Thursday, March 23, 2017

2/28/71: The forgotten debuts of Dean Dalton and Ontario Motor Speedway

PHOTO: Getty Images, RacingOne
On February 28, 1971, Dean Dalton picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Miller High Life 500 at the Ontario Motor Speedway when his unsponsored #17 1969 Ford was flagged off the track after 2 of 200 laps.  The finish came in Dalton’s series debut.

Dalton’s story is as much about the track as it is about the driver.  Opened in August 1970, “The Big O” was constructed to quite literally be “The Indianapolis of the West,” a 2.5-mile rectangular oval with nine-degree banking in the corners.  The complex included a spacious garage area, a drag strip, and an infield road course – twenty years before Indianapolis built theirs.  The first race, held on September 6, 1970, welcomed the USAC open-wheelers in a 200-lap race of their own.  Taking the checkers was Jim McElreath, driving for A.J. Foyt, who took the lead from Art Pollard with five laps to go.

The following February, the 26-year-old Dalton arrived as one of 81 drivers looking to make the 51-car field for Ontario’s first NASCAR race.  Among them were a mix of Winston Cup and Winston West competitors, as well as both McElreath and Pollard.  When time trials were done, McElreath made the field, but Pollard did not.  Among the 29 joining Pollard on the ride home were owner-drivers D.K. Ulrich, Neil Castles, Ed Negre, and Bill Champion.  Dalton, meanwhile, secured the 43rd starting spot, lining up next to Bobby Wawak and Harry Schilling in a three-wide Indy-style formation.

Starting 51st and last that day was Daly City, California driver Bob England.  England, fourth in Winston West points the previous year, had made four previous Cup starts, all of them on the Riverside road course.  His best finishes were a pair of 13th-place runs in 1970 and 1971, though he had yet to finish any of his starts under power.  Only two laps into the race, Dalton was flagged off the track, perhaps for not maintaining minimum speed.  The exit wasn’t shown in “Car and Driver’s” highlights of the event, which can be seen here.

Finishing 50th that afternoon was another owner-driver, Frank Warren, whose engine let go on his #79 Prince Chrysler-Plymouth 1969 Dodge.  The next two spots went to Winston West competitors.  Another engine failure by the #82 Tognotti’s Speed Shop 1969 Ford of 49th-place Ron Gautsche, who finished 19th in his series debut at Riverside, drew the first caution of the race.  48th went to Dick Kranzler, 14th at Riverside, but out with overheating problems on his #4 Goodyear Tire Center 1970 Chevrolet.

Rounding out the Bottom Five was another standout, Mexico City’s Pedro Rodriguez.  By 1971, Rodriguez was one of the best drivers in the world.  He started racing bicycles and motorcycles with his brother Ricardo, ran the 24 Hours of Le Mans when he was just 18, entered Formula One in 1963, and won two Grands Prix at Kyalami and Spa.  Twice he finished 6th in the World Championship, once each for Cooper and BRM.

Long before Daniel Suarez and Carlos Contreras, Rodriguez had also been racing in Cup since May 17, 1959, when he finished a strong 6th in the 18-car field at Trenton, New Jersey.  He followed this up with a 5th in the 1965 World 600 at Charlotte, driving for Holman-Moody.  He even banged fenders with Benny Parsons during the Ontario race.  Tragically, subsequent electrical issues on his #20 Southland Auto Salvage Auction 1970 Ford marked the end of his final NASCAR start.  Less than five months later, Rodriguez was killed during a race at the Norisring in Nuremburg, West Germany.  The Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez road course in his native Mexico City is named in honor of the Rodriguez brothers.

Unfortunately, the careers of Dean Dalton and the Ontario Motor Speedway that began that day in 1971 would not last a decade.  Dalton switched car numbers from #17 to #7, and ran that number in most of his 118 Cup starts.  His best finish was a 6th at Darlington in 1973.  Dalton also brought sponsor Belden Asphalt into the sport, a company which would then back owner-driver Henley Gray into the 1990s.  From 1971 through 1977, Dalton fielded cars for Gray as well as Ed Negre, Jackie Rogers, Walter Ballard, Jack Donohue, Cecil Gordon, D.K. Ulrich, and Frank Warren.

Ontario hosted its final Cup race, won by Benny Parsons, in 1980.  In the infield, Dale Earnhardt, then driving for Rod Osterlund, celebrated his first Winston Cup after edging Cale Yarborough by 19 points.  The track was demolished the next year.  Oval track Cup racing would not return to Southern California until Fontana’s debut in 1997.

*This marked the first last-place finish for #17 in a Cup race since June 8, 1968, when David Pearson’s #17 1968 Ford was disqualified for mismatched tire treads at the (Birmingham) Fairgrounds Raceway.  It would not finish last again until March 11, 1979, when Roger Hamby earned his own first last-place finish after his #17 Hamby-Ellis Chevrolet overheated 68 laps into the Richmond 400 at the Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway.
*This marked the first time a Cup last-place finisher was flagged off the track since February 11, 1971, when Ken Meisenhelder’s #41 1969 Chevrolet was waved off after 1 lap of Race 2 of the 1971 Daytona Qualifiers (then listed as a full-race points event).  It wouldn’t be long before it happened again.  On June 26, 1971, Ernest Eury’s #05 1969 Chevrolet was also flagged after just 1 lap of the Pickens 200 at Greenville-Pickens Speedway.

51) #17-Dean Dalton / 2 laps / flagged
50) #79-Frank Warren / 4 laps / engine
49) #82-Ron Gautsche / 10 laps / engine
48) #4-Dick Kranzler / 13 laps / overheating
47) #20-Pedro Rodriguez / 18 laps / electrical

*NASCAR Grand National @ Ontario 1971 – YouTube (posted by Mitch’s Racing Highlights)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Small Team Storylines: Fontana

Auto Club 400 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California

The current entry list includes 39 drivers for 40 spots, one spot short of a full field for the fourth week in a row.

Derrike Cope finished 33rd last Sunday at Phoenix, his best run at the track since 1998 and his best finish of 2017.  This week, he’s back once again in a yet-unsponsored #55 Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports.  It will be Cope’s seventh Fontana start and first in Cup since September 5, 2004, when he finished 40th driving for William Edwards in the #96 Mach One Inc. Ford.  Teammate Reed Sorenson is again in the #15, which has alternated between a Toyota and Chevrolet since Daytona.  After finishing 30th in the Chevrolet at Phoenix, he will run a Toyota on Sunday.

BK Racing endured another difficult weekend in Phoenix.  Corey LaJoie has now been involved in at least one accident in each of the first four races while teammate Gray Gaudling tangled with David Ragan in a hard Turn 1 accident.  However, the team again does not appear to be struggling for sponsorship., which previously backed Tommy Joe Martins’ Truck Series ride at Daytona, will be back to sponsor Gaulding for a second-straight week.  Bubba Burger, an associate sponsor of Rick Ware Racing among others, will be the primary for Corey LaJoie’s #83.

Speaking of Rick Ware Racing, Timmy Hill will again pilot the #51, having finished a season-best 32nd at Phoenix.  The team continues its search for speed and will look to improve on last-place qualifying runs earned in all three of their starts.  Also without an announced sponsor is Cole Whitt and TriStar Motorsports’ #72 Chevrolet.  Left with their first DNF of the year and a season-worst 34th-place finish after a late accident, Whitt will be looking for a turnaround.  Sunday will be team owner Mark Smith’s first Cup start at Fontana since 2013, when Mike Bliss ran a “start-and-park” effort for Humphrey-Smith Motorsports.

One small team which will have a primary sponsor this weekend is Phoenix last-placer Jeffrey Earnhardt and Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group.  A “thank you” message on social media indicates that NiceRide Apparel will again grace the black-and-silver #33 Chevrolet.

Matt DiBenedetto continues to enjoy a quietly consistent season with Go FAS Racing.  After four races, he stands 27th in points, has yet to score a DNF, and has each time finished inside the Top 30.  Sunday will be DiBenedetto’s third Fontana start in Cup, and he finished inside the Top 30 again last year, running 27th for BK Racing.

California 300 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California

42 drivers are listed for 40 spots, marking the first time since Atlanta that there were 40 or more cars on the preliminary entry list.

Last week in Phoenix, Morgan Shepherd and Mike Harmon both made their first XFINITY starts of the season, but this week only Harmon is on the list.  Obaika Racing has also entered both its Chevrolets once more, but it will be anyone’s guess if the #77 and driver Josh Bilicki will actually make it into the field (Stephen Leicht is again entered in the #77 with Bilicki in the #97).

New this week is James Carter’s prolific #72 CrashClaimsR.Us Chevrolet with Scottish driver John Jackson behind the wheel.  We haven’t seen Jackson in XFINITY since last fall at Kentucky, when he finished 39th in the #40 Chevrolet for Motorsports Business Management, and the #72’s most recent green flag was last September at Darlington (another 39th).  In 16 previous starts, the Carter #72 has yet to finish better than 31st, making them a possible LASTCAR favorite alongside Jordan Anderson and the #93 RSS Racing Chevrolet, which may be headed to their third-straight last-place finish.

Motorsports Business Management retains the same two-car lineup at Fontana with Carl Long in the #13 Dodge and Timmy Hill in the #40 Toyota.  Hill’s double-duty weekend last week yielded a 26th-place finish in XFINITY, the team’s best run since Brandon Hightower’s 13th place in Daytona.

The return of the Cup veterans to XFINITY after the “Dash 4 Cash” hiatus has also brought back last-place record holder Jeff Green to B.J. McLeod’s #8 Chevrolet.  Green’s 26th-place run at Atlanta still remains the #8 team’s best performance of the year, four spots better than Matt Mills’ performance last Sunday at Phoenix.  Green will again be joined by McLeod (#78) and David Starr (#99) in the three-car effort.

Also back after skipping Phoenix is Biagi DenBeste Racing, which for the first time this year will put Cup veteran Casey Mears in its #98 Ford in place of Aric Almirola.  It will be Mears’ first XFINITY start at Fontana since 2007, when he scored the second of two career runner-up finishes at the track for Rick Hendrick.

Through the first three races of the season, each of Johnny Davis’ three drivers at JD Motorsports has had the privilege of beating their other two teammates.  But at Phoenix, Ross Chastain’s 22nd-place finish in the #4 ahead of 23rd-place Harrison Rhodes (#01) and 24th-place Garrett Smithley (#0) broke the tie.  Smithley and Rhodes still hold the team’s best finishes of the year, an 8th and 10th respectively at Daytona.

