Monday, July 31, 2017

CUP: Aric Almirola edges Matt DiBenedetto by a matter of feet in controversial last-place battle

Aric Almirola picked up the 10th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Overton’s 400 at the Pocono Raceway when his #43 Smithfield Ford was involved in a multi-car accident without completing any of the 160 laps.

The finish, which came in Almirola’s 229th series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup Series race since last fall’s Homestead finale, 22 races ago.

Easily the biggest story of Almirola’s 2017 was his brutal accident at Kansas and his subsequent recovery.  That night, on May 13, Almirola was sitting 20th in points.  He’d finished 4th in the Daytona 500 and though he incurred a post-race penalty at Talladega, he hadn’t scored a single DNF.  That all changed on Lap 199, when his #43 Smithfield Ford was caught in the debris field caused by Joey Logano and Danica Patrick’s accident, sending him hurtling into the wreck.  Cut from his car and transported to a local hospital, Almirola was diagnosed with a compression fracture to his T5 vertebra.  He was slated to miss eight to twelve weeks, but nine weeks later, he was back at the track, finishing 24th at Loudon.  A 13th-place finish in the crash-filled Brickyard 400 carried him into Sunday’s race at Pocono, just his third race back.

An abbreviated two-day schedule saw Almirola run 29th and 28th in Saturday’s two practice sessions, then narrowly missed the cut for Round 2 in Sunday morning’s qualifying, putting up a lap of 174.544mph as one of only 11 drivers to attempt three timed laps.  The run put Almirola 25th on the grid.

Starting 38th in what was, for the second-straight Pocono race, the shortest Cup field at the track since June 1991, was current 2017 LASTCAR Cup Series leader Jeffrey Earnhardt.  Earnhardt was the only driver to not complete a lap in qualifying, and when the team was forced to change batteries, they incurred a redundant “unapproved adjustments” penalty.  Joining him at the rear was Derrike Cope, back with Premium Motorsports in the #55 Toyota for the first time since the June race at Pocono, who was penalized for missing the driver’s meeting.  Two more drivers fell to the back voluntarily: the #15 LaColombe Coffee Chevrolet of Cope’s teammate Gray Gaulding, and Stephen Leicht.  Leicht, making his first Cup start since he locked-up Rookie of the Year in the fall of 2012, was on Thursday tabbed to drive BK Racing’s #83 Dustless Blasting Toyota.  When the race started, Leicht began to lose touch with the rest of the field, and was already five seconds behind the leader as he entered the Tunnel Turn.

Suddenly, as the field entered Turn 3, 15th-place starter Matt Kenseth lost control as he raced inside of Jimmie Johnson for 14th.  As Kenseth slid slowly up the track, the entire rest of the field bunched up, triggering an eight-car accident.  The two principals in the ensuing last-place battle found themselves on opposite sides of the crash.  At the front, Almirola rear-ended the #95 FDNY Foundation Chevrolet of Michael McDowell as he slowed behind Kyle Larson, destroying the nose of #43.  At the rear, Matt DiBenedetto slowed his #32 as Austin Dillon spun directly in front of him.  As Dillon spun up the track to collect Paul Menard and Chris Buescher, DiBenedetto drove his left-side tires onto the grass separating the track from the access road.  First Buescher, then Almirola spun into his path, and DiBenedetto cut the #32 harder to the left.  It was too late.  At the instant DiBenedetto’s splitter dug into the grass, the right-front of the #32 clipped the nose of Almirola’s car.  DiBenedetto’s car then dug into the dirt once more, sending a volley of dirt and grass showering all over the track.  Leicht, still last at the time, slowed as he arrived at the scene, then picked his way through the wrecked cars, dropping those involved to last.

As Leicht drove by, attention turned to the two cars with the most serious damage – Almirola and DiBenedetto, which were now ranked 37th and 38th.  DiBenedetto never stopped after his contact with Almirola and drove his battered car slowly down the apron.  The right-front of the #32 was battered and bent from the contact with the #43, and the hood and front valence were both visibly warped from the splitter digging into the grass.  He then pulled into his pit stall, No. 37, which was six stalls away from the start / finish line.  Almirola fired his car up and followed DiBenedetto to pit road, but with much heavier damage to the nose, the car was billowing smoke. Unable to see past the buckled hood, Almirola stopped his car in the middle of pit lane several feet behind DiBenedetto’s pit stall.  There, Almirola climbed out of the car.  Like the #32, the #43 had not crossed the start/finish line.

While both Almirola and DiBenedetto were eliminated from the race under NASCAR’s new “Crash Clock,” the new rule caused a scoring error as it conflicted with pre-2016 crash protocol.

Under traditional NASCAR rules, had both DiBenedetto and Almirola needed to both be towed to the garage area from where they first stopped, neither would have been credited with completing a single lap of the race.  The finishing order - and, thus, who finished last – would have been determined by each car’s running order the previous lap.  Since this wreck happened on the first lap of the race, who finished ahead of who would have been determined by their original starting position.  Under this scenario, DiBenedetto would have been credited with last because he qualified 29th while Almirola started 25th.

However, when both cars were brought to the garage area, their positions changed.  Over the next three laps, both cars were brought to the garage through the first opening after DiBenedetto’s pit stall.  Since this opening was at the exact same spot as Pocono’s start / finish line, driving into the garage area would cause that car to complete that lap.  Whoever reached that opening first would be credited with completing that lap first, ranking him ahead of the other wrecked car (instead of relying on starting position, as above).

