Friday, July 21, 2017

OPINION: The Brickyard 400’s Identity Crisis

PHOTO: Matt Kryger, IndyStar
The Brickyard 400 is in trouble.  It’s not just a matter of empty grandstands or single-file racing, but an identity crisis.  In less than a quarter of a century, NASCAR’s trip to Indianapolis has slipped into the background as just another race, sometimes to the point of being utterly forgettable.  Even in 2008, when I was assembling a video montage for the 15th running, I found it difficult to select enough clips of famous moments to make it exciting.  Hours later, the exploding Goodyears that turned the race into a game of “red light, green light” made future projects even harder.

These aren’t merely opinions – the statistics tell the same tale.  In 23 previous runnings, the race has never seen a last-lap pass for the win.  Four of the last five had a margin of victory of two seconds or more.  Fights in NASCAR are nothing new, particularly when the stakes are high in the sport’s “crown jewel” races, but in the Brickyard 400, they’re unheard-of.  The closest thing to an on-track scuffle in the event came in 2002, when the ongoing feud between Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer saw Busch gesture at Spencer following an early crash.  Drivers have instead had to fight with today’s ever-changing array of “spaghetti against the wall” aerodynamic changes.

This year, Kyle Busch comes to Indianapolis looking for not only his third-consecutive Brickyard 400 win, but his third-straight year of sweeping the XFINITY and Cup races.  Last summer, he led 149 of 170 laps in a race with only four lead changes.  Even the last-place battle, which was competitive in 2013 and 2015, was sewn-up after just four laps.  Though winless so far in 2017, Busch is almost certainly the favorite to win it again, particularly after his near-miss at the other 2.5-mile flat track in Pocono.  And, given his 10-second victory last Saturday in Loudon, awaiting the winner of this Saturday’s XFINITY race is practically a formality.

And that’s one of the big problems– the predictability of it all.  In 1994, no one knew for sure how the heavy and unsteady stock cars would handle the sprawling oval.  Tests conducted in 1992 raised questions about whether cars could draft or race side-by-side through the corners.  There were surprises in qualifying, from H.B. Bailey putting in the first timed lap, to Rick Mast’s pole position, to open-wheel veterans like Danny Sullivan and A.J. Foyt bumping several Cup regulars from the field, including Loy Allen, Jr., that year’s Daytona 500 polesitter.  It was a special event not only because of the history, but the unpredictability.

What’s ironic is, for every year the Brickyard 400 has stagnated, the Indianapolis 500 has seen a return to greatness.  The point of departure seemed to come in 2011, when Dan Wheldon’s stunning triumph after J.R. Hildebrand’s wreck was followed in July by Paul Menard taking his first Cup win, holding off the legend Jeff Gordon.  Since then, the 500 has consistently seen spectacular race-long battles every single year, capped by Takuma Sato’s victory in May.  Arguably, the best moment in the 400 in that span had nothing to do with the racing itself, but rather Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon’s final lap last year after they finished 11th and 13th.

It also doesn’t help that, since 2013, Indianapolis has now been big-footed by Wednesday’s Truck Series dirt race in Eldora, which has consistently put on a much better show.  Combined with the late-summer heat and the ludicrous decision to move the XFINITY Series away from Indianapolis Raceway Park, the Brickyard 400 lost its final significance – its exclusivity in the world of stock car racing.  Simply put, the race isn’t special anymore.

Many proposals have been brought forward, ranging from running the infield road course to simply taking the event off the schedule.  Personally, I’d like to see the return of something closer to “The Winston Million” or the “No Bull Five,” where the XFINITY Series is sent back to IRP and the Brickyard regains its title as a crown jewel race alongside Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, and Darlington.  While I don’t believe the fallacy that drivers will race harder just because a race is worth more money, I think it would be a nice way to pay homage to the speedway and acknowledge that it isn’t just the 20th event on a 36-race schedule.

At the end of the day, I want the Brickyard 400 to succeed.  I still think a win in the event is meaningful, and traditions like “kissing the bricks” have brought something new to the speedway’s history.  But more than that, I want to be excited by the event again, to see it as an equal to a Daytona 500 or Southern 500.  But for that to happen, NASCAR and the speedway need to be honest about the problems facing the event, and have the courage to undo past mistakes.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

8/5/95: Elton Sawyer’s long-awaited Cup debut followed by Indianapolis last-place finish

On August 5, 1995, Elton Sawyer picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when his #27 Hooters Ford dropped a valve after he completed 17 of 160 laps.  The finish came in Sawyer’s ninth series start.

Born in Chesapeake, Virginia, the same hometown as NASCAR legend Ricky Rudd, Sawyer was for much of his career a fixture in what is now the NASCAR XFINITY Series.  He made his series debut on October 30, 1983 in the season finale at Martinsville.  Driving for veteran owner-driver Emanuel Zervakis, Sawyer qualified his Pontiac 18th in the field of 42, then finished 30th after a crash.

The following February, Sawyer fielded his own car, a #02 Pontiac, and in his second career start finished a strong 7th.  Though he’d make just five of 29 races that year, he finished 9th or better in all five, including a runner-up in his return to the Martinsville finale.  Driving for Bill Lewis, who like Rick Hendrick went from car dealer to car owner, Sawyer came just two carlengths from beating Cup newcomer Morgan Shepherd.

Sawyer and Lewis steadily developed their program into a full-time effort in 1987, when they ranked 14th in the season standings.  That June, the duo seemed primed for their first victory at the Indianapolis Raceway Park.  With 18 laps to go, Sawyer took the lead from Don Kreitz, Jr. and was out front on the final lap when a lapped car got in his way, handing the victory to Larry Pearson.  Driver and owner would come no closer through the 1989 season, when the two parted ways.

In 1990, Sawyer signed with Alan Dillard, Jr., who would go on to field Ward Burton’s first Cup Series ride four seasons later.  This time, Sawyer acquired sponsorship from Chisholm Boots and Gwaltney Foods, and would also be teamed with another rising star – fellow Virginian short tracker Rick Mast.  Mast had scored two wins a season for the previous three years, and would rack up another three in 1990, yielding 10th in the season standings.  Sawyer remained just 13th in the standings with another pair of runner-up finishes, both to Tommy Houston.

On November 24 of that year, Sawyer married fellow racer Patty Moise, who would run a few races for Dillard the following season.  The Jacksonville, Florida driver had by then raced in Busch since 1986 and had also made five Cup starts at Daytona, Talladega, and Watkins Glen with a best finish of 26th in the 1988 Firecracker 400.  Sawyer, however, had yet to make the move to the elite division, and would lose his ride with Dillard midway through the 1991 season.  By the end of that season, Sawyer had made 164 starts without a win.  He’d have to make another 16 before it finally happened.

That day came on June 11, 1994, during the Carolina Pride / Budweiser 200 at the Myrtle Beach Speedway.  Sawyer was now driving for Sutton Racing (later Akins-Sutton Motorsports, then Akins Motorsports), a team co-owned by Bob Sutton and Brad Akins.  After a two-race schedule in ’93 were now attempting the full ’94 season with sponsorship from Ford Motor Credit.  After a hot-and-cold start to the season, including a DNQ at Atlanta where the team had to buy a ride from car owner Ron Zock, Sawyer qualified 4th at Myrtle Beach, took the lead from Kenny Wallace with 20 laps to go, and cruised to victory by more than two seconds.  Not long after, his opportunity finally came.

Since 1953, Junior Johnson had fielded some of the fastest cars in the Cup Series garage.  On top of his own legendary driving career, he’d fielded rides for the likes of Fred Lorenzen, A.J. Foyt, and Curtis Turner.  He’d won championships with Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip, and nearly scored the ’92 crown with Bill Elliott.  The last three of his 132 Cup wins had come the year before - two with Jimmy Spencer and a ninth Darlington victory with Elliott.  But in 1995, Elliott and Spencer were gone, and so were their sponsors.  In Elliott’s place came Brett Bodine, who a year later would buy the team and become an owner-driver for the next eight seasons.  Spencer’s #27 went to Loy Allen, Jr.

Allen, the previous year’s Daytona 500 polesitter, brought with him sponsorship from Hooters Restaurants, which had backed his efforts since his days in ARCA.  Unfortunately, Allen’s three poles that season turned out to be the only highlights of a forgettable season.  He made just 19 of 31 races, failing to qualify 12 times, including the inaugural Brickyard 400.  At season’s end, Allen and Hooters took their business to Junior Johnson’s team.  In early 1995, the results weren’t much better.  Without the Hoosier tires that aided his pole runs, Allen started 37th in the Daytona 500, finished no better than 17th, and failed to make the fields at Atlanta and Bristol.  By late April, it was clear a change had to be made.  It was the perfect opportunity for Sawyer.