A fiery crash at Phoenix left Joey Gase with his first DNF of 2017 and a 35th-place finish.  Driver and team hope for better in Fontana, where other than a last-place effort in 2013, the duo have never finished worse than 30th.

An “atta-boy” to JGL Racing, which has finished inside the Top 20 in all four races so far in 2017.  The #24 youtheory Toyota returns to Corey LaJoie this Sunday, who despite his struggles in Cup produced a workmanlike 16th-place run at Fontana.  J.J. Yeley also earned a season-best 16th at Phoenix in TriStar’s #14 Toyota and continues his rebound after back-to-back DNFs at Daytona and Atlanta.  Superior Essex will back the Yeley effort.

Next Race: April 1, 2017
Alpha Energy Solutions 250 at Martinsville

Sunday, March 19, 2017

CUP: Jeffrey Earnhardt’s first Cup last-place finish equals a 2007 record

Jeffrey Earnhardt picked up the 1st last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Camping World 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway when his #33 NiceRide Apparel Chevrolet fell out with transmission problems after 9 of 314 laps.  The finish came in Earnhardt’s 28th series start.

Son of Kerry Earnhardt and nephew of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeffrey is currently competing in his third Cup Series season.  His famous last name overlooks what has been a difficult path to NASCAR’s upper ranks.  According to his website, Earnhardt began “piloting a silver 4 cylinder Yugo on the dirt tracks of Wythe Raceway in Rural Retreat, Virginia.”

Earnhardt worked his way through the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, finishing 5th in the 2007 standings, and made his XFINITY debut in 2009 at Watkins Glen.  He remained a part-timer in national competition through 2010, when he partnered with Rick Ware Racing.  The Ware effort included an opportunity to both race Trucks as well as professional sports car racing in the Rolex Grand-Am Sports Car Series, piloting Porsches and Mustangs at Daytona and Birmingham.  It wasn’t until 2014 that Earnhardt ran a full season in NASCAR, running the #4 Chevrolet for Johnny Davis’ JD Motorsports, and it wasn’t until this year that he now attempts a full Cup campaign.

2017 has been a reunion of sorts.  Earnhardt drives for The Motorsports Group, whose owner Curtis Key fielded his first XFINITY Series ride in 2009.  TMG came off its first full Cup season in 2016 with journeyman Josh Wise, who made all but five of the first 31 races and scored the LASTCAR Cup Series Championship.  This year, TMG merged with Joe Falk’s team Circle Sport, which came over after providing its Charter to Leavine Family Racing.  The move gave TMG a guaranteed starting spot for the first time in its existence.  As part of the change, Falk assumed ownership duties and switched the primary car’s number from TMG’s #30 to Circle Sport’s #33 (though the #30 may return as a part-time Open team this year). Earnhardt climbed behind the wheel of a car painted silver and black, much like his grandfather’s.

Coming into 2017, Earnhardt’s best Cup finish was a 26th last fall with Go FAS Racing, the #32 Ford team which now runs with driver Matt DiBenedetto.  A TMG car had yet to make a Cup restrictor-plate race, shut-out of three races in 2016, including their second-straight Daytona 500, and had withdrawn from Talladega last fall.  Thanks to Circle Sport’s Charter, however, the #33 was guaranteed its 32nd starting spot.  And, even after a late-race crash down the backstretch, Earnhardt matched his career-best 26th.

Earnhardt stood as one of the 39 entrants for the Phoenix race, and for the second-straight week acquired sponsorship for the main event.  This time, the backing came from NiceRide Apparel, a first-time sponsor in NASCAR.  Earnhardt ran 37th of 38 drivers in Friday’s opening practice, qualified 38th of 39 with a lap of 128.032mph.  He rounded out practice on Saturday with the 38th-best lap again in the second session, and 37th in Happy Hour.

Rick Ware Racing started last for their third-consecutive Cup start.  The team returned to Atlanta’s black-and-white #51 Spoonful of Music Foundation paint scheme on its Chevrolet with Timmy Hill aboard.  Joining him at the rear were Denny Hamlin, whose #11 FedEx Toyota picked up a screw in qualifying and had to change tires, and Aric Almirola, with a new engine under the hood of his #43 Smithfield Ford.

By the end of Lap 1, Jeffrey Earnhardt had fallen to 39th and was starting to lose touch with the field.  He was 5.647sec behind the leader after the first circuit, 6.909 on the second, and 8.438 on the third.  The fourth time by, Earnhardt’s car started smoking and he pulled down pit road, then entered the garage.  Reports indicated rear gear trouble, and though the car was soon pulled from NASCAR’s RaceView program, the team was still making repairs.  On Lap 80, the work was done, and #33 stopped at the end of pit road before re-entering the track, 76 laps behind.  Five circuits later, Earnhardt was back in the pits, and the crew instructed him to make another lap to return to the garage.  There, on Lap 90, the crew discovered a transmission issue.

Back on the track, on Lap 119, hard-luck Corey LaJoie found the outside wall for the fourth-straight race, striking the outside wall in his #83 BK Racing Graphics Toyota.  The impact knocked him out of the race.  However, Earnhardt, still behind the wall, would still secure last if he didn’t come back out on Lap 206 (or Lap 208, given the green-white-checkered finish).  Just short of that mark, on Lap 190, FOX Sports showed the #33 was listed “OUT,” securing the last-place run.  Curiously, prior to that, the FOX leaderboard showed Earnhardt multiple laps down, indicating he was on the track - even though he was still in the garage.  LaJoie ended up 38th.

37th went to Matt Kenseth, who took a savage hit to the outside wall on Lap 193 in his #20 Tide Toyota.  Rounding out the Bottom Five were 36th-place Gray Gaulding in the #23 Toyota and the #38 Jacob Companies Ford of David Ragan, both eliminated in a two-car wreck on Lap 206 when Ragan slid into Gaulding in Turn 1.

The win on Sunday went to Ryan Newman, who finished last in the same event a year earlier.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #33 at Phoenix since 2013, when Tony Raines’ Little Joes Autos Chevrolet, fielded by Joe Falk when Circle Sport was its own Cup team, exited with brake problems after 29 laps of the AdvoCare 500.
*This marked the first time three consecutive NASCAR Cup races had first-time last-place finishers since the spring of 2007, when J.J. Yeley’s #18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet crashed at Texas, David Stremme came home laps down at Phoenix in the #40 Coors Light Dodge, and Paul Menard’s #15 Menards Chevrolet lost an engine at Talladega.
*Earnhardt is the first Cup last-place finisher to trail a race because of transmission issues since June 30, 2013, when Scott Riggs’ #44 No Label Watches Ford fell out after 6 laps of the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky.

39) #33-Jeffrey Earnhardt / 9 laps / transmission
38) #83-Corey LaJoie / 115 laps / crash
37) #20-Matt Kenseth / 190 laps / crash
36) #23-Gray Gaulding / 201 laps / crash
35) #38-David Ragan / 204 laps / crash

1st) BK Racing, Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group, Joe Gibbs Racing, Rick Ware Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet, Toyota (2)


*Championship rankings corrected to include an additional Bottom Five and Bottom Ten for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. that was previously not counted.

XFINITY: Late return by Obaika Racing gives Jordan Anderson 2nd-straight last-place finish

PHOTO: @j66anderson
Jordan Anderson picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s DC Solar 200 at the Phoenix International Raceway when his unsponsored #93 RSS Racing Chevrolet fell out with overheating issues after he completed 3 of 200 laps.  The finish, which came in Anderson’s ninth series start, was his second in a row.

The preliminary entry list, which included Anderson, grew from 39 cars to 41 on Tuesday with the additions of owner-drivers Morgan Shepherd, who successfully raised funds to enter his #89 Racing With Jesus / Visone RV Chevrolet, and Mike Harmon in his #74 Dodge.  Shepherd seemed geared for an all-out qualifying attempt when he put up the 19th-best time of 32 drivers in Friday’s opening practice.

On Saturday, when Obaika Racing once again withdrew the #77 and driver Josh Bilicki, Shepherd and Harmon were locked-in to their first races of the season.  Shepherd and Harmon ended up timing in 29th and 30th in qualifying after eight drivers were unable to complete inspection in time.  Anderson’s #93, meanwhile, earned the 26th starting spot with a lap of 127.945mph.  He ran 30th of 37 after his only practice laps during Happy Hour.

Starting 40th on Sunday was the second Obaika Racing car of Stephen Leicht, once again moved to the #97 after the withdrawal of Bilicki and the #77.  Footage from the pre-race seemed to indicate that Leicht was driving the #77 as the “9” on the door number appeared to be a hastily-changed “7,” differing in style from the “9” used in previous races.  The car was also colored black over red, differing from the damaged Las Vegas car’s red over black.

The #97 behind the wall after 2 laps of the race, followed a lap later by Anderson, which first gave the impression that both would be “start-and-parks.”  Had the finish stayed this way, it would have been the first XFINITY last-place finish for the #97 since 2003, when Jeff Fuller exited after 3 laps at Rockingham.  But on Lap 125, Leicht pulled back out of the garage and completed 22 more laps, climbing to 37th before retiring with handling issues.  This dropped Anderson to last on Lap 127.

Between Anderson and Leicht were 39th-place Daniel Suarez, who on Lap 10 made contact with the outside wall after crossing the nose of Jeremy Clements’ #51, then cut down a right-rear two circuits later and slammed rear-first into the Turn 1 barrier.  38th went to Carl Long, who made his own 2017 debut in his #13 CrashClaimsR.Us Toyota, then pulled out with rear gear trouble as the listed reason.  Morgan Shepherd rounded out the Bottom Five, citing brake issues after 33 laps.  Fellow owner-driver Mike Harmon finished three laps down in 31st.

*This marked the first XFINITY Series last-place finish at Phoenix for both Anderson and the #93.

40) #93-Jordan Anderson / 3 laps / overheating
39) #18-Daniel Suarez / 11 laps / crash
38) #13-Carl Long / 18 laps / rear gear
37) #97-Stephen Leicht / 24 laps / handling
36) #89-Morgan Shepherd / 33 laps / brakes

1st) RSS Racing (2)
2nd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Inc., Kaulig Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (4)


Thursday, March 16, 2017

11/12/06: The story of Brandon Whitt and his lone Cup start at Phoenix

On November 12, 2006, Brandon Whitt picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Nextel Cup career in the Checker Auto Parts 500 Presented by Pennzoil at the Phoenix International Raceway when his #72 Dutch Quality Stone Chevrolet fell out with rear end trouble after 123 of 312 laps.  The finish came in Whitt’s series debut.