Almirola (above) and DiBenedetto (below) pulling into
the garage on Laps 2 and 3 (from RaceView)
According to NASCAR RaceView, Almirola’s
car pulled into the garage first on Lap 2, followed by DiBenedetto on Lap 3.  Both RaceView and NBC Sports interpreted this to mean both cars drove into the garage area under their own power, and thus Almirola was 37th with DiBenedetto 38th.  A similar situation happened in the 1970 Daytona 500, where Richard Petty blew the engine on his own #43 on Lap 8.  As he pulled into the garage area, Cecil Gordon’s #24 Ford followed Petty into the garage, citing a busted a-frame.  Thus, NASCAR scored Gordon, the second car entering the garage, as finishing last, but on the same lap as Petty.

However, what happened on Sunday differed
from 1970.  While both Petty and Gordon drove into the garage under power, only DiBenedetto actually drove into the garage.  Almirola had climbed from his car on pit road, and on Lap 2, his car was towed past the #32 into the opening at the start / finish line.  Thus, even though Almirola’s car “beat” DiBenedetto’s to the garage area, the fact that it didn’t do so under power invalidated the “pass” of the #32 on pit road, keeping #43 in last.  By driving through the opening, and thus over the start / finish line, DiBenedetto was credited with one lap complete.  Almirola’s car, by virtue of being towed, didn’t complete that lap.  The “Crash Clock” only served to lock-in those two finishing positions, ranking Almirola behind DiBenedetto.  In essence, DiBenedetto had completed exactly one lap while Almirola had run all but the last few feet of his – one of the closest LASTCAR battles in recent memory.
Cecil Gordon following Richard Petty to the garage, 1970

This result, showing Almirola in 38th and DiBenedetto one lap up in 37th, was properly indicated from the start both by’s online leaderboard as well as Pocono’s trackside timing and scoring in the media center.  While RaceView’s results were never corrected, NBC Sports updated their results when the post-race crawl was first shown.  The unofficial race results,, and on Monday, NASCAR’s official race results, all showed Almirola in last.  Only then was this article written.

There was no such controversy over the remainder of the Bottom Five.  36th went to Jeffrey Earnhardt, whose #33 Hulu Chevrolet shut down on Lap 17, returned to the track ten circuits later, then lost oil pressure on Lap 33.  35th went to Jimmie Johnson, whose #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet tangled with teammate Kasey Kahne off Turn 3.  Derrike Cope rounded out the Bottom Five in 34th as transmission issues stopped his #55 Sundance Vacations Toyota.

*This marked the second last-place finish for both Almirola and the #43 at Pocono.  Both trailed here in June 7, 2015, when his #43 Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs Ford had engine trouble after 88 laps of the Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400.
*This was also the first time a Pocono last-placer failed to complete the opening lap since July 28, 2002, after Steve Park’s spectacular accident with teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. during the first moments of the Pennsylvania 500.

38) #43-Aric Almirola / 0 laps / crash
37) #32-Matt DiBenedetto / 1 lap / crash
36) #33-Jeffrey Earnhardt / 24 laps / engine
35) #48-Jimmie Johnson / 57 laps / crash
34) #55-Derrike Cope / 85 laps / transmission

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

1st) Chevrolet (10)
2nd) Toyota (7)
3rd) Ford (4)


Sunday, July 30, 2017

XFINITY: Jeff Green scores 100th NASCAR last-place finish

Jeff Green picked up the 95th last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s U.S. Cellular 250 at the Iowa Speedway when his unsponsored #93 RSS Racing Chevrolet fell out with a vibration after he completed 3 of 254 laps.

The finish, which came in Green’s 466th series start, was his sixth of the season, his second in a row, and his 100th across NASCAR’s top three divisions (his other five coming in Cup).  With 14 races to go, Green now holds a one-finish lead over Jordan Anderson in the 2017 LASTCAR XFINITY Series Championship.

Green was originally slated to be one of 40 drivers to attempt the starting field for Saturday’s race.  However, when Morgan Shepherd entered his #89 Racing With Jesus Chevrolet, one team would be sent home.  Though Green was the only driver to not participate in Friday’s opening practice, in just two laps during Happy Hour, he secured the 29th-fastest lap of 40 drivers at 125.633mph.  The speed carried over into qualifying, where Green made Round 2 – improving even more to 21st with a lap of 128.545mph – then sat out the next round, securing him 24th.  The only team sent home was Motorsports Business Management’s #13 Crystal Clear Home Improvement Chevrolet, which was driven by Jeffrey Earnhardt’s brother Bobby Dale.

Starting 40th and last for the seventh time this season was Mike Harmon in Veterans Motorsports, Inc.’s #74 Dodge.  Harmon’s car was sponsored by Forj’d Leather, which is selling custom-made bracelets bearing Harmon’s car number.  Joining Harmon at the rear was Brandon Jones, who was forced to make an unapproved tire change on his #33 Jeld Wen / Menards Chevrolet.  Ultimately, it was Green who would trail them all, pulling behind the wall under green after three laps.

Finishing 39th was Reed Sorenson, whose “start-and-park” #15 Chevrolet has in less than a month become a new LASTCAR challenger.  This week, the red #15 carried sponsorship from Flex Liquid.  Like Jeff Green, Morgan Shepherd impressed in qualifying, not needing a provisional with a lap of 126.914mph.  Still, he wound up 38th, retiring after 46 laps with handling issues.  GMS Racing’s Spencer Gallagher ended up 37th after his #23 Allegiant Airlines Chevrolet cut a right-front tire in Turn 4 and slammed the outside wall.  Left with his second-consecutive Bottom Five was 36th-place Tyler Reddick, whose #42 Broken Bow Records / Jason Aldean Chevrolet finished under power, 36 laps down.

