Monday, September 18, 2017

CUP: Ray Black, Jr. wins tight last-place battle in Chicagoland’s third-straight Cup race without a single DNF

PHOTO: @RickWareRacing
Ray Black, Jr. picked up the 1st last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400 at the Chicagoland Speedway when his #51 ScubaLife Chevrolet finished under power, 16 laps down, after 251 of 267 laps.  The finish came in Black’s series debut.

Black, who earned his first XFINITY last-place finish at Talladega in May, has since made eight more starts in NASCAR’s second-tier division with a new career-best finish of 12th at Daytona in July.  The Commercial Diving Academy, which sponsored Black in the past, tapping into the driver’s passion for scuba diving in his native Florida, has also returned as the team’s sponsor, this time through the school’s underwater welding program.  While Chicagoland would see Spencer Boyd drive in place of Black in SS’s #07 Chevrolet for a second-straight XFINITY race, Black soon found another opportunity for the weekend – the chance to make his Cup Series debut.

For Sunday’s race, Black reunited with team owner Rick Ware, who gave Black his first XFINITY Series start at Texas in 2015.  The Ware team announced the partnership last Friday as an eleventh-hour entry, thus bringing the field from 39 cars on Monday to a full field by the opening practice.  The XFINITY Series driver’s Cup car would be black with the familiar ScubaLife branding from many of his Bobby Dotter-prepared cars, complete with blue waves on both doors.  Black would drive the car at Chicagoland, then rejoin the team again at Texas in November.

Black was slowest in Friday’s opening practice, his best of 18 laps a mere 165.654mph, nearly a second off the pace of second-slowest Timmy Hill and more than three seconds off the pace of session leader Kyle Busch.  He again anchored Happy Hour on Saturday, slipping to 165.315mph, four-tenths off the next-fastest Jeffrey Earnhardt and just under three seconds off Martin Truex, Jr.’s leading time.  His best lap ended up coming in qualifying – 170.218mph. Though eight-tenths off the next-slowest car of Timmy Hill and just under three seconds off Kyle Busch’s pole lap, Black would start his first race 39th in the field of 40.

Starting last on Sunday was Brett Moffitt, who returned to the Cup Series for the first time since his 32nd-place run last month at Michigan.  Moffitt rejoined BK Racing, which didn’t have drivers listed for either of its cars in the preliminary entry list, alongside Corey LaJoie in the #23.  Moffitt didn’t complete a lap in qualifying, so his #83 JAS Expedited Trucking Toyota started shotgun on the field.  He was joined at the rear by his teammate LaJoie, who was set to roll off 33rd but whose crew had made unapproved adjustments.

The race unfolded much like Michigan in June with a tight last-place battle among several tail-end cars.  Black had taken the last spot by Lap 10, and was soon in danger of losing a lap to the leaders.  The first driver to join him at the rear was playoff contender Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., whose #17 Fastenal Ford clipped the Turn 2 wall early, then was forced to make a pit stop for tire issues around Lap 33.  Stenhouse then was assessed a commitment cone violation for his sharp angle entering pit road, and returned to the race two laps down.

Green-flag pit stops followed soon after Stenhouse’s stop, and last place then fell to Gray Gaulding.  Gaulding, back with Premium Motorsports for the first time since the Bristol night race, drove Reed Sorenson’s “throwback” car from Darlington, the Bud Moore-styled numbers changed from #15 to #55.  The car also carried a large hood logo recognizing the U.S. First Responders Association.  By Lap 62, Black re-took last from Gaulding, and he was six laps behind the leaders near the end of Stage 1.  On Lap 123, during Stage 2, Black was still last, and had lost another two laps for a total of eight.

By Lap 140, all 40 drivers were still on the track, and the teams at the back of the field remained evenly matched.  On this particular circuit, Black was eight laps behind, one lap behind the next five drivers: 38th-place Gaulding, 37th-place Timmy Hill in Carl Long’s #66 U.S. Chrome Chevrolet, 36th-place Cole Whitt in TriStar Motorsports’ unsponsored #72 Chevrolet, and 35th-place Corey LaJoie.  Not long after, it appeared that Black made an extended stop on pit road or in the garage, as he jumped from eight laps behind to eleven, gapping the group behind him.  From there until the finish of the race, Black would maintain this three-lap advantage, preventing another change for last place.  He ultimately edged both Hill and Gaulding by those three circuits.  Rounding out the Bottom Five were Brett Moffitt, one lap ahead of Gaulding, and LaJoie, another circuit ahead of Moffitt.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the incredible third consecutive year that the entire starting field for the Cup Series race at Chicagoland finished under power.  In 2015, last-placer Austin Dillon completed 198 of 267 laps, followed by 2016’s run by Joey Gase, where he turned 254 of 270.
*Black is also the second driver to finish last in his Cup debut this year, joining Cody Ware at Atlanta.  Ware also drove the #51 Chevrolet that day, which is owned by his father.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #51-Ray Black, Jr. / 251 laps / running
39) #66-Timmy Hill / 254 laps / running
38) #55-Gray Gaulding / 254 laps / running
37) #83-Brett Moffitt / 255 laps / running
36) #23-Corey LaJoie / 256 laps / running

2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group (5)
2nd) BK Racing, Rick Ware Racing (3)
3rd) Hendrick Motorsports, Furniture Row Racing, Premium Motorsports, Roush-Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (2)
4th) Chip Ganassi Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports (1)

2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (13)
2nd) Toyota (8)
3rd) Ford (6)

2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP



XFINITY: Matt Mills finishes last at Chicagoland when JD Motorsports’ No. 15 withdrawn, re-entered, then parked

PHOTO: NBCSN, Screenshot by Timecard100
Matt Mills picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s TheHouse.com 300 at the Chicagoland Speedway when his unsponsored #15 teamjdmotorsports.com Chevrolet fell out with a vibration after 3 of 200 laps.  The finish came in Mills’ third series start.

Mills has been racing since 2009, when he won rookie of the year in a go-kart circuit.  He again earned rookie honors in asphalt modifieds and earned his first victory in 2013.  From there, the kid from Lynchburg, Virginia eyed a move to NASCAR through ARCA and the K&N Pro Series West before ultimately making his national series debut in the Truck Series race at Bristol on August 17, 2016.  That night, driving for SS-Green Light Racing, Mills started 31st in the 32-truck field and finished 27th.  He’s since improved on that twice over just this year, finishing 17th on two occasions with Faith Motorsports.

With continuing sponsorship from Thompson Electric, Mills made his XFINITY Series debut this year at Phoenix, taking over for Jeff Green in B.J. McLeod’s #8 Chevrolet.  Mills started 24th and finished 30th that day, which as of this writing stand as his career-best in the series.  His next start came with McLeod the next month at Richmond, where he came home two laps down in 31st.  Chicagoland would mark his first XFINITY start since then, and his first in NASCAR’s top three series since a “start-and-park” run for Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing at Pocono – but he wasn’t on the preliminary entry list.

Saturday’s opportunity would come from Johnny Davis’ team JD Motorsports – specifically, the #15 Chevrolet, a “start-and-park” fourth team which Davis has had on hand since the July race at Daytona.  Prior to Saturday’s race, the car had made just four starts, all of them with Reed Sorenson resulting in 38th and 39th-place finishes after 23 laps or fewer.  The car failed to qualify at both Bristol and Darlington (the latter due to transmission issues), and was withdrawn another four times.

In fact, when the preliminary entry list was first posted, the car was already one of three already withdrawn (joining the #24 for JGL Racing and the #96 for GMS Racing).  First tabbed to drive the car was JD Motorsports’ own Garrett Smithley, who was being moved out of his #0 so Vinnie Miller could make his series debut.  The initial withdrawal of the #15 may have been because of the deal Smithley received to drive Motorsports Business Management’s #40 O.C.R. Gaz Bar Toyota in place of team owner Carl Long.

However, in a week that saw the entry list shrink as small as 37 cars, then grow back to 39 with the late additions of Mike Harmon and Morgan Shepherd, the opportunity was once again there to fill the field.  While some anticipated the return of MBM’s #72 Chevrolet, which served that role at Loudon with driver John Jackson, or Mike Harmon’s second entry, the #17 Dodge from Road America, the #15 was instead “un-withdrawn,” ensuring a full field of 40.  With Smithley already signed to drive the #40, however, the driving duty fell to Mills.  His red Chevrolet would have white numbers on the doors and roof, a departure from the yellow numbers used on Davis’ #15 previously.

Mills didn’t participate in Friday’s opening practice, and started but failed to complete a lap in Happy Hour after he got loose in Turn 2 and slapped the wall with the right-rear.  His first completed lap of the weekend came in qualifying, where he ran a lap of 152.203mph.  Though more than two seconds off the pace of the next-slowest car of Mike Harmon, the 40-car entry list guaranteed that Mills would start Saturday’s race.  That race didn’t last long, however, as Mills pulled his #15 behind the wall under green on Lap 4.

Finishing 39th was Jeff Green, who missed out on his 98th series last-place finish by five laps.  With seven races to go, Green retains a three-finish lead over Jordan Anderson, who hasn’t run an XFINITY Series race since June, and is still on track to break a tie with the late J.D. McDuffie for most LASTCAR titles by a single driver in NASCAR history.  Morgan Shepherd next pulled off in his #89 Visone RV Chevrolet, followed by MBM teammates Garrett Smithley and the #13 O.C.R. Gaz Bar Dodge of Timmy Hill.

For more on Matt Mills, check out his website at http://www.mattmillsracing.com/

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #15 in an XFINITY Series race since July 23, 2016, when Todd Peck’s #15 Keen Portable Buildings / Momo Ford had engine problems on the first lap of the Lilly Diabetes 250 at Indianapolis.  The number had never before finished last in an XFINITY Series race at Chicagoland.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #15-Matt Mills / 3 laps / vibration
39) #93-Jeff Green / 8 laps / brakes
38) #89-Morgan Shepherd / 23 laps / handling
37) #40-Garrett Smithley / 24 laps / engine
36) #13-Timmy Hill / 33 laps / vibration

2017 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) RSS Racing (14)
2nd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Shepherd Racing Ventures (2)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, JD Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, King Autosport, Motorsports Business Management, Richard Childress Racing, SS Green Light Racing (1)

2017 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (24)
2nd) Dodge, Toyota (1)

2017 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

TRUCKS: Mike Senica finishes last at Chicagoland uncontested, but Bottom Five becomes a battle

PHOTO: Robert Taylor
Mike Senica picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career in Friday’s TheHouse.com 225 at the Chicagoland Speedway when his unsponsored #57 Norm Benning Racing Chevrolet fell out with rear gear trouble without completing any of the 225 laps.

