Sunday, June 24, 2018

CUP: Missed shift ends promising Sonoma weekend for A.J. Allmendinger

PHOTO: Brock Beard
A.J. Allmendinger picked up the 8th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350 at the Sonoma Raceway when his #47 Kroger ClickList Chevrolet fell out with engine problems after 33 of 110 laps.

The finish came in Allmendinger’s 351st series start and was his first in a Cup race since October 29, 2017 at Martinsville, 19 races ago.  In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it’s the 30th for car #47, the 681st by reason of engine failure, and the 748th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it’s the 46th for the #47, the 1,057th for engine trouble, and the 1,607th for Chevrolet.

Allmendinger and the JTG-Daugherty Racing team have continued to try and make ends meet in NASCAR’s elite series. Along with an increased presence by sponsor Kroger ClickList, Chris Buescher joined the team last year to make the effort a two-car Chartered effort. Buescher ended up 25th in last year’s point standings, two spots ahead of Allmendinger. Through that season, “The Dinger” continued to excel at the restrictor plate tracks, Martinsville, and the road courses. His best finish of the year was a 3rd at the Daytona 500. A 9th-place run at Watkins Glen was solace after a disappointing Sonoma run, where he started 5th but managed just 35th after mechanical woes.

Coming into Sonoma, Allmendinger’s best tracks remained so with a 10th-place run at Daytona, a season-best 8th at Martinsville, then a thrilling win in the Monster Energy Open at Charlotte, an event he’d won a decade earlier. He stood 23rd in points, two spots ahead of Buescher, and looked for a comeback from his 2017 Sonoma struggles.

Allmendinger’s road course weekend began with a 9th-place showing in opening practice followed by a 12th in Happy Hour. On Saturday, he topped the charts in Round 1 with a 94.477mph (75.828 seconds), nearly two-tenths faster than second-place Martin Truex, Jr. Though he slipped to 5th in Round 2, his lap of 93.925mph (76.274 seconds) still outpaced, among others, defending race winner Kevin Harvick. With 38 entries for 40 spots, no teams were sent home.

Starting 38th and last in the field was Cody Ware, making his second start of the year and first since a 36th-place showing in Dover. This time around, Ware debuted the team’s new second car, which was originally scheduled to hit the track in Charlotte. Backing the new #52 Chevrolet was returning Sacramento sponsor SBC Contractors, which has backed Sonoma underdogs the last couple years, and longtime Ware backer Bubba Burger. SBC employees were out in force, as they have previously for such teams as Premium Motorsports and The Motorsports Group. According to Cody when we spoke with him on the grid prior to the race, the Rick Ware team will continue to enter two cars in future races to be announced.

Cody Ware’s patriotic-schemed #52, along with “road ringer” teammate Chris Cook in the #51 Shockwave Ford, had struggled in practice, and lined up 38th and 36th after particularly treacherous qualifying laps. Following the cleanup for K&N Pro Series driver Bill Kann, who lost an engine in the Esses, NASCAR was unable to clean up the sta-dri on the track. Anxious to go out, Cook and Ware went out first, and struggled to stay on the track as the sta-dri scattered out of the groove. For Ware, this was on top of an issue in practice where a brake hose came loose on the #52 and fell out in Turn 2.

At the start of the race, Cook joined Ware at the back of the field due to unapproved adjustments on the #51. On the break, Ware fell behind Cook as the field pulled away from him. By the fourth corner, Cook had worked his way past StarCom Racing’s #00 GoShare Chevrolet. Behind the wheel was Tomy Drissi, who was making his first Cup start since this same race in 2014. For much of the race’s first stage, Ware and Drissi would race each other for the 37th position, gradually losing touch with Cook and the rest of the leaders. On Lap 5, Ware started to reel in Drissi, narrowing the gap from two seconds to less than one. Drissi, meanwhile, was watching his temperatures, reporting 193 degrees as he negotiated Turn 11 on Lap 10. By that point, Ware was struggling with a tight condition and started to lose ground to Drissi once more.

Cody Ware stopped in Turn 7 near the end of Stage 1
PHOTO: Miles Beard
Ware’s race took a turn on the 21st circuit, when mechanical gremlins reared their ugly head. That time by, as Martin Truex, Jr. put him his first lap down in Turn 2, Ware reported that the car is “blowing up,” then “it’s missing really bad,” and that the car reported no fuel pressure. On Lap 22, he came in with the first group of leaders, but returned to the track still off the pace. Over the radio, the crew chief mentioned that this could be a recurring wiring problem the team’s #51 faced in Charlotte. On entry to Turn 7, Ware pulled off on the shortcut some teams used the day before during qualifying. Three laps away from the end of Stage 1, NASCAR didn’t throw the yellow, leaving the #52 by itself on the track.