*Green not only sweeps both Iowa last-place finishes for the second time in his career (the other coming in 2013), but has now finished last in half of the 16 XFINITY races held at the track.

40) #93-Jeff Green / 3 laps / vibration
39) #15-Reed Sorenson / 9 laps / transmission
38) #89-Morgan Shepherd / 46 laps / handling
37) #23-Spencer Gallagher / 170 laps / crash
36) #42-Tyler Reddick / 218 laps / running

1st) RSS Racing (12)
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 (18)
2nd) Dodge (1)


TRUCKS: Mike Senica nearly pulls ARCA / Truck Series last-place sweep at Pocono

PHOTO: Sam Laughlin
Mike Senica picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career in Saturday’s Overton’s 150 at the Pocono Raceway when his unsponsored #57 Norm Benning Racing Chevrolet fell out with steering issues after 2 of 60 laps.  The finish came in Senica’s second series start.

The 51-year-old driver from Doylestown, Pennsylvania has taken a rather unique path into NASCAR.  A sports marketing businessman, certified flight instructor, and professional wrestler, Senica’s racing career began in SCCA and open-wheel Formula Ford competition.  His first exposure to stock cars came in 2005, when he attended the Fast Track Racing School in Charlotte.  He earned his ARCA license that year, and began to attempt races for a variety of teams, both in the ARCA Racing Series and the ARCA Truck Series.

Senica’s ARCA Racing Series debut came July 17, 2010 at Mansfield Motorsports Park.  Driving for Wayne Peterson, himself a veteran both in racing and as a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, Senica started 29th in the 32-car field and finished 30th.  He then drove for both Andy Hillenburg and Roger Carter, though each time ran just a handful of laps.  It wasn’t until last year, when he began to drive for Wayne Hixson, that he began to drive for longer distances.  Still cutting his teeth on underfunded teams, Senica’s career-best remains a 17th at Berlin, a race where he fell out with a vibration short of halfway.

At Pocono, Senica was slated to make his fourth start of the 2017 ARCA season in Friday’s ModSpace 150.  With fellow Pennsylvanian Steve Fox driving in his place in Hixson’s #3 Chevrolet, Senica would drive the team’s backup car.  A small “1” was added next to each “3” on the doors and roof, a detail that was noted in FOX Sports’ in-race graphics.  Senica pulled off the track after 14 laps with brake issues, ranking him 29th in a field of 30.  Finishing last was Eric Caudell in a third Hixson car, a #2 Ford sponsored by the team owner’s construction firm.  But that wasn’t to be the end of Senica’s weekend.

Last month at Iowa, Senica made his Truck Series debut in the M&M’s 200.  Driving for Copp Motorsports in the #83 Chevrolet, Senica brought with him sponsorship from PB2 Powdered Peanut Butter, a brand that had backed several of the driver’s stock car rides dating back to 2005.  While Senica worked his way from 32nd to 21st, the truck was flagged off the track for running too slow, ending his night 57 laps short of the distance.

Pocono would see Senica make his first Truck Series start since then, this time driving the second truck belonging to owner-driver Norm Benning.  In four previous starts, the truck had three different drivers – Tommy Regan, J.J. Yeley, and B.J. McLeod – and earned a last-place finish at Iowa.  While the preliminary entry list had McLeod set to run the #57 again, McLeod instead focused on his XFINITY Series effort in Iowa.  By Friday, it was Senica who climbed behind the wheel in Pocono’s opening practice.  His single lap of 138.215mph was the slowest of the 23 who took time that session.  After not participating in Happy Hour, he ran another single lap in qualifying – 135.196mph – more than 13 seconds slower than Ben Rhodes’ pole speed.

While Senica put up the slowest lap in qualifying, it was Justin Fontaine who started last in Saturday’s race.  Fontaine, making his first start of the season, brought his sponsorship from Promatic Automation to Bolen Motorsports and, with help from AM Racing, was tabbed to drive the #66 Toyota.  Despite running 17th and 15th in Friday’s two practice sessions, Fontaine was unable to complete a qualifying lap and instead settled on the final starting spot.  After several driver and team changes throughout the week, including the withdrawal of Josh Reaume’s #50 Chevrolet for Beaver Motorsports, 30 trucks would take the green with Fontaine and Senica filling Row 15.

Prior to the start of the race, three trucks – belonging to Jennifer Jo Cobb, Johnny Sauter, and Justin Haley – were sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments.  Todd Peck also pitted his #83 Pulse Transportation / National Arthritis Ford during the final pace lap.  By the third lap of the race, Senica had pulled his truck down pit road, where the crew briefly looked under the hood before pushing the truck behind the wall, locking up the last-place finish.

The next time by, Joe Nemechek, whose #87 Fire Alarm Services / D.A.B Constructors Chevrolet was a late entry to the event, pulled directly into the garage.  At that same moment, Dover last-placer Camden Murphy was also sitting in his pit stall with the hood up on Mike Mittler’s #36 Chevrolet.  Murphy’s truck then went behind the wall, followed shortly by the #0 Chevrolet from Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing.  Cody Ware was originally slated to drive the #0, but Matt Mills ran the six laps on Friday.  Mills himself was originally slated to drive the #44 Chevrolet under Faith Motorsports before Martins Motorsports entered its own truck under that shared number with Austin Wayne Self behind the wheel.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was the black #63 Chevrolet of 2003 series champion Travis Kvapil, who himself swapped rides with Camden Murphy at MB Motorsports.

