Sunday, February 24, 2019

CUP: McDowell’s fast Ford takes last after he, Smithley, and Cassill fight their way back onto tough Atlanta track

PHOTO: @amsupdates
Michael McDowell picked up the 31st last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway when his #34 Ford finished under power after 222 of 325 laps.

The finish, which came in McDowell’s 287th series start, was his first of the season, and first in a Cup Series race since October 14, 2018 at Talladega, seven races ago. In Cup Series last-place history, it was the 32nd for car #34, the 37th where the car finished under power, and the 686th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 44th for the #34, the 44th where the car was still running, and the 946th for Ford.

Just last week in Daytona, McDowell enjoyed one of the finest runs of his career. Having survived the several late-race wrecks that stretched the Daytona 500 into the evening, McDowell found himself restarting 4th in line for the final green-white-checkered finish. It was a moment the Phoenix native had been waiting for since last July, when he started 8th in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at the Florida track, led a career-high 20 laps that night, only to be wrecked just five laps from the finish. That had been one of the only highlights of a difficult 2018 season, his first with Front Row Motorsports, that saw him rank just 26th in points.

When the green flag dropped, fellow Ford driver Joey Logano expected McDowell to push his #22 Shell / Pennzoil Ford to the front. Instead, as the field poured into Turn 3 for the final time, McDowell wound up paired with the Joe Gibbs Toyota of Kyle Busch. The result left McDowell with a 5th-place finish – his best since a 9th in the previous year’s 500 – one spot behind a very upset Logano in 4th. McDowell explained the situation by putting it in greater context – the wreck that forced the overtime finish occurred when fellow Ford driver Clint Bowyer tried to swoop past McDowell on the backstretch, then crossed the nose of #34, triggering the last big wreck of the night.

The Daytona finish was only McDowell’s second career Top 5 finish, his first for Front Row, and just one spot behind his career-best 4th for Leavine Family Racing in the 2017 July race. The next race, the 1.5-mile track in Atlanta, had seen McDowell make eight starts previous, but never had he finished better than 24th. Regardless, driver and team looked for a turnaround with longtime team sponsor as the presenting sponsor for his Ford Mustang.

McDowell began the weekend with a solid 20th in the opening practice session despite turning just eight laps. He then improved even more in qualifying, running 9th in Round 1, then jumping to 4th in Round 2 to make the third and final session, where he rounded out the group with a 12th-best lap of 179.330mph (30.915 seconds). With another sterling run in Happy Hour, where he ran a strong 4th on his first of 29 completed laps, there was reason for driver and team to be excited.

With just 37 drivers entered to qualify for the 40-car field, no drivers were sent home. The final starting spot fell to B.J. McLeod, who one week after his first Daytona 500 start was swapped rides with his Rick Ware Racing teammate Cody Ware. McLeod would thus run the #52 Chevrolet, which at Atlanta featured logos for Daytona associate sponsor Trick Shot Penetrating Lubricant. McLeod secured the final starting spot as the only one of the entrants to not complete a lap in Friday’s qualifying session.

On race day, McLeod sat at the entrance of pit road for an extended period of time, waiting for the rest of the field to join the track. He then caught up to the group within the next circuit. With one lap until green, Kyle Busch surrendered the 6th starting spot. Busch had incurred a tail-end penalty after a Turn 4 accident in Happy Hour destroyed the rear end of his #18 Snickers Creamy Toyota. Contrary to the FOX broadcast, Busch did not take the green in the 37th spot. Both McLeod and Ware backed up on the backstretch to let him in line around the 35th spot. Garrett Smithley, driving Spire Motorsports’ #77 Hero Box / Harrell’s Chevrolet, pulled behind Busch for failing pre-race inspection, lifting Busch to 34th. By the time the field had formed up two-by-two, RaceView showed that Busch was actually up to 31st, having also cleared Ross Chastain (#15), Landon Cassill (#00), and Parker Kligerman (#96) with Smithley, Ware, and McLeod closing out the 37-car field.