The older cousin of fellow California native Cole Whitt, who runs full-time for TriStar Motorsports in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Brandon Whitt cut his teeth in the NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour with sponsorship from Moen Faucets.  On October 25, 2001, an 18-year-old Whitt made his series debut at Phoenix and finished 14th in the 42-car field.  The next year, he scored three top-ten finishes and a season-best 5th at the Cajon (California) Speedway, earning him 9th in the season standings and a narrow victory over Steve Belletto for Rookie of the Year.

In 2003, Whitt made his national touring debut in the Craftsman Truck Series.  Like his Southwest Tour entry, his Chevrolet Silverado was fielded by Clean Line Motorsports, a team owned by his father Daniel.  Sponsorship came from McMillin Homes, the Cure Autism Now foundation, and Moen Faucets, the latter having backed Whitt’s efforts on the Southwest Tour.  His series debut came March 23, 2003 at the Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, where he’d finished 11th the previous year.  Whitt’s #38 IPS / In-sink-erator / Simpson Chevrolet came home 19th of 36, and was followed by a season-best 13th that summer in Fontana.

The next year, Whitt and Clean Line switched to Ford and went full-time in Trucks.  He improved on his career-best finish with a 12th at Martinsville and came home 19th in the standings.  2005 saw another manufacturer change to Toyota, along with new partners in Tom DeLoach and retired crew chief Jeff Hammond.  The combination formed was renamed from Clean Line to Red Horse Racing, which continues to run today with drivers Brett Moffitt and Timothy Peters.

Coming into July, Whitt was struggling to find consistency.  25th in points with six DNFs, including five crashes in a seven-race span earlier in the year, the team struggled to close out good finishes.  “It was frustrating because we were running so well,” said Whitt that year.  “The team was really coming together, but. . .we just couldn’t make it through those last 15-20 laps when everything was happening.”  Then the team came home 6th at Kentucky.  “Finally, we reached the point where we could put it together, and we started making it to the end of races and getting some good finishes.”

The next race after Kentucky came on July 23, the O’Reilly 200 Presented by Valvoline at the tight three-quarter oval in Memphis.  The weekend started as well as it could, the driver earning his first career pole and leading the opening 46 laps.  But Ron Hornaday, Jr. had taken the lead on Lap 130, and even with a green-white-checkered finish caused by Debroah Renshaw, it looked as though Whitt would have to settle for 2nd.  Then, on the final lap, Jimmy Spencer spun in Turns 3 and 4, and Hornaday slowed in the smoke.  The two made contact, causing Hornaday to spin as Whitt sped to the finish line, a winner in his 46th career start.

Among those celebrating with him in victory lane that night in Memphis was Greg Biffle, who followed a similar path to Cup.  “I love Truck racing,” he said.  “So I’d been watching him [Whitt] have good runs.  You could tell the win was right around the corner. . .He doesn’t do anything stupid.  He was really using his head.  He got in the back of Hornaday a little bit but kept his cool, got back in the throttle and didn’t lose a position.”  For Biffle, his racing career had gone full circle - he was at the track scouting talent, just as Benny Parsons had for him before he teamed with Roush Racing in 1998.

In 2006, however, Whitt was out of a ride, replaced by David Starr at Red Horse Racing.  He first turned to ARCA, looking to get Ted Campbell’s #57 CLR Racing Ford into the season-opening Daytona ARCA 200, but ended up mired in a tremendous list of 27 DNQs.  That September at Chicagoland, he returned in his own unsponsored #51 Chevrolet and qualified an impressive 4th, but a multi-car crash left him 31st.  As the year neared its end, it appeared he would have to look ahead to 2007 for another opportunity.  Then he got a call.

In 2006, businessman Bryan Mullet invested in Morgan Shepherd’s team, Faith Motorsports, which at the time was fielding #89 Dodges in the Cup Series.  The deal brought in sponsorship from Dutch Quality Stone, which Shepherd’s car carried as a sponsor through the first nine rounds of the season.  After missing each one of those races, however, the two parted ways, and Mullet fielded his own team, CJM Racing, with car #72.

Following a DNQ with Kertus Davis in the Coca-Cola 600, CJM’s next Cup effort came that June at Sonoma, where Mullet offered a ride to new NASCAR phenom David Gilliland.  Gilliland, fresh off his upset Busch Series win at Kentucky, leaped at the chance to race Cup at a track both he and father Butch (and now son Todd) have all competed on in the K&N Pro Series West.  Driving an old 2004 Dodge Intrepid, Gilliland not only qualified 31st for his first Cup attempt, besting five teams, but missed the wild first-lap accident to come home 32nd.  The finish paved the way for Gilliland’s next offer with Yates Racing, where that August he replaced Elliott Sadler as driver of the #38 M&M’s Ford.

Mullet, meanwhile, switched from Dodge to Chevrolet and made two more races with veteran Mike Skinner at Charlotte and Martinsville, but crashes left his #72 just 43rd and 39th at the finish.  For the November race at Phoenix, Mullet looked for another driver, and during a trip to the Texas Motor Speedway met Brandon Whitt.

The effort to make the race would again prove difficult.  51 drivers arrived to make the 43-car field, and without a rank in the Top 35 in Owner Points, Whitt would have to best eight of the other “go-or-go-homers,” including Morgan Shepherd.  After running just 44th in opening practice, Whitt put up a lap of 130.985mph in qualifying, good enough for 37th on the grid, and ahead of all the drivers he had to beat.

Sent home were Jason Leffler, looking to make his first Cup start in over a year in the #71 Fort McDowell Resort Destination Chevrolet for Braun Racing; Roush development driver Todd Kluever in the #06 3M Vikuiti / Sharp AQUOS Ford; Morgan Shepherd’s #89; West Coast driver Brandon Ash in the #02 Sprinter Trucking, Inc. Dodge; Kevin Lepage for Front Row Motorsports in the #34 Oak Glove Co. Chevrolet, Kenny Wallace for Furniture Row Racing in the #78 Chevrolet; Derrike Cope (that year’s LASTCAR champion) in Raynard McGlynn’s #74 Sundance Vacations / Dodge; and Jeremy Mayfield in a one-off for James Finch driving the #09 Miccosukee Gaming & Resorts Dodge.

It was a coming home of sorts for Whitt, who returned to the scene of his Southwest Tour debut in 2001, and made him the 77th different driver to qualify for a Cup race that season.  41st in Saturday practice, then 31st in Happy Hour, the driver looked for a good finish on Sunday.

Starting 43rd and last that day was 1989 winner Bill Elliott, who secured the Past Champions Provisional driving a throwback #37 Melling Auto Parts Dodge for car owner John Carter of R&J Racing.  He was joined at the back by Robby Gordon, sent to the rear in his #7 Harrah’s Chevrolet due to an engine change, and could have been joined by others for driver changes.  A bout of the flu had spread through the garage, and drivers Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, and Scott Riggs were still feeling the effects.  Busch had Brandon Ash on standby as his relief driver.

By Lap 3, 43rd spot belonged to veteran driver Chad Chaffin, who that year was driving a second car, #61, for Front Row Motorsports.  Chaffin’s struggle for speed in practice continued on race day, and by Lap 21 he was already 21.580 seconds behind race leader Kevin Harvick.  Whitt took 43rd from Chaffin by Lap 37, and appeared to be the first driver a lap down before Lap 53.  Last place changed hands once more when Greg Biffle pitted his #16 National Guard Ford for a vibration in his right-front tire.  The stop, which revealed his right-front worn to the cords, cost him two laps.  By Lap 101, Whitt had retaken last from Biffle and was six laps behind by Lap 129.  He pulled behind the wall soon after, and was out by Lap 144.

42nd went to Michael Waltrip, whose difficult transitional season between Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in 2005 and his own team in 2007 continued with a persistent smoking problem, then engine failure on his Doug Bawel-owned #55 NAPA Auto Parts Dodge after 234 laps.  41st went to Mike Bliss, whose own engine went away on BAM Racing’s #49 Dodge.  Rounding out the Bottom Five were 40th-place Jamie McMurray in Roush Racing’s #26 Irwin Industrial Tools Ford and Dale Jarrett’s #88 UPS Ford for Yates Racing, both knocked-out in a multi-car frontstretch wreck triggered by Tony Stewart on Lap 274.

Following a DNQ in the season finale at Homestead, Whitt and Mullet looked ahead to 2007 for a bid at the Daytona 500.  The team, still sponsored by Dutch Quality Stone, remained with Chevrolet and had acquired an engine from Richard Childress Racing.  The preliminary press release also indicated Whitt would attempt the ARCA 200 once more, driving his own #51 Toyota.

“I still can’t believe where I was sitting just last year to where I am at in 2007,” said Whitt before SpeedWeeks.  “To be able to go to Daytona and race (in any series) is an incredible feeling but to be able to go to Daytona and compete in the NNCS … there are no words.  I’m thankful for this opportunity.  The team is ready to put what we’ve learned in the off-season to good use.  We know what we need to do heading into Daytona and I think that realistically this team is capable of making a great showing.”

While Whitt made the ARCA 200, finishing 34th after a crash on Lap 37, the run at the Daytona 500 fell short.  Lining up 29th of 31 in Race 1 of the Gatorade Duels, Whitt came home 21st – on the lead lap, but out of the race.  The team attempted the next two rounds in Fontana and Las Vegas, but after missing both races, driver and team pulled out of Cup.  As it turned out, Whitt’s last-place run at Phoenix marked the last time the #72 ran a Cup Series points race until this year’s Daytona 500, when cousin Cole Whitt’s 18th-place finish marked the series return of TriStar Motorsports.

Following a one-off return to Red Horse Racing that fall at Atlanta, where he ran 23rd, Whitt turned to the XFINITY Series, where he made 31 starts over the next two seasons.  Driving the #61 and #62 Fords for Charles Shoffner’s team Specialty Racing, Whitt’s best finishes were a pair of 20th-place performances at Dover and Nashville in 2009.

Though he hasn’t raced in NASCAR since, Whitt’s underdog status endures.  “Adversity will teach you something,” he said after his win in 2005.  “Every time something happened, I learned something.  The feel right before a tire blows out, for instance.  There were things I had never experienced before.  For me, I learned the different feels of stuff that was about to happen or could’ve happened.  From that aspect, there were a lot of pluses that came out of what seemed at the time like bad luck.”

It’s also interesting to note that, back in 2005, Whitt proposed a Chase format in the Truck Series.  In an interview published November 21 of that year, he suggested “a seven-race Chase, beginning with 10 eligible drivers.  At each race, the field would be narrowed, leaving only two drivers to compete for the title at the final race.”  The current format, introduced last year, is nearly identical.