Special thanks to reader Sam Laughlin, who reported trackside at Pocono on the Bottom Five and provided all the pictures used in this article.

*This marked the first last-place finish for truck #57 in a Truck Series race at Pocono.
*Senica’s finish ends a streak of back-to-back last-place finishes in this event by three-time and defending LASTCAR Truck Series champ Caleb Roark.
*This marked just the third time in Truck Series history that the last-place finisher fell out with steering issues.  The other two occurred in the series’ first-ever points race on February 5, 1995, when John Borneman’s #8 MJ Soffe Chevrolet retired after 22 laps of the Skoal Bandit Copper World Classic at Phoenix.  The other occurred on September 28, 2001, when Phil Bonifield’s #25 National Wild Turkey Federation Chevrolet fell out after 16 laps of NetZero 250 Presented by John Boy & Billy at the South Boston Speedway.

30) #57-Mike Senica / 2 laps / steering

29) #87-Joe Nemechek / 3 laps / vibration

28) #36-Camden Murphy / 4 laps / electrical

27) #0-Matt Mills / 6 laps / rear gear

26) #63-Travis Kvapil / 23 laps / vibration

1st) Norm Benning Racing (3)
2nd) Copp Motorsports, Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing (2)
3rd) Halmar Friesen Racing, Henderson Motorsports, MB Motorsports, MDM Motorsports, TJL Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (12)


Thursday, July 27, 2017

7/20/86: Canadian open-wheel driver Cliff Hucul exits early at Pocono

PHOTO: Winston Cup Scene
On July 20, 1986, Cliff Hucul picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Summer 500 at the Pocono International Raceway when his #60 Vernon & Sons Pontiac fell out with a broken clutch after 2 of the race’s 150 laps.  The finish came in Hucul’s series debut.

The Canadian racer, born in Prince George, British Columbia, began his career in open-wheel competition.  He began running B-modifieds in 1967, made his way to the A-modifieds in 1968, then jumped to the Candian-American Modified Racing Association (CAMRA).  In September 1975, Hucul claimed the track record at his home track, the three-eighths-mile PGARA Speedway.  Back then, Hucul drove a Super Modified that was once driven by four-time USAC champion and 1983 Indianapolis 500 winner Tom Sneva, whose younger brother Jerry won the CAMRA title in 1974.  While Hucul fell short of the ’75 CAMRA title, he soon eyed his own move to USAC, and a bid at the Indianapolis 500.

Running as a part-owner-driver, Hucul made his USAC Champ Car Series debut on March 6, 1977 at the Ontario Motor Speedway, where he finished 12th of 26 starters in an event won by A.J. Foyt.  He then qualified for his first Indianapolis 500 that May, becoming the third Canadian to do so, and finished 22nd with rear end trouble (that same day, Tom Sneva finished runner-up to A.J. Foyt).  Hucul’s first Top 10 came the following year at Phoenix, and while he picked up sponsorship from Wendy’s Hamburgers (in what was called the “Hot-N-Juicy Special”), a busted oil line left him last in his second Indy 500.  His best open-wheel finish came at the Texas World Speedway on April 8, 1979, when he ran 4th in yet another race won by Foyt.  His third and final Indy 500 start came that May, where a dropped valve left him 29th.

In 1986, Hucul hadn’t competed on the national tour in five seasons when the opportunity came to try his hand at NASCAR.  Team owner Bobby Eller started his own Winston Cup team, and can be credited with bringing Kodak Film into the sport as the team’s primary sponsor.  Eller signed journeyman driver Eddie Bierschwale from D.K Ulrich’s team, but the #94 Pontiac struggled to make the field.  By June, Kodak had left the team and signed with Morgan-McClure Motorsports, with whom they would remain through 2003.  With Bierschwale looking for other opportunities, Eller brought on Hucul for a four-race stretch that summer.

With the yellow car #94 renumbered #60 and carrying sponsorship from Texan tire supplier Vernon & Sons, Hucul was set to make his Cup debut at Pocono.  Hucul had made two Pocono starts in USAC, finishing 17th in 1978 and 11th in 1979.  Still, the #60 Pontiac proved just fast enough to make the field, securing the 40th and final starting spot.  Three drivers were sent home after time trials.  Veteran owner-driver Rick Newsom made what turned out to be his final Cup Series attempt, following a 14-year career in which he made 82 starts.  Corona, New York driver George Wiltshire in his #39 Oldsmobile had been attempting Cup races since 1968, but would turn his team’s attention to ARCA two years later.  Also missing the cut was Pennsylvania’s Ferdin Wallace, driving James Hylton’s #49, who made his own final Cup attempt after failing to qualify for that year’s Daytona 500.  Hylton’s primary car, qualified by modified racer Jerry Cranmer, put the #48 Fleet Service Chevrolet 26th on the grid.

Much like last August, heavy fog interfered with the 500-miler at Pocono.  This time, the start was delayed until the spotters could see the back half of the track.  As the ceiling lifted, the green flag dropped, but Hucul exited under green just two laps into the event.  Finishing 39th was Jocko Maggiacomo, whose #34 WMGC-TV Oldsmobile was owned by current Truck Series team owner Jim Rosenblum.  That race marked the only time in Maggiacomo’s 12-year career that he didn’t run car #63.  38th went to Joe Ruttman, who crashed his #26 Quaker State Buick in Turn 3, drawing the first of seven cautions.  Phil Parsons was next to fall out after his #66 Skoal Oldsmobile suffered ignition failure short of halfway.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was veteran Buddy Baker, whose #88 Crisco Oldsmobile lost oil pressure after 98 laps.