Through these first months of the ’95 season, the plan had been for Sutton and Akins to move their program from Busch to Cup, giving Sawyer a chance at Rookie of the Year in 1996.  But when the opportunity to drive for Junior Johnson arrived, he took it, forsaking a ROTY run by competing in 20 of the remaining 23 races.  His first Cup start would come at the very scene of his Busch debut a whole 12 years earlier – the Martinsville Speedway.  Sawyer put up the 9th-fastest lap in qualifying – more than enough to bump seven drivers from the field – and finished 20th in the rain-shortened event.  After one-offs at Pocono where the #27 was driven by Jimmy Horton, Greg Sacks, and Jeff Purvis, then a DNQ at Sonoma, Sawyer responded with a season-best 14th at Talladega.  Next up was Indianapolis, not far from the scene of his near-victory in 1987.

The second annual Brickyard 400 had far fewer entrants than the inaugural – just 50 drivers for 41 spots.  While Sawyer managed to secure a spot in the field, he struggled to find speed, putting up a speed of just 167.592mph, nearly two seconds off the pole speed set by Jeff Gordon.  The lap required Sawyer to use a provisional to make the field, placing him in the final starting spot.  Things looked better on the Busch side as Sawyer won the pole at Indianapolis Raceway Park for Friday’s Kroger 200, led 51 laps, and finished just under 1.5 seconds behind race winner Jason Keller.  The run jumped Sawyer from 12th to 9th in the series standings.

With the start delayed several hours because of rain, the 41 engines were fired from Gasoline Alley for a mid-afternoon start.  At the start, Sawyer tried to make a move to the inside, then was gapped by the field as the leaders headed into Turn 1.  By the end of Lap 10, he had completely lost the pack and was being caught by Jeff Gordon down the front straightaway, the flagman signaling him with the “move over” flag.  Sawyer moved aside in Turn 3, then was drafted by the pursuing pack down the frontstretch, his engine sounding flat.  Seconds later, Rick Mast nearly collided with him into Turn 3 as Mast tried to pass Joe Nemechek.  On Lap 15, Sawyer came off pit road, the crew believing the issue to be an ignition problem, but the engine stayed sour.  He was four laps down on the 20th circuit as he slowed down the frontstretch.  Soon after, he pulled behind the wall.  Sawyer said the team hoped to come back out, but when it was diagnosed as a dropped valve, he was done for the day.

It was Junior Johnson’s second-straight last-place finish in the Brickyard 400, following Jimmy Spencer’s hard crash in the #27 during the ’94 inaugural.

With darkness fast approaching, the race ran at a torrid pace with just one caution slowing the action, preventing a race shortened by darkness.  The only other two DNFs that afternoon were both due to engine failures in the second half of the race.  40th went to Derrike Cope, whose #12 Straight Arrow Ford blew on Lap 104, and Bobby Hillin, Jr. in the #77 Jasper / USAir Ford.

Rounding out the Bottom Five were two drivers who played a significant role in the race’s outcome.  The lone caution that slowed the day’s action came out on Lap 133 when 38th-place finisher Jeff Burton crashed his #8 Raybestos Brakes Ford the backstretch, nearly collecting Rusty Wallace.  Wallace, who was trying to catch race leader Dale Earnhardt, had moments before been crowded at the exit of pit road by 37th-place finisher Rich Bickle in the #40 Kendall Pontiac, causing him to lose even more ground during the green-flag stop.  The late restart gave Wallace another chance at Earnhardt, but he ended up with his first of three runner-up finishes in the event.

Indianapolis began a difficult stretch for driver and team as Sawyer failed to finish six of his 11 remaining starts, and he missed the cut again at Bristol.  In 1996, when the #27 team was sold to David Blair, Hooters Restaurants left to sponsor Rick Mast’s #1 Pontiac for car owner Richard Jackson.  Despite once again facing a lack of sponsorship, Sawyer managed to earn the outside-pole for the final spring race at North Wilkesboro, but finished no better than 19th.  Sawyer lost his ride at midseason, then drove one final race in the Atlanta finale, driving a car Harry Ranier had originally prepared for Tony Stewart.  In just 29 Cup starts, he finished last four times.

The Sutton-Akins-Sawyer Cup Series effort never came to pass (though Sutton would field Boris Said’s Cup entry in 2005), and Sawyer picked up where he left off in the Busch Series in 1997.  With new sponsorship from Barbasol Shaving Cream, Sawyer secured 8th in the season standings, a new career-best.  The effort was buoyed by a gutsy performance at Las Vegas, where he suffered first and second-degree burns in an early crash, climbed back in the car, and salvaged a 31st-place finish.  He then ranked 5th in the standings for the next two years, during which time he earned his second and final series win at Loudon on May 8, 1999.

Sawyer made his 392nd and final Busch Series start on November 16, 2002 at Homestead, where he ran 22nd for Brewco Motorsports.  He then turned his attention to officiating, first as the Director of Team Operations for Action Express Racing in the Tudor United SportsCar Championship, then in NASCAR as its Managing Director of the Camping World Truck Series.  He was last year promoted to NASCAR’s Vice President of Officiating and Technical Inspection, where one of his first cases was Derrike Cope’s bizarre explosion at Watkins Glen.

*As of this writing, Sawyer remains the only driver to earn his first career Cup Series last-place finish in the Brickyard 400.  The #27 has not finished last at the track since, and would in 2011 go to victory lane with Paul Menard and Richard Childress Racing.

41) #27-Elton Sawyer / 17 laps / valve
40) #12-Derrike Cope / 104 laps / engine
39) #77-Bobby Hillin, Jr. / 106 laps / engine / led 1 lap
38) #8-Jeff Burton / 141 laps / running
37) #40-Rich Bickle / 152 laps / running

*Albert, Zack. “Cope on Car Issues: I’ve never ‘seen that transpire before,’”, August 7, 2016.
*“Elton Sawyer is a BAMF,” clip from ESPN2, YouTube, Posted by friskynixon2
*FOX Sports. “NASCAR moves Chad Little to inspection role; Elton Sawyer to lead Truck Series,” FOX Sports, February 2, 2015.
*nascarman, “Historical Motorsports Stories: Tony Stewart’s Planned Cup Debut,” November 17, 2016.
*Staff report. “NASCAR Enhances Competition Executive Team,”, July 12, 2016.
*Pearce, Al. “Drive to Do Double Duty: Sawyer To Run Cup, Grand National Races,” Daily Press, May 17, 1995.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

TRUCKS: Caleb Holman gives #75 first NASCAR dirt track last-place finish since 1960

Caleb Holman picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career in Wednesday’s Eldora Dirt Derby at the Eldora Speedway when his #75 Food Country USA / Lopez Wealth Management Chevrolet fell out with transmission issues after 12 of 150 laps.  The finish came in Holman’s 34th series start.

The story of Holman’s last-place finish is as much about the team as it is the driver.  Team owner Charlie Henderson has been fielding competitive stock cars and trucks since March 14, 1982, when Brad Teague came home 12th in the Valleydale 500 at Bristol.  Not far from the Bristol track, on the other side of the Tennessee / Virginia border, Henderson Motorsports still has the same base in Abingdon, Virginia.  This same town not only held the headquarters for three-time Daytona 500 winners Morgan-McClure Motorsports, but also that of Food Country USA, the grocery chain founded by the Henderson family in 1914.  For this reason, most every racer that rolled out of the Henderson shop carried Food Country’s logos on the quarter-panels.

Since their 1982 debut, Henderson Motorsports has remained a fixture in stock car racing, having entered races in all three of NASCAR’s top divisions, ARCA, and the X-1R Pro Cup Series.  They were most prolific in the XFINITY Series from 1985 through 2007, during which time the Food Country USA colors made 296 series starts.  Their best points finishes were a pair of 7th-place runs in 1987, again with Brad Teague, and 1992 with Butch Miller.  Teague also gave the team its first of three XFINITY wins, which came at Martinsville in 1987.  The other two were earned in 1989 by journeyman driver Rick Wilson, who in 2010 would drive a similarly-painted car to victory in an exhibition race at Bristol.

Caleb Holman has been the bridge for Henderson Motorsports’ transition from XFINITY to its current life in the Truck Series.  Also born in Abingdon, Holman made his stock car debut in 2003, when he finished 18th in his ARCA debut at Nashville.  At the time, the 19-year-old Holman was driving for his father Darrell, who also entered him in two XFINITY races that year at Richmond and Milwaukee.  Holman first drove for Henderson’s team in 2005, when he ran 26th in a Pro Cup race at Bristol, and drove the team’s final two XFINITY races at Richmond in 2006 and Bristol in 2007.  By then, Henderson and Holman had turned their attention to full-time Pro Cup competition.  The duo won their first of 15 races at Bristol in 2008.  In 2014, Holman stormed to the series championship, scoring half the season’s 12 wins and finishing Top 10 in each.