When the green flag dropped, McLeod retained the 37th spot, but quickly caught and passed Ware in Turns 3 and 4. By the time the two reached the stripe, both pulled suddenly to the right as Smithley slowed in front of them. The #77 Chevrolet was running at a reduced speed, and did so in the worst possible spot, causing him to lose a lap on Lap 3 before he could even attempt to get to pit road. Smithley, too, only held the spot briefly, as Landon Cassill’s #00 StarCom Fiber Chevrolet made an unscheduled stop on Lap 4, costing the StarCom entry two laps. The Derrike Cope-led team tweeted that Cassill was still running faster than any car up to 28th spot, which allowed him to catch and pass Smithley for 36th by Lap 24.

When the competition caution fell on Lap 35, Smithley was still last, and now three laps down. The driver reported his car was not shutting off, but was fighting a serious tight condition. The crew made adjustments, and Smithley reported the car handled better on Lap 54. Moments later, the #77 was off the pace again, this time citing a water temperature of 264 degrees. Unable to swipe past the leader to clear potential debris, Smithley tried to make an unscheduled stop on Lap 55, missed the pit entrance, then came in on Lap 56. By the time he returned on Lap 59, he was now five laps down, then six two circuits later. A second unscheduled stop followed on Lap 62, and this time the crew instructed Smithley to pull into the garage through the opening two stalls in front of him. RacingUnderdogs intercepted radio communications indicating it was an issue with the brake tension switch, forcing the crew to look over the computer.

Despite being shown “unavailable” for some time during his stay in the garage, Smithley was rolling again on Lap 111, returned to pit road on Lap 113, and was 59 laps down by Lap 122. The driver then asked, “Are we planning on running until we can't gain any more spots?” With no other drivers out of the race, or even in the garage by that point, Smithley was instructed to stay out.

Cassill became the next last-place contender on Lap 189, when he pulled into the garage with a broken axle. At the time, Cassill’s #00 Chevrolet was running 35th in the field of 37, nine laps down ahead of both Ware and Smithley. On Lap 194, Cassill dropped to 36th, and the next time by was within 45 laps of Smithley passing him for last place.

McDowell’s own trip to the garage came on Lap 209, citing an issue in the right-front of the car. As the driver later reported, something “popped” in the right-front as he tried to pass teammate Matt Tifft, causing the #34 to become extremely tight. Parked just a couple stalls to the left of Cassill’s crew, McDowell’s team set to work on the suspension. Cassill, meanwhile, was ready to return to the track on Lap 217, and he returned to action in 36th spot, 38 laps down. During this whole exchange, Smithley remained on track, but still in last place, having closed within just 27 laps of finally climbing to 36th.

It was quite literally a race against the clock for the Front Row Motorsports crew. The crew worked over the front control arm. Then they inspected the lower control arm, which had a broken bolt. By Lap 235, the crew was not only having difficulty putting a new bolt in the arm, but was also replacing the rear shocks. Work was still continuing on Lap 272, when Smithley finally worked his way past McDowell into the 36th spot, dropping the Phoenix native to last.

Finally, on Lap 305, with just 20 to go in the race, McDowell was rolling through the garage. He returned to action 103 laps down, and wouldn’t lose another lap by the checkered flag.

Smithley took 36th, building a 32-lap advantage on McDowell by race’s end. The 35th spot went to the day’s only retiree, a very frustrated Ryan Preece. One week after dodging wreck after wreck in Daytona, the rookie glanced at his tachometer at the wrong time during his final pit stop and struck McLeod’s #52 Chevrolet that was trying to make it to his stall. The damage was bad enough to send the #47 behind the wall, out under the Crash Clock protocol. Cassill and Ware both climbed past Preece by the finish, climbing to 34th and 33rd, respectively. Ware was the only member of the group to not earn his first Bottom Five of the season.

*This marked the first Cup Series last-place finish at Atlanta for both McDowell and car #34.

37) #34-Michael McDowell / 222 laps / running
36) #77-Garrett Smithley / 254 laps / running
35) #47-Ryan Preece / 271 laps / crash
34) #00-Landon Cassill / 284 laps / running
33) #51-Cody Ware / 303 laps / running

1st) Front Row Motorsports, Germain Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet, Ford (1)


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