With the fog delay and rain on its way, the race was shortened to 150 of 200 scheduled laps.  Tim Richmond recovered from a spin with Richard Petty that resulted in left-front damage to his #25 Folgers Chevrolet to find himself out front on the final lap.  Racing side-by-side with teammate Geoffrey Bodine, both cars were in a dead heat coming down the frontstretch when Ricky Rudd caught them both and made a move to the inside.  At the line, Richmond nipped Rudd by five-hundredths of a second, dropping Bodine to third.

After Pocono, Hucul made just one more Cup start, starting 30th in the 40-car field at Dover that September.  Unfortunately, a mid-race accident damaged the right-front corner of his #60, leaving him 31st.  He made two other attempts at Michigan and the season finale at Atlanta, but missed both times.  Bobby Eller’s team didn’t return in 1987, and with that, Hucul’s brief Cup career was done.

Today, Hucul lives on a farm in his native British Columbia, where he’s recovering from a traffic accident that left him in a wheelchair.  Reports indicate he is still active in racing, and is helping with the career of second-generation driver Richie Larson.

*This was the first last-place finish for car #60 in a Cup Series race since May 29, 1977, when Ramo Stott’s Chevrolet lost oil pressure after 3 laps of the Coca-Cola 600.  The number would not finish last again until March 26, 2000, when the engine on Ted Musgrave’s #60 Power Team Chevrolet let go after 22 laps of the Food City 500 at Bristol.  As of this writing, Hucul’s finish is the only one for car #60 in a Cup race at Pocono.
*Hucul is one of a handful of drivers to finish last in both a NASCAR Cup Series race and the Indianapolis 500. Among those joining Hucul are Tony Stewart, Chet Fillip, Larry Foyt, and Juan Pablo Montoya.

40) #60-Cliff Hucul / 2 laps / clutch
39) #34-Jocko Maggiacomo / 12 laps / engine
38) #26-Joe Ruttman / 18 laps / crash
37) #66-Phil Parsons / 86 laps / ignition
36) #88-Buddy Baker / 98 laps / oil pressure

*1986 Summer 500 at Pocono, SETN (posted on YouTube by SMIFF TV)
*Peters, Jason. “Years of thunder: PGARA celebrates six decades of speed,” Prince George Citizen, May 12, 2012.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Preliminary Entry List Storylines: Pocono and Iowa

Derrike Cope's 2006 Sundance Vacations Dodge
Overton’s 400 at Pocono

Pocono will see the 13th short Cup field of 2017, but just the second in the last five races.  Three teams from Indy’s list are missing: Tommy Baldwin Racing’s #7, which has committed to only a handful of races outside the plate tracks; Rick Ware Racing’s #51, which fought both handling issues and Cody Ware’s back injury here in June; and Motorsports Business Management’s #66, which turned in a stellar 14th-place finish at Indy in Timmy Hill’s 200th NASCAR start.  Hill will instead be in Iowa, where he and Carl Long will compete for MBM in the XFINITY race, while Ware is entered in the Truck Series race.

EDIT (Wednesday): Timmy Hill and Carl Long will not drive in Iowa. Stan Mullis and Bobby Dale Earnhardt will run in their place, both making their series debut.

Among the 38 that remain are both BK Racing cars.  One week after Ryan Sieg’s entry in the #83 was withdrawn at Indy, the car is entered, but with Sieg in Iowa for the XFINITY race, there is no driver yet listed, nor a sponsor in the blank.  Corey LaJoie, whose early crash left him last at the Brickyard, is again behind the wheel of the #23.

Premium Motorsports nearly had a career day at Indianapolis until both cars, driven by Joey Gase and Gray Gaulding, were gobbled-up in the Lap 164 tangle triggered by Michael McDowell and Trevor Bayne.  This week, the team has apparently returned to their roster from much of the season’s first half with Reed Sorenson in the #15 and Derrike Cope, absent since the June race at Pocono, back in the #55.  Cope ran 33rd that day, two positions behind Sorenson.  While Sorenson’s sponsor is still to be determined, Cope will be backed by Sundance Vacations, the same company which backed Cope’s Cup Series ride with Raynard McGlynn in 2006.

EDIT (Wednesday): This entry list did not account for Gray Gaulding driving the #15 at Pocono announced on July 19. Sponsorship will come from La Colombe Coffee. Sorenson will not drive this weekend.

While the critical moment in Sunday’s race proved to be Kasey Kahne’s pit stop as Clint Bowyer’s wreck unfolded on Lap 151, a nearly-identical situation for Landon Cassill proved both disastrous and controversial.  When the McDowell-Bayne wreck unfolded, Cassill pulled his #34 CSX “Play It Safe” Ford down pit road.  Scored 15th at the time, NASCAR apparently misinterpreted Cassill’s stop as an attempt to complete service under the red and parked the car, dropping him to 22nd.  Sunday, Cassill returns to the site of his team’s improbable win with Chris Buescher last year, and will again be sponsored by Love’s Travel Stops.  Buescher arrives in Pocono after a strong 9th at Indy.