The finish, which came in Senica’s fifth series start, was his second of the year and first since Pocono, four races ago.  With seven races to go, Senica joins what is now a four-way tie for the 2017 LASTCAR Truck Series lead, and is tied with Tommy Regan for the third seed.  The LASTCAR title leader is now Joe Nemechek, who takes the lead for the first time in 2017 on a Bottom Ten tiebreaker with Todd Peck, 8-7.  Nemechek, a two-time LASTCAR Cup Series Champion, looks to become the first driver in NASCAR history to claim LASTCAR titles in both Cup and Trucks.

The 51-year-old wrestler turned racer has remained with Norm Benning Racing since his Pocono last-place finish.  He ran 27th of 30 at Michigan, failed to qualify for the first time at Bristol, then ran third from last once more at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park.  As at Pocono, Senica would run double-duty with the ARCA Racing Series and the Truck Series.  His weekend thus began in Wayne Hixon’s #3 Bell Plantation Chevrolet on Thursday night in ARCA’s Scott 150 on the 1.5-mile track.  That night, Senica started 26th in the 31-car field and finished 23rd, flagged off the track after 32 laps for running too slow.

Speed has remained an issue for Senica, despite his clear “start-and-park” duty for Norm Benning.  After he didn’t participate in Thursday’s opening practice, he turned a single lap in Happy Hour of just 123.873mph.  The lap was more than eight seconds slower than the next-slowest truck of Tommy Regan and nearly 13 seconds off the top speed by Johnny Sauter.  In qualifying, Senica picked up just over a second, securing the 32nd and final starting spot with a lap of 127.920mph.  Even then, he was still nearly seven seconds off the next-slowest truck of Jennifer Jo Cobb.

When the race started, it appeared that Senica’s did not as the NASCAR.com Leaderboard did not indicate a gap from the leader back to the #57, still classified last.  On Lap 2, Gray Gaulding in Premium Motorsports’ new second truck, the #15 Chevrolet, slowed to a crawl on the apron of Turns 1 and 2.  The caution wasn’t thrown until the next time by, at which point the #15 had barely made it to Turn 3.  From that point, FOX Sports 1’s broadcast would show Gaulding’s #15 in last behind Senica, an error that wasn’t corrected until the end of Stage 1.

While Senica never gave up last place that night, the rest of the Bottom Five changed through the first 100 laps.  It all began with another six drivers who appeared to have parked within the first 12 laps.  The first of these was Jennifer Jo Cobb, who was selected as one of the six drivers to carry a Nickelodeon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles paint scheme.  Under the Gaulding caution, she pulled her orange #10 “Rebel Road” Chevrolet behind the wall, dropping her to 30th ahead of Gaulding and Senica.  She was joined on Lap 7 by Joe Nemechek in an all-black #87 D.A.B. Constructors Chevrolet, then three laps after by B.J. McLeod in Mike Mittler’s second truck, the #36 MB Motorsports Chevrolet.  On that same tenth lap, the caution fell for McLeod’s teammate Kevin Donahue, whose #63 Chevrolet hit the wall in Turn 2, placing him 27th.  The next time by, Mike Harmon pulled his #74 Chevrolet in, edging Tommy Regan, who parked Cobb’s #0 Driven2Honor.org Chevrolet.  At this point, everyone from 25th on back looked to be done for the day with only Donahue’s #63 out from a crash.  By Lap 16, the order of the “behind the wall gang” was as follows:

32) #57-Mike Senica / 0 laps / OUT
31) #15-Gray Gaulding / 1 lap / OFF
30) #10-Jennifer Jo Cobb / 3 laps / OFF
29) #87-Joe Nemechek / 7 laps / OUT
28) #36-B.J. McLeod / 10 laps / OUT
27) #63-Kevin Donahue / 10 laps / OUT
26) #74-Mike Harmon / 11 laps / OFF
25) #0-Tommy Regan / 11 laps / OUT

A few laps later, the three drivers listed as “off” returned to the track.  The first of these was Mike Harmon, who by Lap 17 was back out, six laps down.  He ended up turning just one circuit, moving him ahead of Tommy Regan before he cited transmission problems for his DNF.  The next was Gray Gaulding, who found himself in a similar position with Premium Motorsports at Kentucky after his #55 Cup car broke down on the opening lap.  There, as here, Gaulding returned to the track several laps down on the 61st circuit, allowing him to jump seven spots before fuel pump issues left him 25th.  Not long after, Jennifer Jo Cobb also came back on track, dropping Joe Nemechek to 31st.  In the end, she passed the entire group and edged Gaulding for 24th by two laps.

All this left Nemechek, McLeod, Donahue, and Regan – who didn’t return – to fill out the Bottom Five.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the first time in two consecutive Truck Series last-place finishers failed to complete the opening lap since July 7, 2016, when Brandon Brown’s engine failure at Gateway was followed by Caleb Roark’s electrical issue at Kentucky.  As of this writing, it has never happened in three straight Truck Series races.
*This marked the first last-place finish for truck #57 in a Truck Series race at Chicagoland.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
32) #57-Mike Senica / 0 laps / rear gear
31) #87-Joe Nemechek / 7 laps / vibration
30) #36-B.J. McLeod / 10 laps / electrical
29) #63-Kevin Donahue / 10 laps / crash
28) #0-Tommy Regan / 11 laps / engine

2017 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Norm Benning Racing (4)
2nd) Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing (3)
3rd) Copp Motorsports, NEMCO Motorsports (2)
4th) Halmar Friesen Racing, Henderson Motorsports, MB Motorsports, MDM Motorsports, TJL Motorsports (1)

2017 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (16)

2017 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

Friday, September 15, 2017

Entry List Storylines: Chicagoland

PHOTO: @CSTMG3330
CUP SERIES
Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland

Based on the preliminary entry lists, Chicagoland was set to mark the first time in 2017 where all three of NASCAR’s top divisions would have short fields.  By Thursday, late additions came to the rescue for all three.

The preliminary list for Sunday’s Cup playoff opener showed 39 cars for 40 spots, which was increased back to 40 by the addition of Rick Ware Racing’s #51 Chevrolet.  Driving for Ware this week is XFINITY Series regular Ray Black, Jr., who after 31 Truck Series starts and 51 in XFINITY will make his Cup debut.  Black finished 28th in last year’s XFINITY race at the 1.5-mile oval, but will not run double-duty with the SS-Green Light team on Saturday as Spencer Boyd will drive the #07.

Both of BK Racing’s cars made the preliminary entry list, but the drivers weren’t updated until Tuesday.  Corey LaJoie returns to the #23 for the first time since Darlington to make his first NASCAR start at Chicagoland.  While his XFINITY ride for JGL Racing was withdrawn (see below), LaJoie’s Cup ride will carry sponsorship from Jewel Osco.  Driving the #83 at BK is Brett Moffitt, who we haven’t seen in Cup since his 32nd-place finish last month at Michigan.  Moffitt has one Cup start at Chicagoland in 2015, when he finished 31st for Front Row Motorsports.

Moffitt takes the place of Gray Gaulding, who after a two-race stint with BK at Darlington and Richmond will return to Premium Motorsports for the first time since Bristol. Gaulding’s #55 Toyota will be sponsored by the U.S. First Responders Association, and he will also run for Premium in Friday’s Truck Series race (see below).  Reed Sorenson remains in Premium’s #15 Low T Centers Chevrolet for Sunday, a track where his best series finish was a 7th in 2006. Sorenson drives in place of Derrike Cope, who parted ways with Premium after Richmond.

Timmy Hill will drive for Motorsports Business Management at Kansas with U.S. Chrome as sponsor for the #66 Chevrolet.  It will be Hill’s first Cup start at Chicagoland since 2015, when he ran 41st for Premium Motorsports, and his first with U.S. Chrome at the track since 2013, when he drove for Go FAS Racing.

Congratulations to Michael McDowell and Leavine Family Racing, whose series of strong runs have been rewarded with not one, but two new sponsor announcements.  Debuting on the car this week is Devour Frozen Meals (whose tagline is the cheeky “Food You Want To Fork”), followed by a multiple-race sponsorship from Procore starting next Sunday in New Hampshire.  McDowell is still looking for a strong run at Chicagoland, where his best finish in six starts was a 32nd in 2014, and where last year a flat tire on his #95 drew a controversial late-race caution.

With The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as the title brand for Sunday’s race, there will also be a collection of special paint schemes with the stylized characters.  Among them will be Matt DiBenedetto’s #32 Incredible Bank Ford and Jeffrey Earnhardt’s #33 Hulu Chevrolet.

XFINITY SERIES
TheHouse.com 300 at Chicagoland

As of this writing, the XFINITY Series entry list stands at 40 cars, narrowly averting the first short field in 2017.  Monday’s preliminary list promised to be even shorter following a season-high three preliminary withdrawals from a list of 40.  On top of GMS Racing’s #96 for Ben Kennedy (the team’s third withdrawal of the season) and JD Motorsports’ “start-and-park” #15 for Garret Smithley (the team's sixth withdrawal, see below), Chicagoland saw the first withdrawal of the season for JGL Racing’s #24, which had up to this point run every race this season.  Corey LaJoie, originally slated to drive for JGL this Saturday, will instead focus on Sunday’s Cup race for BK Racing.

Bringing the entry list from 37 to 39 were the late additions Tuesday of owner-drivers Mike Harmon for Veterans Motorsports, Inc. in the #74 Dodge as well as Morgan Shepherd in his #89 Visone RV Motorhome Parts Chevrolet.  Harmon’s best finish in 10 XFINITY starts at Chicagoland was a 22nd-place run in 2003.  He will also run Friday’s Truck Series race (see below).  Shepherd’s best in eight starts were a pair of 25th-place runs in 2010 and 2011.