*This marked the 12th and, to date, most recent last-place finish for the #72 in a Cup Series race, and the number’s only last-place run at Phoenix.

43) #72-Brandon Whitt / 123 laps / rear end
42) #55-Michael Waltrip / 234 laps / engine
41) #49-Mike Bliss / 262 laps / engine
40) #26-Jamie McMurray / 272 laps / crash
39) #88-Dale Jarrett / 289 laps / crash

*“CJM Racing profile,”, June 22, 2006.
*“Daytona Duel: Brandon Whitt preview,”, February 9, 2007.
*Dutton, Monte. “Patience Pays Off: Whitt’s breakthrough shows he’s learning how to pick his spots.” The Bryan Times, September 1, 2005.
*Dutton, Monte. “Veteran Rudd finally decides to call it quits … we think.” Ludington Daily News, November 21, 2005.
*Jayski’s Silly Season Site
*Ryan, Nate. “Who’s Next? NASCAR champ Greg Biffle sees potential in driver Brandon Whitt.” Spirit of Jefferson Farmer’s Advocate, December 15, 2005.
*“SWS: Stockton99: Brandon Whitt race remarks,”, April 30, 2002.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Small Team Storylines: Phoenix

Camping World 500(k) at Phoenix

The current entry list includes 39 drivers for 40 spots, one spot short of a full field for the third week in a row.

Derrike Cope’s return continues this Sunday, where he will be making his first Phoenix start since November 10, 2002, when he came home 38th in BAM Racing’s #49 Dodge.  As on that day, Cope’s Premium Motorsports #55 does not yet have sponsorship, and reports indicate the same for the following race in Fontana.  One of Cope’s best finishes came at Phoenix in 1995, where he finished a close 2nd to Ricky Rudd.

Reed Sorenson, Cope’s teammate at Premium Motorsports, will drive the #15 Chevrolet for the third-straight week, and is also looking for sponsorship.  Sorenson’s best finish in 12 Phoenix starts was a 12th for Richard Petty Motorsports in the spring of 2009.  Car owner Jay Robinson’s came in Canadian driver D.J. Kennington’s series debut – a 35th – last fall.

Cole Whitt’s streak of two consecutive Top 20 finishes ended at Las Vegas, where he came home 28th, three laps down.  Still, the driver sits tied for 23rd in points with Ty and Austin Dillon and is looking for more this Sunday.  Whitt’s best Phoenix finish was a pair of 25th-place runs in 2011 and 2015.  Car owner Mark Smith last entered a Cup machine here in 2013, when Mike Bliss’ “start-and-park” #19 Toyota finished 42nd with brake trouble.  TriStar’s best Cup run there came in 1992, when Bobby Hamilton ran 8th in the #68 Country Time Ford.  After back-to-back weeks of sponsorship from Rinnai, this Sunday’s #72 will carry logos for Standard Plumbing Supply.

Corey LaJoie picked up his first Cup Series last-place finish on Sunday, and is again entered on this weeks’ list, keeping it at 39 cars.  Sponsorship for his #83 Toyota is BK Racing Graphics, his third different backer in as many weeks.  Teammate Gray Gaulding, 37th last fall at Phoenix for The Motorsports Group, is back for his third-straight race in the #23, which will also carry new sponsorship from  Both companies will be making their Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debuts.

Matt DiBenedetto came home 26th at Las Vegas in Go FAS Racing’s #32 Can-Am / Kappa Ford, and now stands 22nd in points, one point ahead of Cole Whitt and the Dillon brothers.  The same paint scheme is expected to run this Sunday, where the driver’s best finish was 20th in this race last year and the team’s best was 32nd with Joey Gase that same day.

Timmy Hill is listed as making his second-straight start for Rick Ware Racing, whose car’s sponsor is again to be announced.  Hill’s best finish in three Phoenix starts came driving the #32 Go FAS Racing Ford when it was fielded by Frank Stoddard, running 29th in the fall of 2012.  It will be Hill’s first start at the track since he finished last there for Premium Motorsports in the fall of 2015.

DC Solar 200 at Phoenix

39 drivers are listed for 40 spots, this time with Cup veterans off the list for the first time this season in this Dash 4 Cash event.  Again, if unchanged, Phoenix will mark the XFINITY Series’ first short field of 2017, and its first since Mid-Ohio in 2014.

Both owner-drivers Mike Harmon and Morgan Shepherd, each still looking for their first 2017 start, are again missing from this week’s list.  Shepherd’s team reported they have prepared their #89 Racing With Jesus Chevrolet in Las Vegas for a run at Phoenix, but are also collecting donations to help the effort at  Also missing from the list is Chris Cockrum’s #25, absent since his 34th-place finish at Atlanta.

After missing the preliminary entry list in Vegas, not one but both Obaika Racing Chevrolets are on the list for Phoenix.  The team’s driver arrangement returned to what was planned during the Vegas weekend: Stephen Leicht in the #77 VroomBrands Chevrolet and Josh Bilicki in the #97.  Both are driving 2015 Chevrolets, which may account for some of the team’s struggles in Las Vegas.  There, the #77 was withdrawn for the third-straight week while the #97 struggled for speed before crashing on Lap 5.  Bilicki and the #77 are still looking to make their 2017 debut.

Jeremy Clements, driving the only other 2015 Chevrolet on the list, again runs on his #51.  His 26th-place run last week in Vegas was his best of the season, and his best in 13 Phoenix starts was an 11th in the fall of 2014.

Joey Gase makes his 10th Phoenix start on Saturday.  His best drives at the track in Jimmy Means Racing’s #52 Chevrolet were a pair of 24th-place runs in the spring of 2014 and last fall.  An interesting statistic with Gase is that he has only failed to finish one of those previous nine Phoenix races – a transmission issue in the spring of 2013 – and has finished no worse than 33rd.

The restriction on Cup veterans at Phoenix appears to have included Jeff Green, who is not listed as driver of B.J. McLeod’s unsponsored #8 Chevrolet.  As of this writing, the #8 is the only entered car without a driver announced.  McLeod himself will again be in the #78, which he drove to his track-best 25th last fall, while David Starr will again drive the #99 Striping Technology Chevrolet.

Jordan Anderson pulled RSS Racing’s #93 Chevrolet behind the wall at Las Vegas, securing his first XFINITY Series last-place finish.  He is again listed in the Chevrolet for Sunday, and may again be making an early exit.

Motorsports Business Management team owner Carl Long is again entered in one of his cars, this time the #40 Dodge.  If the driver isn’t switched out, he will look to make his first race of the season.  Timmy Hill, who drove the #40 the last two races, is this week entered in the team’s #13 Toyota, and if he qualifies, will run double-duty for the second-straight weekend.  Last fall, Brandon Hightower earned MBM’s best Phoenix finish when he drove the #13 Dodge to a 26th-place finish.

One week after Martin Roy’s narrow escape from disaster at Las Vegas, Mario Gosselin is again the entered driver for his #90 BuckedUp Apparel Chevrolet.  The all-Canadian Gosselin team got its best Phoenix finish last fall, when Quebec’s Alex Labbe came home a strong 23rd in his series debut.

Next Race: April 1, 2017
Alpha Energy Solutions 250 at Martinsville

Sunday, March 12, 2017

CUP: Corey LaJoie’s first Cup Series last-place finish comes after hard Vegas crash

PHOTO: @RacingUnderdogs
Corey LaJoie picked up the 1st last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when his #83 JAS Expedited Trucking Toyota was involved in a single-car crash after 18 of 267 laps.  The finish came in LaJoie’s fourth series start.

The 25-year-old son of two-time XFINITY Series Champion Randy LaJoie, who now designs race car seats through his company The Joie of Seating, Corey LaJoie has been racing stock cars since his K&N Pro Series East debut at Thompson on July 11, 2009.  He then diversified across various short track divisions, winning his first-ever modified start at Atlanta in 2010, five K&N races in 2012, and three in ARCA in 2013.

In November 2013, on the heels of his limited ARCA season, LaJoie made his debut across NASCAR’s top three divisions in the XFINITY race at Homestead, where he ran 34th for Richard Petty Motorsports.  He then branched out into Trucks in 2014, running a pair of starts for Ricky Benton and coming home 10th at Bristol.  Less than a month later came his Cup debut at New Hampshire.  Replacing a retiring Dave Blaney at former “start-and-park” effort Randy Humphrey Racing, LaJoie ran the full race for 41st in the 43-car field, then improved to 35th the next month at Charlotte.

2017 sees LaJoie entering the battle for Cup Series Rookie of the Year, replacing Matt DiBenedetto as driver of BK Racing’s #83 Toyota.  Now an Open team (since BK sold the #83’s charter to Front Row Motorsports, who leased it to TriStar Motorsports’ #72 team), LaJoie had to race his way into his first Daytona 500, and did after a controversial accident with fellow Open driver Reed Sorenson.  A strange incident coming onto pit road during a green-flag stop left him 24th at the finish, and a smack to the outside wall on a restart at Atlanta left him 34th.  Curiously, LaJoie wasn’t originally listed as an entry for the Atlanta event, but the short field encouraged BK to enter the #83 for a guaranteed start.  He was already on the preliminary list for Las Vegas, where he would again be one of 39 drivers.

LaJoie’s sponsor for Las Vegas was JAS Expedited Trucking, which most recently backed Matt DiBenedetto’s run at Phoenix last fall.  The car ran 31st-fastest in Friday’s opening practice, qualified 34th with a lap of 185.554mph, then ran 34th and 35th in the final two sessions on Saturday.

Starting last for the second-consecutive Cup race Sunday was Rick Ware Racing, which this week brought Daytona driver Timmy Hill aboard the blue #51 Dashub Chevrolet.  Sunday was just over five years to the day of Hill’s Cup debut, when he got Ware’s team into its own first series race.  The team changed transmissions during the weekend, causing the team to incur an additional penalty that sent them to the rear.  Joining them were Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., sent to the back after wrecking his primary #17 Fastenal Ford in practice, and Danica Patrick, who had a new rear gear in her #10 Aspen Dental Ford.

On the first lap of the race, Hill lost last to Derrike Cope, who was making his first Cup start at the Vegas track since 2004.  Cope’s unsponsored black #55 Premium Motorsports Chevrolet trailed the leader by 5.302 seconds that time by, then passed Hill for 38th on Lap 2, leaving Hill last, 7.352 back.  On the twelfth circuit, Hill was the first driver to be lapped, and the leaders were soon catching Cope and the other drivers in front of him.  Then the first caution fell on Lap 19.

