Sunday, March 4, 2018

CUP: Strong weekend for Michael McDowell ends with first last-place finish in four years

PHOTO: @RPMVisuals
Michael McDowell picked up the 29th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when his #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford fell out with engine problems after 100 of 267 laps.

The finish, which occurred in McDowell’s 252nd series start, was his first of the season and his first in a Cup race since this same event, four years ago, on March 9, 2014. In the LASTCAR Cup Series rankings, it’s the 30th for car #34, the 379th for Ford, and the 677th by reason of engine failure. Across the top three series, it’s the 42nd for the #34, the 936th for Ford, and the 1,051st by reason of engine failure.

Sunday’s run also moves McDowell into sole possession of 3rd on the all-time LASTCAR Cup Series rankings, breaking a tie with Derrike Cope. Only Joe Nemechek and the late J.D. McDuffie have more. He’s also tied with McDuffie for the fifth-most last-place runs all-time with 32 across the top three divisions.

McDowell’s most recent last-place finish came in his second start for Leavine Family Racing, having made the move from prolific “start-and-park” operation Phil Parsons Racing. For the next three seasons, driver and team would improve steadily with the driver turning in four of his next five top-ten finishes at Daytona (another 10th-place finish came at Homestead, when he was driving LFR’s second entry during a points swap). Through it all, McDowell climbed from 39th in the 2015 driver standings to 30th in 2016, then 26th just last year.

This year, McDowell drives Front Row Motorsports’ flagship #34 Ford, taking the place of Landon Cassill, who is still searching for a ride. Once again, McDowell excelled at Daytona, turning in a sterling 9th-place finish, his third season in a row with at least one Top 10 at the superspeedway. He finished just 24th last week in Atlanta, but still held a 14th-place ranking in points as NASCAR embarked on the “West Coast Swing.” In addition to returning sponsorship from Love’s Travel Stops, McDowell’s Ford for Las Vegas would carry a special decal on the A-post in memory of the late Wendell Scott, who campaigned the #34 all but 26 of the 495 Cup starts in his Hall of Fame career.

Among the 37 entrants for Sunday’s race, McDowell put up the 16th-best lap in Friday’s opening practice, besting the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon. In qualifying, he put up the 18th-best lap in Round 1, then jumped to 15th in Round 2, just a fraction behind Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, and Johnson for a spot in the final round. His official lap clocked in at 188.607mph (28.631 seconds). On Saturday, he continued to impress, running 9th in the second session before settling back to 29th in Happy Hour.

Starting last on Sunday was Joey Gase, who along with his #55 Nevada Donor Network Chevrolet from Premium Motorsports was making his season debut on the Cup side. During the pace laps, Gase was joined at the rear by both his teammate, Ross Chastain, in the #15 LowT Center Chevrolet, and the #48 Lowe’s for Pros Chevrolet of Jimmie Johnson, both incurring penalties for multiple inspection failures. Gase backed up once more, allowing Chastain and Johnson to line up side by side for the start.

When the green flag dropped, Gase began to lose touch with the pack, as did 36th-place starter Jeffrey Earnhardt, who was shaken out of the pack in the early moments. Gase began to close on Earnhardt’s #00 VRX Simulators Chevrolet, but then lost touch with him, falling two seconds back of the #00 by Lap 10. Five circuits later, race leader Kevin Harvick caught Gase in Turn 4, moved low, and made the #55 the first of 28 cars he’d put at least one lap down on his way to victory.

On the 30th circuit, Gase lost a second lap, and was reporting his car was fighting a tight condition. If he stayed there at the checkered flag, it would be the first last-place run for the #55 at Las Vegas since 2002, when the late Bobby Hamilton wrecked an Andy Petree car in the early laps. As it turned out, he was passed for last on Lap 41 after Jeffrey Earnhardt went a third lap down during his green-flag stop. Next was Atlanta last-placer Gray Gaulding, whose #23 Earthwater Toyota took the spot on Lap 46 after his own pit stop. Gaulding eventually made his pit stop, and resumed hold of 36th on Lap 49, now four laps in arrears. He’d lose a fifth on Lap 74. The next round of stops also jumbled up the last-place battle with Gaulding taking it on Lap 84, then Gase back to the rear for the Lap 89 restart to begin Stage 2.

McDowell, meanwhile, was backing up his strong performance in practice and qualifying. Even when Harvick continued to dominate, McDowell held fast to one of the few remaining lead lap spots. On Lap 39, he stayed out longer than much of the rest of the field, putting him up front for 11 laps. The move singlehandedly bested the driver’s record for most laps led in a season (ten last year), and marked the first time he’d led more than four laps in any single event. Unfortunately, as the second stage began, McDowell was lagging back, reporting smoke in the cockpit. Not wanting to lose an engine on track, he pulled behind the wall on Lap 104 with smoke trailing from his car. He officially took last on Lap 107, at which point he was seven laps down. On Lap 121, someone on the crew said over the radio the team was done, making them the first retiree of the afternoon.

The rest of the Bottom Five contained the day’s only other DNFs. 36th-place Jamie McMurray fell out when his #1 Cessna / DC Solar Chevrolet slapped the outside wall in Turn 2 on Lap 177. 35th and 34th went to Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott, who tangled on Lap 184 when Busch broke loose under Elliott coming off Turn 4. Rounding out the group was Gray Gaulding, who pulled his #23 behind the wall 15 laps down on Lap 210.

*McDowell’s 11 laps led are the most by a Cup Series last-place finisher since September 5, 2010, when Denny Hamlin led 74 laps of the Emory Healthcare 500 at Atlanta. Hamlin’s run is one of only 18 recorded instances in Cup Series history where a driver led more laps than McDowell did Sunday, only to finish last.
*This was the first last-place finish for car #34 in a Cup Series race since September 9, 2017, when Landon Cassill’s #34 CSX “Play It Safe” Ford crashed out after 33 laps of the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond. The number had never before trailed a Cup race at Las Vegas.
*This marked McDowell’s third last-place finish in the previous six Cup races at Las Vegas.

37) #34-Michael McDowell / 100 laps / engine / led 11 laps
36) #1-Jamie McMurray / 176 laps / crash
35) #41-Kurt Busch / 183 laps / crash
34) #9-Chase Elliott / 183 laps / crash
33) #23-Gray Gaulding / 195 laps / engine

1st) BK Racing, Front Row Motorsports, TriStar Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota (1)


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