Henderson Racing’s Truck Series effort, meanwhile, began in 2012 with Holman running a partial schedule.  This time, the team made their series debut at Rockingham in 2012, where Holman finished 21st.  As Holman reached the peak of his Pro Cup career, the Truck Series remained a part-time operation with no more than eight starts a year.  But, after the Pro Cup Series ended in 2014, the team has still only run a handful of races.  Slowly, but surely, the team has again rebuilt itself with Holman earning his first Top 10 at Marintsville in 2015, an 8th in a race won by Matt Crafton.  This year, Holman has shared his ride with driver-turned-broadcaster Parker Kligerman, and the team has now doubled their Top 10 total with four in 37 series starts.

The Eldora dirt track held special significance for both driver and team.  Last year, Holman took his first NASCAR pole at the track and finished 2nd in his heat race before an early wreck in the main left him 30th.  In a field of 34 series regulars and dirt-track ringers, Holman was looking to build on the performance.  On Tuesday, he ran 10th in the opening practice, then put up the fastest lap in Happy Hour – the only driver to break the 20-second mark.  Wednesday saw him qualify 9th with a lap of 88.162mph, which lined him up next to point leader Christopher Bell on the front row of Heat Race #4.  Holman defended his spot, and remained 9th on the grid for the Main.

Starting last in Wednesday night’s feature was ARCA driver Ray Ciccarelli, who filled the seat of Jennifer Jo Cobb’s #10 Stealth Belt Chevrolet.  Though not on the preliminary entry list, Ciccarelli had locked himself into his first-ever Truck Series start despite a spin in the Last Chance Qualifier that left him 2 laps down, 7th in the 8-truck field.  The only driver to actually fail to qualify was Tommy Regan, who ran a conservative lap in Norm Benning’s second truck, #57, then parked after two laps of Heat Race #3.  The other driver sent home was a frustrated J.R. Heffner, whose Martins Motorsports-prepared #44 A. Colarusso / Park East Sales Chevrolet lost an engine during his qualifying lap.  Without a backup engine and unable to obtain another, driver and team were forced to withdraw before the Heat Races even began.

As the 32-truck field field made their pace laps, 31st-place starter Mike Harmon (who replaced Josh Reaume in Beaver Motorsports’ #50 Chevrolet) made a brief unscheduled pit stop, then returned to the track before the start.  When the green flag dropped, it was Harmon who now trailed the field by 8 seconds on Lap 1, then 10 seconds on Lap 2.  On the fourth circuit, last place changed hands with the first caution of the night.

Bobby Pierce, twice denied a dominant victory in this event, had been struggling to find the handle on his #63 Gotta Race / 866-Get-A-Pro Metal Roofing Chevrolet.  After handling woes in practice and qualifying, Pierce spun out of a transfer spot in Heat Race #1 and backed into the Turn 3 wall, crumpling the sheet metal around the fuel filler neck.  Extensive repairs by the Mike Mittler team’s seven crewmen got the truck back onto the grid for the Last Chance Qualifier just in time for the start.  Pierce responded by rallying from the back of the pack to the win, securing the 26th spot on the grid.

But on Lap 4, Pierce was in trouble again.  J.J. Yeley lost control in front of him and the two made contact, damaging Pierce’s right-front.  Then Pierce’s teammate Chris Windom rear-ended the #63.  Pierce lost a lap as his truck stalled, then managed to make it to pit road.  Yeley, whose left-front was obliterated in the collision with Pierce, took the last spot on Lap 5 as the crew looked under the hood of his #83 Chevrolet.  He rejoined the race on Lap 10, four laps down, as the field lined up for a restart.

On Lap 12, Caleb Holman was still among the leaders when his truck bogged-down on the restart.  Sitting in the outside lane, Holman was able to steer clear of traffic and hug the outside wall, then came down to the garage area.  He reported that the truck’s transmission was stuck in first gear.  Four laps later on the 16th circuit, Holman slipped behind Yeley for last, where he would remain for the rest of the race.  On Lap 25, Holman made one more lap to see if the team’s repairs were successful.  Unfortunately, he quickly returned to the garage, where his #75 was lined up next to Tommy Regan’s parked #57.  The team was done for the night.

Holman’s mechanical troubles did allow him to escape unscathed from a series of hard crashes that slowed many of the early laps and filled the remainder of the Bottom Five.  31st went to Daytona winner Kaz Grala, whose #33 15-40 Connection Chevrolet collided hard with the right-front of Christopher Bell’s spinning #4 Toyota.  While Bell managed to work his way back to the lead before a flat tire left him 9th, Grala was done for the night.

The other three spots were filled by trucks involved in another grinding Turn 2 crash.  On Lap 43, Ben Rhodes’ #27 Safelite Auto Glass Toyota was collected in a collision between Australian rookie Max Johnston’s spinning #02 Brandt Chevrolet and Korbin Forrister in Jennifer Jo Cobb’s second truck, the #0 Chevrolet.  While Forrister managed to make his way back around the track, he soon found his way to the garage along with the other two disabled trucks.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #75 in a Truck Series race since October 15, 2011, when Johnny Borneman III’s unsponsored Norm Benning Racing Chevrolet fell out with handling woes after 1 lap of the Smith’s 350 at Las Vegas.  Benning himself finished 15th that day, which was his career-best finish at the time.  Wednesday at Eldora, he finished 13th, his second-best series finish behind a 12th at Talladega in 2013.
*This marked the first NASCAR last-place finish for car owner Charlie Henderson since August 21, 1998, when Kelly Denton’s run in the Food City 250 at Bristol ended after his #75 Food Country Chevrolet lost an engine after 8 of 250 laps.  It is the team’s first last-place finish in the Truck Series.
*Among the top three NASCAR divisions, this marked the first last-place finish for the #75 on a dirt track since June 5, 1960, when John Dodd, Jr.’s 1960 Ford lost an engine after 37 laps of the Richmond 200 at the Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway.  It was Dodd’s only last-place finish in 23 career Cup starts.  The track, now known as Richmond Raceway, wasn’t paved until 1968.

32) #75-Caleb Holman / 12 laps / transmission
31) #33-Kaz Grala / 34 laps / crash
30) #27-Ben Rhodes / 40 laps / crash
29) #02-Max Johnston / 41 laps / crash
28) #0-Korbin Forrister / 44 laps / crash

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

1st) Chevrolet (11)


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Preliminary Entry List Storylines: Indianapolis and Eldora

PHOTO: @BobbyPierce32
Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis

For the eighth time in 2017, there will be a full field this Sunday, and for just the third time this season, one car will be sent home after qualifying.

Returning this week are two teams with very different partial schedules.  Motorsports Business Management returns for the first time since Kentucky, and for the first time since Kansas, team owner Carl Long is the listed driver.  Long has never started the Brickyard 400, and his two previous entries in 2000 and 2005 were both withdrawn.  Joining MBM is Tommy Baldwin Racing, which we last saw earlier this month at Daytona.  In place of plate driver Elliott Sadler is their intermediate driver J.J. Yeley, who has six Brickyard starts with a best finish of 28th in 2008.

Gray Gaulding confirmed on Twitter last week that his two-race stretch for Premium Motorsports has been extended into this Sunday’s race, and he will again pilot the #55 Toyota.  This time, his car will be sponsored by Low T Centers, which has backed both of Premium’s cars for much of the season.  Joining Gaulding this week is XFINITY regular Joey Gase, whose turn in the #15 Chevrolet will raise awareness for brain aneurysms through The Lisa Colagrossi Foundation.

For the second time this month, B.J. McLeod will run double-duty at Indy, where in the big show he will again campaign Rick Ware Racing’s #51 Chevrolet.  It is as of this writing unclear who the team’s sponsor will be, or if he will again run the former Clemson University car without the college’s decals, as he did at Kentucky.

For the third time in four races, BK Racing will again run Corey LaJoie in the #23 Toyota and Ryan Sieg in the #83.  The duo struggled last week at Loudon, both running two laps down and finishing 31st and 32nd.  Both are expected to make their first Brickyard 400 starts.

Give a call to Matt DiBenedetto, who last week earned a season-best 16th starting spot at Loudon.  The run equaled his career-best at the same track last year for BK Racing.  Unfortunately, the finish was also nearly identical – 30th on Sunday, up just one from 31st in 2016.

Looking for a much-needed turnaround is Cole Whitt, whose TriStar Motorsports #72 Chevrolet has had five engine failures in the last eight races, including the last three races in a row.  The Brickyard’s long straightaways will be one of the biggest tests for TriStar’s engine department.  Whitt’s best finish in three Brickyard 400s was a 29th last year for Premium Motorsports.  Curiously, TriStar has made just one start before in this race – a last-place “start-and-park” effort by Mike Bliss in 2012.  Their rookie driver Loy Allen, Jr. was among the 43 drivers who failed to qualify for the 1994 inaugural.

Lily Diabetes 250 at Indianapolis

Last week at Loudon, Motorsports Business Management’s late entry of John Jackson in the #72 Chevrolet prevented the series’ first short field of 2017.  This week, Jackson is not on the list as, following the withdrawal of Biagi DenBeste Racing’s #98 for Casey Mears, there are exactly 40 cars for 40 spots.  Among those locked-in will be Morgan Shepherd in his #89 and Reed Sorenson in JD Motorsports’ #15, which made its first “start-and-park” effort last week in Loudon.

