Saturday, July 7, 2018

CUP: Field-clearing pileup continues Ryan Blaney’s rollercoaster season

Ryan Blaney picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #12 BodyArmor Ford was involved in a multi-car accident after 53 of 168 laps.

The finish, which came in Blaney’s 108th series start, was his first since November 8, 2015 at Texas, 92 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it’s the 28th for car #12, the 682nd for Ford, and the 567th caused by a crash. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it’s the 40th for the #12, the 940th for Ford, and the 1,140th from a crash.

When Blaney last arrived at Daytona, he enjoyed one of the most dominant performances the track has seen in nearly two decades. After winning his Duel, his bright yellow Ford paced the field for 118 of 207 laps, the most of any one driver in the event since Dale Jarrett’s dominant 2000 victory. But a late accident caused the win to slip away, leaving him 7th.

Such misfortunes have kept Blaney from scoring his second career Cup victory. He led 145 laps at Martinsville in March, and while he finished a season-best 3rd, saw the win slip away. At Bristol in April, he led 100 of the 117 laps and was running 2nd when he was collected in a wreck between Harrison Rhodes and Jamie McMurray. The next month at Kansas, he started outside-pole and led 54 laps, only to collide with Kyle Larson in a battle for 3rd with just 20 laps remaining. In all, three Top Fives and eight Top Tens and the third-most laps led in 2018 have been offset by four previous Bottom Fives, most recently a 34th-place showing at Sonoma after his power steering failed.

Blaney arrived in Daytona to run double-duty with the XFINITY Series, his first start on that circuit since he took the checkered flag at Texas in April. Driving Penske Racing’s #22 Pirtek Ford, Blaney made several daring moves for the lead before settling on a 4th-place finish.

On the Cup side, Blaney debuted new sponsorship from BodyArmor Superdrink, a marketing tie-in he shared with 18 other athletes including football’s Andrew Luck and Richard Sherman, baseball’s Anthony Rizzo and Mike Trout, and basketball’s Klay Thompson and James Harden. Whether intentional or not, the red-and-white scheme on the #12 bore an uncanny resemblance to the Piper Aircraft Buick driven that Bobby Allison piloted when he ran the #12 in the late 1980s. The car ran 5th in the opening practice and made Round 2 of qualifying, only to trail the group in 12th with a lap of 190.981mph (47.125 seconds).

Daytona saw 41 drivers entered for 40 spots, the first time in all of 2018 that one car would be sent home after qualifying. With rain in the area, the hot seat belonged to Landon Cassill, switched into StarCom Racing’s second car, the #99 StarCom Fiber Chevrolet, to allow for Joey Gase in his Chartered #00 Sparks Energy, Inc. Chevrolet. If rain came before the end of Round 1, Cassill would miss the show. However, as Round 1 progressed, Timothy Peters was slowest of the “open” teams in Ricky Benton’s #92 Ford. When the rest of Round 1 was complete, Peters was knocked-out, and Cassill stayed in, securing 37th on the grid.

Starting last was J.J. Yeley, who made his first start of the year for BK Racing in place of Gray Gaulding. Yeley brought with him sponsorship from Steakhouse Elite from his partnership with NY Racing Team owner Johnathan Cohen. With Cohen’s former #7 now entered under Premium Motorsports, Cohen formed an alliance with the unsponsored #23 to get Yeley in the race. Joining him at the rear were four drivers sent to the back for unapproved adjustments: Daniel Suarez, Kasey Kahne, David Ragan, and Landon Cassill.

Cassill’s car struggled to fire at the command, and soon parked in the pit stall #2, second of the three empty stalls nearest to pit exit. This was particularly unfortunate as the rest of the field returned to pit road after their first pace lap and sat single-file as part of the “NASCAR Salutes” program recognizing the military. With the other 39 teams holding up American flags in their pit stalls, StarCom Racing’s #99 crew was hard at work hustling up a battery in the garage area. The #99 was then pushed around the track by the tow truck, then steered into the garage area through the first gate before pit entrance.

An apparent faulty alternator was to blame for the issue, causing Cassill’s car to miss the start as the battery was recharged in the garage. The crew’s work paid off as they avoided a “did not start,” exiting the pits and rejoining the field as they lapped him a second time. Now completely by himself, Cassill did his best to try and tag on to any one of the trailing packs of cars behind the leaders. When this failed, Cassill was caught by the leaders on Lap 11, and the next time by pulled low on the backstretch entering Turn 3 to let them by, losing a third lap. He caught the end of a five-car pack on Lap 18, but despite following in their tire tracks, started to lose touch with them as well.

As the end of Stage 1 approached, Cassill and team talked over whether or not to short pit. Knowing they’d likely lose a fourth lap, they considered employing some pit strategy to stretch their fuel load in Stage 2. Unfortunately, the discussions moved them outside their window, and the leaders caught and lapped him a fourth time on Lap 30. He remained 40th at the end of the stage, still four laps in arrears. By then, 39th belonged to Ray Black, Jr., his first start of 2018 in Rick Ware Racing’s #51 Jacob Companies / Prefund Capital Chevrolet. Black slowed suddenly on Lap 39 and pulled to the apron of Turn 4, forcing him to pit when the pits were closed. He ended up two circuits back at the end of the stage, two laps ahead of Cassill in 39th.