LaJoie was running near the back of the pack when his right-rear tire failed going into Turns 1 and 2, sending his car hard into the outside wall.  The right-front of his Toyota heavily damaged, the #83 slowed to a smoking stop against the inside backstretch wall, where he climbed out.  The car was towed to the garage, done for the day.

38th on Sunday went to point leader Kevin Harvick, whose late-race Atlanta misfortune was followed by a blown right-front tire that sent his #4 Mobil 1 Ford hard into the Turn 1 wall.  Hill came home 37th, out after 135 laps with suspension issues.  Patrick came home 36th, her #10 out with a late-race engine failure that triggered the deciding nine-lap sprint to the finish.  Rounding out the group was Cope, the final car to finish under power.  Cope spun down the backstretch on Lap 153 and took the checkers 13 circuits behind.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #83 in a Cup race at Las Vegas and the 19th in series history.  The number had not finished last in a Cup event since July 24, 2016 at Indianapolis, 19 races ago, when Matt DiBenedetto’s ScienceLogic Hybrid Cloud Toyota had engine trouble after 4 laps of the Combat Wounded Coalition 400.
*LaJoie is the third Cup driver to score his first last-place finish at Las Vegas, joining Steve Park (2000) and Kirk Shelmerdine (2004).

39) #83-Corey LaJoie / 18 laps / crash
38) #4-Kevin Harvick / 68 laps / crash
37) #51-Timmy Hill / 135 laps / suspension
36) #10-Danica Patrick / 246 laps / engine
35) #55-Derrike Cope / 254 laps / running

1st) BK Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Rick Ware Racing (1)

1st) Toyota (2)
2nd) Chevrolet (1)


XFINITY: Jordan Anderson makes ends meet as team, fans rebuild truck

PHOTO: @j66anderson
Jordan Anderson picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Boyd Gaming 300 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when his unsponsored #93 RSS Racing Chevrolet fell out with electrical issues after 1 of 200 laps.  The finish came in Anderson’s eighth series start.

Last year, when he drove for Bolen Motorsports in the Truck Series, Anderson earned a career-best 11th at Gateway, turned heads at Eldora when his crew twice rebuilt his damaged truck to get it into the main event, and all the while continued to build a passionate fan base.  While driver and team parted ways by season’s end, the South Carolina driver is undaunted in his effort to ascend through NASCAR’s ranks.

The road has been rough.  Last month at Daytona, Anderson reunited with car owner Mike Harmon, who had put him in his #74 trucks since 2014.  The team arrived with a Chevrolet rolled out of a small Featherlite trailer, but ended up sixth-fastest of the ten drivers who missed the show.

At Atlanta, Anderson teamed with Rick Ware Racing, where Lucas Oil followed him from Harmon’s effort as primary sponsor.  This time, he out-qualified four drivers, only to be involved in the most spectacular accident of the day.  Contact from Korbin Forrister sent him into the grass, where the splitter dug in, destroying the truck.

While Anderson was uninjured, the accident has left him without a Truck Series ride.  He has since re-opened his fan-supported site to raise funds for repairs, offering spots for both fans and sponsors to have their logos on his ride.

In the meantime, Anderson has also been tabbed by RSS Racing to drive their second entry, the #93 Chevrolet, during select XFINITY Series events.  The predominately “start-and-park” car, withdrawn from Daytona, made its 2017 debut with Anderson at Atlanta, where he started 26th and exited moments after Blake Koch’s accident for a 39th-place finish.  While the #93 was originally listed without a driver on Las Vegas’ preliminary entry list (along with the #24 for Drew Herring and #90 for Martin Roy), Anderson was added by Wednesday.  He did not participate in the opening practice, but ran 32nd of 41 drivers in Happy Hour.  His qualifying lap of 177.766mph was good enough for 30th on the grid.

By the same Wednesday that Anderson was added, the entry list itself grew from 39 to 43 cars, thanks to the addition of Mike Harmon’s #74 Dodge, Morgan Shepherd’s #89 Chevrolet, and what was going to be the first dual-entry of 2017 for Obaika Racing with its #77 and #97 Vroom! Brands Chevrolets.  Obaika originally listed Stephen Leicht as driver of the #77 with the #97’s pilot to be announced, but Leicht struggled to find speed in the second practice session.  He turned just one lap of 146.163mph, more than 7 seconds off the leader’s pace.  By qualifying, the #77 and Bilicki were withdrawn, putting Leicht in the #97.  Although he again ran the slowest lap in qualifying, just 162.518mph, Leicht got the #97 in on Owner Points, placing him 40th and last on the grid.

Last place changed hands several times in the first two laps.  Anderson joined Leicht at the back of the field by driver’s choice, just as he had at Atlanta.  Brandon Hightower, who like Anderson was out of a ride, picked up Carl Long’s ride in the #13 MBM Motorsports Toyota and also fell to the back by choice.  Timmy Hill, driving the second MBM car #40, fell to the back due to unapproved adjustments, and Leicht fell back a second time by driver’s election, reassuming his spot.  By Lap 2, Anderson had pulled his car behind the wall, finally ending the battle.

Leicht’s race ended just three laps later with a crash on the backstretch, sending his #97 behind the wall.  Hightower came home 38th, out with a vibration.  The rest of the Bottom Five was filled by B.J. McLeod’s team.  McLeod himself returned to the #78 for the first time this year, but brake issues stopped his @CouchCrewChief Chevrolet after 159 laps.  All-time last-place leader Jeff Green exited 18 circuits later, this time citing crash damage on his #8 Safecraft Safety Equipment / Momo Chevrolet.  Green narrowly averted more serious damage when Martin Roy sped full speed between his car and the #28 of Dakoda Armstrong.

*This marked the 12th last-place finish for #93 in an XFINITY Series race and the first at Las Vegas.  The most recent last-place finish for the number - and the second RSS Racing team – came June 19, 2016 at Iowa, 22 races ago, when Josh Reaume scored his own first last-place run after electrical issues 4 laps into the American Ethanol E15 250.

40) #93-Jordan Anderson / 1 lap / electrical
39) #97-Stephen Leicht / 4 laps / crash
38) #13-Brandon Hightower / 18 laps / vibration
37) #78-B.J. McLeod / 159 laps / brakes
36) #8-Jeff Green / 177 laps / crash

1st) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Inc., Kaulig Racing, RSS Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (3)


Thursday, March 9, 2017

5/9/81: Mark Martin, Nashville, and one of NASCAR’s longest streaks without a last-place finish

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
On May 9, 1981, Mark Martin picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Melling Tool 420 at the Nashville Speedway when his #02 Ams Oil / Prototype Pontiac fell out with a busted cam after 2 of 420 laps.  The finish came in Martin’s second career start.

One month before the Nashville race, Martin made his NASCAR debut at North Wilkesboro Speedway.  The three-time and defending champion of the American Speed Association (ASA), Martin had already made a name for himself by the time he climbed aboard the Pontiac owned by Bud Reeder, who was also making his debut as an owner.  Right after scoring ASA’s Rookie of the Year in 1977, Martin had won three consecutive titles, and in ’81 looked to transition into Winston Cup by driving the short tracks.  The car carried the same orange-and-white paint scheme as Martin’s ASA ride, the number changed from #2 to #02.

At Wilkesboro, Martin surprised early, qualifying 5th in the 31-car field, but rear end trouble knocked him out after 166 laps, leaving him 27th.  Much like Jeff Gordon’s debut at Atlanta in 1992, this was a changing of the guard of sorts.  In the same race, Richard Petty took the checkered flag, his 15th and final at North Wilkesboro.

Nashville, next on Martin’s schedule, began with just as much promise: he qualified 6th in the 27-car field, trailing only Ricky Rudd, Mike Alexander, Benny Parsons, Morgan Shepherd, and Darrell Waltrip.  Petty lined up the next row back in 7th.  Starting last that day was owner-driver Cecil Gordon in his unsponsored #24 Gordon Racing Pontiac.  Gordon, who claimed his second LASTCAR title that season, had climbed from 36th to 23rd in points, and was driving a Pontiac for the first time that year.  He held the spot for a brief time, as Martin’s car broke down under green, securing him his first last-place finish.

Finishing 26th that day was Alabama driver Charlie Chamblee, who was making his second and final Cup start.  Chamblee was driving a second Broadway Motors Pontiac owned by another owner-driver, Jimmy Means, the #52 decals swapped around to make a #25.  Chamblee exited after 10 laps with oil pressure as the listed cause.  The next retiree was veteran short tracker Jody Ridley in Junie Donlavey’s #90 Truxmore / Sunny King Ford.  As it happened, a much better day wasn’t far away – just eight days later, Ridley took the checkered flag in the Mason-Dixon 500 at Dover, Ridley’s first win in his 55th start.  It also turned out to be Donlavey’s first – and only – Cup victory, the highlight of a career that dated back to 1950.

24th that day went to Lake Speed, just in his second season on the tour, his #66 Pontiac out with alternator issues.  This turned out to be the only Cup start for one Harry Dinwiddie as a car owner.  One year earlier, the Tennessee-born Dinwiddie made his only Cup start at Talladega for 23rd-place D.K. Ulrich (who Martin would also drive for in 1983), coming home a strong 12th in the Talladega 500.  Dinwiddie’s own attempt as an owner-driver during the 1981 Daytona 500, driving the #49 Pabst Blue Ribbon Pontiac, ended with a hard crash off Turn 4 during Race 2 of the UNO Twin 125-mile qualifiers.

Martin’s last-place finish at Nashville was a turning point in many ways.  His next time out in July’s return to Nashville handed him his first of 56 career poles, followed by another at Richmond.  His first Top 5 came during a grueling afternoon in Martinsville that September, a 3rd behind Darrell Waltrip and Harry Gant.  Following a solid 1982 where he ranked 14th in points, Martin and Reeder parted ways, and the Arkansas driver would travel from team to team, looking to take his career to the next level.  A return to ASA for another title in 1986, then a decision to unite with Jack Roush in 1988 on a new Cup Series team, laid the groundwork for 96 combined NASCAR victories in a Hall of Fame career that lasted through 2013.

Another measure of Martin’s success is how long it took for him to finish last after that day in Nashville.  It wasn’t until April 14, 1996 that he trailed another Cup Series race, and even when his #6 Valvoline Ford trailed the First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro that day, he still finished under power, just 45 laps behind race winner Terry Labonte.  This streak of 14 years, 11 months, and 5 days covered 440 races, just 89 races less than Jimmie Johnson’s streak of 529 before his first 40th-place run last August at Watkins Glen.