Missing from this week’s list is Martins Motorsports’ #45 Diamond Gusset Jeans Chevrolet, which was earlier this year slated to return this weekend.  Tommy Joe Martins tweeted Monday that he will continue to drive for B.J. McLeod Motorsports for as long as he’ll have him.  Sure enough, he is again driving the #78 on Saturday alongside McLeod in the #8 and the #99 Striping Technologies Chevrolet of David Starr.  McLeod confirmed last week that the #99 is owned by his team and is operated by Bobby Dotter of SS Green Light Racing.

Eldora Dirt Derby 150 at Eldora

Tomorrow night, 34 drivers will wage war in the lone dirt track event on the schedule.

Norm Benning, the lead story of the 2013 inaugural for his thrilling battle in the Last Chance Qualifier, looks to make his first start in the event since his track-best 19th in 2015.  For the first time, Benning will field two trucks in this race, bringing out the #57 that has run a handful of races this summer.  As of this writing, there is no listed driver for this second truck, which earlier this year was driven by Tommy Regan, J.J. Yeley, and B.J. McLeod.  Before he heads to Indy, Yeley will drive D.J. Copp’s #83 Chevrolet.

Two more teams are currently listed without drivers.  The first is Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing’s flagship #10 Chevrolet (Korbin Forrister is already listed in Cobb’s second truck, the #0).  Cobb made her way into the last two main events at Eldora, finishing 27th in 2015 and 26th last year.  The other entry without a driver is Bryan Hill’s #20 Young’s Building Systems Chevrolet, the team Tyler Young drove for in Iowa.

For the first time this year, both Stewart Friesen and his Stewart-Friesen Racing return to familiar territory.  The veteran dirt-tracker made his series debut here last year, finishing 28th.  But there’s a large number of other dirt track stars with eyes on victory.

Making his own series debut is sprint car racer Max Johnston, who brings sponsorship from Brandt Agriculture to Randy Young’s #02 Chevrolet.  2016 Southern Sportmod Champion Jeffrey Abbey will do the same, the Texan switching from his late model to Al Niece’s #45 Black Riffle Coffee Company Chevrolet.  USAC wingless sprint racer Chris Windom, fresh off a win in Pennsylvania’s Eastern Storm, climbs through the window of MB Motorsports’ #36 Chevrolet.  Windom will have a good teammate to take notes from: Bobby Pierce – so close to winning the last two Eldora races from the pole – will once again pilot the cherry-red #63 Gotta Race Chevrolet.  Unlike the last two years, Pierce’s truck will carry the current 2017 Chevrolet sheet metal.

Also returning are four-time track champion J.R. Heffner, looking to improve on his track-best 4th-place start and 15th-place finish last year, and late model racer Justin Shipley, who will again drive Tracy Wallace’s #80 Ford.  XFINITY Series part-timer Brandon Hightower will return to his late model roots when he drives in place of Jordan Anderson in the #1 TJL Racing Chevrolet.  So will NASCAR legend Ken Schrader, who this year takes a turn in Bolen Motorsports’ #66 Chevrolet, a team which last year with Anderson were determined to get their truck into the main event.  Then, of course, there’s west coast sprint car star Rico Abreu, who returns to the Truck Series and ThorSport Racing for the first time this year in the #89 Curb Records Toyota.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

CUP: Tumultuous week for Erik Jones ends with #77’s first last-place run at Loudon in 20 years

Erik Jones picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Overton’s 301 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway when his #77 5-hour Energy Toyota was involved in a single-car accident after 40 of 301 laps.

The finish, which came in Jones’ 22nd series start, was his second of the season and his first since Richmond, 10 races ago.

The rookie driver came into Loudon as perhaps the week’s biggest story.  On Tuesday, following Matt Kenseth’s announcement that he would no longer drive for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018, Jones was tabbed as his replacement.  The long-speculated rumor came following a stretch of strong performances in Furniture Row Racing’s new second team.  He scored a career-best 3rd at the difficult Pocono Raceway, a 7th in the Coca-Cola 600, and back-to-back Top 10s at Daytona and Kentucky.  He also remained active on the XFINITY side, scoring two straight wins at Texas and Bristol.  Still, heading into Loudon, he sat just 14th in Cup points, having scored four DNFs – including his last-place run at Richmond – all due to crashes.

Jones had a fast piece at Loudon, starting the weekend with the 9th-fastest lap.  Later that day, he busted his way through all three rounds of qualifying, ranking 2nd in the first round, 3d in the next, then 7th in the final.  When polesitter Kyle Larson’s time was disallowed for an unapproved rear decklid fin, Jones moved up to 6th on the grid – his second-best starting spot of the season behind a 5th at Charlotte.  Sitting out Saturday’s XFINITY race, Jones ran 6th in that day’s morning practice before settling for 10th in Happy Hour.

Starting last was the aforementioned Larson, who for the second-straight week would have to claw his way through the entire field.  While no other drivers were sent to the rear before the start, three cars actually moved behind Larson just before the green flag.  As the tail end of the field worked its way through Turn 4, 35th-place starter Reed Sorenson in the #15 Premium Motorsports Chevrolet, 36th-place Ryan Sieg in the #83 BK Racing Graphics Toyota, and 37th-place Jeffrey Earnhardt in the #33 Hulu Chevrolet all dropped back and were lined up two-by-two behind Larson as they headed down the front straightaway.  At the stripe, it was Earnhardt’s #33 which already took the green in last, but by Turn 1 he had caught and passed the #51 Prevagen / CNC Swiss Chevrolet of Josh Bilicki.

Bilicki, who made his Cup debut for Ware last month at Sonoma, was on Tuesday tabbed to drive the car once more.  Unfortunately, the car faced a litany of problems from the very start.  On top of a serious handling issue that made the car push through the middle of the corners, forcing several manual track bar adjustments, the #51 overheated almost from the very start, spraying water from the overflow.  On Lap 3, however, Bilicki was surprised to see he had passed the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, whose driver Jimmie Johnson was handed a pass-through penalty for beating polesitter Martin Truex, Jr. to the stripe at the start.  Johnson re-passed Bilicki for 38th on Lap 12, taking it at the stripe with a pass to the inside, and on the 20th circuit, Bilicki became the first driver to lose a lap.

A miscommunication between driver and crew caused Bilicki to accidentally miss coming to pit road under the competition caution on Lap 37.  On Lap 39, the team decided to keep the #51 on the track, putting their driver back on the lead lap with the other wave-around cars.  Meanwhile, trouble broke out on pit road among the lead-lap cars.  Erik Jones finished his stop and tried to merge back in line, preserving his spot in the Top 10.  Unfortunately, there came a logjam caused by the side-by-side cars of Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne.  Suddenly three-wide with the two drivers, Jones made contact with Kahne, causing damage to his right-front fender.  The crew’s decision to keep Jones on track had disastrous results.

On the Lap 41 restart, a tire let go on the #77, sending Jones’ Toyota into the outside wall at a sharp angle.  The car smashed the barrier heavily with the right-front, lifting the car off the ground before it came to a stop.  While Jones was uninjured and walked away from the wreck, his car was totaled, done for the afternoon.  The car was towed back to the garage through the Turn 3 entrance to the infield, pulled down parallel to the backstretch, then turned into the garage.

In a curious twist, it was contact with Kahne which also triggered his previous last-place finish at Richmond.

38th went to Cole Whitt, who lost the engine on his black #72 TriStar Motorsports Chevrolet for the third-straight week and the fifth time in eight races.  37th went to Joey Logano, whose playoff chances took a major hit when the rear track bar came loose on Lap 174, forcing 31 laps of repairs.  Logano’s #22 Pennzoil / Shell Ford returned to the track on Lap 206, made a quick stop for fuel, and finished the race under power.  Bilicki’s overheating #51 made it home 11 laps down in 36th, thanks to a frantic stop under the Lap 90 caution where the team nearly lost a second lap.  Five circuits ahead of them in 35th came Gray Gaulding in his second of two runs driving the #55 #CheckIt4Andretti Toyota.  Gaulding’s Twitter now indicates that he will also be racing next week at Indianapolis.

*This marked the first last-place for the #77 in a Cup Series race at Loudon since September 14, 1997, when Robert Pressley’s #77 Jasper Engines / Federal Mogul Ford was involved in a single-car accident after 185 of 300 laps of the CMT 300.

39) #77-Erik Jones / 40 laps / crash
38) #72-Cole Whitt / 66 laps / engine
37) #22-Joey Logano / 269 laps / running
36) #51-Josh Bilicki / 290 laps / running
35) #55-Gray Gaulding / 295 laps / running

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

1st) Chevrolet (10)
2nd) Toyota (6)
3rd) Ford (3)


XFINITY: John Jackson’s late entry keeps field full as #72 gets first last-place finish since 2007

PHOTO: @MBMMotorsports
John Jackson picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Overton’s 200 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway when his unsponsored #72 Motorsports Business Management Chevrolet fell out with a vibration after 4 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Jackson’s 23rd series start, was his first of the season and his first in an XFINITY Series race since last summer at Iowa, 31 races ago.

