Sunday, September 2, 2018

CUP: Joey Gase gives car #23 its first Darlington last-place finish since 1951

PHOTO: Nigel Kinrade Photography
Joey Gase picked up the 4th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at the Darlington Raceway when his #23 Agri Supply / Sparks Energy Inc. Toyota was eliminated in a crash after he completed 120 of 367 laps.

The finish, which came in Gase’s 26th series start, was his first of the season and first since last November’s Homestead finale, 25 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 36th for car #23, the 149th for Toyota, and the 572nd because of a crash. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 65th for the #23, the 301st for Toyota, and the 1,161st because of a crash.

When we last featured Joey Gase, he was closing out a phase of his racing career. Homestead was his final XFINITY weekend with Jimmy Means Racing, who hired him in 2012. This past January, Gase announced he would reunite with team owner Archie St. Hilaire, who got him his start in both XFINITY and Cup competition. Hilaire, whose Cup driver Matt DiBenedetto now drives his #32 Fords, revealed that he was returning to XFINITY competition for the first time in five years. Gase would drive the new #35 Chevrolet with sponsorship from Alabama-based power line service company Sparks Energy, Inc. Gase’s best XFINITY finish so far this year was at Fontana, where he ran 16th. This year also saw Gase make his first two Truck Series starts, a pair of 31st-place showings at Atlanta and Kansas in Jennifer Jo Cobb’s second “start-and-park” #0 Chevrolet.

On top of this, Gase has continued to maintain a part-time presence in the Cup Series. Coming into Darlington, Gase had made three Cup starts in 2018 with two different teams. He began the year at Las Vegas, driving Premium Motorsports’ #55 Chevrolet, backed by Gase’s continued support for organ and tissue donation through the Nevada branch of Donate Life. Following a 32nd-place run there, he made a pair of starts on the plate tracks in StarCom Racing’s #00 Chevrolet, running 27th at Talladega and flirting with a Top 20 at Daytona in July before a wreck left him 25th.

Curiously, Gase’s ride for the Southern 500 was BK Racing, the struggling team whose sale effectively closed its doors after last week’s race in Bristol. Five of Gase’s 24 previous Cup starts came with BK Racing, including his first Daytona 500 in 2017. This time around, Gase would drive for the team in name only as Bob Jenkins, owner of Front Row Motorsports, beat GMS Racing’s bid for the team’s Charter and most of its assets. When the #23 hauler arrived at the track on August 30, the trailer still carried the BK team’s recognizable car number font, but the BK Racing logo was blacked-out.

Both the #23 Cup car and #35 XFINITY car would participate in Darlington’s “Throwback Weekend.” Each car was decorated identically to the black-and-purple #5 modified that Gase’s father Bob drove to the 2003 track championship at Hawkeye Downs Speedway. The scheme was chosen by a fan poll in June, where it prevailed over a different blue-and-white late model that Bob Gase ran in 1994. Bob's name appeared on the roof rails of the car, along with his title. Agri Supply Company and Sparks Energy, Inc. would back both efforts with associate backing from Eternal Fan, Franklin Signs, and Jester Apparel. The Cup car also featured Carolina Cooker on the quarter-panels in place of two of the Sparks logos.

Darlington originally saw 41 cars entered, but like the XFINITY race, one “open” team withdrew. This time, it was Premium Motorsports’ #7 Chevrolet, which was to be driven by Reed Sorenson. There were no reports as to if that car was going to run a “throwback” paint scheme prior to the team’s cancellation on Wednesday. This was a moot point for Gase, as Front Row had purchased BK Racing’s Charter as part of the August sale, securing the #23 its spot in the field.

Gase began the weekend 37th of the remaining 40 drivers in opening practice, then anchored the charts in Happy Hour. He turned the slowest completed lap in qualifying with a speed of 154.734mph (31.781 seconds), just over 1.1 seconds slower than 38th-place Derrike Cope in his 1993 Bojangles’ Chevrolet throwback and 3.4 seconds off the pole lap by Denny Hamlin’s 1997 short track throwback Toyota. Things went somewhat better on the XFINITY side, turning 28th of the 33 drivers in the first session, 25th of 37 in the second. He then made it to Round 2 in qualifying, securing the 19th spot on the grid, and finished a respectable 21st. It was then time for Gase’s first-ever Cup start at Darlington.

Jeffrey Earnhardt (left) and Gase (right) rolling off pit road.
PHOTO: Michael Harvey, @MrLester88
Starting 40th on Sunday was Jeffrey Earnhardt, who for the third time in as many years honored his late grandfather Dale with one of his many famous paint schemes. Since Jeffrey was returning to Gaunt Brothers Racing, which campaigns the #96, the team elected to run the patriotic Cardinal Tractor Company scheme that Earnhardt drove in 1978. A near-identical version of the scheme was run in last year’s XFINITY race at Darlington, when Ben Kennedy drove for GMS Racing. Earnhardt’s car was sponsored by Nine Line Apparel, which has backed Earnhardt’s Cup efforts this season, and participated in an unveiling earlier this summer.

