Monday, November 5, 2018

CUP: Corey LaJoie on the brink of first LASTCAR title with fifth last-place finish of 2018

Corey LaJoie picked up the 7th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway when his #72 Gas Monkey Garage / Havoline Chevrolet finished under power, 68 laps down, after 269 of 337 laps.

The finish, which came in LaJoie’s 56th series start, was his series-leading fifth of the 2018 season and his first since Michigan, 11 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 17th for car #72, the 35th where the driver finished running, and the 755th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 32nd for the #72, the 45th where the car was still running, and the 1,635th for Chevrolet.

Since his most recent last-place finish, LaJoie has started all but two races – Cole Whitt’s runs at the Roval and Martinsville – and turned in a season-best 16th at Las Vegas in September. The TriStar Motorsports team has also raced with an increasing variety of primary sponsors, creating a variety of eye-catching paint scheme for the #72 Chevrolet. Blockchain firm Dragonchain rejoined the team at Las Vegas and Kansas in addition to competitors and BCT. Factor One Source backed the team at Dover while longtime NASCAR sponsor Winn Dixie followed LaJoie at Talladega. Texas would mark the debut of Richard Rawling’s hot rod shop Gas Monkey Garage, in partnership with Havoline Motor Oil. Rawlings tweeted three different paint schemes for fans to select. The winner was a bright green paint scheme with the Gas Monkey logo occupying a large part of the space over the rear of the car, including the “opera windows.” While the wrap originally covered these windows, NASCAR ultimately stepped in and forced those windows to be uncovered.

At the Fort Worth track, LaJoie turned in the 34th-best time in opening practice, 37th in the second, and 34th in Happy Hour. He took 37th in qualifying with a lap of 188.824mph (28.598 seconds), second-slowest among the Chartered drivers. Slowest of that group was 39th-place Joey Gase, teamed with Rick Ware Racing for the first time.

With 41 drivers entered for 40 spots, one team would miss the cut. At Texas, that team was Motorsports Business Management (MBM), which suffered a costly incident at Martinsville where their #66 Toyota caught fire following an engine failure. Timmy Hill returned with another #66, but despite running fast enough to make the cut in practice, never turned a lap in Round 1.

As team owner Carl Long revealed on Saturday, NASCAR classified MBM as a part-time team, which made them subject to a rule where the #66 had to run a sealed engine once for every three starts. This proved disastrous for the #66 team, which had run full-time since July and thus thought they were not subject to the rule. Without running a sealed engine since Dover, four races prior, Hill had to run a sealed engine at Texas, but the team didn’t have one. Thus, NASCAR prevented Hill from taking a time in qualifying, forcing their withdrawal. It was a staggering blow to the MBM effort as Long has no more sealed engines to run the final two Cup rounds of 2018 at Phoenix and Homestead. It also prevented Hill from joining Ross Chastain in running all three races last weekend in Texas. By race day, would ultimately jump to StarCom Racing’s second car, the #99 Chevrolet driven by Kyle Weatherman.

Hill’s loss was the Obaika Racing team’s gain. After their team failed to qualify for their first Cup attempt last month in Talladega, David Starr returned to the #97 Toyota at his home track. Although Starr put up the slowest lap of the session at 181.305mph (29.784 seconds), three-tenths off the next-fastest car, the team made the show, securing the 40th and final starting spot. In addition to Space Grill, which backed the Obaika car at Talladega, Starr’s car carried new sponsorship from the RV General Store on the sides, and after qualifying, Sam’s Dock joined on the hood. Sunday would mark the second time in Starr’s career that he gave a Cup team its first start. On April 9, 2011, he gave Leavine Family Racing’s #95 their first green flag, finishing 38th. Regan Smith put the #95 in the 28th spot for Sunday.