Jackson wasn’t originally scheduled to compete at Loudon, but the entry list presented an opportunity.  Just 39 drivers made the preliminary entry list, threatening the first short field of the 2017 XFINITY Series season.  By Friday, however, Motorsports Business Management rolled a third car off their hauler to join the #13 OCR Gaz Bar Chevrolet of Carl Long and Timmy Hill’s #40 Dodge.  It was a second Dodge without sponsorship, #72.

The #72 is a remnant of a race team owned by Florida attorney James Carter, who fielded the entry part-time from 2011 through 2014.  Both John Jackson and Carl Long were among the drivers who made the team’s 16 appearances, all but one ending with an “start-and-park” effort.  It was Jackson who brought the #72 home under power for the only time at Atlanta on September 3, 2011, when his was the last car to finish under power in 31st.

By all accounts, Carter’s team has since been absorbed into MBM (the sponsorship now on MBM’s #40 links to Carter’s website), and the team has since been brought out to help fill fields.  Long first entered the car himself last September at Darlington, where Obaika Racing withdrew their #77 Chevrolet for a field of 39.  Jackson returned to the #72 Chevrolet that day and finished 39th, one lap ahead of last-place finisher Matt DiBenedetto.  Two other times that year, the #72 missed the cut – a withdrawal at Iowa and a DNQ at Kentucky.  Loudon would mark the team’s first 2017 entry since it was withdrawn earlier this year at Fontana.

Jackson didn’t participate in either of Friday’s practices, then turned in a qualifying lap of just 112.726mph – more than 4.3 seconds off the pole speed of 129.353mph set by race winner Kyle Busch.  This put Jackson 40th and last on the grid – one spot behind the backup car of Dylan Lupton, who wrecked his #24 Nut Up Toyota off Turn 2 during the first round of qualifying.  After four laps, Jackson pulled behind the wall, first out of the race.

39th went to Reed Sorenson, who finally put JD Motorsports’ fourth team - #15 – into the race after back-to-back withdrawals.  The team turned out to be a “start-and-park” entry similar to Jackson’s, exiting the event after 7 laps with brake issues as the listed cause.  The rest of the Bottom Five were filled with other LASTCAR contenders: 38th went to Jeff Green, whose championship leading #93 Chevrolet for RSS Racing carried sponsorship from  Morgan Shepherd finished 37th in his #89 Racing With Jesus /, out with suspension issues.  Rounding out the group was MBM’s #13 with Carl Long, whose day was done with electrical issues.

Next week at Indianapolis, MBM will be pulling double-duty as, in addition to their XFINITY Series efforts, the #66 Chevrolet returns to the Cup Series after a one-week hiatus.  The team has also unveiled its Darlington throwback entry for the Southern 500, which commemorates both Darrell Waltrip’s 2000 Victory Tour and Carl Long’s role in it.  When Waltrip failed to qualify for his final Coca-Cola 600, it was Long who let Waltrip drive his #85 Ford, foregoing his own Cup debut in the process.  Waltrip, who with brother Michael sponsored the #66 earlier this year, has been making a push on Twitter for someone to sponsor #66 this September.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #72 in an XFINITY Series race since November 10, 2007, when D.J. Kennington’s #72 Northern Provincial Pipe Lines Dodge for MacDonald Motorsports crashed after 7 laps of the Arizona Travel 200 at Phoenix.  The number hadn’t finished last in an XFINITY Series race at Loudon since June 30, 2007, when Randy MacDonald’s turn in the same car ended with handling issues after 12 laps of the Camping World 200 Presented by
*Jackson’s last-place finish is the first for a Dodge in the series since Chris Cook had suspension issues last August at Watkins Glen.  It’s the first last-place run for a non-Chevrolet this season – Ford and Toyota have yet to finish last in a 2017 XFINITY Series race.

1st) RSS Racing (10)
2nd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Kaulig Racing, King Autosport, Motorsports Business Management, Richard Childress Racing, Shepherd Racing Ventures, SS Green Light Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (16)
2nd) Dodge (1)


Thursday, July 13, 2017

7/11/93: First Cup Series last-place finish at Loudon and most recent for car #65 both belong to Jerry O’Neil

O'Neil's Oldsmobile in 1992
PHOTO: Source Unknown
On July 11, 1993, Jerry O’Neil picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Slick 50 300 at the New Hampshire International Speedway when his unsponsored #65 Aroneck Racing Chevrolet was involved in a multi-car accident after 9 of 300 laps.

The finish, which came in O’Neil’s 15th series start, was his first of the season and his first in a Cup Series points race since June 17, 1990, when his #53 Aroneck Racing Oldsmobile broke a crank after 22 laps of the Miller Genuine Draft 500 at Pocono.

Born in Auburn, New York, O’Neil started out in the Super Modified ranks and Top Fuel drags before he eyed a move to stock cars.  His first Cup attempt came on March 5, 1989, when he entered a red-and-black Chevrolet Monte Carlo.  The car was owned by Alan Aroneck, O’Neil’s crew chief from his drag racing days, who would go on to become the Chairman of the Board for Material Recovery Services, Inc.  Driving car #53, O’Neil qualified 33rd in the 42-car field and finished 28th, 16 laps down to race winner Rusty Wallace.

O’Neil and Aroneck attempted another six races that year, qualifying for both Charlotte races and the fall return to Rockingham, and also ran 28th out of 30 in his first Winston Open All-Star qualifying race at Charlotte.  His best run of the year came a week later in the Coca-Cola 600, where he ran 26th.

Late in the 1989 season, O’Neil upgraded to an all-white Oldsmobile Cutlass, and the following year brought it to Florida for his first attempt at the Daytona 500.  Despite a 21st-place finish in his Twin 125-mile qualifier, he made the cut for the 500, securing the 39th spot in the 42-car field.  At the start, his was one of the first cars to be passed by polesitter Ken Schrader, whose #25 Kodiak Chevrolet had been sent to the back after a last-lap wreck in his 125 sent him to a backup car.  In the end, Schrader lost an engine and finished 40th while O’Neil grabbed 31st.

It was during the 1990 season that O’Neil made his first Cup start at his home track, Watkins Glen International.  Driving the #2 Nice ‘n Easy Pontiac for longtime owner-driver D.K. Ulrich, O’Neil started 35th and worked his way up to 26th, tying his career-best run at Charlotte the year before.  After missing the cut at The Glen in his own car in 1991, O’Neil then gave Ulrich a ride in a second Arnoeck Oldsmobile at Dover in 1992.  Ulrich parked the #85 after 21 laps in what turned out to be the Californian’s 273rd and final Cup start.

It was in 1992 that O’Neil made his most starts of any season, qualifying for six of his nine attempts.  He improved his career-best finish at Pocono on June 14, where he ran 21st, 12 laps down, in what became Alan Kulwicki’s final Cup Series win.  The #65 picked up sponsorship from Wheels Discount Auto that summer, and he carried the brand to a 25th-place finish in the rain-shortened Watkins Glen event, then 29th that fall at Charlotte.  His best run of the year came in the first night running of the Winston Open, where he ran 14th in the 25-car field.

That same ’92 season, O’Neil branched out into ARCA, running double-duty at both Pocono races, the season finale at Atlanta, and the stand-alone race at Texas World Speedway.  He finished a strong 5th in the Texas event, his first race in a Chevrolet, and followed Mickey Gibbs, Roy Payne, polesitter Loy Allen, Jr., and West Series regular John Krebs to the finish line.  He also earned a lead-lap finish at Pocono in July, besting Frank Kimmel and Bobby Bowsher, among others.  A career-best 3rd came in O’Neil’s next ARCA appearance at Pocono, where this time he trailed only race winner Bob Schacht and runner-up Jimmy Horton.

Heading into the summer of 1993, O’Neil had yet to make a single Cup race.  He was the second-slowest of nine DNQs for the Winston 500 at Talladega, the third slowest of seven for the Coca-Cola 600, and the 13th slowest of an incredible 20 for the Pepsi 400 at Daytona.  Fortunately, just 41 drivers were set to attempt the 40-car grid for the following week’s Slick 50 300, the first Cup Series race at the New Hampshire International Speedway.  In qualifying, O’Neil secured the 36th starting spot, more than enough to bump the Henley Gray / Jimmy Means effort of Clay Young in the #62 Ford.  This time, O’Neil’s white Chevrolet was painted black, similar to his old Top Fuel dragster “Down and Dirty.”