Getting the list to 40 cars took until just yesterday, when JD Motorsports re-entered the withdrawn #15 with Matt Mills driving. Garrett Smithley, originally slated to run the #15 before it withdrew, will instead drive a one-off in MBM's #40 Toyota alongside Timmy Hill in the #13. Driving in place of Smithley in the JD #0 is first-year K&N Pro Series East and ARCA driver Vinnie Miller, making his series debut. Smithley is expected to return to the #0 next week.

Welcome back Chris Cockrum and Jeff Spraker’s #25 Advanced Communications Group Chevrolet, a driver and team we haven’t seen in the series since their 26th-place finish at Daytona in July.  Cockrum’s speedway-exclusive schedule carries him into his first series start at Chicagoland.  Also making his first Chicagoland start in the series is Canada’s Mario Gosselin, who is currently listed as the driver of his own #90 Chevrolet for his first start since Indianapolis.

Following finishes of 28th, 29th, and 12th during last month’s three road courses, Josh Bilicki makes his first oval-track start in the series since Michigan in B.J. McLeod’s #78 Prevagen Chevrolet.  McLeod himself, replaced by Ray Black, Jr. at Rick Ware Racing in Cup, will return to his own #8 Chevrolet, leaving Tommy Joe Martins without a ride following his 29th-place run at Richmond.

Road America winner Jeremy Clements has been solid at Chicagoland in recent years, finishing inside the Top 20 in four of his last five starts, including a track-best 13th in 2014.

The Nickelodeon / Ninja Turtle group in XFINITY includes Matt Tifft (#19) and Darrell Wallace, Jr. (#98).  Wallace’s “Green Slime” scheme will be on Biagi-DenBeste Racing’s Ford.  Wallace’s best finish in three XFINITY starts at Chicagoland was a 3rd in the fall of 2015, when he trailed Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.

Contesting Saturday’s win will be Cup Series regulars Austin Dillon (#2), Ty Dillon (#3), Daniel Suarez (#18), Erik Jones (#20), Ryan Blaney (#22), and Kyle Larson (#42).

TRUCK SERIES
TheHouse.com 225 at Chicagoland

30 trucks made Monday’s preliminary list for Friday’s first race of the weekend, but Tuesday’s addition of two trucks has now set a full field of 32.  Joining the preliminary list are Ted Minor, who we last saw finish 27th at Iowa in June, back behind the wheel of his #14 Edge-Guard Chevrolet, and Mike Harmon’s #74, which returned to battle two weeks ago at Mosport, with Harmon himself making his first Truck start since Eldora.  Weeks ago, Mike Affarano was originally slated to make his return to the series for the first time since 2015, but he has since decided not to enter his #03 Chevrolet.

Friday will see Kevin Donahue’s first Truck Series start since he ran 28th at Iowa in June (driving the #63 Mittler Brothers Chevrolet alongside B.J. McLeod in the #36), Myatt Snider’s first start with KBM since his 16th-place run at Kentucky, and will also see Regan Smith and Ricky Benton’s #92 Ford make their first start since a 14th-place finish at Bristol.  Justin Fontaine returns to the series for the first time since Pocono, this time driving Al Niece’s #45 Chevrolet.

Five trucks are missing from Mosport.  Tim Self’s #22 isn’t in the field, so driver Austin Wayne Self will return to Martins Motorsports’ #44 which was withdrawn in Canada.  Bolen Motorsports’ #66 is missing for the third time in four races despite finishing 15th their last two times out.  MDM Motorsports’ #99 is not entered for just the third time this year and the first since Pocono.  The other missing trucks are Charlie Henderson’s #75 and Gaunt Brothers Racing’s #96.

For the first time in their three years in the series, Premium Motorsports will enter two trucks in the same race.  Joining Wendell Chavous, who makes his Chicagoland debut in Jay Robinson’s primary #49 is Cup rookie Gray Gaulding, who will pull double-duty for the same team in Cup and Trucks.  On Friday, Gaulding will drive a #15 Chevrolet.  It will be Gaulding’s first Truck Series start since October 31, 2015, when he finished 21st for Kyle Busch Motorsports at Martinsville.

Chicagoland is also expected to be the last race missed by Stewart Friesen as his Halmar Friesen Racing team finishes its support transition from Tommy Baldwin Racing to GMS Racing.

As he did at Pocono, Mike Senica will pull double-duty between ARCA and the Truck Series, driving for Wayne Hixson in the former and Norm Benning in the latter.  At Mosport, Senica continued his bid to climb the LASTCAR rankings as clutch issues parked him after two laps, ranking him just ahead of Joe Nemechek and Tommy Regan.  Both Nemechek and Regan are entered again for Friday in the same #87 and #0, respectively.  The 2017 LASTCAR lead remains with Todd Peck, who isn’t entered, by virtue of a bottom-five tiebreaker with Nemechek and Regan.

Finally, kudos to both NEMCO Motorsports and particularly Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing, which both secured wraps for the Nickelodeon / Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles weekend. John Hunter Nemechek's #8 will run a green paint scheme while Jennifer Jo Cobb's #10 will be bright orange.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

3/7/65: The story of the rarest number in NASCAR Cup Series last-place history (Part 1 of 2)

PHOTO: ARCA
Something a little different these next two weeks on LASTCAR Throwback Thursday.  As we reported on Twitter earlier this summer, car #07 has the fewest last-place finishes of any number in NASCAR Cup Series history (between the currently available 0 through 09).  In fact, the #07 (along with the #86, which has 16 last-place finishes) stand as the only two numbers to have not finished last in NASCAR’s modern era (since 1972).  Today and next Thursday, we profile the only two drivers to ever finish last in #07 – the only last-place finishes of two brief careers.

On March 7, 1965, Danny Byrd picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Grand National Series career in the Richmond 250 at the Atlantic Rural Fairgrounds when his #07 Walt Hickey Ford 1964 Ford fell out with handling troubles after 1 of 250 laps.  The finish came in Byrd’s 3rd series start.

Born in Dearborn, Michigan, Danny Byrd caught the racing bug watching a USAC race at the Detroit Fairgrounds.  His driving career began in 1958, at the Flat Rock Speedway, where he drove a Hudson that wasn’t the popular Hornet model (of Marshall Teague and Herb Thomas fame).  The car was built by Byrd, his brother Hubert, and friend Glen Sweet.  Sweet would go on to become the listed owner of Byrd’s Cup Series entry.

Byrd’s path to NASCAR went through the Midwest Association for Race Cars, or MARC, the regional stock car series that would become today’s ARCA Racing Series.  There, Byrd transitioned from the Hudson to a Dodge and finally to Ford.  It was in MARC that Byrd even raced one of the infamous Ford Edsels for several years, starting in 1962.  He wheeled the Edsel to a series of MARC victories, including Flat Rock, Dixie, Spartan, Detroit Fairgrounds, Mount Clemens, and Toledo.

Byrd was also part of MARC’s transition into ARCA on February 8, 1964, as the series made its first appearance at Daytona.  The ARCA re-branding came at the behest of Bill France, Sr., who wanted to draw more drivers and spectators to his new track.  Now suddenly a driver for a national series rather than a regional one, Danny Byrd and 23 other competitors suddenly had an opportunity to win at the nation’s biggest and fastest track.  As the 250-mile race neared its halfway mark, Byrd was leading in his #08 Ford, ready to write his name in the record books.

“We ran the first 125 miles without putting any fuel in the car,” said Byrd in a 2013 interview, “But in the second half of the race, the oil pressure started to flutter, and I was afraid the car was going to run out of oil.”  The oil pressure issue forced an unscheduled pit stop in the final laps, handing the landmark win to Nelson Stacy.  Byrd finished 6th, two laps down.

The next year, on February 27, 1965, Byrd made his Grand National debut at the Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds, a half-mile bullring in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Driving a 1963 Ford prepared by Glen Sweet, but this time with #06 on the doors, Byrd finished 14th in the 16-car field due to a blown head gasket.  He then ran the following day at the paved Asheville-Weaverville Speedway, this time with car #08.  This time, he impressed, charging from last in the 21-car grid to 5th, five laps down to winner Ned Jarrett.

The Richmond 250 that is the subject of this article came next.  The track, now known as Richmond Raceway, was then a half-mile dirt track which hosted races between 90 and 150 miles.  The race distance wouldn’t be lengthened past that until the first of several reconfigurations in 1968.  This time, despite the lack of a #06 or #08 in the field, Byrd campaigned his third different car number in three races – the #07.  His 1964 Ford lined up 17th on the 22-car grid.

In a race where Junior Johnson won from the pole, leading 175 of 250 laps, Byrd exited after just one lap, citing handling problems.  Finishing 21st was North Carolina native Bob Cooper, participating in his fourth season on the tour, who had a fuel tank issue on his #61 1964 Pontiac.  A little over a year after his breakthrough win, Wendell Scott started a strong 6th in his #34 1963 Ford, but the car overheated after 47 laps.  Richmond native Sonny Hutchins made his return to Grand National racing that day for the first time in a decade, but the differential broke on his #90 Ford fielded by the great Junie Donlavey.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was owner-driver Larry Manning, who also cited differential issues on his #8 1963 Chevrolet.

Byrd made just one more Grand National start, finishing 31st of 44 in Atlanta, then ended his career after he failed to qualify for May’s Rebel 300 at Darlington.

During his brief NASCAR career, Byrd remained active in ARCA and late models, and would go on to score his first of three track championships at Toledo in late 1965 (the other two came in 1973 and 1978).  He would go on to have success on the short tracks through 1979.  Among his accomplishments were another track championship at Flat Rock in 1973, a flag-to-flag victory in the Glass City 200, and a win at the Nashville Fairgrounds in the Marty Robbins 500.

Byrd retired from racing following back injuries suffered in a highway accident, and moved to Florida.  In 2003, he was inducted into the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame.

Be sure to check back next week, where we feature the only other driver to finish last in car #07.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
22) #07-Danny Byrd / 1 lap / handling
21) #61-Bob Cooper / 23 laps / fuel tank
20) #34-Wendell Scott / 47 laps / overheating
19) #90-Sonny Hutchins / 65 laps / differential
18) #8-Larry Manning / 81 laps / differential

SOURCES
*ARCA Racing Results Archive
*Lenzi, Rachel. “Automobile Racing Club of America series hitting stride at its 50-year mark,”
The Blade, February 10, 2013.
*Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame
*Racing-reference.info

Sunday, September 10, 2017

CUP: Flat tire, hard hit give Landon Cassill first last-place finish with Front Row Motorsports

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
Landon Cassill picked up the 10th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at the Richmond Raceway when his #34 CSX “Play It Safe” Ford was involved in a single-car accident after 33 of 404 laps.