Cole Whitt’s 12th-place finish on Sunday was a tremendous boost for both driver and team, following five engine failures in the previous eight races.  One of those blown engines was at the Pocono track in June, where he came just five laps short of completing the 400 miles.  With his Indianapolis car intact, however, this should benefit the #72 team over the many others who left with battered race cars.

While Jeffrey Earnhardt was unable to avoid Sunday’s carnage, he did manage an unheralded 26th-place finish, patiently passing the many big-name drivers who crashed out at the Brickyard.  The finish tied Earnhardt’s season-best finish in the Daytona 500, where he was bidding for a Top 10 before a late-race accident.  Starter, the company which backed Earnhardt’s Daytona run, is back on the #33, and it will be interesting to see if the car will be Hulu green or the silver-and-black from earlier this season.

U.S. Cellular 250 at Iowa

There are once again 40 drivers for 40 spots in the XFINITY Series field, and after a series of surprising runs by the regulars here in June, Saturday’s event will be another golden opportunity.  The only Cup driver pulling double-duty is Reed Sorenson, who will again be driving the “start-and-park” #15 Chevrolet for JD Motorsports.  Among those missing from June’s entry list are polesitter Christopher Bell, who will be running Trucks in Pocono, and 12th-place finisher Quin Houff along with the Precision Performance Motorsports #46.

B.J. McLeod remains the driver of his #8 Chevrolet, and while none has yet been listed for his #78, signs again point to Tommy Joe Martins.  It was at this Iowa track that Martins made a bid for his first career Top 10 finish, ultimately finishing 11th.  If given the opportunity, Martins will be anxious to put behind him a frustrating Wednesday in Eldora, where his Truck Series driver J.R. Heffner lost the team’s only motor in qualifying and was forced to withdraw.

Welcome back Brett Moffitt, who is slated to make his first XFINITY Series start his lone series effort here with RAB Racing in 2012.  Moffitt, who finished 9th that night, will this week drive in place of Ben Kennedy in GMS Racing’s #96 Chevrolet.  Kennedy will himself be driving Richard Childress Racing’s #2 RTP / Rheem Chevrolet, the car which battled William Byron all the way to the wire last week in Indianapolis.

Fresh off that win at Indy, Byron will be looking for a season sweep at Iowa against several other new names in fast cars.  Among them are former Cup driver Brian Scott in Childress’ #3 Daniel Defense Chevrolet, the Joe Gibbs trio of Kyle Benjamin (#18), Matt Tifft (#19), and Loudon runner-up Ryan Preece (#20).  Perennial Iowa contender Sam Hornish, Jr. is back behind the wheel of Penske Racing’s #22 Discount Tire Ford, looking to shake off the frustrating accident that took him out of the race in June.  And don’t forget about Ty Majeski, now with sponsor Bit-O-Honey on Roush-Fenway’s #60 Ford – he will be one to watch after his challenging series debut last month.

Overton’s 150 at Pocono

After another spectacular night in Eldora, the Truck Series faces its first short field since Gateway and its third of 2017.  Just 30 trucks have made the preliminary entry list, which would mark the smallest field at the track since 2011.

Saturday’s field is short despite that both Jennifer Jo Cobb and Norm Benning have again entered two trucks each.  Cobb will herself drive the #10 Chevrolet, and has this week tabbed Rick Ware’s son Cody Ware to pilot the #0.  B.J. McLeod is slated to run double-duty between XFINITY and Trucks, and is currently listed as the driver of Benning’s black #57, an entry which Tommy Regan ran conservatively at Eldora.  Fresh off a 13th-place finish on the dirt, Benning will himself drive the #6 that Sean Corr drove to a 30th-place run at Pocono last year.

Welcome back to Jim Rosenblum and FDNY Racing as the red #28 Chevrolet makes its first attempt since this race last year.  A frequent sight in the Pocono garage, Rosenblum will this week put Whelen Southern Modified Tour veteran Bryan Dauzat behind the wheel.  Dauzat’s lone Truck Series start came with Rosenblum at Bristol in 2014, where he pulled out with suspension issues after four laps.

Also back is fan favorite Jordan Anderson, who will return to TJL Racing’s #1 Chevrolet.  The team struggled on the dirt last week as Brandon Hightower managed a 24th-place finish in the 32-truck field, but Anderson has two strong finishes at “The Tricky Triangle” – an 18th in 2015 for his mentor Mike Harmon and a 14th last year for Bolen Motorsports.  Bolen’s driver this week is Justin Fontaine, who will make his first Truck Series start since his series debut last fall at Martinsville, where he finished 26th for Tim Self.

Much of the rest of the field is again a return to the familiar.  Faith Motorsports resumes operation of the #44 for the first time since Gateway, and Matt Mills will drive under that banner for the first time since Dover.  Monster Jam racer Camden Murphy is back with MB Motorsports, and Mike Mittler is also the listed owner of Travis Kvapil’s #36.  Josh Reaume rejoins Beaver Motorsports in the #50, T.J. Bell returns to Al Niece’s #45, Austin Hill rejoins Randy Young’s #02 team for the first time since Kentucky, and at D.J. Copp Motorsports, Todd Peck is slated to run the same Pulse Transportation / National Arthritis Foundation sponsorship that backed him at Daytona.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

CUP: Corey LaJoie’s early crash a footnote to strong underdog performances in wild Brickyard 400

Corey LaJoie picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when his #23 Dr. Pepper Toyota was involved in a single-car accident after 9 of 167 laps.

