|Richard Allen, InsideDirtRacing.com (@RichardAllenIDR)|
The finish, which came in Benning’s 197th series start, was his first since October 14, 2017 at Talladega, 17 races ago. In the Truck Series last-place rankings, it was the 11th for the #6, the 144th because of a crash, and the 356th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 58th for the #6, the 1,153rd for a crash, and the 1,612th for Chevrolet.
Benning has become synonymous with the Eldora track. Earlier on the day of the race, he was photographed next to his bright red #57 Chevrolet, a truck that in 2013 became famous for a no-holds-barred battle with Clay Greenfield for the final transfer spot in the Dirt Derby’s inaugural Last Chance Qualifier. That day, Benning reminded everyone of his prowess on the dirt tracks, where he’d also been fielding ARCA Racing Series entries on the dirt of DuQuoin, Springfield, and Mineral Wells since 1997.
Coming into this year’s Eldora race, Benning looked to improve on his track-best finish of 13th in last year’s Derby. After some difficulty qualifying for races the last two seasons, he’s made every race in 2018 with a season-best 14th in the Daytona opener. But seven DNFs, including three times being flagged off the track or parked for his speed, placed him just 21st in the point standings.
Benning began his weekend 30th in Tuesday’s opening practice session and matched that rank in Happy Hour. He picked up some in qualifying, ranking 28th with a lap of 83.149 mph (21.648 seconds), lining him up 6th in the field of 8 for Heat Race 3. Much like in the LCQ in 2013, Benning stole the show, speeding past the fleet KBM truck of Noah Gragson after Gragson slipped up the track in Turn 2. The FS1 crew remarked at how stable Benning’s truck looked, and the veteran snagged the 4th spot, locking himself into the main. He’d line up 18th in the field of 32. Track owner Tony Stewart was the first to congratulate Benning in the paddock, and Kenny Wallace interviewed him for FS1.
As it turned out, the other four heat races also saw underdogs prevail over fully-funded efforts. In Heat Race 1, contact between John Hunter Nemechek and Braden Mitchell opened the door for Austin Hill, who joined his other two Young’s Motorsports teammates Ty Dillon and Tanner Thorson in the main event. Heat Race 2 saw Max McLaughlin get Al Niece’s second truck into the show, beating Dillon to the line for 4th. Heat Race 4’s star was Nick Hoffman, whose run in D.J. Copp’s #83 Chevrolet saw him run fast laps in the very upper lane for a 3rd-place finish. And in Race 5, after his teammate Mitchell’s #33 was sent to the LCQ, Jeffrey Abbey got the Reaume Brothers’ new second truck into the main event, building a two-second cushion and taking the final transfer spot in the #34 Chevrolet.
With 39 drivers entered, seven missed the show, and they happened to finish in the final seven spots in the Last Chance Qualifier:
First among them was John Provenzano, who was looking to make his first start in a national touring series since 1997, since he ran an ARCA Racing Series event at Salem. Driving Mike Affarano’s #03 Calumet City Auto Parts / Stop Bullying Chevrolet, Provenzano was the first to pull off the track after 4 laps of Heat Race 5. The problem proved terminal, as the driver didn’t start the LCQ.
Slowest in qualifying, Mike Harmon missed out in a battered #50 Motorsport Safety Group Chevrolet for Beaver Motorsports, as did his crewman Trevor Collins, who attempted to make his debut in Harmon’s #74 Solid Rock / Southern National Chevrolet. So did Jennifer Jo Cobb and her teammate Ray Ciccarelli, whose identical black Driven2Honor Chevrolets nearly missed the race when their hauler broke down. Ciccarelli had a particularly difficult time, spinning out several times in both his heat and the qualifier.
The aforementioned Braden “Big Papa” Mitchell banged fenders with John Hunter Nemechek in Heat Race 1, spinning out twice in the process in the Reaume Brothers’ #33 Sparks Energy, Inc. Chevrolet. He was about to transfer in on the final lap of the heat before he and Nemechek collided once more, sending both into the LCQ. Nemechek won that round while Mitchell spun out and finished 8th.
Fellow “dirt ringer” R.J. Otto, Jr. had the biggest heartbreaker of all. After starting alongside Nemechek in the LCQ in JJL Motorsports’ tribute to Red Farmer, Otto was holding fast to the second spot until the final laps, when he slid out of a transfer spot into 3rd. Otto was still digging when he slammed the wall in Turn 2, then spun down the backstretch with two laps to go. He parked the #97 S&S Express Ford after that, ending his night.
With the field for the 150-lap main set, starting last was Dalton Sargeant, one of several full-time drivers who found themselves having to scrounge for positions in the Last Chance Qualifier. He came into the race 11th in points, 98 markers behind the bubble. Joining him at the back was Wendell Chavous, sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments on the #49 Sobriety Nation Chevrolet.