The finish, which came in Cassill’s 249th start, was his first of the season and his first since October 18, 2015, during the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas, 67 races ago.

Saturday’s last-place finish was also the first for Cassill since he joined Front Row Motorsports in 2016.  The popular driver enjoyed his best Cup season to date that year, leading 20 laps at Bristol, finishing a season-best 11th at Talladega, and running a tribute to J.D. McDuffie at Darlington that involved both Ima Jean McDuffie as well as sponsors Rumple Furniture and Bailey Excavating.  He also continued to grow his fanbase on social media with the “38, nice” campaign, and finished 29th in points, outranking fellow full-timers Brian Scott and David Ragan.

With Ragan now as his teammate, Front Row switched Cassill to the #34 Ford this season.  There, his performance has been down as he’s finished no better than a 16th in the Daytona 500.  He had four DNFs coming into Richmond, including a controversial one at Indianapolis where NASCAR mistakenly parked him for stopping in pit road under a late red flag.  Just last week at Darlington, where he ran Chris Buescher’s throwback from a year before, Cassill was run over by a hard-charging Denny Hamlin in the final laps, but still managed to come home 21st.

Coming into Richmond, Cassill sat just 32nd in the series standings, still looking for both a first career victory and his first Top 5 since 2014.  His was one of the 39 cars entered in Saturday’s race, just one driver more than the record-setting 38-car field there in the spring.  Right away, the #34 showed solid speed.  He began the weekend 18th in Friday’s opening practice and 20th in Happy Hour, but fell short in qualifying.  His timed lap of 121.359mph was good enough for only 30th on the grid.

Starting last was B.J. McLeod, who on Friday was revealed to be back behind the wheel of Rick Ware Racing’s #51 Chevrolet for the fifth time this year and the first time since Bristol.  For the second-straight race, the Ware entry carried a message of solidarity for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, this time with the phrase “Texas Strong” over the car’s hood and quarter-panels.  When the green flag dropped, McLeod raced door to door with Derrike Cope, who was making his first Richmond start in Cup since 2006.  At the end of the first lap, Cope’s #15 StarCom Fiber Chevrolet took the spot, 5.118 seconds behind the leader.  Cope was 8.605 behind by Lap 4 and 13.114 back by the eighth circuit.

On Lap 12, McLeod, struggling with a car tight in the center and loose off, retook last from Cope and was the first to be lapped on the 19th time by.  Had the order stayed the same, McLeod would earn the first last-place finish for the #51 in a Cup race at Richmond since February 24, 1985, when Cecil Gordon drove for Greg Sacks before steering issues stopped him 7 laps in.  McLeod was still running last when the first caution fell for Cassill.

On Lap 35, Cassill was fighting to stay on the lead lap in front of a fast-approaching polesitter Matt Kenseth.  Heading into Turn 1, Cassill’s left-rear tire went down, and the car skidded out of control into the outside wall.  The caution flew as the #34 limped back to pit road with heavy damage to the right-front, the suspension damaged to the point that the car drove diagonally.  It wasn’t long before the Front Row Motorsports team pushed Cassill behind the wall, done for the night by virtue of the “Crash Clock.”

Finishing 38th that night was, surprisingly, Matt Kenseth, who was involved in one of the night’s most controversial incidents.  Under caution on Lap 258, pit road was opened  as an ambulance slowed, then stopped at the entrance.  This forced cars to swerve and dart in all directions to avoid running into the ambulance, or each other.  Unable to slow in time, Kenseth rear-ended fellow “win and you’re in” driver Clint Bowyer, destroying the front valence of his #20 Hurrricane Harvey Relief / ToyotaCare Toyota and rupturing the radiator.

Behind McLeod, who wound up 37th with late-race transmission issues, was Derrike Cope, who found himself amid controversy after he inadvertently played a critical role in the race’s final moments.  As the race neared the finish, Cope’s #15 slowed and ran the high line to avoid oncoming traffic.  With just three laps to go, following a grinding 135-lap green-flag run, Cope made contact with the wall in Turn 4.  As Cope slowed to make it to pit road, the caution was thrown, forcing a frantic series of last-minute pit stops which ultimately handed the win from Martin Truex, Jr., who was cruising to a three-second win, to Kyle Larson.

Rounding out the Bottom Five was the #23 SweetFrog Toyota of Gray Gaulding, his second-straight finish of 35th or worse in his return to BK Racing.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the first last-place finish for Cassill and car #34 in a Cup Series race at Richmond.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
39) #34-Landon Cassill / 33 laps / crash
38) #20-Matt Kenseth / 257 laps / crash / led 89 laps
37) #51-B.J. McLeod / 318 laps / transmission
36) #15-Derrike Cope / 388 laps / running
35) #23-Gray Gaulding / 393 laps / running

2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group (5)
2nd) BK Racing (3)
3rd) Hendrick Motorsports, Furniture Row Racing, Premium Motorsports, Rick Ware Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (2)
4th) Chip Ganassi Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports (1)

2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (12)
2nd) Toyota (8)
3rd) Ford (6)

2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

XFINITY: Jeff Green scores third last-place season sweep in six years at Richmond

PHOTO: Brock Beard
Jeff Green picked up the 97th last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Friday’s Virginia 529 College Savings 250 at the Richmond Raceway when his unsponsored #93 RSS Racing Chevrolet fell out with electrical issues after he completed 8 of 250 laps.

The finish, which came in Green’s 472nd series start, was his first since Road America, two races ago, and his series-leading eighth of the 2017 season.  With eight races to go, Green has a three-finish lead over Jordan Anderson, who he replaced at RSS Racing earlier this season, and is just three finishes away from becoming the first driver ever to score 100 last-place runs in any one of NASCAR’s top three divisions.

A couple notes on Green’s ride with RSS Racing.  Last week at Darlington, I observed that the #93 team’s pit stall had no tires on hand and no pit box, only a small generator cart from teammate Ryan Sieg.  The Chevrolet itself has Green’s name on the roof and above the rear window, but the car number decal on the nose is itself a square black decal, likely covering the original #39 of his teammate.  The team’s jack stands also appear to be from BK Racing as the #93 decals on each resemble the team’s italic number font used prior to 2015.  Most significantly, Green is heavily involved with his team.  For last week’s interview, we caught up with the driver as he helped his crew push his car through the inspection queue.

Green began the Richmond weekend 28th in Friday’s opening practice, then improved one more position in qualifying, taking the 27th spot on the grid with a lap of 117.483mph.  With 41 drivers on the entry list (following the early withdrawal of GMS Racing’s #96 for Ben Kennedy), the only driver sent home after time trials was Morgan Shepherd.  Shepherd’s lap of 115.183mph was faster than seven other drivers who started the race, but fell less than eight-hundredths short of the sixth car he needed to beat – 33rd-place Reed Sorenson and his lap of 115.523mph.  It was Shepherd’s first DNQ since last month’s Bristol night race.

Starting last on Friday was Kerry Earnhardt’s son Bobby Dale Earnhardt, who following a DNQ at Iowa made his series debut in Motorsports Business Management’s #40 TLC Resorts / Circle C Ranch Chevrolet.  Earnhardt made the field despite running the slowest lap in time trials, nearly two full seconds behind the DNQ’d Morgan Shepherd.  He was joined at the rear by both Dakoda Armstrong and David Starr, each sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments.  Early in the opening green flag run, which ended with Earnhardt crashing out of the race on Lap 53, Green was the first driver to pull into the garage.

Finishing 39th was Reed Sorenson, whose #15 Flex Seal Liquid Chevrolet shook off the transmission issues of a week ago, turned in the fastest lap of those locked-in on speed, then parked nine laps after Green.  38th went to Timmy Hill, who with Earnhardt in the #40 returned to MBM’s #13 OCR Gaz Bar Dodge.  37th fell to John Graham of Canada, who after returning to the series with Mike Harmon at Road America piloted B.J. McLeod’s #78 Magellan Aviation Group Chevrolet before rear gear trouble.  Rear gear issues also ended the night of 36th-place Joey Gase, who was running 24th when he fell out in the final 100 laps.  It was a rough weekend for Gase, who also broke a brake rotor in practice.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked Green’s seventh XFINITY last-place finish at Richmond, all of them since 2012, and his third season sweep at the track (2012, 2015, 2017).

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #93-Jeff Green / 8 laps / electrical
39) #15-Reed Sorenson / 17 laps / vibration
38) #13-Timmy Hill / 33 laps / overheating
37) #78-John Graham / 78 laps / rear gear
36) #52-Joey Gase / 164 laps / rear gear

2017 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) RSS Racing (14)
2nd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Shepherd Racing Ventures (2)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, King Autosport, Motorsports Business Management, Richard Childress Racing, SS Green Light Racing (1)

2017 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (23)
2nd) Dodge, Toyota (1)

2017 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

Friday, September 8, 2017

Entry List Storylines: Richmond

PHOTO: @MRNRadio
CUP SERIES
Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond

For the first time in three races, and for the 16th time in 26 races, there will be a short field for this Saturday’s Cup race as 39 drivers will compete in the final event of the “regular season.”  Missing from Darlington is Motorsports Business Management, whose team owner Carl Long made his first Cup start since Kansas.  I caught up with Long on pit road just before Sunday’s opening ceremonies:

BEARD: “Your first Southern 500 since 2005, how do you feel?”
LONG: “Fat (laughs).  But I think after the race, there’ll be like a bucket of grease in there like you’re frying bacon when I get through, so it’ll all be good (laughs).”
BEARD: “What’s the plan out there, find a hole out there and ride it out, see how it goes?”
LONG: “Yup, just try to stay out of trouble and not be involved in anyone else’s trouble, and be there at the checkered.”

Long made it well into Sunday’s race, but after two “Darlington Stripes,” he handed over the wheel to teammate Timmy Hill, who ran the final 130 laps.  The effort yielded a 33rd-place finish, 17 laps down, improving on Long’s aforementioned 2005 Southern 500, where he turned just 69 laps and finished 42nd.