The finish, which came in LaJoie’s 19th series start, was his second of the season and his first since Las Vegas, 17 races ago.  With 16 races to go, LaJoie takes second in the 2017 LASTCAR Cup Series rankings on a Bottom Ten tiebreaker with Erik Jones, 10-5.  He trails current leader Jeffrey Earnhardt by two finishes.

Without doubt, the highlight of LaJoie’s rookie season came earlier this month at Daytona.  After a disastrous SpeedWeeks where he was involved in a controversial wreck with Reed Sorenson during his qualifying race, then crashed during a green-flag pit stop in the 500, LaJoie finished a strong 11th, besting Jimmie Johnson and all three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates.  Prior to that night, the second-generation racer hadn’t finished better than 24th.

It’s been a difficult year for BK Racing.  The team’s 2016 drivers David Ragan and Matt DiBenedetto left at season’s end, as did Ryan Ellis, whose #93 team was closed.  Their shop was briefly padlocked in December, and a $1.46 million judgment was levied against team owner Ron Devine.  BK then scaled back from two Charters to just one, the #83’s guaranteed spot sold to Front Row Motorsports, who leased it to TriStar Motorsports’ #72.  Both BK cars parked during the Monster Energy Open, and LaJoie’s teammate Gray Gaulding was released in June.

While BK has courted new talent, bringing in NASCAR Euro Series race winner Alon Day at Sonoma and perennial XFINITY Series underdog Ryan Sieg for multiple races, the team has begun to scale back its current two-car operation.  While the #83 was originally slated to run part-time, BK Racing had managed to run a full-season effort alongside the #23 through 15 races.  But Day’s debut at Sonoma saw BK not enter the #83 for the first time since the team’s 2012 reorganization from Team Red Bull.  Ryan Sieg was slated to run the car in Sunday’s race, but the entry was withdrawn on Wednesday, leaving 40 cars for 40 spots.

Making his third start of the season in BK Racing’s #23, the ride he took over following Gaulding’s departure, LaJoie ran 34th in Saturday’s opening practice, improved to 29th in Happy Hour, and secured the 32nd starting spot with a lap of 179.404mph.  Through it all, LaJoie took in the experience of making his first start at Indianapolis, a track where his father, two-time XFINITY Series Champion Randy, never competed.  “I guess it’s not a dream,” he tweeted on Sunday morning, “I’m actually racing in the #Brickyard400 today.”

Starting 40th on Sunday morning was B.J. McLeod in a black #51 for Rick Ware Racing.  On Thursday, it was announced that the team had severed ties with East Carolina University, whose logos were on the team’s car at Dover and were scheduled to once more at Indianapolis.  Reports indicated that a deal to acquire other sponsors to cover the cost didn’t materialize, forcing Ware to run the sponsors out-of-pocket.  Clemson University, which ran on the car at Pocono, is expected to back the #51 at Darlington in September.  While last-minute sponsorship for the #51 did arrive from American Campus Communities, and while McLeod put up the 35th-fastest lap, the official starting lineup placed him behind A.J. Allmendinger, who did not take time due to handling issues on his #47 Kroger ClickList Chevrolet, and did not record McLeod’s time.  As of this writing, I have not obtained information explaining the reason for this, though it seems to indicate McLeod’s time was disallowed.

Joining McLeod at the tail end of the field were Joey Gase, whose #15 The Lisa Colagrossi Foundation Chevrolet required an engine change, and both Jimmie Johnson’s #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet and Cole Whitt’s #72 Moen Chevrolet, both sent to the back for rear gear changes.  Johnson’s penalty was particularly damaging, as he had put up the 4th-fastest lap in qualifying.  By Lap 3, McLeod had fallen to the back of the pack, and on Lap 6 he was drafting Gase’s #15, the two of them 29 seconds behind the pack.  By all accounts, they were still running in the back when the first caution fell on Lap 10.

Heading through Turn 3, LaJoie cut down what was either a left-rear or right-rear tire, sending his Toyota hard into the outside wall.  While the rookie managed to drive his car back to the pits, the damage to the rear and left-front of the machine was too much to clear the “Crash Clock,” and he pulled into the garage, done for the afternoon.  During the same yellow, first a lightning warning, then a large rainstorm stopped the action, forcing a delay of 1 hour and 47 minutes.

The rest of the Bottom Five was filled by mid-race.  Next to retire was Chase Elliott, whose #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet sputtered after the delay, filled the cockpit with smoke, then finally lost the engine on Lap 43.  38th-place David Ragan was eliminated in a multi-car wreck on Lap 58 that crunched the nose of his #38 Dockside Logistics Ford.  37th went to J.J. Yeley, who after recovering from the Ragan wreck lost a right-front tire on Lap 72, finishing off Tommy Baldwin’s #7 Accell Construction Chevrolet.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was a dejected Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who rear-ended Trevor Bayne on the restart following Yeley’s crash, destroying the front valence and radiator on his #88 Nationwide Insurance Chevrolet.

Seven more accidents followed Earnhardt, Jr.’s, resulting in the longest and craziest Brickyard 400 in the event’s brief history.  When the stay-dri settled, the finishing order saw several strong runs by different drivers.  On top of Kasey Kahne, who ended a nearly three-year winless streak, Matt DiBenedetto improved on his season-best 9th in the Daytona 500 by bringing the #32 / Anest Iwata Ford home 8th, the second-best finish of his career.  A.J. Allmendinger rebounded from his qualifying struggles to following his JTG-Daugherty Racing teammate Chris Buescher home, putting them 9th and 10th.  Danica Patrick ran 11th, her second-best finish of the year and first run better than 22nd in the event.  TriStar Motorsports had just one start in the Brickyard 400, a last-place run in 2012, until Cole Whitt came back from his rear gear penalty to earn a season-best 12th.  And, at the top of the list, Timmy Hill finished 14th in his 200th NASCAR start, marking not only the best finish for Carl Long’s MBM Motorsports (which was making just its fourth Cup start), but Hill’s own best Cup finish since he ran 22nd at Kansas back in 2012.