At the end of the first lap, Noah Gragson fell to the rear in the #18 Safelite Auto Glass Toyota, apparently struggling with damage suffered in his Turn 2 hit during his heat race. Gragson fell more than 8 seconds back before he reeled in Jeffrey Abbey on Lap 5. Abbey’s #34 was still trailing on Lap 10 when Johnny Sauter spun his #21 Allegiant Chevrolet in Turn 2 and stalled, losing a lap as he tried to get rolling again.
On Lap 21, Justin Fontaine was running 31st in his #45 ProMatic Automation / Superior Essex Chevrolet when he spun and slammed the Turn 3 wall with the driver’s side. The caution allowed Sauter to get the Lucky Dog, and Fontaine managed to narrowly stay on the lead lap. Fontaine took last place from Sauter under the ensuing yellow on Lap 25.
Three circuits later on Lap 28, the spot fell to Cody Coughlin, whose #2 Coughlin Chevrolet-backed Chevrolet spun in a chain reaction started after a four-wide battle for the lead caused Stewart Friesen to be bumped into a spin by Chris Windom exiting Turn 4. Like Sauter before him, Coughlin lost a lap as a result, and was still running last at the end of Stage 1. Fontaine re-took the last spot on Lap 42.
On Lap 46, another frontrunner had a sudden misfortune. Race leader Ben Rhodes claimed the pole and led 44 of the first 45 laps, taking Stage 1 in the process. On Lap 46, something broke entering Turn 1 and the #41 The Carolina Nut Co. Ford slammed into the wall with the right-front.
Then, on the 54th lap, the battle for 4th went sideways when Tyler Dippel’s #17 Hue Jackson Foundation / Caruso Logistics Ford crossed the nose of Matt Crafton’s #88 Menards / Ideal Door Ford, sending both trucks sliding up the track. Trapped with nowhere else to go was Ryan Newman, driving in place of team owner Jordan Anderson in the #3 Ryan Newman VR Experience / MotoShield Pro Chevrolet. Newman ran into the back of Crafton, damaging the right-front of the #3 and knocking out FS1’s onboard camera. Newman lost a total of four laps as the crew worked on the right-front, and he returned returned to action for the Lap 61 restart.
Newman remained last through the rest of Stage 2 and for most of Stage 3, even as several other altercations bent fenders and stirred tempers. With 12 laps to go in the race, Coughlin spun and stalled once again, dropping him to 31st, but just one lap short of taking the spot from Newman. By then, Rhodes’ night had also deteriorated as he spun, but didn’t draw a caution, putting him on the same lap as Coughlin.
Benning didn’t enter the last-place picture until just three laps to go, when trouble broke out on the backstretch. Contact between Dalton Sargeant and J.R. Heffner caused a chain reaction. Benning spun and was apparently struck by the closing #63 G-Style Transportation / Cedar Peaks Chevrolet of Kyle Strickler. The contact sheared the door from Benning’s truck and destroyed the right-front suspension on the Strickler machine. Both trucks made it to pit road, but were done for the night. Benning, classified one lap behind Strickler, fell down the rankings first, and took the spot on Lap 149 as the field prepared for a green-white-checkered finish. Strickler, Newman, Rhodes, and Coughlin rounded out the Bottom Five, their first bottom-five runs of 2018.
The race was won by Chase Briscoe, who impressed in his first Truck Series start since he won last fall’s Homestead finale, his last ride in ThorSport’s #27 machine. Joining him in the Top 10 was 10th-place Nick Hoffman, who fell outside the Top 20 early in the event, then clawed his way back up the rankings. It was team owner D.J. Copp’s only second top-ten finish, matching the team’s best of 10th by Bayley Currey last fall at Phoenix. Max McLaughlin came just two spots short of a Top 10 of his own, finishing 12th – the third-best finish by Niece Motorsports.
*This marked the first time the #6 finished last in a dirt track NASCAR race since July 17, 1962, when Rock Harn’s 1960 Ford crashed after 2 laps at the Augusta (Georgia) Speedway – almost 56 years to the day.
*The 144 laps Benning completed stands as the fourth-most by a last-place finisher in Truck Series history, and the most by any Truck Series last-placer since May 24, 2008, when Tim Cowen’s #42 Cowen Truck Lines Ford overheated after 140 laps of the Ohio 250 at Mansfield. The record belongs with Ken Butler, who at Mansfield the year before on May 26, 2007 ran 167 of 250 laps before the engine let go on his #00 Aaron’s Lucky Dog Toyota in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Ohio 250.
*Benning is the first last-place finisher of this event to have not also earned the first last-place finish of his Truck Series career.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
32) #6-Norm Benning / 144 laps / crash
31) #63-Kyle Strickler / 145 laps / crash
30) #3-Ryan Newman / 149 laps / running
29) #41-Ben Rhodes / 150 laps / running
28) #2-Cody Coughlin / 150 laps / running
2018 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) MB Motorsports (4)
2nd) Beaver Motorsports (3)
3rd) Copp Motorsports (2)
4th) Mike Harmon Racing, NEMCO Motorsports, Norm Benning Racing, TJL Racing (1)
2018 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (13)
2018 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP