a number of promising underdog storylines, most significantly that of Ty Dillon, who led 27 laps late, then was still in position for his first-ever Top 5 finish in Cup.  Contact between Dillon and Ryan Newman ultimately collected seven other cars, including Cole Whitt, who was quietly keeping his nose clean in a flat black #72 Chevrolet for TriStar Motorsports.  Whitt ended up 22nd, unable to finish the race under power, but still secured TriStar’s best Cup finish at “The Monster Mile” since 1994, when Loy Allen, Jr. came home in the same spot.

But, through the smoke, two underdogs still made it through.  Michael McDowell came into Sunday as the only active driver with more than one Cup last-place finish at Dover and had just once finished better than 29th there.  He left with a track-best 19th, which was also the Leavine Family Racing team’s third-straight Top 20 finish.  The other was Ross Chastain, who followed Ryan Sieg from the XFINITY Series into his first Cup field.  Driving Premium Motorsports’ lightly-regarded #15 Chevrolet in place of Reed Sorenson, Chastain remained on the lead lap for much of the afternoon, hovering around 21st before the final wreck thrust him into 20th.  The finish marked the Premium team’s best Cup finish at a non-plate track, besting the previous mark set by Brett Moffitt, a 22nd, during his own Cup debut in the 2014 running of the race.

*This marked both Stenhouse and the #17’s first last-place finish in a Cup race at Dover.
*This was Ford’s first last-place finish across NASCAR’s top three series in 2017.  As of this writing, only Chevrolets have finished last in the XFINITY and Truck Series.
*Stenhouse is just the third driver to finish last in a Cup race at Dover after leading at least one lap.  Curiously, the only other two times were both by unsponsored “start-and-park” entries from the last decade: May 31, 2009, when David Gilliland led 1 lap in the #71 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet before power issues after the 38th time by; and May 15, 2011, when Michael McDowell’s #66 HP Racing Toyota led 2 laps, then had electrical issues after the 45th circuit.  Thus, Stenhouse’s three laps are also the most led by a Dover Cup last-place finisher.

39) #17-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 62 laps / crash / led 3 laps
38) #2-Brad Keselowski / 66 laps / crash
37) #41-Kurt Busch / 93 laps / crash
36) #34-Landon Cassill / 257 laps / crash
35) #51-Cody Ware / 283 laps / handling

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

1st) Chevrolet (8)
2nd) Toyota (4)
3rd) Ford (1)


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