Six drivers incurred pre-race penalties and would join Starr at the back of the pack. Unlike in XFINITY practice, none of these were due to accidents in practice and qualifying. Engine changes dropped Daniel Suarez (started 19th in the #19 Arris Toyota), Chris Buescher (21st in the #37 Clorox Chevrolet), and Playoff contender Martin Truex, Jr. (13th in the #78 Bass Pro Shops / 5-hour Energy Toyota) while Matt DiBenedetto (31st in the #32 Can-Am / Wholey Ford) changed a transmission.

The final two pre-race penalties came moments before the start. On the grid, Aric Almirola was found to have an illegal body modification to the right-rear of his #10 Smithfield Spirals Ford, dropping him from 4th. Also, Jimmie Johnson had to surrender the 23rd spot for failing inspection. However, NBCSN later reported that Johnson failed twice and not three times, meaning that the penalty shouldn’t have been incurred. It was an ignominious end for the final start of Jimmie Johnson’s black #48 Lowe’s For Pros Chevrolet. He will run throwback schemes in these final two rounds at Phoenix and Homestead.

When the race went green, the final two starters were Joey Gase in Ware’s #51 Donate Life Texas Ford and David Starr in the Obaika #97 Toyota. Starr pulled ahead of Gase at the stripe, and the #51 continued to lose ground – 7.125 seconds back of the leader after one lap, 11.471 after three, and 21.833 after eight.

But, as on Saturday, trouble had found its way up front. On the very first lap, a first-turn maneuver by eventual race winner Kevin Harvick forced a close side-by-side battle between outside-polesitter Clint Bowyer in the #14 Rush Truck Centers / Mobil Delvac 1 Ford and 6th-place Denny Hamlin in the #11 FedEx Office Toyota. Bowyer broke loose and made contact with Hamlin. Hamlin’s car trailed smoke early, then dropped back through the field until he pitted for fresh tires and minor repairs on Lap 10. It was thus Hamlin and not Gase who was the first to lose a lap. In fact, he was already in danger of losing a third lap when he rejoined the race. Bowyer stopped moments later for his own share of the damage, dropping him two laps and placing him 39th. The pair managed to climb no higher than 26th and 30th.

The pair did climb, however, with Hamlin finally passing Starr on Lap 21. By that point, Starr had been behind the wall for around three laps, the crew looking over a developing engine issue and also making adjustments. The team managed to get their car back on the track on Lap 34, during a competition caution brought on by rains the night before. Now 16 laps down, Starr continued on until Lap 50, when he pulled back in the garage with the engine sounding sour. He returned once more on Lap 65, 32 circuits back, keeping all 40 cars on the track through Stage 1.

It wasn’t until Stage 2 that LaJoie joined the last-place battle. Up until then, he’d run a couple laps down, but was told he was running laps that were competitive to the leaders. That changed when the #72 pulled behind the wall with what TriStar Motorsports’ twitter described as “fuel assessment issues.” These repairs, which focused on the fuel cell, proved particularly time-consuming. By Lap 92, he was in 38th, four laps down, and while still in the garage on Lap 126 took last place from Starr. But, like the Obaika team, TriStar made sure to get their driver back in the race, which was accomplished on Lap 150. At the time, LaJoie was 24 laps behind 39th-place Starr, who was himself 26 laps behind Gase in 38th.

Starr made another bid for the spot with just 37 laps to go when he slid high in Turn 2 and spun out, managing to avoid the inside wall. By the time the #97 recovered, Starr was now just 18 laps from taking last from LaJoie. Four laps into the ensuing restart, Matt DiBenedetto looked to challenge for a Bottom Five. Six laps down around the 30th spot, DiBenedetto checked-up when Bubba Wallace and Chris Buescher tangled in front of him on the backstretch. The #32 Ford cut left and slammed head-on into the inside wall. DiBendetto walked away uninjured, but his car was destroyed – ultimately the only one of the 40 starters to fail to finish.