Means himself started last in the 40-car field in the black #52 Hurley Limo Ford.  Ahead of him inside the Top 20 were two Busch Series regulars making their Cup debuts, each with experience on the Loudon track since it joined their circuit in 1990.  Joe Nemechek entered his own #87 Chevrolet with sponsorship from Dentyne and started 15th.  And starting 6th in the #0 TIC Financial Ford, Jeff Burton gave car owner Fil Martocci (of FILMAR Racing) his own first Cup start in a Ford that Mark Martin raced earlier that year at North Wilkesboro.

Heading into Turn 1 on Lap 2, Burton was trying to clear Ken Schrader for 4th when the two made contact, sending both cars into a lazy spin.  While Schrader managed to escape into the grass, Burton crossed the path of Ernie Irvan’s #4 Kodak Chevrolet.  The two collided, causing damage to Burton’s left-front and Irvan’s right-front.  Morgan Shepherd also suffered damage to the nose of the Wood Brothers’ #21 Citgo Ford.  Schrader was still on pit road for the Lap 6 restart, the crew working on the right-front of his car.  He returned to the track one lap down, only to be involved in the second caution of the day.

On Lap 10, a multi-car wreck unfolded off Turn 4, pinning Phil Parsons’ #41 Manheim Auto Auctions Chevrolet in the outside wall and sending Schrader’s #25 spinning down the track.  Through the cloud of smoke, O’Neil was collected by Michael Waltrip’s #30 Pennzoil Pontiac, and both cars slammed into the inside wall.  Waltrip managed to drive back to pit road, and Schrader crossed the line before abandoning his car in the infield.  But Parsons and O’Neil were done for the day.  O’Neil, who was running behind Parsons before the crash, was thus credited with the last-place finish.  Schrader lost an engine and secured 38th.  Burton crashed a second time on Lap 90, putting his #0 behind the wall.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Nemechek, who broke a rocker arm on his #87.

O’Neil ran 18th in his final ARCA start during the following week’s return to Pocono, a weekend whose events were overshadowed by the death of Davey Allison.  His final Cup start came three months later on October 10, during the Mello Yello 500 at Charlotte.  This time, he qualified 32nd in the 42-car field, well ahead of eight drivers sent home after time trials.  Among the DNQs were Dave Marcis and current Truck Series competitor Norm Benning.  O’Neil finished 34th in the race out with a drop in oil pressure just 23 laps short of the finish.

With sponsorship from the X-1R Corporation and another team alliance, this time with Phil Barkdoll, O’Neil attempted three more Cup fields into the first part of the 1994 season, including the inaugural Brickyard 400, but made none of those races.  His only green flag that year came in his fifth and final Winston Open appearance, where his Chevrolet finished on the lead lap, 20th out of 36 starters.  With that, his final points race in 1993 marked the 97th and most recent Cup Series start for car #65, the least-used number currently available to Cup teams.

But the story doesn’t end there.  When the O’Neil family moved from New York to Mooresville, North Carolina to pursue their Cup effort, Jerry’s son Brandon looked to get into racing himself.  He started racing quarter midgets and dirt go-karts, then worked on his father’s Hooters Pro Cup team when Jerry made a pair of starts in 1998 and 1999.  Brandon has since racked up victories in both New York and North Carolina, and can now be seen driving his father’s #65 on his Dirt Late Model.  For more on Brandon and the O’Neil team, check out his website here.

*This remains the fourth and most recent last-place finish for car #65 in a Cup Series points race.  The only other instances were Tommie Crozier’s run at Pocono in 1989, and two finishes by Allan Harley in 1962 (one each at Bristol and Asheville-Weaverville Speedway).

40) #65-Jerry O’Neil / 9 laps / crash
39) #41-Phil Parsons / 9 laps / crash
38) #25-Ken Schrader / 14 laps / engine
37) #0-Jeff Burton / 86 laps / crash
36) #87-Joe Nemechek / 119 laps / rocker arm

*1993 Slick 50 300 at New Hampshire, TNN (posted on YouTube by BigTNASCAR)
*Brandon O’Neil Official Website,

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Preliminary Entry List Storylines: Loudon

Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire

For the first time since Sonoma and the 13th time in 2017, there aren’t enough cars to fill this Sunday’s 40-car field.  Motorsports Business Management, fresh off a 31st-place finish for Timmy Hill at Kentucky, has not entered its #66 Chevrolet this weekend, leaving the grid at 39 cars – the shortest Cup field to ever take the green in its 24 years on the circuit.

Pending the outcome of today’s test at Charlotte, New Hampshire will be the scene of Aric Almirola’s return to Cup Series competition since his brutal accident at Kansas two months ago.  Though he finished last here in September 2015, that finish remains Almirola’s only DNF at Loudon, where his best finish at the track was a 5th in 2013.  Despite a last-lap wreck with Matt Kenseth, Darrell Wallace, Jr. performed admirably in his fourth Cup start at Kentucky, finishing a season-best 11th.

The other team with the driver “to be announced” is Rick Ware Racing.  Last week, the Ware team selected B.J. McLeod to make his first Cup start since 2015, resulting in a 32nd-place finish.  Although not confirmed, McLeod could potentially drive again as he made his Cup debut at Loudon for Circle Sport and will be at the speedway for Saturday’s XFINITY Series race.

Give a call to Premium Motorsports, who as reported here on Saturday, averted a near disaster that would have prevented them from completing a single lap of the race, ultimately finishing 35th.  Gray Gaulding will again be piloting the #55 Toyota in the second race of his two-race deal – as of this writing, the team’s driver for Indianapolis and onward has yet to be announced.  Teammate Reed Sorenson quietly finished 28th Saturday in Premium’s #15, the best finish by that car since its season-best 25th at Kansas.

A pair of blown tires put Joey Gase out of the race last week, and he won’t be back in BK Racing’s #23 Toyota until next month at Bristol.  In the meantime, the team has returned to its Coke Zero 400 lineup with Corey LaJoie in the #23 and Ryan Sieg in the #83.  Sieg finished 27th last Saturday, one spot short of his season-best 26th at his Dover debut.  LaJoie returns to the scene of his own Cup debut for Randy Humphrey Racing in 2014, when he finished 41st in the #77 Fochler Veterans Law / Ford.

It’s been a rough summer for TriStar Motorsports as driver Cole Whitt has failed to finish five of his last seven starts, four of them due to blown engines.  His best finish at Loudon in five previous starts was a 24th two years ago for Front Row Motorsports.  It will be just the fourth Cup Series entry at Loudon for team owner Mark Smith, whose three finishes were 32nd (Greg Sacks in the 1993 inaugural), 42nd (Reed Sorenson in 2012), and 43rd (Mike Bliss in 2013).

Overton’s 200 at New Hampshire

For the first time this season, there aren’t enough XFINITY Series teams to fill the 40-car field.  Just 39 drivers will take the green flag, the shortest field for the series at this track since 38 lined up on May 12, 2001 (and last-place finisher Mark Green did not start).

Among the missing are Quin Houff for Precision Performance Motorsports in the #46 Chevrolet, the Biagi DenBeste Racing #98 for Casey Mears, and Ben Kennedy’s GMS Racing #96 (Kennedy will instead drive Richard Childress Racing’s #2 Richmond / Menards Chevrolet in place of Paul Menard).  There are also two fewer Cup Series interlopers with the omission of both Ryan Blaney (#12 for Penske Racing) and Kevin Harvick (#41 for Stewart-Haas Racing).  Unfortunately for the rest of the field, they will still have to deal with Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Ty Dillon, and Kyle Larson.

Also pulling double-duty is Reed Sorenson, who this week takes his turn in JD Motorsports’ #15.  Though this car has been withdrawn every time it has been entered (both at Daytona and Kentucky), this week’s short field will likely keep it in the show.  Best of the Johnny Davis team last Saturday in Kentucky was Ross Chastain, who finished 20th ahead of Garrett Smithley (26th) and Harrison Rhodes (28th), the first race where all three finished under power since Michigan.

Welcome back Tommy Joe Martins, who will drive B.J. McLeod’s #78 Chevrolet for the first time since his breakthrough 11th-place finish at Iowa.  Reports indicate that Martins may again attempt to field his ow #45 Diamond Gusset Jeans Chevrolet next week in Indianapolis.  Joining Martins on the return from Iowa is Dylan Lupton, who finished 15th that night in JGL Racing’s #24 Nut Up Toyota.

Also returning this week is Martin Roy, who we last saw finish 32nd at Talladega.  Roy returns to Mario Gosselin’s #90 Cote / Gamache Truck Center Chevrolet and looks to improve on his season-best 25th at Fontana.  King Autosport's second entry, #92, remains missing in action since Josh Williams’ crash at Daytona.

Next Race: Aspen Dental 150 at Eldora
Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Sunday, July 9, 2017

CUP: Gray Gaulding comes up short of setting unprecedented last-place record, handing 40th to Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at the Kentucky Speedway when his #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet was involved in a multi-car accident after 87 of 274 laps.

The finish, which came in Johnson’s 561st start, was his first of the season and his first in a Cup points race since last August at Watkins Glen, 32 races ago.