As of this writing, Martin’s streak has only been eclipsed by Joe Ruttman, whose “start-and-park” effort at Rockingham in 2004 came 15 years, 6 months, and 22 days after his #31 Slender You Figure Salons Oldsmobile trailed at Talladega on July 31, 1988, 494 races previous.  Even then, Ruttman had been off the tour for eight of those seasons while Martin had for only two.

*This marked one of only three occasions where a cam was credited as the reason a Cup Series driver finished last.  The first was May 4, 1980, when Darrell Waltrip’s #88 Gatorade Oldsmobile fell out after 4 laps of the Winston 500 at Talladega.  The other was August 16, 1981, when Dick May’s #19 Belden Asphalt Buick fell out after 4 laps of the Champion Spark Plug 400 at Michigan.
*This marked the first last-place finish for #02 in a Cup race at Nashville, and the first in a Cup race since April 15, 1971, when Jimmy Crawford’s Crawford Racing 1969 Plymouth had ignition issues after 1 lap of the Maryville 200 at the Smoky Mountain (Tennessee) Raceway.  The number has finished last 14 other times, most recently on November 21, 2004, when Hermie Sadler’s Drive for Diversity / Sam Bass Chevrolet wrecked on the opening lap of the season finale, the Ford 400 at Homestead.

27) #02-Mark Martin / 2 laps / cam
26) #25-Charlie Chamblee / 10 laps / oil pressure
25) #90-Jody Ridley / 116 laps / engine
24) #66-Lake Speed / 125 laps / alternator
23) #40-D.K. Ulrich / 200 laps / engine

Waid, Steve. “Driving career over, maybe, Mark Martin has place in NASCAR lore,” Motorsports Unplugged, December 28, 2013.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Small Team Storylines: Las Vegas

PHOTO: Michael Harvey @MrLester88
Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas

The current entry list includes 39 drivers for 40 spots, one spot short of a full field for the second week in a row.

Last week at Atlanta, Cole Whitt finished 20th, giving TriStar Motorsports its first back-to-back Top 20 finishes since May 1994.  The team will look to extend that streak to three races for the first time since the fall of 1992, when the late Bobby Hamilton ran 19th at Rockingham, 8th at Phoenix, and 12th in the historic Hooters 500 at Atlanta.  It will also be team owner Mark Smith’s 200th Cup Series start.  Florida Lottery, the team’s Daytona sponsor, is again listed for his #72.

With their first Cup Series start under their belt, Rick Ware Racing returns to competition this Sunday with Timmy Hill, the Daytona driver, behind the wheel.  It was at the Las Vegas track in 2012 that Hill gave Ware his first-ever Cup start, driving the #37 Ford a 42nd-place finish.  While the Spoonful of Music Foundation backed the #51 Chevrolet the last two weeks, as of this writing, no primary sponsorship has been announced.

Last Sunday marked the return of three-time LASTCAR Cup Series Champion Derrike Cope to Cup competition for the first time in more than seven years, and the short field gave Premium Motorsports’ #55 team its first start of the year.  While a broken power steering hose and tire issues left him 36th, the team finished under power and will again use the Chevrolet in Vegas.  The last time Cope started a Cup race in Vegas in 2004, his Arnold Motorsports #50 Dodge carried sponsorship from  NASCAR intervened and had it shortened to  No sponsor has yet been announced for this weekend.

Premium Motorsports’ Chartered car, #15, will be entered with Reed Sorenson behind the wheel for the second-straight race.  There is no listed sponsor for the car this week, but last Saturday cleaning service “The Maids” came on as a primary, swapping the car’s black scheme for bright yellow.

Corey LaJoie was a last-minute addition to last Sunday’s field, preventing it from being Atlanta’s shortest since 1976.  This week, LaJoie is already on the preliminary entry list with sponsorship from JAS Expedited Trucking on his #83 Toyota.  Fellow rookie and BK Racing teammate Gray Gaulding, who blew an engine late Sunday, is also listed in the #23 Schulter Systems Toyota.  Both will be making their Cup debut at Las Vegas.

As the team showed, Jeffrey Earnhardt’s silver-and-black #33 Chevrolet for Circle Sport / The Motorsports Group left Atlanta “without a scratch,” rebounding from a crash in Daytona to come home a quiet 33rd at Atlanta, eight laps behind.  Team brands Little Joe’s Autos and Curtis Key Plumbing are again listed as the car’s sponsors for Earnhardt’s second Vegas start.  He ran 33rd last year for Go FAS Racing.

Go FAS Racing’s current driver, Matt DiBenedetto, followed-up his sterling 9th-place finish in the Daytona 500 with a respectable 28th in Atlanta, keeping him 18th in the point standings.  Like Earnhardt, Sunday will mark his second career Vegas start, a track which saw him run 31st in 2016 for BK Racing.  Can-Am and Kappa are slated as the primary sponsors of the #32 Ford.

Boyd Gaming 300 at Las Vegas

39 drivers are listed for 40 spots, which if unchanged would not only mark the XFINITY Series’ first short field of 2017, but its first since Mid-Ohio in 2014.

As of this writing, three teams have no listed drivers: the #24 Toyota fielded by JGL Racing, King Autosport’s #90 Cote / Gamache Truck Center Chevrolet, and RSS Racing’s second team, the #93 Chevrolet which came home next-to-last in Atlanta with Jordan Anderson driving.

Joey Gase and the Jimmy Means Racing team, left off the preliminary list last week, are listed this week.  Among those missing are Mike Harmon, whose #74 Dodge had engine trouble in qualifying, Morgan Shepherd, who entered both opening rounds in his #89 Chevrolet, Chris Cockrum’s #25, and Obaika Racing’s #97 with Stephen Leicht.  Obaika, whose entries have traditionally appeared late in the week, may make the field a full 40.

After putting Clint King in his #78 Chevrolet for the first two rounds of the season, B.J. McLeod climbs back aboard his flagship car, and will once again be teamed with last-place record holder Jeff Green in the #8 Chevrolet (who ran a strong 26th in Atlanta) and Daytona last-placer David Starr in the #99 Striping Technology Chevrolet (32nd on Saturday).  McLeod finished 27th in Las Vegas last year.

Timmy Hill is slated to run double-duty in Vegas, pairing his Cup run for Rick Ware with a return to the #40 Toyota entered by Motorsports Business Management.  Team owner Carl Long, 0-for-2 this season in attempts, will again drive the #13 Toyota.  As of this writing, neither car has primary sponsorship.

Jeremy Clements will have a familiar look on his #51 Chevrolet as returns as primary sponsor.  Curiously, according to the preliminary list, his is the only 2015 Chevrolet entered in the event – all 38 of the remaining entries are running 2017 models.  Clements’ best Las Vegas finish in five starts came last year, when he ran 20th.

JD Motorsports’ trifecta of Harrison Rhodes (#01), Garrett Smithley (#0), and Ross Chastain (#4) all finished in the Top 16 at Daytona, but ran just 24th, 25th, and 27th at Atlanta.  The trio return looking to break back into the Top 20.  Chastain’s #4 is listed with GK Services as the primary sponsor.

Next Race: April 1, 2017
Alpha Energy Solutions 250 at Martinsville

Sunday, March 5, 2017

CUP: Cody Ware becomes 853rd last-place finisher in 2,500th Sprint Cup race

PHOTO: @RickWareRacing
Cody Ware picked up the 1st last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway when his #51 Spoonful of Music Foundation Chevrolet fell out with steering problems after 74 of 325 laps.  The finish came in Ware’s series debut.

Following a difficult SpeedWeeks where the team lost a lap during Duel Race 2, then pulled off the track, Rick Ware Racing had much to look forward to at Atlanta.  The team’s #51 Chevrolet was one of just 38 entries for 40 spots, the shortest field for a Cup race at Atlanta since November 1976, and the subsequent addition of Corey LaJoie’s #83 Dustless Blasting Toyota on Tuesday still guaranteed the Ware team its first Cup start since 2012, as well as a start in NASCAR’s 2,500th Cup Series race.

Driving duties would this time fall to Ware’s son Cody, who made the move from modifieds to XFINITY and Truck competition in 2014.  The short field was also a boon to the younger Ware, who made his first Cup attempt at Sonoma last June, but ended the up the only car bumped from the field.  His ride in Atlanta would again carry sponsorship from the Spoonful of Music Foundation and Bubba Burger, but now on a black car with white stripes instead of Daytona’s white with black.

The tough, slippery Atlanta surface proved a challenge for driver and team.  Ware was slowest overall in both practice sessions, and in qualifying joined four other drivers (Michael McDowell, Cole Whitt, Jeffrey Earnhardt, and Derrike Cope) who did not complete a timed lap.  This gave Ware the 39th and final starting spot in the field.  Cope, who lined up 38th, was making his first start in a Cup points race since October 2009 at Martinsville and his first at Atlanta since 2004.  The deal to drive Premium Motorsports’ #55 Wade Tractor and Equipment Chevrolet came together after news that the driver was pulling out of the XFINITY Series.

When the green flag flew on Sunday, Ware was struggling to keep up with the pack.  At the end of Lap 1, he was 6.197 seconds behind the leader and eight-tenths of a second behind 39th-place Jeffrey Earnhardt.  On Lap 2, those margins widened to 13.876 and 3.280, respectively, then on Lap 9 to 24.259 and 5.136.  By Lap 19, Ware was the first to lose a lap to race leader Kevin Harvick, and he was three down 11 circuits later.  Green-flag pit stops briefly shuffled 39th-place as Corey LaJoie took the spot from Laps 31 to 33.  By that 33rd circuit, Ware had pulled his car behind the wall, citing engine issues.  Minutes later, FOX’s leaderboard listed Ware as “OUT.”

However, around Lap 65, Ware returned to the track 35 laps down, and could be seen trying to catch the pack as the leaders restarted following Stage 1.  First Cope, then LaJoie then found trouble from an oil line and contact with the wall, respectively, but neither lost enough laps to challenge Ware for 39th.  Around Lap 109, Ware had been advised by NASCAR to meet minimum speed and pulled behind the wall a second time, having completed 74 laps.  On Lap 150, FOX listed Ware as “OUT” for a second time, and this time the #51 did not return.

Finishing 38th on Sunday was Denny Hamlin, whose #11 FedEx Ground Toyota broke a rear end, returned with 77 laps to go, then pulled off once more when 37th-place Gray Gaulding lost the motor on his #23 Dr. Pepper Toyota.  36th went to Cope, the last car to finish under power, 27 laps behind the leaders.  The three-time LASTCAR champion remains fourth in Cup last-place rankings.  16 circuits behind in 35th was a frustrated Ryan Newman, whose #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet started outside-pole and enjoyed a strong Top 10 run until battery issues forced him to the garage area.