Further back in the pack, last-place starter B.J. McLeod would lose multiple laps with an electrical issue around Lap 60 which caused his digital dashboard to short out.  The team managed to fix the problem in the garage and get him back on track to finish the race.  McLeod secured a 32nd-place finish, beating both dominant cars of Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr.  Jeffrey Earnhardt, whose #33 Hulu Chevrolet suffered cosmetic damage in David Ragan’s accident, managed to finish under power in 26th, beating both Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson.  Earnhardt’s finish equaled his own season-best in this year’s Daytona 500.

*This marked the second-consecutive last-place finish for BK Racing in the Brickyard 400, following Matt DiBenedetto’s engine failure last year, but is the first in the event for car #23.

40) #23-Corey LaJoie / 9 laps / crash
39) #24-Chase Elliott / 43 laps / engine
38) #38-David Ragan / 56 laps / crash
37) #7-J.J. Yeley / 70 laps / crash
36) #88-Dale Earnhardt, Jr. / 76 laps / crash

1st) Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group (4)
2nd) BK Racing (3)
3rd) Furniture Row Racing, Rick Ware Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing (2)
4th) 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 (7)
3rd) Ford (3)


XFINITY: Jeff Green qualifies 28th on 25-lap tires, finishes last at Indianapolis for third time

Jeff Green picked up the 94th last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Lilly Diabetes 250 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when his unsponsored #93 RSS Racing Chevrolet fell out with a vibration after he completed 9 of 100 laps.

The finish, which came in Green’s 465th series start, was his fifth of the season and his first since Iowa, four races ago.  With this finish, Green, the all-time NASCAR last-place leader and five-time LASTCAR XFINITY Series Champion, has taken the lead in the 2017 series standings on a Bottom Five tiebreaker with Jordan Anderson, 10-6.

Green returned for his third-consecutive start for RSS Racing following finishes of 37th at Kentucky and 38th at Loudon.  His #93 was originally one of 41 entries, but prior to the publishing the preliminary entry list, Biagi-DenBeste Racing withdrew Casey Mears’ #98 GEICO Military Ford.  He didn’t participate in Friday’s opening practice, but ran 34th in Happy Hour, then qualified 28th with a lap of 160.245mph.  In a tweet posted by the team last weekend, it was revealed that Green “qualifies great every week on 25 lap old tires.  Beats a lot of cars that have sticker tires.”

Starting 40th on Saturday’s grid was Mike Harmon in the #74 AFM Graphics / Veterans Motorsports Dodge.  On the pace laps, he was joined by both Spencer Gallagher, whose crew made unapproved adjustments to the #23 Allegiant Airlines Chevrolet, and Green’s teammate Ryan Sieg, who missed the driver’s meeting after qualifying a season-best 8th in the #39 RSS Racing Chevrolet.  By the time the field addressed the starter’s stand for the green flag, Reed Sorenson had also dropped back from his 27th starting spot to trail the field in JD Motorsports’ #15 Chevrolet.

While NASCAR’s new aero package tightened the race up front, the tail end of the field spread themselves out quickly.  Harmon fell back to the rear on the first lap, 8.3 seconds back at the stripe.  He was then 14 seconds back on Lap 2, 18.575 on the third, and 23.786 on the fourth.  On Lap 5, Harmon was 29.006 seconds behind the leader when Daniel Hemric made an unscheduled pit stop for grass on the front grille of his #21 Blue Gate Bank Chevrolet, dropping him to the tail end of the field.  Hemric held the spot for only a few moments as Joey Gase pitted his #52 Donate Life / Sparks Energy Chevrolet that same lap.  Citing engine issues, Gase’s crew worked under the hood, then got the #52 back on track in last, two laps down.

Green entered the last-place picture on Lap 8, when he eased back to 39th, then pulled into the garage area the next time by.  With Gase still running, Green took last on Lap 11, where he remained for the rest of the afternoon.

Finishing 39th was Morgan Shepherd, whose #89 Racing With Jesus Chevrolet stayed out to lead a lap during the competition yellow on the 17th circuit, then pulled out of the race soon after the restart.  Reed Sorenson, who fell to the rear at the start, pulled out one lap later to secure 38th.  37th went to Tyler Reddick, whose splitter dug into the grass during a four-car wreck on Lap 39, ending the drive for his #42 Broken Bow Records / Jason Aldean Chevrolet.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Timmy Hill in Carl Long’s OCR Gaz Bar Toyota.

*This marked Green’s third last-place finish in six XFINITY events at Indianapolis, following his Lap 4 exit in 2013 and Lap 2 retirement in 2015, both for TriStar Motorsports.  It is the first last-place finish at the track for car #93 and RSS Racing.

40) #93-Jeff Green / 9 laps / vibration
39) #89-Morgan Shepherd / 22 laps / engine / led 1 lap
38) #15-Reed Sorenson / 23 laps / vibration
37) #42-Tyler Reddick / 38 laps / crash
36) #13-Timmy Hill / 40 laps / clutch

1st) RSS Racing (11)
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 (17)
2nd) Dodge (1)


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)