Just over three months after The Glen ended his streak of 529 Cup Series starts without a last-place finish, the moment became a distant footnote to his record-setting seventh series title, captured with a hard-fought win in the Homestead finale.  This year, Johnson shook off a slow start to the season with back-to-back victories at Texas and Bristol, then at Dover tied his hero Cale Yarborough with his 83rd career Cup victory, his 11th at “The Monster Mile.”  Heading into Kentucky, Johnson was still in search of Win #84, and a chance to tie Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for fourth on the all-time win list.  Ironically, Johnson had finished inside the Top 10 just once since the Dover win, a 10th at Michigan.  He’d also run no better than 3rd at Kentucky, which came in the 2011 inaugural.

In practice, Johnson turned the 12th-fastest lap in Friday’s first session, 6th in Happy Hour, and qualified 8th with a lap of 189.321mph.

Starting last on Saturday night was point leader Kyle Larson, whose #42 Target Chevrolet was unable to pass pre-qualifying inspection in time to take a timed lap.  He was joined at the rear of the field by Ryan Newman, whose Richard Childress Racing team swapped engines on his #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet.  As the field cued up for the start, both were joined by B.J. McLeod and Jeffrey Earnhardt.  McLeod, who hadn’t made a Cup start since 2015, was rumored to drive Rick Ware Racing’s #51 on Thursday.  By Friday, he’d climbed aboard the Ware team’s orange Clemson University car from Pocono, though this time without any of the college’s logos.  Earnhardt was back in Circle Sport with The Motorsport Group’s green #33 Chevrolet, which again carried sponsorship from Hulu.  But as the field neared the start, still another driver was already making a bid for last.

Gray Gaulding began the 2017 season with BK Racing, scoring a season-best finish of 20th at Talladega.  Following a 29th-place finish at Pocono in June, his #23 was then driven by Ryan Sieg at Michigan, Alon Day at Sonoma, and teammate Corey LaJoie at Daytona.  During this time, Gaulding tweeted that he had signed to drive Premium Motorsports’ #55 car at both Kentucky and New Hampshire.  His Kentucky car would carry logos for #CheckIt4Andretti, the colon cancer initiative inspired by NASCAR veteran John Andretti.  Gaulding started 39th of the 40 drivers in the field, but at the start was already making a trip down pit road.  The crew looked under the car, then instructed Gaulding to make a slow lap to make it back to the entrance of the garage area.  Incredibly, when Gaulding made it back to the garage area for a rear end change, NASCAR had not yet credited the #55 with completing a lap.  Following the first-lap exits of Norm Benning on Thursday and Brandon Jones earlier on Saturday, LASTCAR history was at hand.  If the Premium Motorsports team was unable to complete repairs, it would mark the first time in NASCAR history that the last-place finishers of all three national series on a given weekend each failed to turn a lap in their race.

However, from the first moments of trouble, Premium Motorsports announced that the repairs were soon to be complete, and they would be coming back onto the track.  For better or worse, this has become one of the team’s traditions.  A similar situation happened to Timmy Hill on two occasions back in 2015.  At Indianapolis, his backup car broke an axle coming to the green.  At Michigan, his Chevrolet sprung an oil leak that delayed the start.  Both times, the crew managed to get the car back out there for several more laps.  Another instance occurred with Derrike Cope earlier this year at Fontana, where the #55 pulled in for dragging bodywork which interfered with the car’s handling.  Though apparently headed for Cope’s first last-place finish since 2006, the #55 rolled back out with 33 laps to go, finishing 38th.

Around Lap 44, Premium Motorsports tweeted an update, showing the crew focusing on the left-rear of the car.  On the 55th circuit, Gaulding fired the engine, and the team waited for crowds to part so they could make their way back out of the garage.  This was done on Lap 57, when they finally crossed the stripe for the first time.  While preventing NASCAR’s first-ever streak of last-place finishers who failed to complete a lap, it does mark the first time that both the XFINITY and Truck Series last-placers did so at the same track and on the same weekend.

Gaulding settled into a rhythm as the first stage ended on Lap 81.  When the race went green seven circuits later, the last-place battle took another unexpected turn.  Heading into the third corner, a tight battle for sixth developed between Brad Keselowski’s #2 Miller Lite Ford and the #14 Rush Truck Centers Ford of Clint Bowyer.  As the two worked the middle lane, Keselowski broke loose under Bowyer, sending both cars into a spin.  Stuck behind both cars, Johnson clipped the left-front of Keselowski’s car with his right-front, sending the #48 straight into the outside wall.  Johnson managed to slow his car down, but couldn’t avoid heavy contact with the barrier, destroying the right-front suspension.  Johnson pulled into the garage, done for the night.  Johnson fell to 39th on Lap 107, then to last on the 146th circuit.  Gray Gaulding managed to escape the Bottom Five, finishing 35th.

Following the Johnson crash, Brad Keselowski made a pit stop, then a slow lap similar to Gaulding’s before also pulling behind the wall.  He finished 39th on the night, two laps behind Johnson.  It marks the third time this year that Keselowski has come within four laps of scoring his first-ever last-place finish in a Cup Series points race.  As of this writing, he is 0-for-287, the second-longest active streak behind Kevin Harvick’s mark of 592.

The next two retirees wrecked not long after the ensuing restart.  On Lap 94, Kasey Kahne and Trevor Bayne lost control in Turn 2, sending both cars into the fence.  Kahne ended up with the most damage to the right side of his white #5 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, and made a quick trip to the garage area.  Bayne’s #6 Roush Performance / Lebanon Ford-sponsored Ford escaped with damage to the rear clip, and the team managed to get him back out there with tape and screws drilled into the battered rear decklid.  With the already-small rear spoiler now out of alignment, however, the #6 proved too difficult to handle, and he exited the race not long after a spin on Lap 112.

Rounding out the Bottom Five was Joey Gase, making his first Cup start since Talladega.  Returning to the #23 Best Home Furnishings Toyota he raced in this year’s Daytona 500, Gase slammed the wall in Turn 1 on Lap 137, ending his night.

*This marked the first Cup Series last-place finish for the #48 on a 1.5-mile oval.

40) #48-Jimmie Johnson / 87 laps / crash
39) #2-Brad Keselowski / 89 laps / crash
38) #5-Kasey Kahne / 93 laps / crash
37) #6-Trevor Bayne / 101 laps / crash
36) #23-Joey Gase / 129 laps / crash

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

1st) Chevrolet (10)
2nd) Toyota (5)
3rd) Ford (3)


XFINITY: Hard luck Brandon Jones becomes just second Richard Childress Racing driver to finish last in 22 years

Brandon Jones picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Alsco 300 at the Kentucky Speedway when his #33 AAA / Bob Sumerel Tire & Service Chevrolet was involved in a multi-car accident coming to the green flag of the 200-lap race.  The finish came in Jones’ 54th series start.

As mentioned by the booth on Saturday, Jones has steadily developed into a contender despite some bad luck along the way.  In 2012, during his first K&N Pro Series East race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway, the 15-year-old was running on the lead lap when a wreck with Darrell Wallace, Jr. left him 14th.  Two years later, as a development driver for Turner Motorsports, Jones won his first East race at Iowa, plus a pair of ARCA wins at Winchester and Indianapolis Raceway Park.  Turner also gave Jones his start in the Truck Series in 2013, where he ran 27th in his debut at Bristol, and his first Top 5 came the next year at Dover.

Turner Motorsports’ closure left Jones without a ride until GMS Racing picked him up in early 2015.  In their first race together at Martinsville, Jones ran 15th.  Despite missing the first two rounds of the season, Jones would go on to score four Top Fives and eight Top Tens in 17 starts, good enough for 15th in the series standings.  Through GMS’ technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, Jones also broke into the XFINITY Series that year, finishing 8th in his debut at Iowa, then 5th at Kentucky.  It became an easy decision to put Jones in Childress’ #33 full-time in 2016, during which time he scored Top Tens in 12 of 33 races with a best of 6th at Las Vegas.

Coming into Kentucky, Jones had scored his first XFINITY Series pole at Daytona, but had finished in the Top 10 just once all year (a 9th at Michigan).  He had also yet to finish in the Top Five in XFINITY since his series debut.  His performances have been better in ARCA and Trucks, where he’s continued to compete this year.  He’d won the last two ARCA races at Michigan and his two most recent Truck finishes for MDM Motorsports were a 6th at Dover and 3rd at Iowa.  He ran the Trucks again on Thursday, and this time waged a furious two-truck battle for the lead with Christopher Bell.  For ten laps, Jones closed, then fell back, then closed again, only to earn his first runner-up finish by 0.187 second.

After Friday’s rainout of track activities, Jones was certainly looking forward to the XFINITY race.  But 3rd-fastest in Friday’s only practice session and 11th in the first round of qualifying, Jones struggled in Round 2, missing the cut with the 20th-fastest lap of 178.165mph.  As it turned out, this would prove critical on race day.