Last week saw Rick Ware Racing make last-minute changes to their “Days of Thunder” throwback, turning their #51 Bubba Burger Chevrolet into a means of raising awareness for the victims of Hurricane Harvey.  Unfortunately, the night itself was one to forget as the car lacked speed in the opening stages, then was wrecked on Lap 156 with Matt DiBenedetto and A.J. Allmendinger.  The Ware team is now making their second attempt to attract a sponsor to run a paint scheme representing the ECU Pirates.  As of this writing, the driver and sponsor are to be announced.

BK Racing has once again swapped their driver lineup, moving Gray Gaulding back to the #23 for the first time since Pocono in June and Corey LaJoie to the #83 for the first time since the Bristol night race.  Gaulding carries returning sponsorship from Sweet Frog while LaJoie welcomes Safeway Supermarkets.  Both drivers had a rough night in their first Darlington starts.  Gaulding spun and wrecked on Lap 197, leaving him with severe rear end damage that caused his car to spark and struggle at the back.  When he finally pulled off the track, a water pipe above his garage stall ruptured, drenching his Toyota.  LaJoie caught the wall several times, the last of which in the dramatic final two laps.  With the leaders closing, LaJoie slowed suddenly in Turn 4, then cut across both lanes of traffic in a hard turn to the left to make sure he got on pit road.

Premium Motorsports has also swapped their driver lineup with Derrike Cope and sponsor StarCom Fiber moving to the #15 Toyota while Reed Sorenson drives the #55 Low T Centers Chevrolet.  Sorenson’s tribute to Bud Moore made just 104 laps last Sunday before the clutch failed, requiring his car to be pushed back to the garage in 39th.  Cope fared better, though his car was a handful in Turns 3 and 4 for much of the night, and finished 32nd – his best Cup finish at Darlington since 2004.  Cope will be making his first Richmond start since 2006, when he parked Raynard McGlynn’s #74 Dodge for a last-place finish that spring, while Sorenson ran 33rd this past April.

At the front of the field, eyes will certainly be watching Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth, and Jamie McMurray, who hold the three winless positions in the Chase standings, as well as Joey Logano, Erik Jones, and Clint Bowyer as they – and others – try to win their way into the Chase.  These three on the outside all have adversity to overcome, both literally and statistically.  Logano took the checkers here in April, only to have it encumbered due to an illegal rear end (similar to Denny Hamlin’s penalty for Sunday’s race).  Jones crashed out early in that race, his first of two last-place finishes this year, while Richmond was the scene of both Bowyer’s first last-place run in Cup in 2014 and his controversial spin in 2013.

XFINITY SERIES
Virginia 529 College Savings 250 at Richmond

41 drivers are entered to attempt this Friday’s XFINITY Series race.  The preliminary list showed 42, but GMS Racing has since withdrawn the #96 Chevrolet for Ben Kennedy, one week after Kennedy earned a 12th-place finish, his best for that team.

Following a DNQ in his first series attempt at Iowa, Bobby Dale Earnhardt will make his series debut in Motorsports Business Management's #40 Chevrolet. Joining him in the MBM stable will be Timmy Hill, who races in place of Carl Long in the #13 Dodge.

Like both Premium Motorsports and BK Racing on the Cup side, B.J. McLeod’s XFINITY team has also swapped its driver lineup.  Tommy Joe Martins, who ran well early at Darlington before a tire change error by the crew, will drive the flagship #8 Chevrolet for the first time this season.  It will be Martins’ first Richmond start since April 25, 2014, when he ran 36th in his own equipment.  Martins’ teammate in the #78 will be John Graham, who finished 30th in his return to the series at Road America.  Graham has two Richmond starts in the series – a 29th for MacDonald Motorsports in 2004, and a 41st for Brewco in 2007.

Other than his runner-up finish at Mid-Ohio, Daniel Hemric’s best finish of 2017 came here in the spring, where he won his first career pole, led a season-high 26 laps, and finished 3rd.  Along with Justin Allgaier, who led 157 of 254 laps that day only to finish 2nd, will be ones to watch among the series regulars.

Kyle Larson, who won the XFINITY race this past spring, is not entered.  Instead, the Cup Series interlopers this week are Paul Menard (#2 Richmond / Menards Chevrolet), Ty Dillon (#3 Rheem Chevrolet), Reed Sorenson (#15 teamjdmotorsports.com Chevrolet, a likely “start-and-park” effort), Kyle Busch (#18 NOS Energy Drink Toyota), Brad Keselowski (#22 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Ford), and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (#88 Degree Deoderant Chevrolet).  Junior makes just his second XFINITY start of the season, following a 13th-place run last month at Bristol.

TRUCK SERIES
Next Race: Chicagoland 225 at Chicagoland
September 15, 2017

Thursday, September 7, 2017

2/21/82: Gary Balough and RahMoc Enterprises finish last at Richmond in the shadow of “Black Thursday”

PHOTO: ESPN Classic
On February 21, 1982, Gary Balough picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Richmond 400 at the Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway when his #75 Sanyo Buick was involved in a multi-car accident, ending his race after 42 of 250 laps.  The finish came in Balough’s 16th series start.

The driver they called “Hot Shoe” would come to be known for two things: his domination as a dirt racer and the prison sentence that curtailed his NASCAR career.  It’s interesting to note that Balough didn’t get his start on the dirt, but on the paved Haileah Speedway in Florida.  In 1962, when he was only 14, Balough won in his first-ever start, then scored another 36 by the end of the year.  Balough moved to Late Models at 16, and in 1968 won the prestigious Florida’s Governor’s Cup 200.

It was Balough’s mentor and NASCAR legend “Tiger” Tom Pistone who first exposed the youngster to dirt track racing by sending him to Pennsylvania to shake down a dirt chassis.  An eager student, Balough learned from racers across the state, including Spud Murphy, who fielded his first cars on clay.

Balough was cocky and brash, but undeniably gifted behind the wheel, and despite his asphalt background, showed the ability to run smooth laps and save his tires on the tough dirt bullrings.  So gifted, in fact, that in 1976, he won the first of three consecutive runnings of the iconic Syracuse 200 at the New York State Fairgrounds.  Driving car #112, Balough would dominate Super DIRT Week a fourth time in 1980, running the iconic ground-effect-laden “Batmobile,” a heavily-modified Lincoln chassis designed by Kenny Weld.

By this point in his career, had already made his NASCAR debut in no less than the famous 1979 Daytona 500.  Driving for fellow Florida native Billie Harvey, Balough put Billie Harvey’s #87 Fast Lane Ltd. Oldsmobile 27th on the 41-car grid, but ended up 35th when he was involved in the early accident that eliminated David Pearson.  Balough finished 16th in his return to Daytona that July, 35th at Pocono, then in 1980 qualified 8th at Atlanta before a wreck left him 39th.  But, coming into 1981, as NASCAR downsized its stock cars to shorter-wheelbase models, Balough was without a Cup ride in 1981.  He’d soon find one with a young team called RahMoc Enterprises.

Butch Mock and engine builder Bob Rahilly co-founded RahMoc Enterprises in 1978 as a part-time team in the Cup Series.  The team campaigned car #75 from the very start on October 8, 1978, when Mock himself raced his way from last on the grid at Charlotte to finish 26th in a field of 40.  Over the next three seasons, Mock would hand over the wheel to a number of different drivers who would go on to have success in NASCAR, including Chuck Bown, Kyle Petty, and Harry Gant, as well as Lennie Pond, who edged Darrell Waltrip for Rookie of the Year in 1973, and Joe Millikan, who lost rookie honors to Dale Earnhardt in 1979.  A few weeks after Millikan was released following the 1981 World 600 at Charlotte, Tim Richmond made a lone start for RahMoc at Nashville, the same race where Mark Martin earned his first pole.  Richmond finished 12th, but the team had still yet to score its first Cup win.  The team’s best finish at that point were three 7th-place finishes – one by Gant, and two by Millikan.  And so, for the next round at Pocono on July 26, the team decided to put a RahMoc engine under Gary Balough.

Carrying sponsorship from Ferrailuolo & Sons Excavating, whose owners Tony and Ronnie Ferraiuolo fielded dirt cars for Balough in 1975, Balough started 15th and matched Richmond’s 12th-place finish – a new career-best for the driver.  He finished out the 1981 season with RahMoc, earning his first Top 10 at Richmond in September.  The driver also proved to be a solid qualifier that year, only once starting worse than 22nd on the grid, including the 4th-fastest speed at Dover and 3rd at Michigan.  On October 10, he won a NASCAR Late Model Sportsman race at Charlotte, beating Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, and Sam Ard with a Bob Rahilly engine.

Balough remained with RahMoc into 1982, when the team entered him in both the Daytona 500 and the weekend’s series debut of the NASCAR Budweiser Late Model Sportsman Series (now the XFINITY Series).  Again, Balough impressed, charging from 33rd to 4th in the Saturday race (trailing Dale Earnhardt, Jody Ridley, and Sam Ard), then going from 31st to 11th in “The Great American Race.”  By this time, Balough had also signed with Harry Ranier to drive the #28 Pontiac that had gone to Benny Parsons, that year’s polesitter of the 500, with Waddell Wilson as crew chief and Robert Yates engines under the hood.

But five days after the 500, as crews headed to the next round in Richmond, disaster struck.  On February 19, Balough was indicted along with 65 others in a $300 million marijuana and cocaine smuggling ring that had operated since 1976.  Among the claims were that the drivers and mechanics worked on the fast powerboats which were used to bring drugs from the Bahamas, and that both NASCAR cars and haulers had been used to transport them into the Carolinas.  The complaint alleged that at least some of the drugs had been ferried through Balough’s home town of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Jim Hunter, the NASCAR Spokesman at the time, commented that Balough and William Joseph Harvey, another driver from the 500 implicated by the FBI, “are not prominent drivers. They are here, I think, because they like it but not to make their living at it.”  Chris Economaki, who dubbed the announcement “Black Thursday,” would later write, “The unfortunate headlines of last week concerning a few racing insiders caught up in a drug investigation is another slap in the face for our sport. Unlike the ‘moonshiners’ of the ’30s and ’40s who broke an unpopular law, drugs, particularly the hard ones, are a cancer on the American scene. Papers that wouldn’t carry a race result if the mayor of their city won at Indy, bannered the racing connection of the drug story.”

“I’d gotten into situations in the late ‘70s that I shouldn’t have been around,” said Balough in 2009. “To get enough funding, because there weren’t any major corporations around then, we made some mistakes.”