In the end, DiBenedetto dropped only to 38th. Six laps down with less than 30 laps to go, there were barely enough laps left to close within half the distance to LaJoie, who fell 68 laps behind. LaJoie secured the spot when 39th-place Starr was still running with 18 laps to go, and the two remained in the final two positions. Behind 38th-place DiBenedetto was Gase, 20 laps back of the leaders, and rounding out the Bottom Five came J.J. Yeley in the #23 Maximum Elevation Off-Road Toyota. Yeley’s car along with Starr’s made it two former BK Racing Toyotas in the Bottom Five.

With two races to go, LaJoie takes a two-finish lead in the 2018 LASTCAR Cup Series Championship. The only two drivers still in position to challenge him for the title are Timmy Hill and Gray Gaulding, who both outmatch LaJoie in Bottom Fives and Bottom Tens. Both Gaulding and Hill’s only path to the title require them to finish last in both the final rounds in Phoenix and Homestead. Unlike Gaulding, who could still mathematically lose a Bottom Five tiebreaker, Hill has an insurmountable margin in both Bottom Fives and Bottom Tens, meaning a tie will be enough to clinch. This battle may end sooner than expected, however, as both Hill and Gaulding are not confirmed entries for those two races.

*LaJoie set a new record for most laps complete by a Cup Series last-place finisher at Texas. The previous record was set a decade ago by Juan Pablo Montoya. On November 2, 2008, Montoya was involved in a controversial late-race accident with David Gilliland that ended his day after 262 laps – just seven laps fewer than LaJoie’s run. Gilliland, at the time driving for Yates Racing, was parked shortly after for aggressive driving.
*This marked the first last-place finish for both LaJoie and car #72 in a Cup Series race at Texas.

40) #72-Corey LaJoie / 269 laps / running
39) #97-David Starr / 287 laps / running
38) #32-Matt DiBenedetto / 300 laps / crash
37) #51-Joey Gase / 317 laps / running
36) #23-J.J. Yeley / 321 laps / running

1st) TriStar Motorsports (5)
2nd) StarCom Racing (4)
3rd) Motorsports Business Management, Premium Motorsports, Rick Ware Racing (3)
4th) BK Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Furniture Row Racing, Penske Racing (2)
5th) Chip Ganassi Racing, Germain Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Roush-Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (18)
2nd) Ford, Toyota (8)



MarshallDog said...

I have read about what happened to Carl Long like 5 times and still don't understand what happened. What does "sealed engine" mean? What's the point of the rule? Does it save teams money or something?

Brock Beard said...

It's still confusing to me, too. A "sealed engine" is just a fancy word for a new engine. Full-time teams are required to run more than one race on each new engine as a way to save costs. However, part-time teams have to run a new engine once for every three starts. These rules end up conflicting with each other because part-time teams tend to be lesser-funded and unable to afford a new engine every three races. I suppose the thinking was that a part-time team's three races may each be several weeks apart, giving them time to prepare new engines.

This is what bit MBM. Since Dover, when they ran their last sealed engine, the team has had nothing but engine problems, capped by that fire at Martinsville. Thus, they didn't have a new engine ready for Texas. Long didn't think this was a problem, thinking they were now considered a full-time team and thus didn't need to run a new engine every time. However, NASCAR said they were still part-timers, meaning they had to run a new engine at Texas, their third race since Dover. Long didn't have one, so NASCAR essentially forced them to withdraw.

MarshallDog said...

So... NASCAR penalized a part-time team for not running a new engine often enough? What kind of ass-backwards rule is that? Why the hell can't they run whatever engine they want as long as it meets the specs?

Brock Beard said...

I can't explain that part at all. Sounds to me like NASCAR making a similar argument to reducing field sizes "to increase the quality of competition." In this case, perhaps to provide a disincentive to running part-time at all.

UnderdogFan89 said...

Actually the ruling is the exact opposite. A sealed engine is an engine that was run in a previous event that was "sealed up" to be used again in a later event. So a sealed engine is a used engine, not a new one. Because of Long's engine troubles, he has been forced to use new engines continuously, not used ones.

Brock Beard said...

That makes much more sense - thank you for the clarification.