Qualifying proved just as wild at the other end of the field.  44 drivers were originally entered, but even after JD Motorsports withdrew Joe Nemechek’s #15, three would still miss the cut.  First to find trouble was Brandon Brown in King Autosports’ #90 Coastal Carolina University Chevrolet.  On his warm-up lap, Brown lost control in Turn 3 and backed into the outside wall.  Without a backup car or a timed lap in the session, the #90 team was forced to withdraw.  Also missing the cut was Quin Houff, who spun during his first timed lap and had to abort his run in the #46 Chevrolet.  It then came down to Morgan Shepherd, who needed to break the Top 33 to get his #89 Racing With Jesus Chevrolet into the show.  Despite several runs, his best lap of 170.951mph fell two-tenths short of Harrison Rhodes’ 172.474mph, and Shepherd became the third car sent home.

Starting 40th and last on Saturday was Angela Ruch (formerly Angela Cope), who was making her first XFINITY Series start in nearly five years.  This time around, she would be driving for B.J. McLeod in the #78, bringing with her sponsorship from the “Give A Child A Voice” foundation.  Lined up next to the #74 Veterans Motorsports, Inc. Dodge of Mike Harmon, Ruch only held the spot for a matter of seconds as trouble broke out in front of her.

While polesitter Kyle Busch accelerated at the very end of the “Restart Zone,” nearly the entire rest of the pack anticipated a much earlier start, causing the cars to stack up behind Busch and outside-polesitter Erik Jones.  The pinch point came ten rows back, where Ryan Reed’s #16 Lilly Diabetes Ford rear-ended the #11 Leaf Filter Gutter Protection Chevrolet of Blake Koch.  At that same moment, Koch bumped the back of Brendan Gaughan’s #62 South Point Hotel & Casino Chevrolet at just the right angle to hook Gaughan to the right – directly into the left-front of Jones’ #33.  While all the other drivers involved were able to complete repairs inside the “Crash Clock,” Jones’ left-front damage was enough to send him behind the wall, out of the race.

39th went to Gaughan, whose damaged #62 cut down a right-front tire on the restart, sending him hard into the Turn 2 wall.  Ryan Reed, who suffered heavy nose damage in the wreck, lost two laps and took a trip behind the wall for an oil leak, but could only climb to 36th before overheating issues ended his day.  Between Gaughan and Reed were Timmy Hill, whose #13 OCR Gaz Bar Toyota was locked-into the field after Brandon Brown’s qualifying crash, and 2017 LASTCAR XFINITY Series runner-up Jeff Green in RSS Racing’s #93 Chevrolet.

*As of Saturday, Richard Childress Racing has fielded 1,425 XFINITY Series entries since their series debut in 1995.  Saturday marked only the second time one of those cars has finished last.  The other time came on June 12, 2005, when Brandon Miller’s turn in the #21 Reese’s Chevrolet ended with a crash after 33 laps of the Federated Auto Parts 300 at the Nashville Superspeedway.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #33 in an XFINITY Series race since July 22, 2000, when Tony Raines’ run in BACE Motorsports’ #33 Alka-Seltzer Plus / Aleve Chevrolet ended with a Turn 4 crash after 206 laps.
*This was also the first time an XFINITY Series driver finished last without completing a lap since July 23, 2016, when Todd Peck’s #15 Keen Portable Buildings / Momo Ford fell out with engine trouble on the first lap of the Lily Diabetes 250 at Indianapolis (though he lost the engine after turning 15 of 20 laps in the second heat race).

40) #33-Brandon Jones / 0 laps / crash
39) #62-Brendan Gaughan / 6 laps / crash
38) #13-Timmy Hill / 31 laps / suspension
37) #93-Jeff Green / 53 laps / ignition
36) #16-Ryan Reed / 55 laps / overheating

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

1st) Chevrolet (16)


TRUCKS: Norm Benning’s smoking engine makes the show - but not a lap - at Kentucky

PHOTO: FS1, Capture by Timecard100
Norm Benning picked up the 10th last-place finish of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career in Thursday’s Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 at the Kentucky Speedway when his unsponsored #6 Norm Benning Racing Chevrolet fell out with engine trouble without completing any of the 150 laps.

The finish, which came in Benning’s 171st series start, was his first of the season and his first in the Truck Series since last fall at Texas, 12 races ago.

The prolific owner-driver from Pennsylvania entered the 2017 season after one of the most difficult seasons of his career.  A streak of five consecutive DNQs at the start of the year kept him off the track until this very Kentucky race last season, when Mike Mittler had him drive his locked-in #63 Chevrolet.  At the end of the season, Benning’s #6 had made just three starts – one each with himself, Sean Corr, and Ryan Ellis, the last of which at Michigan earning the number its most recent last-place finish.

Another three DNQs opened Benning’s 2017 campaign, but he’s made every race since with a season-best 17th at Texas.  This summer, with the Truck Series now having trouble assembling a full 32-truck field, Benning has returned to entering his backup truck as a “start-and-park,” carrying his old #57.  Tommy Regan was the first to drive it last month at Gateway, finishing 29th in a field of 30, followed by J.J. Yeley’s last-place run at Iowa.  For Kentucky, there was no driver listed.  But by the night of the race, the #57 was driven by B.J. McLeod, who for the first time in his career would run triple-duty in Cup (for Rick Ware Racing in the #51), XFINITY (in his own #8), and Trucks.

Wednesday’s three practice sessions were cut to two as teams struggled to make it to the track on time, and lingering weather issues combined with a 34-truck entry list would make every second count.  In the first session, Benning came out on track in #6, but did not complete a lap, perhaps due to the very engine problem that ended his night Thursday.  He then turned his attention to the #57, running two laps, but anchoring the charts with a lap of 153.605mph, nearly six seconds off the lap of session leader Grant Enfinger.

The #57 then sat out Wednesday’s second session while Benning put up his required single lap in #6, running another three seconds slower at a conservative 141.025mph.  Despite the struggles, when rain canceled qualifying, Benning’s rank in Owner Points secured him the 17th spot on the grid.  The #57 also made the show on its five attempts, and B.J. McLeod was tabbed to drive.  This allowed McLeod to run triple-duty for this first time in his career after a similar last-minute deal for Rick Ware Racing’s #51 in Cup (on top of his own XFINITY ride #8).

Unable to put up a lap in qualifying, Joe Nemechek’s part-time #87 (with only two attempts) was sent home.  Jennifer Jo Cobb withdrew her second truck, #0, which was first listed for Tommy Regan, then later Joey Gase.  The #0 had three prior attempts in 2017, which would have put the truck ahead of Nemechek, but behind the #22 Tim Self-owned entry of Austin Wayne Self, which had four.  As a result, Self’s #22 Airflotek / Snap Track Toyota lined up last on the starting grid.

During Thursday’s pace laps, however, Self was joined by Chase Briscoe, who destroyed his primary #29 Cooper Standard Ford after a flat tire caused a hard practice crash in the Turn 2 wall.  Had the accident not happened, Briscoe would have started 3rd on points.  Both Benning and B.J. McLeod also went to the rear as they had both missed the driver’s meeting.  As the two black Chevrolets found their way to the back of the pack, Benning’s truck was smoking once more, and he pulled into the garage before he could complete a lap.  McLeod followed the next time by.

Finishing 30th was Dover last-place Camden Murphy in the Mike Mittler / D.J. Copp #63.  Continuing a trend from other Truck Series teams, Murphy’s #63 had a strip of tape across the driver’s side of the roof with “Monster Jam Cam” written on it, a reference to Murphy’s other driving duties in the Pirate’s Curse monster truck.

29th went to Matt Mills, who drove in a combined effort between Martins Motorsports and Faith Motorsports.  While Martins sold the #44 to Faith earlier this year, the threat of rain risked Martins’ own #42 Thompson Electric Chevrolet missing another race, so they changed the truck number to ensure Faith’s spot in the field.  Unfortunately, Mills drew the first caution on Lap 22 when he lost control as the leaders lapped him in Turn 4, causing the #44 to hit the wall with the right-front.

Rounding out the Bottom Five was Grant Enfinger, whose fast #98 Ride TV Toyota led five laps early only to be eliminated in a multi-truck accident with Ben Rhodes, T.J. Bell, and Matt Crafton.

*Benning himself scored the number’s only other last-place finish at Kentucky in 2015, when his #6 Chevrolet had engine troubles after 2 laps of the UNOH 225.
*This marked the second time in three races where the Truck Series’ last-place finisher did not complete the opening lap, joining Jennifer Jo Cobb’s race last month at Gateway.

32) #6-Norm Benning / 0 laps / engine
31) #57-B.J. McLeod / 1 lap / overheating
30) #63-Camden Murphy / 10 laps / electrical
29) #44-Matt Mills / 20 laps / crash
28) #98-Grant Enfinger / 41 laps / crash / led 5 laps

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

1st) Chevrolet (10)