For the next three laps, Ware and the team debated about what to do next. The driver wanted to park the car, saying the car couldn’t run more than 5mph and he didn’t want to risk a crash. The crew chief responded they wanted to finish the race under power, and wanted the car to come back to the garage for repairs. When Stage 1 ended on Lap 25, Ware limped his machine down the Esses, but didn’t turn into the garage. The crew looked the car over in their pit stall, located near pit exit, and directed him to go to the garage area. In races past, there was an entrance to the garage at the exit of Turn 1, just before the first crossover bridge. This was apparently not an option, and Ware was told to drive the car around another lap.

On Lap 26, in another frustrating turn, Ware reported the car seemed to be running fine. During the previous stint, the car shut off at quarter-throttle. But now, it was keeping pace with the field under caution. The decision was made to stay on the track, now four laps down, and not go to the garage. Unfortunately, the team didn’t have communication with race control, and Ware wasn’t alerted if he could take the wave-around for the ensuing restart. When the race went green again on Lap 29, Ware managed to keep pace with the tail end of the field, which was again his teammate Chris Cook.

The issues came to a head during the race’s most critical circuit, Lap 33. By that point, Ware was dropping back again, and this time said he was coming into the garage. He went behind the wall and stopped his car in the very last stall nearest to Turn 11, where three crew members brought out their large orange toolbox and set to work looking over the fuel system.

At that exact same moment, two frontrunners suddenly broke down.

The first was Allmendinger, who after successfully defending his Top 5 starting spot in the early laps had then taken the lead on Lap 23, one lap after Ware stopped in Turn 7. This allowed Allmendinger to stay out front on Lap 25, where he claimed his first stage win of the season. Still running among the leaders on Lap 33, however, Allmendinger missed a shift, and started trailing smoke from his wounded engine in Turn 2. The car slowed to a stop just past the corner, drawing what would be the day’s only caution for an on-track incident.

As the crew awaited the #47 car in the garage, the report came that 4th-place starter Jamie McMurray had pulled his #1 Cessna Chevrolet behind the wall. Over the radio, McMurray reported he’d slipped a belt while following Allmendinger through Turn 11, and had also suffered catastrophic damage to the engine. It wasn’t until around Lap 40, when McMurray’s crew had all but finished preparing their car for loading, that the tow truck arrived in Turn 11 with the #47 on the hook. Curiously, the ambulance followed the truck into the garage carrying Allmendinger, who hopped out without a trip to the infield care center.

In the end, both the #1 and #47 were credited with completing the same number of laps. Similar to Pocono last year, since McMurray’s car drove to the garage area while Allmendinger’s had to be towed, Allmendinger was credited with the last-place finish.

Around the time Allmendinger’s car came to the garage area, Cody Ware returned to the track one more time, 16 laps down. He made up his four-lap deficit on McMurray and Allmendinger, but only ran another nine circuits before he pulled into the garage a second and final time, again citing a fuel pump issue. He finished 36th.

Finishing 35th was Cole Whitt in TriStar Motorsports’ #72 Chevrolet. Whitt’s family plumbing company came on so late to sponsor the #72 Chevrolet that the team had to scramble to print large “PPP” logos at a sign shop for the hood and quarter-panels. Several employees of TriStar sponsor Schluter Systems were on hand for the race, and stayed on hand to support their driver as he pulled behind the wall on Lap 59. A broken shock had sent Whitt into the outside wall, causing heavy damage to the driver’s side of the car. The accident didn’t draw the caution flag, and Whitt reported he was unhurt. For Whitt, as well Allmendinger, Sonoma was their first bottom-five finish of 2018.

Rounding out the Bottom Five was Ryan Blaney, whose power steering failed on the #12 PPG Ford midway through the event. Struggling to keep up the pace, Blaney managed to finish under power, though six laps down, to the race leaders.

*This marked the first time that the #47 and the JTG-Daugherty Racing team finished last at Sonoma since 2013, when Bobby Labonte’s turn in the #47 Kingsford Toyota when the engine let go on the first lap of the Toyota / Save Mart 350. Curiously, this was exactly one week after Allmendinger’s first start with the team at Michigan.
*This ends a streak of four consecutive first-time last-place finishers in the Cup Series.

38) #47-A.J. Allmendinger / 33 laps / engine / led 5 laps / won stage 1
37) #1-Jamie McMurray / 33 laps / oil pump
36) #52-Cody Ware / 42 laps / fuel pump
35) #72-Cole Whitt / 57 laps / crash
34) #12-Ryan Blaney / 104 laps / running

1st) TriStar Motorsports (3)
2nd) Premium Motorsports, StarCom Racing (2)
3rd) BK Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Furniture Row Racing, Germain Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Roush-Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (11)
2nd) Ford (3)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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