*This marked the first Cup Series last-place finish for the #51 at Atlanta, and the first in a Cup race since May 24, 2015, when Justin Allgaier’s Brandt Chevrolet fell out with crash damage after 135 laps of the Coca-Cola 600.
*Ware’s last-place finish came in the 2,500th NASCAR Cup Series race, making him the 853rd driver to trail at least one of those events.
*Ware is the first Cup Series driver to finish last due to steering issues since last September at New Hampshire, when Michael Annett pulled out after 236 laps.  Ware is the first Cup driver to fall out at Atlanta for that reason.

39) #51-Cody Ware / 74 laps / steering
38) #11-Denny Hamlin / 182 laps / rear end
37) #23-Gray Gaulding / 253 laps / engine
36) #55-Derrike Cope / 298 laps / running
35) #31-Ryan Newman / 309 laps / running / led 3 laps

1st) Joe Gibbs Racing, Rick Ware Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet, Toyota (1)


XFINITY: Blake Koch scores first XFINITY last-place finish for #11 since 2009

Blake Koch picked up the 14th last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Rinnai 250 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway when his #11 Leaf Filter Gutter Protection Chevrolet was involved in a two-car accident after 2 of the 163 laps.

The finish, which came in Koch’s 182nd series start, was his first since September 26, 2015, 42 races ago, where his #8 Leaf Filter Gutter Protection Toyota crashed after 2 laps of the 300 at Kentucky.

At the time of the Kentucky finish, Koch was driving for TriStar Motorsports and enjoying his best XFINITY Series season at the time.  In June, when he announced intentions to stay with TriStar in 2016, he’d nearly snatched his first victory at Road America, and he ultimately came home 17th in points.  However, the plan changed over the offseason and Kaulig started his own team with Koch driving his #11 Chevrolets.

The partnership paid instant dividends.  Koch started the 2016 season with a 9th-place finish at Daytona, an 8th at Richmond that spring, and earned himself a spot in the inaugural XFINITY Series Chase.  He continued to impress from there, surviving the first two elimination rounds and coming just short of making the Championship Four at Homestead, leaving him 7th in points.  Driver and team have returned once more in 2017, where a gutsy 15th in the Daytona opener has again started them on the right track.

The preliminary entry list at Atlanta included Koch among the 40 drivers for 40 spots, but the list then grew to 43 with the additions of Joey Gase’s #52 Chevrolet for Jimmy Means Racing (a full-season effort that was for some reason left off), Chris Cockrum’s #25 Advanced Communications Group Chevrolet, and Obaika Racing’s #97 Vroom! Brands Chevrolet with Stephen Leicht.  As it turned out, all three of these added entries made the race, bumping from the field Carl Long in Motorsports Business Management’s #13 TLC Vacations Toyota, and owner-drivers Morgan Shepherd in the #89 VisoneRV Chevrolet and Mike Harmon in his unsponsored #74 Dodge.  Harmon’s exit was particularly costly as something caught fire in the engine during his qualifying lap, aborting his run.

Koch, meanwhile, avoided the chaos.  He ran 20th in Friday’s opening practice, 21st in the second, 21st in Happy Hour, and settled on 25th in qualifying with a lap of 180.029mph.

Starting last on Saturday was Stephen Leicht, whose effort in the Obaika car marked his first run in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions since 2012.  He was joined by Dakoda Armstrong and Brandon Jones, whose cars were sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments, but then elected to fall behind those two once more by choice.  Also choosing to fall to the rear was Jordan Anderson, who was running double-duty between the XFINITY and Truck Series races held that day.  Anderson was driving the #93 RSS Racing Chevrolet, a team car to Ryan Seig’s #39 that, for much of 2016, was used as a start-and-park entry.  The decisions of Leicht and Anderson to fall to the rear seemed to indicate both cars would again be exiting early.

At the end of Lap 1, Leicht held 40th, 8.695 seconds behind the leaders.  By Lap 2, Anderson had again pulled behind Leicht and was preparing to come down pit road the next time by.  Then, up in 16th spot, trouble broke out.  Ty Dillon’s #3 Bass Pro Shops / Tracker Boats Chevrolet started 14th, but broke loose in Turn 3, sending him sliding to the apron.  As several cars dodged his car, Koch chose the apron, only to find Dillon sliding straight across his path.  Koch slowed, but couldn’t avoid a collision, tearing up the right-front of his #11.  With the damage unable to be repaired in five minutes, Koch was out of the race, while Dillon managed a 17th-place finish.

Anderson and Leicht parked their cars after 2 and 24 laps, respectively, Anderson edging Koch to the garage for 39th.  37th went to Jeremy Clements, whose #51 Chevrolet, with backing from race sponsor Rinnai, erupted in smoke on pit road, then retired with suspension issues.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was J.J. Yeley in TriStar’s #14 Superior Essex / Accu-Tech Toyota, out with engine failure.

*This marked the first XFINITY Series last-place finish for the #11 since February 14, 2009, when Scott Lagasse, Jr.’s #11 America’s Incredible Pizza Company Toyota crashed after 71 laps of the Camping World 300 at Daytona.  It’s only the tenth last-place finish for the number in XFINITY competition and the first at Atlanta.
*This marked Koch’s first last-place finish in an XFINITY race at Atlanta since August 31, 2013, when his #00 M&W Transportation / Toyota had ignition issues after 5 laps of the Great Clips Grit Chips 300.
*This marked the first last-place finish for Kaulig Racing.

40) #11-Blake Koch / 2 laps / crash
39) #93-Jordan Anderson / 2 laps / ignition
38) #97-Stephen Leicht / 24 laps / brakes
37) #51-Jeremy Clements / 76 laps / suspension
36) #14-J.J. Yeley / 128 laps / engine

1st) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Inc., Kaulig Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (2)


TRUCKS: Todd Peck gives #83 third last-place finish in Truck Series history

Todd Peck picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Camping World Series career in Saturday’s Active Pest Control 200 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway when his unsponsored #83 Chevrolet overheated after 2 of 130 laps.  The finish came in Peck’s 22nd series start.

Peck entered this, his seventh season of Truck Series competition, by tying his career-best finish of 18th in the crash-filled Daytona opener, matching his run at Phoenix in 2012.  It was in Trucks that the second-generation driver made his debut in NASCAR’s top three divisions, driving a #96 Chevrolet owned by his father, Dr. Michael Peck.  As with the truck he raced that day, the #83 he drove last week at Daytona carried decals for the National Arthritis Foundation, an affliction the younger Peck has dealt with since youth.

Peck now drives for a start-up team owned by D.J. Copp.  Copp, a veteran tire carrier and crew chief with over 17 years of experience, developed his own pit crew training facility, and was a popular segment commentator for ESPN.  This past offseason, Copp acquired assets from Contreras Motorsports, a team owned by former Truck Series driver Carlos Contreras, and fields what were once the team’s #71 Chevrolets.  Contreras’ effort allowed Copp’s #83 to lock itself in on Owner Points, setting up Peck’s career-best run.

Peck and Copp arrived at Atlanta as one of 34 entries on the preliminary entry list, one which grew by one following the addition of Tracy Lowe’s #1 Chevrolet with Mike Harmon aboard.  Harmon vacated the #12 Lucas Oil / Knight Fire Protection Chevrolet fielded by Rick Ware Racing, giving Jordan Anderson the spot.

While both Harmon and Anderson qualified for the race (Harmon having recovered from a spin in qualifying), three drivers were sent home: J.J. Yeley in the #63 Chevrolet for Mike Mittler’s MB Motorsports, as well as owner-drivers Norm Benning in the #6 Houston Roll Pipe Chevrolet and Jennifer Jo Cobb in the #10 Chevrolet.  For Benning and Cobb, Atlanta marked their second-straight DNQ.  In addition, Austin Wayne Self, who along with Yeley earned Top 10 finishes at Daytona, withdrew his #22 AM Technical Solutions Toyota.

Peck, meanwhile, skipped the opening practice, ran the slowest lap overall in the second session, climbed to 31st of 34 in Happy Hour, and again fell back on Owner Points, securing 29th in qualifying with a lap of 171.164mph.

Starting 32nd and last on Saturday was Akinori Ogata, making his first start of the year in Beaver Motorsports’ #50 Nisshinbo / Kajima Building & Design Chevrolet.  Ogata had struggled through the weekend, spinning in practice and putting up the slowest speed in qualifying at just 163.893mph.  When the green flag flew, however, Mike Harmon had an even harder time, missing the start due to mechanical issues.  Seconds later, Noah Gragson spun Kyle Busch’s #18 Switch Toyota in Turn 4, collecting Brett Moffitt’s unsponsored #7 Red Horse Racing Toyota.  Both Gragson and Moffitt continued, completing repairs inside of five minutes, but Harmon still held last.

Under caution on Lap 3, Peck pulled behind the wall, and soon became the race’s first retiree.  Moments later, Harmon returned to the track and would eventually finish 27th, dropping Peck to last on Lap 5.  Gragson and Moffitt recovered nicely to finish 14th and 11th, respectively.  Ogata suffered an oil leak and finished 30th.

Coming home 31st between Ogata and Peck was Parker Kligerman, whose strong Top 10 run for team owner Charlie Henderson ended on the apron of Turn 1 when the fuel pump failed, stranding his #75 Food Country USA / Frito-Lay Toyota.  On the other side of Ogata in 29th was defending Atlanta winner John Hunter Nemechek, who pounded the outside wall just short of the Stage 2 finish.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Jordan Anderson, bumped into a spin by another truck and knocked-out when his splitter dug into the infield grass, nearly overturning his #12.

*This marked only the third Truck Series last-place finish for #83 and the first since August 8, 2003, when Willie Green’s Quaker Steak & Lube Ford had ignition trouble on the first lap of the Federated Auto Parts 200 at the Nashville Superspeeedway.  The other occurred September 26, 1998, when Joe Gaita’s Building Specialties Ford overheated after 23 laps of the NAPA 250 at Martinsville.

32) #83-Todd Peck / 2 laps / overheating
31) #75-Parker Kligerman / 28 laps / fuel pump
30) #50-Akinori Ogata / 51 laps / oil leak
29) #8-John Hunter Nemechek / 79 laps / crash / led 12 laps
28) #12-Jordan Anderson / 102 laps / crash

1st) Copp Motorsports, MDM Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (2)


Thursday, March 2, 2017

11/14/93: Neil Bonnett’s final last-place finish had championship implications

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
On November 14, 1993, Neil Bonnett picked up the 6th last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Hooters 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway when his #31 Western Steer Chevrolet fell out with engine trouble after 3 of 328 laps.

The finish, which came in Bonnett’s 362nd and final Cup start, was his first since the 1989 Daytona 500, 174 races prior, when his Wood Brothers-prepared #21 Citgo Ford caught fire due to a loose oil line after 2 laps.

One of the most popular and beloved drivers of his time, Bonnett was a determined competitor and a popular television analyst.  Bred from the same southern bullrings as Darrell Waltrip and Jimmy Means, Bonnett made his first Cup start at Talladega in 1974, finishing 45th in a field of 50 for car owner Charlie Roberts.  The first of his 18 wins came three years later at the old Richmond Fairgrounds, followed by another at Ontario, the last for Dodge until 2001.  Some of Bonnett’s best years came with the Wood Brothers, climbing into the famed Purolator Mercury vacated by the legendary David Pearson.  He was also a quick study when NASCAR downsized cars in 1981, improving from two wins in 1980 to three in ’81.  He was RahMoc Enterprises’ only winning driver and was a strong teammate to Darrell Waltrip at Junior Johnson & Associates.

But the late 1980s weren’t so kind to the veteran driver.  A series of terrible crashes sidelined him for several races.  A terrible crash at Charlotte in 1987 cut short a season where he’d run 5th in points, aiming for an elusive Winston Cup.  He returned to score back-to-back victories for RahMoc in 1988, but two years later nearly lost his life in a multi-car pileup at Darlington.  Forced into retirement, but unwilling to leave behind the sport he loved, Bonnett became a color commentator for CBS and TNN.  Following in the footsteps of Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons, Bonnett was a gifted interviewer, earning him his own show, “Winners,” where he spoke with his fellow competitors.

For all his success, Bonnett always eyed a return to racing, and in 1993 seized an on opportunity.  After testing cars for his longtime friend Dale Earnhardt, he and Richard Childress arranged to have Bonnett return to competition in the DieHard 500 at Talladega that July.  It turned out to be the best and worst timing.  Best in that it lifted the spirits of a stunned racing community that had just lost the “Alabama Gang’s” youngest star, Davey Allison.  Worst in that Bonnett’s race ended with another terrifying crash that sent his #31 Chevrolet flipping into the catchfence.  While Bonnett was uninjured, it was unclear if the man from Alabama would race again.  That is, until Earnhardt and Childress came calling once more.

Earnhardt was on a comeback of his own, bouncing back from a miserable 1992 to once again battling for the championship.  After the penultimate round in Phoenix that November, Earnhardt had a 126-point lead on nine-time race winner Rusty Wallace.  With that lead coming into the season finale at Atlanta, Earnhardt could clinch his sixth championship before the end of the race not on his own actions, but on the misfortunes of those at the back of the field.  The magic number for Earnhardt to clinch was 60 points, or a finish of 34th (worth 61 points) or better.  Even if Earnhardt finished 34th and didn’t lead a lap while Wallace won while leading the most laps, The Intimidator would claim the title by just two points.

This meant Earnhardt would clinch the title if eight drivers in the 42-car field fell out of the running.  Without today’s Five-Minute Clock to prevent teams from repairing damaged cars, this was anything but a certainty.  At Atlanta that spring, exactly eight drivers fell out with the last of them, Mark Martin, departing after 225 laps.  Two-thirds of race distance was plenty of time for something to happen, and the Childress team knew it.  So in the days before the race, the crew tabbed Bonnett to help.

The plan was simple: enter Bonnett in a second identical Chevrolet for the Atlanta finale.  This second car, #31, would have the exact same setup and seat as Earnhardt’s #3.  That way, if Earnhardt’s car did not fire on the starting grid, Bonnett would climb out and Earnhardt would jump in without the need for extensive adjustments.  If Earnhardt’s car did fire, Bonnett would be instructed to pull off the track as soon as possible to make sure #3 only had to rely on seven more drivers to DNF.  The plan wasn’t unprecedented.  Childress himself made his final Cup start playing the same role for Junior Johnson at Riverside, parking a #41 Mountain Dew Buick to assist Darrell Waltrip’s own clinch scenario.

Bonnett’s #31 was funded by Mom ‘n Pops, a longtime associate sponsor of Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt.  The car closely resembled Earnhardt’s Chevrolet, forsaking the black-and-red scheme from Talladega for an identical black-and-silver.  Mom ‘n Pops had a logo on the rear TV panel while Western Steer logos covered the quarter-panels.  

There was one big obstacle: Bonnett was not at all guaranteed of a starting spot.  51 other drivers arrived to try and make the 42-car field.  But once again, the veteran’s experience spelled the difference.  Bonnett snagged the 35th starting spot with a lap of 172.237mph.  Among the ten drivers sent home was Clay Young, driving veteran car owner Henley Gray’s #62 Ford.  Young, who made two starts earlier that year at Michigan and Pocono, carried sponsorship from The Sons of Confederate Veterans.  The deal, which would run through 1994, was squashed by NASCAR, who forced the team to remove the decals before qualifying.

As it turned out, a third Childress car made the trip to Atlanta.  In Friday’s practice, Earnhardt spun in Turn 2 and destroyed the rear of #3, sending the team scrambling to a backup.  When everything shook out, the championship leader was left with a 19th-place spot on the grid.  Fortunately, Rusty Wallace didn’t do much better.  He timed in right next to him in 20th.  When the command to start engines came, Earnhardt’s #3 fired right up, and Bonnett prepared to make what turned out to be the final three laps of his career.

Starting 42nd that afternoon was Hut Stricklin, who was wrapping up his only season driving for Junior Johnson.  Stricklin’s #27 McDonald’s Ford began the year with a sterling 4th-place finish in the Daytona 500 and led 88 laps at Martinsville, but languished 24th in points.  Jimmy Spencer would replace Stricklin in 1994 and score the #27 team’s only two victories that summer.  When the green flag fell, Bonnett chose the middle lane in Turns 1 and 2 and began to fall back.  By then, T.W. Taylor’s #02 Children’s Miracle Network Ford and Rick Carelli’s #61 Total Petroleum Chevrolet had already slipped behind Stricklin into a battle for last.  On Lap 4, Bonnett pulled behind the wall, securing last place.  One car down, seven to go.

Though Earnhardt seemed unwilling to adopt a conservative approach, making a three-wide pass for position on Lap 2, retirements didn’t come all at once.  On Lap 20, Brett Bodine’s #26 Quaker State Ford broke loose in Turn 3 right in front of Wallace.  The championship challenger just squeaked by as Bodine collided with Bobby Hillin, Jr.’s #90 Heilig-Meyers Ford.  Both drivers were done for the day, though they weren’t listed as such for at least 17 laps.  Three down, five to go.

On Lap 30, Jimmy Spencer’s #12 Meineke Mufflers Ford spun off Turn 4 in front of the field.  Geoffrey Bodine’s #7 Family Channel Ford and Ken Schrader’s #25 Kodiak Chevrolet were collected in the ensuing pileup, and Jimmy Horton’s #32 Wheels Race Cards Chevrolet spun into the wall during the chain-reaction.  This time, only Bodine fell out.  Spencer and Horton drove to the pits and returned without losing a lap.  Schrader pulled into the garage and returned several laps down.  Four down, four to go.

On the restart, 35 cars were on the lead lap as Rick Carelli and Rick Wilson had lost one and two laps, respectively.  Horton’s damaged #32 pulled off the track after completing 46 laps, leaving him 38th and rounding out the Bottom Five.  Five down, three to go.

On Lap 85, during a sequence of green-flag stops, Ernie Irvan crashed the #28 Texaco / Havoline Ford, sliding hard against the inside wall.  Irvan managed to limp to pit road with the right side tires flat and the rear bumper caved-in.  He returned to the track and, after multiple stops, would somehow storm his battered Ford up to the 12th spot.  The next retiree didn’t come until Lap 106, when the third caution fell for Rick Mast, who blew a motor on his #1 Skoal Classic Ford.  Six down, two to go.

Under the Mast caution, there were just 18 drivers on the lead lap, and everyone from 30th on back was multiple laps down.  Mast himself was about to take 34th, but the four drivers behind him were still under power.  T.W. Taylor was five down, Rick Carelli eight down, Rich Bickle 31 behind with transmission issues on his #45 Bull’s Eye Ford, and the wrecked Schrader still plugging away, 33 down.  Though Bickle and Carelli would finally pull out with mechanical issues, they did not do so until after Mast slipped to 37th 28 laps later, meaning that two cars still needed to fall out well past the one-third mark.

Finally, it happened.  On Lap 142, T.W. Taylor’s #02 backed into the Turn 1 wall, followed on Lap 159, when Wally Dallenbach, Jr.’s #16 Keystone Beer Ford slammed head-on into the Turn 2 retainer.  After six cautions and more than half distance, the newly-crowned Earnhardt was able to cruise to a 10th-place finish while Wallace dominated on his way to victory.  Irvan’s battered Ford came home 12th while Schrader, 35 circuits behind, climbed from 39th after the Spencer wreck to manage an impressive 27th.

Bonnett, meanwhile, carried his comeback into the 1994 season, but with tragic results.  The Daytona 500 was to be the first race of a new sponsorship deal with Country Time Lemonade that put him in James Finch’s pink-and-yellow #51 Chevrolet.  On February 11, as Bonnett made his way through Turn 4, an ordinary practice lap ended with a terrible crash into the outside wall.  Bonnett, age 47, lost his life in the crash.

Curiously, in May 2013, the passenger side sheet metal of Bonnett’s 1993 Atlanta car appeared on eBay in a fund raiser for The Crisis Center in Birmingham, Alabama.  The piece, autographed by members of Richard Childress Racing’s pit crew and fabrication staff, was sold for nearly $300.  The archived link to the auction can be found here and the pictures can be found below.

*This marked Bonnett’s first last-place finish at Atlanta since March 16, 1980, when his #21 Purolator Mercury started outside-pole to Buddy Baker, but broke the rear end after 30 laps of the Atlanta 500.
*This was the first last-place finish for the #31 since October 11, 1992, when Bobby Hillin, Jr.’s Bryant Chevrolet was disqualified from the Mello Yello 500.  As of this writing, Bonnett’s finish remains the only time the #31 has finished last in a Cup race at Atlanta.

42) #31-Neil Bonnett / 3 laps / enigne
41) #90-Bobby Hillin, Jr. / 19 laps / crash
40) #26-Brett Bodine / 19 laps / crash
39) #7-Geoffrey Bodine / 28 laps / crash
38) #32-Jimmy Horton / 46 laps / crash

1993 Hooters 500, ESPN