Earnhardt faced a setback in qualifying on Saturday when, on his first timed lap, his Toyota broke loose off the second corner and smacked into the inside wall with the right-front, then the right-rear. Earnhardt was uninjured, but unable to turn a lap and settled into the 40th spot. The team elected to repair the primary car, working right up until mid-day on Sunday, when the team’s Twitter feed showed the last Nine Line decal applied to the bent and battered right-rear quarter-panel. Among those who helped piece the car back together was Will Cronkrite, the original car owner of the #96 in 1978, who was invited to the track by the team.

The repairs to the Earnhardt car forced him to incur a redundant tail-end penalty, again a similarity to Saturday’s XFINITY race. Also sent to the rear were 31st-place starter Jamie McMurray, who blew the engine on his gold #1 McDonald’s 50 Years of Big Mac Chevrolet on his first practice lap, then changed another engine before the race, 20th-place Jimmie Johnson, whose 2012 Lowe’s Throwback Chevrolet was docked for unapproved adjustments.

As it turned out, Gase joined these drivers at the back of the field after an engine change of his own, perhaps accounting for his slow pace in practice and qualifying. On the pace laps, Gase lagged back as Johnson fell to the next-to-last row. Joining Johnson in that row was 37th-place starter B.J. McLeod, whose #51 Jacob Companies Chevrolet from the Rick Ware stables was decorated to resemble the radical gold-and-blue scheme Cary Elwes’ character Russ Wheeler drove in “Days of Thunder.”

On the break, Gase remained in last and trailed the leader by seven seconds at the end of the first lap. On Lap 2, he caught Derrike Cope and ran to his outside in Turns 3 and 4 until Cope got away from him off Turn 2. By Lap 5, Gase was trailing a pack of four cars that had lost touch with the lead pack – McLeod’s #51, Cope’s #99, and Timmy Hill, who honored Darrell Waltrip’s 2000 “Victory Tour” team on his #66 Toyota. At that time, Hill was losing ground fast, having been passed by Cope, and dropped behind Gase for 40th on Lap 6.

Hill, in turn, continued to struggle to kepe pace, and was the first to be lapped on the 11th circuit as race leaders Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson raced to his inside entering Turn 3. This same pass allowed Larson to catch and pass Hamlin for the lead, pacing his first of 284 laps that night. Larson lapped Hill a second time on Lap 23, then a third time on Lap 34 when Hill pitted for tires. Hill returned to the track on Lap 36, still 40th, and now four circuits behind.

McLeod took last for the first time on Lap 51, and was five laps down by the 63rd circuit. Hill retook the spot on Lap 60, and was seven laps behind by Lap 86. At the end of Stage 1, Cope took the 40th spot for the first time, followed by McLeod again under the ensuing yellow on Lap 105. Hill retook last from McLeod on Lap 107, and had fallen an eighth lap behind on Lap 118. The #66 was still trailing the field when Gase’s misfortune finally ended the last-place battle.

Now a number of laps down himself, Gase was fighting to keep pace when Kyle Busch’s #18 Skittles Toyota, decorated like Ernie Irvan’s Pontiac from 1998, caught him coming off the corner. Busch made contact with the rear of Gase’s car, steering the #23 head-on into the inside wall. Just like Austin Cindric the day before, Gase’s car clobbered the fence, and the driver climbed out, ending their night. The crew wondered what happened over the radio, asking if it was simply because they were running too slow. Next week at Indianapolis, Gase will make his 200th XFINITY Series start.

The rest of the Bottom Five wasn’t settled until the final moments of Stage 3. The 39th spot fell to Jimmie Johnson, whose difficult night took an even worse turn when his oil pump failed around Lap 230, forcing the crew to push him behind the wall. With not enough laps left to replace the pump, the team called it a night. Finishing 38th was Matt DiBenedetto, Archie St. Hilaire’s Cup driver, whose #32 Keen Parts / Ford, carrying DiBenedetto’s favorite childhood paint scheme Jeff Burton ran in 2000, retired with rear end trouble after 254 laps. In 37th was Timmy Hill, who dropped a cylinder then retired with engine trouble, followed by Clint Bowyer, who had a hard Turn 4 crash on Lap 309 when he rammed a slowing Ryan Newman, who was trying to get to pit road under green.

Frank "Rebel" Mundy's last-place Studebaker at Darlington, 1951
PHOTO: Legends of NASCAR
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #23 in a cup race at Darlington since September 3, 1951, when Frank “Rebel” Mundy won the pole for the second-ever Southern 500, but finished last after his Studebaker lost oil pressure. The exit dropped him all the way to the rear of an 82-car field. For more on the finish, check out our LASTCAR feature from 2016.
*Gase has now finished last in exactly one Cup race for four consecutive years.

40) #23-Joey Gase / 120 laps / crash
39) #48-Jimmie Johnson / 227 laps / oil pump
38) #32-Matt DiBenedetto / 254 laps / rear end
37) #66-Timmy Hill / 268 laps / engine
36) #14-Clint Bowyer / 309 laps / crash

1st) StarCom Racing, TriStar Motorsports (4)
2nd) BK Racing, Penske Racing, Premium Motorsports (2)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Furniture Row Racing, Germain Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Motorsports Business Management, Richard Petty Motorsports, Rick Ware Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (16)
2nd) Ford (5)
3rd) Toyota (4)


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