Sunday, March 31, 2019

CUP: Kyle Larson crashes out after rear end issue nearly hands Brad Keselowski his first last-place finish

PHOTO: @CGRnascar
Kyle Larson picked up the 5th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway when his #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet was involved in a single-car accident after 147 of 334 laps.

The finish, which came in Larson’s 190th series start, was his first since April 29, 2018 at Talladega, 33 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 23rd for car #42, the 577th from a crash, and the 759th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three rankings, it was the 34th for the #42, the 1,174th from a crash, and the 1,651st for Chevrolet.

The image of Larson’s #42 Chevrolet careening off the walls on the final two corners of last year’s inaugural Roval race came to symbolize the season for both Larson and team. After a four-win season in 2017, Larson couldn’t quite find his way to victory lane last year, finishing 2nd six times – including both races at Bristol. A late wreck on the Roval threatened to end his Playoff bid, that is, until he passed the stalled #96 Toyota of Jeffrey Earnhardt in the final corner, bumping Jimmie Johnson from contention. But a 12th at Dover, an 11th at Talladega, and a 3rd at Kansas weren’t quite enough to advance, and he settled for a 9th-place finish in points.

This year, Larson has a new teammate in Kurt Busch and a new determination to return to victory lane. He began the year 7th in the Daytona 500, then dominated the following round in Atlanta, leading 142 laps only to be undone by a late pit road speeding penalty. Heading into Texas, Larson had just earned his season-worst finish at Martinsville, but had yet to finish lower than 18th at the checkered flag, ranking him 11th in the standings.

The Fort Worth oval has not been kind to Larson. Coming into the race, he’d finished 23rd or worse in five of his eleven starts, including a pair of hard crashes in Turns 1 and 2 in both the fall of 2017 and spring of 2018, each yielding a 37th-place run. But he’d also finished 5th or better three times, including a runner-up finish to Jimmie Johnson in the spring of 2017.

Larson began the weekend 28th in the opening practice and ran 24th in Round 1 of qualifying. He advanced to Round 2, only to time in just 22nd on the charts with a lap of 184.414mph (29.282 seconds). The team found speed in final practice, when the #42 jumped to 7th on the charts.

Following the withdrawal earlier in the week of Obaika Racing’s #97 Chevrolet, the remaining 39 entrants all earned starting spots in the race. Starting shotgun on the field was Timmy Hill, set to make his first Cup start of the season. Driving Motorsports Business Management’s #66 Toyota previously run by Joey Gase (contrary to a graphics error by FOX Sports during the race broadcast), the car appeared to be the #66 run in Las Vegas and Fontana, though this time with the quarter-panels blank and the American Valor Foundation logo on the hood.

On the first pace lap, Hill stopped near the first pit stall, then caught back up to the tail end of the pack. As he drove down the backstretch, both Ross Chastain in the #15 Rim Ryderz Chevrolet and the #77 Trophy Tractor Chevrolet of Garrett Smithley stopped on the inside, then also rejoined the grid ahead of Hill. It was on the second pace lap that two drivers fell to the rear for pre-race penalties: 24th-place Alex Bowman, sent to a backup #88 Llumar Chevrolet following an accident in qualifying, and 18th-place Ryan Newman, whose #6 Wyndham Rewards Ford twice failed pre-race inspection.

Both Newman and Bowman fell back to the last cars on the outside lane before seven drivers fell behind them. Coming to the stripe, Newman was up to 32nd. In the row behind him were Parker Kligerman in the #96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota inside Chastain’s #15, then Rick Ware Racing teammates Bayley Currey (#52 Trick Shot Penetrating Lubricant Chevrolet) and B.J. McLeod (#51 Jacob Companies Chevrolet), then Reed Sorenson (#27 Solomon Plumbing Chevrolet) and Smithley’s #77, and finally Hill.

On the break, the tail end of the field uncoiled into single-file racing with Hill trying to track down Smithley for 38th. But Hill reported his car was tight, perhaps dragging something beneath the car, and he was losing touch with Smithley by the third circuit. Now reporting he was “getting beat bad off the corners,” Hill was told the leaders were gaining on him fast running the low lane. On Lap 16, race leader Jimmie Johnson caught Hill exiting Turn 4, but moments before he could lap him, the caution fell for Erik Jones’ spin in Turn 1.

Under the yellow, Hill tried to get onto pit road, but ended up returning to the track. The one-lap delay lifted Hill to the 16th spot while David Ragan, Erik jones, Ryan Preece, and Parker Kligerman traded last place after their first caution-flag stops. When he came in, Hill beat out McLeod’s #51, dropping the Chevrolet to last. This didn’t last long as Hill pulled behind McLeod for the restart, the #51 lining up to the inside of 37th-place Sorenson in the #27. When the race restarted, Hill was again trailing by open track, and this time was caught and passed by Johnson on Lap 34. Hill moved to the high lane just short of the starting line, and from there struggled to find a spot in line among the faster traffic.

Next to join the last-place battle was Corey LaJoie, whose #32 lost two laps with an unscheduled stop around Lap 43. LaJoie had smacked the wall under green, and had to pit to change tires and clear the fenders. The driver returned to the track, the spotter reporting no smoke from his machine, and the Ford was back underway. On Lap 50, LaJoie caught and passed both Chastain and Smithley in Turn 4, then cleared Hill off the corner, dropping the #66 back to last. Hill lost a third lap to Johnson on Lap 58.

On Lap 67, Landon Cassill then took last when his #00 USFRA Chevrolet incurred an uncontrolled tire penalty on pit road, forcing him to make a pass-through penalty under green. The stop dropped him to three laps back, then a fourth by Lap 72. Like LaJoie, Cassill then chased down and passed Hill for 38th, clearing him down the backstretch on Lap 77.

Fuel mileage then became an issue for Timmy Hill and the MBM team as the race neared the end of Stage 1. Someone on the crew reported Hill had eight-tenths of a gallon left in the tank, and the driver was told to save fuel the moment the stage-ending caution came out. Still, the #66 ran out of fuel, then coasted by himself down pit road on Lap 87. The car soon re-fired, and he returned on Lap 92 to get topped-off with fuel, still four laps down in last.

When the race was about to restart, the LASTCAR battle took another intriguing turn. Brad Keselowski, one week after a dominant victory in Martinsville, was running 5th when his car stalled on pit road. The crew looked over the car, and the driver reported something broken in the rear end. With the rest of the field still running within four laps of the leader, Keselowski dropped to last on Lap 96, putting the driver in real danger of his first Cup Series last-place finish in his 348th series start. Following the end of Kevin Harvick’s streak last May, Keselowski held the record for most Cup starts without a last-place run in a points race. On Lap 105, the #2 Miller Lite Ford was pushed behind the wall.

History would have to wait, though, as on Lap 146, the Penske Racing crew pieced together the Mustang and Keselowski took the long route back out of the garage area. He was back on track on Lap 148, 56 laps down and moments from losing his 57th. “10-4,” said the driver, “we can work to not get last.”

Seconds later, on Lap 149, came Larson’s trouble. Headed through the same Turns 1 and 2 that had bit him twice before, his #42 Chevrolet didn’t turn at corner exit, and instead smashed into the outside wall with the right-front. Larson made it back to pit road, only for the crew to find a fire raging behind the destroyed right-front wheel. Larson climbed out, done for the day with crash damage. The crew pushed Larson’s car behind the wall on Lap 154, and the entry disappeared from RaceView on Lap 160. With a 51-lap gap between himself and Keselowski, the #2 would drop Larson to last if he reached Lap 204. Keselowski did this, and Larson dropped to last as a result.

Keselowski ultimately finished 36th, passing both Hill, who burned out the clutch past the halfway point, and Penske Racing teammate Ryan Blaney, whose 45 laps up front were followed by an overheating issue on his #12 Menards / Cardell Cabinetry Ford in the final stages. Rounding out the Bottom Five, 41 laps ahead of Keselowski, Bayley Currey finished 14 laps down to the leaders.

Among the series’ underdogs, Michael McDowell turned in a fine performance, finishing 15th in Front Row Motorsports’ #34 Love’s Travel Stops / Winstar World Ford. It was McDowell’s best Cup finish since this year’s Daytona 500, and ended the streak of five straight finishes of 24th or worse that followed it. McDowell’s best Texas finish – and his only other one inside the Top 20 – remains his 14th-place run in this same race last year.

*This marked the first last-place finish for car #42 in a Cup Series race at Texas since November 2, 2008, when Juan Pablo Montoya’s #42 Texaco / Havoline Dodge was involved in a late-race wreck with David Gilliland after 262 laps of the Dickies 500. Gilliland was then parked as a result.

Brad Keselowski - 348
Chase Elliott - 120
Daniel Suarez - 79
William Byron - 43
Parker Kligerman - 18
Ryan Preece - 12
Daniel Hemric - 9
Matt Tifft - 7
Bayley Currey - 2

39) #42-Kyle Larson / 147 laps / crash
38) #66-Timmy Hill / 168 laps / clutch
37) #12-Ryan Blaney / 225 laps / overheating / led 45 laps
36) #2-Brad Keselowski / 279 laps / running
35) #52-Bayley Currey / 320 laps / running

1st) Front Row Motorsports (2)
2nd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Germain Racing, Motorsports Business Management, Rick Ware Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet, Ford (3)
2nd) Toyota (1)


No comments: