|PHOTO: NASCAR Media|
Larson’s career-best four-win season in 2017 came to an abrupt end in the season’s final weeks when an engine failure at Kansas knocked him out of an almost assured spot in the Championship Four. It also proved to be the sixteenth and final season that Target sponsored Chip Ganassi’s full-time Cup effort, bringing to a close one of the longest active owner-sponsor partnerships both in NASCAR and in open-wheel racing. In its place came Credit One Bank, which not only sponsored the final lap on NASCAR’s television broadcasts, but backed both Ganassi cars as an associate last year. Among the other brands signing on was DC Solar, coming over from Ganassi’s shuttered #48 team in the XFINITY Series.
Larson’s new blue-and-white Camaro ranked 10th in opening practice, but slipped to 22nd in qualifying with a lap of 192.238mph (46.817 seconds). The lap put Larson 11th on the grid for Race 2.
Starting last in Race 2 was Gray Gaulding, whose BK Racing team has provided one of SpeedWeeks’ most unusual stories. Reports of the team’s financials difficulties were confirmed just hours earlier when the team filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The team’s impending reorganization did not prevent them from preparing a single #23 Toyota, which arrived at the track last Friday without sponsorship – or a driver. On the night before his 20th birthday, Gaulding was tabbed to drive, and returning team sponsor Earthwater joined the team in time for the race. Like David Ragan in Race 1, Gaulding didn’t turn a lap in qualifying, though in Gaulding’s case it because the car’s engine failed technical inspection. Prior to the Duel, Gaulding ran just one lap in opening practice, which came in the session’s final two minutes.
On top of it all, Gaulding incurred a redundant pre-race penalty for unapproved adjustments, the same penalty handed to Matt DiBenedetto in the #32 Can-Am / Wholey Ford. Both cars had been re-wrapped between qualifying and the race, which may have been the adjustments noted by NASCAR. Also sent to the rear was 18th-place starter Mark Thompson, who missed driver intros for his first-ever Duel race. This ended up putting Thompson on the outside of the last row with Gaulding to his inside.
At the start, Thompson pulled ahead of Gaulding, but by the second corner, the two were locked in a side-by-side battle with Gaulding holding the bottom. By the third corner, Thompson had pulled back in front, though both were already a half-second behind the rest of the field. Gaulding, meanwhile, was 1.2 seconds behind Thompson on Lap 3, approaching more than nine seconds behind the leader. By the sixth circuit, Thompson and Gaulding were part of a four-car trailing pack similar to that in Race 1. Joining them were D.J. Kennington’s #96 Lordco / Castrol Toyota and the #72 Schulter Systems Chevrolet of Corey LaJoie.
On Lap 12, Gaulding had held last for the entire race, and was now 37.650 seconds back of the leader, three seconds back of Thompson. As with the trailing pack in Race 1, Gaulding was saved from losing a lap when trouble broke out among the leaders. Contact between Chase Elliott and Erik Jones coming off Turn 2 sent Jones into a spin, causing the rest of the field to check up. Among them was Larson, who was racing DiBenedetto near the back of the lead pack. DiBenedetto crossed Larson’s nose, hooking him into the outside wall. An instant later, Larson was turned into a spin, further damaging his own car. DiBenedetto managed to drive up to the entrance of pit road before stopping while Larson was towed from the backstretch. Gaulding stayed out to lead a lap during the ensuing yellow.
With Larson and DiBenedetto locked into the final two positions, the rest of the race ran caution-free. Gaulding and Thompson were among the first to lose a lap near the halfway mark, and both made pit stops. Gaulding came in first, and returned nearly two laps down. Thompson came in next, and after falling a third lap back, the Motorsports Business Management crew decided to pull the #66 Phoenix Air Ford behind the wall. Gaulding ended up five laps down, pulling his car onto pit road a second time as the leaders took the white flag. LaJoie rounded out the Bottom Five, two laps down, and on the same lap as Kennington in 15th.
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #42 in the Duels since 2007, when then-rookie Juan Pablo Montoya’s #42 Texaco / Havoline Dodge fell out with suspension issues after 24 laps of Race 2. As in Race 1, this was the only other time the number finished last in the event.
*This marked Larson’s first last-place finish in the Duels.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
20) #42-Kyle Larson / 11 laps / crash
19) #32-Matt DiBenedetto / 11 laps / crash
18) #66-Mark Thompson / 32 laps / vibration
17) #23-Gray Gaulding / 55 laps / running / led 1 lap
16) #72-Corey LaJoie / 58 laps / running