Balough was released from a Miami jail on a $100,000 bond in time to join the RahMoc team at Richmond for the second race of the season.  Under this looming cloud of controversy, the driver performed well in qualifying, earning 11th on the 32-car grid.  During the final pace lap, ESPN’s Larry Nuber made brief mention of Balough as “racing moved from the sports page to the front page” as “one of the most famous and concurrently infamous short track drivers Gary Balough, was indicted in an alleged Miami-based drug-smuggling ring, but he’s here this week and ready to go racing.”

Starting last in the field was 32-year-old owner-driver Jimmy Means, embarking on his seventh season on the circuit, in the #52 Broadway Motors Chevrolet.  At the end of Lap 1, the spot fell to Tommy Gale, who was driving Elmo Langley’s #64 Sunny King Ford.  Just as Gale worked his way through Turns 1 and 2, he saw trouble up front as Balough spun his powder blue #75 onto the apron.  Balough regained control without hitting anything, and filed in at the back of the pack.  Lap 3 saw Harry Gant drive down pit road in his #33 7-Eleven / Skoal Bandit Buick, but didn’t make a stop and rejoined the tail end of the field next to Tommy Gale.  Gant would be held a lap under the second caution of the afternoon, then made an unscheduled stop which likely dropped him to last.

Balough’s final bid for last came on Lap 36, when he tangled with open-wheel star Tom Sneva’s #37 Simoniz Buick in Turn 3.  Both cars managed to keep rolling under the yellow, but each had noticeable damage to the front valence.  Balough’s car had the left-front fender caved-in on the tire, causing the #75 to trail smoke as it limped back around the track.  Irritated, he then rear-ended Sneva’s car down the backstretch, then sped past the leaders to get to pit road.  Balough came back out on track, but was quickly black-flagged for passing leader Darrell Waltrip in the pits, costing him a lap and dropping him into contention for last with Gant.  It’s unlikely Balough returned to the track after that, as he was credited with just 42 laps complete, and the race restarted after his wreck on Lap 42.  Sneva’s car fell out soon after with rear end trouble, followed by Gant, whose earlier issues were apparently due to engine trouble.  Rounding out the Bottom Five were owner-drivers D.K. Ulrich in his #6 Buick and Vermont native Joe Fields in his #92 Richmond Printing Buick.  The win would go to Dave Marcis, his first since 1976 and the fifth and final of his long Cup career.

Balough remained with RahMoc for another three races, including Atlanta, where he matched the team’s best finish with another 7th-place run, but was released after Rockingham and replaced by Joe Ruttman.  It was then that Balough entered the darkest period of his career.  From 1982 through 2010, Balough would spend more than 45 months in prison, preventing him from getting back into racing full-time.  He won the 1986 title in NASCAR’s All Pro Super Series, scoring 14 wins in 22 races, and courted Domino’s Pizza for a 25-race, $750,000 sponsorship deal which ended up falling through.  He made three more Busch Series starts in 1990, another three in Cup for Jim Rosenblum in 1991 and 1992, and was there for the start of the Truck Series in 1994 and 1995, but didn’t find the success of a decade earlier.

During this same period, RahMoc Enterprises finally found victory lane.  On May 29, 1983, during the World 600 at Charlotte, Neil Bonnett led 69 laps, including the final 53, and beat Richard Petty for the win by eight-tenths of a second.  By the late 1980s, Bonnett had scored four wins for RahMoc, the last of which coming in the final race at Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway in 1988 before the track was re-configured into today’s Richmond Raceway.  Though no other driver won for RahMoc, the team continued to show flashes of brilliance into the early 1990s.  The team’s final two of their 36 top-five finishes both came in the Daytona 500, where Joe Ruttman ran 3rd in 1991 and Dick Trickle, without a sponsor, finished 5th in 1992.

Between the 1992 and 1993 seasons, Butch Mock left RahMoc Enterprises to start his own team, Butch Mock Motorsports.  Mock would continue to campaign the #75 for the rest of the decade, but in 209 Cup starts would finish no better than a 3rd by Todd Bodine at Atlanta in 1994.  In late 1999, Mock sold the team to Darwin Oordt, who presided over the renamed and short-lived Galaxy Motorsports in 2000.  Meanwhile, Bob Rahilly and his brother Dick have kept the RahMoc name alive with RahMoc Racing Engines.  The power plants built by the Rahilly brothers still can be heard roaring around the confines of Bowman Gray Stadium.

As for Balough, his prison days are well behind him, and he still resides in Florida.  Like fellow dirt tracker Jimmy Horton, he’s kept ties with his clay oval roots, including a return to Syracuse.  In 2015, he was inducted to the New England Modified Hall of Fame, where his 1980 “Batmobile” is on display.  He currently operates his own team, Gary Balough Racing, where he acts as driving coach and aero and chassis setup.  His Facebook page can be found at this link.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*Balough’s last-place finish was the first for RahMoc Enterprises.  The team’s #75 wouldn’t finish last at Richmond again until after Butch Mock started his own team.  On June 6, 1998, Rick Mast lost the engine on his #75 Remington Arms Ford after 113 laps of the Pontiac Excitement 400.  It proved to be Mock’s 13th and final last-place finish as the team’s co-owner, then sole owner.
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #75 in a Cup Series race since September 15, 1974, when Johnny Barnes’ Hawks Enterprises 1972 Chevrolet lost an engine on the opening lap of the Delaware 500 at Dover.
*This was also the first last-place finish for car #75 in a Cup race at Richmond since June 5, 1960, when John Dodd, Jr.’s 1960 Ford lost an engine after 37 laps of the Richmond 200.  Since Richmond wasn’t paved at the time, Dodd’s finish was the #75’s most recent last-place finish in a NASCAR dirt track race until Caleb Holman’s run at Eldora this past July.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
32) #75-Gary Balough / 42 laps / crash
31) #37-Tom Sneva / 94 laps / rear end
30) #33-Harry Gant / 138 laps / engine
29) #6-D.K. Ulrich / 169 laps / engine
28) #92-Joe Fields / 190 laps / running

SOURCES
*Autoweek Staff. “Special report: Racers who have run afoul of the law,” Autoweek, April 27, 2014.
*Hedger, Ron. “Looking for Pay Dirt: Gary Balough searches the soil for a little magic,” Stock Car Racing, February 2009.
*Managing Editor. “Gary Balough to be Inducted Into NE Modified Hall of Fame,” Dirt Track Digest, June 3, 2015.
*Racing-reference.info
*Strauss, Valerie. “Stock car racers charged in drug smuggling ring,” UPI Archives, February 19, 1982.
*Waltz, Keith. “Black Thursday Saw Racers Arrested In Drug Ring,” Speed Sport, February 16, 2010.
*Williams, Deb. “After more than 4 decades, the Rahilly brothers still enjoy building race engines,” The Charlotte Observer, July 29, 2014.

Monday, September 4, 2017

CUP: Lastcarlington Special: Clint Bowyer’s Chase bid takes disastrous turn after car left stranded at Darlington

PHOTO: Brock Beard
Clint Bowyer picked up the 7th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at the Darlington Raceway when his #14 Carolina Ford Dealers Ford fell out with engine trouble after 18 of 367 laps.

The finish, which came in Bowyer’s 422nd start, was his first of the season and his first in a Cup Series race since last August at Michigan, 37 races ago.

Following a terrible one-off season for HScott Motorsports as he awaited the retirement of Tony Stewart, Bowyer was more than ready to take over the #14 ride this season at Stewart-Haas Racing.  After a 32nd-place finish in the Daytona 500, Bowyer finished inside the Top 15 for the next eleven consecutive races, including a 3rd at Fontana and a runner-up to Jimmie Johnson at Bristol.  This past summer, he finished 2nd two more times, wheeling a battered Ford at Sonoma behind Kevin Harvick, then Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. at Daytona.  But his first win of the season – his first, in fact, since 2012 – continued to elude him.

Another consequence of Bowyer’s consistent, but winless season has been his rank in the standings.  10th overall headed into Darlington, Bowyer was still ranked fifth among winless drivers in the Chase Grid.  Unfortunately for him, while Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, and Chase Elliott held the three current winless positions, Bowyer was not only outside the cut, but ranked behind Joey Logano, whose encumbered win at Richmond also put him in a “must win” situation.

After running tributes to both Buddy Baker and Benny Parsons the last two years, Bowyer this season elected to honor 1993 and 2009 Southern 500 winner Mark Martin, one of two in the field.  While Trevor Bayne ran a throwback to Martin’s Stroh’s Light Ford on his #6 AdvoCare machine, Bowyer drove the Carolina Ford Dealers paint scheme that Martin ran for Bill Davis in what is today the XFINITY Series.  Building on the “throwback” theme of the weekend, Martin, who joined Bowyer at the track for media availability, is preparing a special race on September 26-30 at the Batesville Motor Speedway.  The Batesville track, site of Martin’s first-ever race in 1974, will host the “Race 4 Hope ’74,” which will benefit Mark and Arlene Martin’s youth initiative Hope for Arkansas, Inc.  More details on the event can be found here.

Bowyer’s turn in the Martin scheme began with a 14th-fastest lap in Friday’s first session, a 17th in Happy Hour, and 16th on the grid with a lap of 175.291mph.

Starting last was Carl Long, who was set to make his first Cup start since Kansas and his first Southern 500 since 2005.  On a weekend where splitter issues cut short his race in the XFINITY Series race, Long’s #66 CrashClaimsR.us Chevrolet turned in the slowest speed in two of the weekend’s three sessions, the exception a 38th in opening practice that put him ahead of Derrike Cope and Cody Ware.  He arrived on the grid in a different uniform from earlier in the weekend, swapping out the 2006 RoadLoans.com outfit from Saturday’s race for the Millstar Tools suit from his unsuccessful 2008 Daytona 500 bid.

Bowyer stopped at pit entrance by Stall 43
PHOTO: Brock Beard
When the green flag dropped, Long remained in last heading into and was behind by open track heading into Turn 1.  By Lap 2, his #66 had caught up to 39th-place starter Cody Ware, whose #51 was running the Mello Yello paint scheme from “Days of Thunder” in an effort to support relief for victims of Hurricane Harvey.  Long worked over Ware through the backstretch, then cut low in Turns 3 and 4, clearing him down the front.  Later in the race, Long would climb out of his car and hand over driving duties to his XFINITY teammate and Brickyard 400 14th-place finisher Timmy Hill.  Despite heavy right-side damage, the #66 managed a 33rd-place finish, the third-lowest finisher to end the race under power.

Next to join the last-place battle was Ryan Blaney, whose #21 Motorcraft Throwback Ford (honoring Kyle Petty’s 1987 scheme) caught the wall early and cut down a tire, forcing an unscheduled green-flag stop.  He was also the first of several drivers to miss the entrance to pit road, forcing him to come around again.  It was Blaney who was the first driver to lose a lap, and he’d lose a second one before he returned to the track.  Now with much fresher tires than the rest of the field, he proceeded to fly past several other cars, catching the attention of MRN’s radio broadcast.

On Lap 14, Trevor Bayne broke loose between Turns 3 and 4, smacking the wall with the right-rear of his #6 AdvoCare Throwback Ford resembling Mark Martin’s 1988-1989 Stroh’s Light Ford.  Bayne limped around the track for two laps, ultimately drawing the caution when he dropped debris and trailed smoke down the backstretch.  Bayne made it to pit road under caution and began losing laps as the “Crash Clock” ticked down.  It wasn’t long before he took 40th from Blaney.

Under this yellow, following the first round of caution-flag pit stops, Clint Bowyer was sitting in front of the empty Stall 43, just a short distance past the entrance to pit road.  Bowyer had reported an overheating issue, then smoke in the cockpit, and both driver and crew were trying to get a tow truck to push the car back to the pit stall.  For whatever reason, this help didn’t arrive promptly, and the #14 sat in the same spot for nearly three full laps.  Carl Long had to drive his car around Bowyer to make his stop.  “Why are they not coming to get us?” was asked over the radio.

By the time the truck came, Bowyer had fallen to 39th, behind Blaney but ahead of Bayne.  The crew decided to have the truck push the car back to the garage by way of the second and furthest entrance from Stall 43.  Around this point, Bowyer had dropped behind Bayne for last as the #6 managed to beat the “Crash Clock.”  Bayne managed to claw his way to 35th at the finish, the final car under power.  But by Lap 72, Bowyer was listed out of the race.

39th on Sunday went to Reed Sorenson, whose #15 Xchange of America Throwback Toyota to Morgan Shepherd’s 1990 Motorcraft Ford lost the clutch after 104 laps.  Curiously, this also required a push into the garage, which he received promptly on Lap 106.  38th fell to Daniel Suarez, who smacked the Turn 1 wall in his #19 Arris Toyota on Lap 125.  In 37th was last-place starter Cody Ware, who on Lap 157 tangled with A.J. Allmendinger in Turn 1, then collided with the approaching Matt DiBenedetto.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Gray Gaulding, who shredded a right-rear tire and much of the bodywork when he spun on Lap 197, then pulled behind the wall after struggling to maintain minimum speed.  The same pit issues that same to define the night also plagued Gaulding, who stopped at the first garage entrance, turned, then pulled into the second.  Matters were made worse for Gaulding after a water pipe above his garage stall ruptured, showering his battered #83.

Now, for both Bowyer and Joey Logano, each driver is still in a “must win” situation next Saturday at Richmond, the final round to make the Chase.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #14 in a Cup Series race at Darlington since September 7, 1959, when Carl Burris’ 1957 Ford lost the engine after 2 laps of the Southern 500.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #14-Clint Bowyer / 18 laps / engine
39) #15-Reed Sorenson / 104 laps / clutch
38) #19-Daniel Suarez / 125 laps / crash
37) #51-Cody Ware / 144 laps / crash
36) #83-Gray Gaulding / 202 laps / crash

2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group (5)
2nd) BK Racing (3)
3rd) Hendrick Motorsports, Furniture Row Racing, Premium Motorsports, Rick Ware Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (2)
4th) Chip Ganassi Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports (1)

2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (12)
2nd) Toyota (8)
3rd) Ford (5)

2017 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

TRUCKS: Tommy Regan’s first-lap exit ends Joe Nemechek’s last-place streak at two

PHOTO: FS1
Tommy Regan picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career in Sunday’s Chevrolet Silverado 250 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park when his #0 Driven2Honor.org Chevrolet fell out with engine trouble after 0 of 64 laps.

The finish, which came in Regan’s seventh series start, was his second of the year and his first since Texas, eight races ago.  He now jumps to third in the 2017 LASTCAR Truck Series standings, trailing a tiebreaker with Todd Peck and Joe Nemechek.

In a year that saw him make his Cup debut at Sonoma while also parking Truck Series rides for both Jennifer Jo Cobb and Norm Benning, Regan returned to the Cobb team for the first time since Texas to drive Cobb’s white #0 Chevrolet.  It would be Regan’s first Truck start at Mosport, and would come as one of 32 drivers who entered, guaranteeing that he and the other entrants would start.

Regan didn’t participate in Saturday’s opening practice session, then turned a single lap in Happy Hour, ranking him 30th of the 32 drivers.  His lap of 81.386mph was completed in 108.770 seconds, just under 30 seconds slower than Christopher Bell’s lap at the top of the charts.  Regan didn’t turn a lap in qualifying, placing him 31st on the grid based on Owner Points.

Starting last was the only other driver who didn’t turn a lap in qualifying, Truck Series newcomer Joe Hudson.  Hudson was ranked beneath Regan as his ride, Mike Harmon’s #74 Chevrolet, was making its first series start since November 11, 2016.  This gave Harmon’s team a two-continent sweep on starting last, combined with Harmon’s own last-place start in the Red Farmer throwback at Darlington.  The truck carried sponsorship from Alaska Raceway Park.

When the race started, Mike Senica fell to the back as he reprised his role driving Norm Benning’s #57 Chevrolet this time didn’t carry sponsorship from Senica’s longtime sponsor Bell Plantation.  Senica started the race 8.396 seconds behind the race leader.  But while Senica was the last car on the track, he was only 31st, as Regan had yet to cross the stripe.  While the FS1 cameras showed Regan sitting in the 31st spot on the grid prior to the start, engine issues were the official listed cause of his sudden exit, and he was listed out by Lap 4.

UPDATE (Sept. 7): More details about the Regan last-place finish. According to motorsports artist Robert Taylor, who worked as Mike Senica's spotter on Sunday, Regan's #0 had mechanical problems from the moment it was unloaded, including engine, radiator, and transmission issues.  This required the Cobb team to swap parts between Regan's #0 and Cobb's #10.  The #0 also failed inspection on one go round, then passed by race day.  Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to keep the truck running.

The rest of the Bottom Five filled quickly.  On Lap 1, Joe Nemechek pulled off the track in his #89 Fire Alarm Services / DAB Constructors Chevrolet, a truck with the “J.H.” of his son’s name covered by a square of black tape on the roof rail.  That same time by, Senica had fallen back to 34.767 seconds behind the leader and 1.780 seconds behind the next truck of Jennifer Jo Cobb.  Senica then then dropped to 55.698 seconds behind the leader the next time by and was promptly lapped before he, too, took his truck behind the wall.  By Lap 6, when Joseph Hudson’s #74 slowed on the far outside exiting the hairpin curve, Jennifer Jo Cobb briefly held 29th in her Driven2Honor.org Chevrolet, but then passed Todd Peck’s #63 MB Motorsports Chevrolet before both retired.  Hudson ended up just outside the Bottom Five in 27th.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the third last-place finish for Cobb’s #0 in five races and the fourth for Cobb’s team in that time.  Chris Lafferty took the inaugural in 2013 followed by Caleb Roark in 2014, both of them going on to claim the LASTCAR Truck Series title for those seasons.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
32) #0-Tommy Regan / 0 laps / engine
31) #87-Joe Nemechek / 1 lap / suspension
30) #57-Mike Senica / 2 laps / clutch
29) #63-Todd Peck / 5 laps / transmission
28) #10-Jennifer Jo Cobb / 6 laps / clutch

2017 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing, Norm Benning Racing (3)
2nd) Copp Motorsports, NEMCO Motorsports (2)
3rd) Halmar Friesen Racing, Henderson Motorsports, MB Motorsports, MDM Motorsports, TJL Motorsports (1)

2017 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (15)

2017 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

Saturday, September 2, 2017

XFINITY: Lastcarlington Special: Matt Tifft scores first last-place finish; interviews with Jeff Green, Carl Long, Frank Warren, and Morgan Shepherd


PHOTO: Brock Beard
Matt Tifft picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200 at the Darlington Raceway when his #19 Ron John Surf Shop Toyota was involved in a two-car accident after 1 of 148 laps.  The finish came in Tifft’s 35th series start.

The 21-year-old driver and UNC college student from Hinckley, Ohio has this year become one of the most interesting stories in the XFINITY Series garage.  Mentored by several drivers, including XFINITY Series part-timers Tim Schendel and Benny Gordon, the last ten years has seen Tifft jump from go-karts to NASCAR’s second-tier division.  In 2014, he finished 8th in his Truck Series debut at Martinsville, and by the following season, both Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing came calling.  2015 saw his XFINITY debut at Kentucky, where he drove a Gibbs car to a 10th-place finish.  The next year, he scored his first pole at Talladega, scene of the first of back-to-back 8th-place runs.  But, soon after, it all almost came to an end.

During a routine appointment in June 2016, doctors discovered a brain tumor which required immediate medical attention.  Within weeks, Tifft underwent surgery and was out of the driver’s seat at Gibbs.  Doctors discovered the tumor was benign, and by September, he was cleared to race.  Through it all, Tifft maintained a positive outlook, sharing his story on social media.  He also didn’t lose his driving skills.  At Kentucky, his first race back, he scored a career-best 5th, followed by an 8th at Charlotte and a 9th at Texas.  By the end of the 2016 season, Tifft was announced as Gibbs’ full-time driver of the #19, replacing XFINITY Series champion and current Cup rookie Daniel Suarez.

Coming into Darlington, the highlight of Tifft’s 2017 season came just six days earlier at Road America.  In the final laps, it was Tifft who found himself in front, positioning himself for a first XFINITY Series win.  But, during those same laps, Jeremy Clements was charging through the pack, and caught Tifft for the lead coming to the white.  The two made contact, sending both cars into a spin.  While Clements managed to keep his car pointed straight, Tifft lost time getting back on course and was edged for 2nd by Michael Annett.  Still, the 3rd-place run tied a new career-best, matching another 3rd earlier that month at Mid-Ohio.  All together, Tifft sat 7th in the point standings after 23 races.