Stage 2 took the green on Lap 47, and two laps later came the first of many accidents that would slow the race’s pace. Running 15th at the time, Paul Menard’s #21 Menards / Moen Ford was hooked on the backstretch by a closing Jimmie Johnson, sending him into the path of David Ragan. Menard’s hood exploded free of its braces, and the car suffered fender damage as he slid into the grass. The crew managed to re-tape the hood to the fenders inside of the “Crash Clock” and returned to action three laps down, ranking him 3 laps down – between Black and Cassill.

Blaney didn’t enter the last-place picture until shortly after the ensuing restart. On Lap 54, his teammate Brad Keselowski was running a strong 2nd, looking for a way around race leader William Byron. According to Keselowski, when Byron came down in front of him entering Turn 3, it caused him to slow in front of a closing Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. The two made contact, steering Keslelowski to the right – directly into the path of Kurt Busch. The ensuing wreck ultimately involved 26 of the 40 starters, eliminating Keselowski and six others. Five of those seven filled the Bottom Five under yellow: Keselowski, Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, and Ryan Blaney. There was little footage of Blaney’s involvement in the accident as he was running outside the Top 20 at the time. He appeared to be collected in a chain-reaction back of the main wreck, the same part of it that damaged Kevin Harvick’s Ford. Blaney officially took last on Lap 58.

The Lap 54 pileup was the overture to a long crash-filled night in Daytona. Exactly half the race’s starters – 20 of 40 – were eliminated in accidents, and only a handful left the track without significant damage to their machines. However, with most of these accidents taking place close to the lead, the night presented a golden opportunity for several underdogs.

One of the best runs of the night belonged to Michael McDowell, who enjoyed a strong weekend until the final moments of the race. Driving Front Row Motorsports’ #34 K-LOVE Ford, he qualified 8th and was already bidding for the lead before any of the accidents occurred. He took the lead under green and paced the field for 20 laps, heading the line as late as 47 laps to go. Then, with three laps remaining, Joey Gase clipped the apron in his #00 and slid up the track into McDowell and Aric Almirola, destroying all three cars. Only the sheer number of accidents kept him 26th at the finish.

Kasey Kahne led as late as Lap 154 and made one more bid for the top spot in the final green-white-checkered finish, nearly capturing Leavine Family Racing their first victory. It was in this race that the team earned their best finish (with McDowell) just last year. Kahne led 17 laps in total, backing up his 11 laps led at Michigan last month, and earned his first finish better than 17th all season.

Both JTG-Daugherty cars survived the night with Sonoma last-placer A.J. Allmendinger finishing a season-best 3rd, continuing an impressive streak of four-straight top-ten finishes at Daytona. Teammate Chris Buescher drove his #37 to a 5th-place finish, matching his run in this year’s Daytona 500 for his own season-best.

Like Blaney, Matt DiBenedetto was cheated of a strong finish when a late accident destroyed his #32 Go FAS Racing Ford. This time around, his Zynga Poker Ford suffered damage on multiple occasions, but was never down for the count. In the end, DiBenedetto improved from 31st on the grid to finish 7th, DiBenedetto’s second-best Cup finish behind his 6th for BK Racing at Bristol. On top of this, DiBenedetto was the highest-finishing Ford – quite the achievement given the dominance of Stewart-Haas Racing this season.

Jeffrey Earnhardt earned his own career-best finish on Saturday, improving on his career-best 21st in February’s Daytona 500 for StarCom Racing with an 11th for Premium Motorsports in the #7 Nine Line Foundation Chevrolet. It was only Earnhardt’s second Cup start since he was released from StarCom after Fontana in March.

One spot behind Earnhardt came Brendan Gaughan, whose Beard Motorsports car finished inside the Top 15 for the third time since debuting their plate-only schedule last year. Gaughan had heavy damage to the right-front corner of his #62 Beard Oil / South Point Hotel & Casino Chevrolet, but was still on the lead lap when the checkered flag fell.

Following Gaughan in the 13th spot was D.J. Kennington, a new career-best finish for the popular Canadian, after recovering from a late-race spin down the backstretch. It was the best Cup Series finish by a Canadian since 2009, when Patrick Carpentier finished 11th at Sonoma. It was also the best Cup finish by Gaunt Brothers Racing, whose previous mark was a 20th by Kennington at Talladega earlier this year.

And running 16th at the finish came Rick Ware Racing, the team’s second-best finish to Justin Marks’ 12th-place showing in this year’s Daytona 500. It was also far and away the best Cup finish for Ray Black, Jr., whose best of three previous starts was a 34th last fall at Texas.

*This marks the fifth time car #12 has finished last in this race. The other drivers were Bob Welborn (1962), Tim Steele (1994), Derrike Cope (1996), and Jeremy Mayfield (2000).

40) #12-Ryan Blaney / 53 laps / crash
39) #22-Joey Logano / 53 laps / crash
38) #11-Denny Hamlin / 53 laps / crash
37) #41-Kurt Busch / 53 laps / crash
36) #2-Brad Keselowski / 53 laps / crash / led 9 laps

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, Motorsports Business Management, Penske Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Roush-Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (11)
2nd) Ford (4)
3rd) Toyota (3)


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