Darlington’s third annual “Throwback Weekend” saw Tifft drive one of many tributes to Dale Earnhardt – specifically the #19 Belden Asphalt Chevrolet that “The Intimidator” raced in the NAPA National 500 at Charlotte on October 9, 1977.  The car Earnhardt drove was owned by longtime owner-driver Henley Gray, who at the time had retired from Cup racing with 374 starts over 14 seasons without a win.  That day, Earnhardt did no better – rear end trouble took him out of the race after just 25 laps, leaving him 38th in a field of 41 (the late Bruce Hill, who A.J. Allmendinger honored last year, took last).  Tifft’s Toyota would carry a similar paint scheme, but with sponsorship from the Ron John Surf Shop.

At the track, Tifft ran 17th in the opening practice session, 13th in Happy Hour, and came up just short of making the final round in qualifying, securing the 14th starting spot with a lap of 169.526mph.  Just one driver was sent home after qualifying – the #15 Flex Seal Chevrolet of Reed Sorenson, who failed to complete a qualifying lap due to transmission issues.

Starting last on Saturday was Mike Harmon, whose #74 Dodge for Veterans Motorsports, Inc. was brought to the track in a small white trailer parked near the paddock entrance to the garage area.  The black car was wrapped in white and gold, honoring longtime NASCAR racer Red Farmer and his #97 Ford.  Joining Harmon at the rear were Brandon Jones and Tommy Joe Martins, each sent to the back for unapproved adjustments.  By the time the field entered the backstretch for the first time on Lap 1, all three had passed Morgan Shepherd, dropping the #89 Visone RV / Racing With Jesus Chevrolet to last.  Then, coming onto the front stretch, trouble broke out.

Coming off Turn 4, Tifft was locked in a tight battle with Ross Chastain for position when the two made contact, the right-front of Chastain’s #4 South Carolina Education Lottery Chevrolet into the left-rear of Tifft’s Toyota.  The contact sent Tifft careening down the track, where he hit the inside SAFER barrier head-on.  The car managed to just roll past the start / finish line before it stopped, crediting him with one lap complete.  The damage was well beyond a pit road repair, so the #19 was pulled into the garage area, eliminating him under the “Crash Clock.”

On Lap 2, Carl Long pulled his #13 OCR Gaz Bar Dodge behind the wall.  The Motorsports Business Management crew looked under the car for a few moments before the driver re-fired the engine, drove around the garage building, and returned to the track through the backstretch pits.  At this point, Long was in 39th, at least one lap down.  Only then did Darlington’s track crew tow Tifft’s #19 back to the garage area, where crews removed the crumpled front valence and prepared to load it onto the truck.

Next to arrive in the garage was Jeff Green, who pulled into the garage via the rear entrance around the time Ty Dillon recovered from his backstretch spin on Lap 9.  Both Green and Long’s pit stalls didn’t have any sets of tires at the ready.  Green’s stall had an extra generator cart from RSS Racing teammate Ryan Sieg’s team, as well as at least one crewman wearing a headset.  Long’s pit stall had the #40 team’s war wagon, still covered after opening ceremonies.  Long would pull into the garage a second time on Lap 32, and this time was done for the day.  I had a chance to speak to both drivers, who finished 39th and 38th in the final running order.

"It’s paying the bills,” said Green. “That’s all I’m doing, you know. . .We get to have a little fun, short lived time.  But if I hadn’t had my career, you know, it’d be tougher for me to do it, you know what I mean?  But I’ve been there, done that.”  Green was also appreciative of his name staying out there in the NASCAR media.  “Any time you get someone talking about you, it’s good.”  The financial aspect of parking, particularly for a small team like RSS Racing, creates a delicate balance for “start-and-parks” between gaining a couple spots and risking damaging the car.  “[Sometimes] we’re not really gaining anything by running 50 laps.  But for someone like Morgan (Shepherd), he’s a start-and-park, a couple other of those guys, if we know they’ll start, we’ll try and outrun them, because it’s about a thousand dollars of difference for each spot, you know what I mean?  That’s what we’re doing it for, the money, we’re not doing it for anything else.  So if we can gain a couple of spots, that’s a couple of grand.”  We at LASTCAR.info also presented Green with a shirt commemorating his 100 NASCAR last-place finishes.  “I didn’t think I had 100 yet,” he said with a smile.

Long, wearing the RoadLoans.com driver’s uniform from his attempt to make the 2006 Daytona 500, was trying to figure out the issue that forced him to make two trips to the garage.  “Not real sure.  Something in the suspension didn’t feel right, and it just got to where it was in a drift.  My guys were stuck on pit road, and so they want me to look after it (laughs). . .I think the splitter’s bottoming out and going up the track and it’s just a handling issue and I’m not running this car for points, it weren’t no use when the leaders started catching me.  I just save all this for tomorrow, so I can sweat it all out tomorrow.”  When asked about his #66 Chevrolet on the Cup side, which he’ll drive in his first Southern 500 since 2005, Long was looking forward to it.  “The car drives pretty good.  I’m a little bit puzzled because I thought it drove pretty good, but I’m still two seconds slower than the other guys.  So, drives good but don’t have any speed, so hopefully we can stay out of the way.”  Long’s goal for Sunday was simple.  “Finish."

37th went to Morgan Shepherd, whose pit stall had just one set of scuffed tires prior to the race, a small war wagon, and a bright orange cross that served as his pit board.  NASCAR veterans Frank Warren and Billy Fulcher, both invited to the track by Premium Motorsports, were standing by the stall before the green flag.  Warren was wearing one of his bright yellow team shirts and a Premium hat.

"First race I’ve been to in a long time,” said Warren, who campaigned the #79 for most of his 396 Cup starts from 1963 through 1980.  “I used to go to Daytona once in a while to watch them, but I haven’t been to a race since, I guess probably ten years.”  Like many drivers of his era, Warren traditionally taped sticks of gum to his dashboard.  Warren preferred Big Red.  He also fondly remembered J.D. McDuffie, who did the same with cigars.  “J.D. and I were very close.  It killed me when he died.  I still talk to his wife once in a while.  But there were several times when driving all in the area I used to go by and stop at his house and we’d eat dinner at his house.  And then we’d go off to wherever.”

During the opening laps, Morgan Shepherd was running at or near the back of the pack, trading spots with Mike Harmon.  The veteran remained on the track through the race’s first four cautions, and was setting up to beat his record of 59 laps complete earlier this year at Loudon.  He also stayed out during a round of pit stops, ranking him 2nd behind Jeremy Clements for a lap, then to the lead for two more.  Shepherd was still leading the pack at the one to go signal before he pulled over off Turn 2, letting Joey Logano and the rest of the leaders form up for the start.  It marked the first time Shepherd had led more than one lap in an XFINITY race since April 27, 2012, when he led 3 at Richmond.

On Lap 54, just after the end of Stage 1, Shepherd pulled his car behind the wall and stopped next to a tent set up next to the small white trailer and pick-up truck his crew had driven to the track.  With his wife Cindy standing by, Shepherd took his time getting out of the car, then retrieved his rolling tool box and worked his way through the drawers.  With NASCAR officials watching, Shepherd took apart the carburetor and set to work on a faulty fuel pump.  Although Shepherd did later remove the tapered spacer from the carburetor, he did also set to work on the fuel pump, working on his own car like the many great independents before him.  Once the crew brought back his tires and war wagon, I spoke with him as he enjoyed a Mello Yello in his small white trailer.

"It cut off,” said Shepherd, “and I thought the fuel pump quit on us, which it did.  And I got over here and it picked back up, and I realized it went through the banking, it lost fuel pressure.  The pickup’s on the right side.”  It’s been a difficult year for Shepherd, who each week has enjoyed just a handful of laps in his 50th anniversary season.  “We don’t have sponsorship to go out and race, buy tires and all that, buy engines, so we just run a little bit.  But the car did cut off, lost fuel pressure.  What it was, the fuel was just away from the pickup."

I also asked Shepherd about his favorite Darlington memory.  “Bob Bahre, who owned a speedway up at Oxford, Maine and Loudon, New Hampshire, his brother Dick Bahre, I helped him out, and he had a Cup car.  And we came down here and, believe it or not, we was looking like we was gonna win the race.  And the battery wire got up against the bodywork, it went through and shorted it out, and so we fell out.  But we had a winning car that day.  And plus in ’85, whenever Bill (Elliott) won the race up here, we had the car to beat – Carolina Tools Chevy – and we cracked a cylinder head and had to pull out, but we was better than Bill that day but didn’t get to show it.”

Finally, when asked why he stayed out to lead those two laps when there’s only points for stage wins, Shepherd was clear.  “I’m almost 76, and we led the race here at Darlington.”  Nothing more needed to be said.

For more on helping out Shepherd Racing Ventures, you can donate to his website at www.morganshepherd.com.  The team also has hero cards printed with his gold-and-black 50th Anniversary paint scheme.

Rounding out the Bottom Five was David Starr, whose #99 Chevrolet slowed suddenly down the backstretch in the early moments, then ultimately lost 16 laps to the leaders to finish the first car under power.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #19 in XFINITY competition since the 2015 finale at Homestead, where Jeff Green’s run in the TriStar Motorsports Toyota ended with transmission issues after 3 laps of the Ford EcoBoost 300.  It was Green’s sixth last-place run in a row, setting a season-high record of 23 finishes for the year.  It is also the first last-place finish for car #19 in an XFNIITY race at Darlington.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #19-Matt Tifft / 1 lap / crash
39) #93-Jeff Green / 8 laps / rear gear
38) #13-Carl Long / 29 laps / handling
37) #89-Morgan Shepherd / 51 laps / fuel pump / led 2 laps
36) #99-David Starr / 132 laps / running

2017 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) RSS Racing (13)
2nd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Shepherd Racing Ventures (2)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, King Autosport, Motorsports Business Management, Richard Childress Racing, SS Green Light Racing (1)

2017 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (22)
2nd) Dodge, Toyota (1)

2017 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
Also, according to Blogger, this is the 1,000th article published on this site (though this includes the first draft of this website, "43 Stories," whose archives can be found in the 2008 section.)