Sunday, March 10, 2019

CUP: Michael McDowell’s pit road fight with Suarez followed by hard crash on Sunday

PHOTO: Dominic Aragon,
Michael McDowell picked up the 32nd last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Ticket Guardian 500 at the ISM Raceway when his #34 Dockside Logistics Ford was involved in a single-car crash after 157 of 312 laps.

The finish, which came in McDowell’s 289th series start, was his second of the season and first since Atlanta, two rounds ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 33rd for car #34, the 576th from a crash, and the 688th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 45th for the #34, the 947th for Ford, and the 1,173rd from a crash.

The finish not only extended McDowell's lead in the 2019 LASTCAR Cup Series Championship, but tied him with the late J.D. McDuffie for the second-most last-place finishes in Cup history. Both drivers remain one finish behind current series leader Joe Nemechek with 33.

Following a 30th-place finish in Las Vegas, McDowell arrived at his home track and promptly made headlines in Friday’s Cup Series qualifying. In the closing moments of Round 1, Daniel Suarez was among the dozens of drivers trying to turn in a fast lap at the last second. Suarez argued that McDowell blocked his #41 Ruckus Ford during a hot lap, costing him valuable time. McDowell’s version was Suarez was trying to wreck him. The result was the same – both drivers missed Round 2.

Moments later, a fight broke out when an angry Suarez confronted McDowell on pit road. McDowell shoved Suarez, who responded with a leg sweep that knocked McDowell to the ground. McDowell got up again and grabbed at Suarez’ leg before the crews broke up the pair. A media circus ensued, after which both met with NASCAR officials to go over the situation. And since both qualified in Row 14, the two would have to share a ride in the same truck during driver introductions.

McDowell outpaced Suarez for the 27th spot, turning a lap of 136.514mph (26.371 seconds). He’d also run 24th and 23rd in the weekend’s two practice sessions. With just 36 drivers entered for the 40-car field, no drivers were sent home. The result was the smallest-ever Cup field at Phoenix, and the first without a single “open” team since Atlanta in 2018.

Starting 36th on Sunday was Bayley Currey, one of two drivers in the field making their first Cup Series debut. Driving Rick Ware Racing’s #52 Mtel-One Ford, Currey had a rough start to the weekend. He secured the last spot on the grid as the only Cup driver to not turn a lap in Round 1, and on Saturday crashed out while driving Ware’s #17 Port of Tucson Chevrolet.

Currey would fill out Row 18, starting to the outside of fellow XFINITY Series part-timer Quin Houff. Houff, driving Spire Motorsports’ #77 Rim Ryderz Chevrolet, was forced to change his left-rear tire when the crew discovered a hole after qualifying. The tail-end penalty proved redundant as he would remain in the last row on the grid, joining Currey as the field took the green flag.

On the break, Currey drew away from Houff. But on Lap 2, Houff caught both Currey and his Rick Ware teammate Cody Ware in the #51 Jacob Companies Chevrolet. Ware and Currey waged a spirited battle for 34th before Ware drew away, leaving Houff to deal with Currey.

Moments later, outside-polesitter Chase Elliott was black-flagged for jumping the initial start, and on Lap 4 incurred a pass-through penalty. Elliott’s fleet #9 Hooters Chevrolet returned to the track just in front of the leaders – 22.945 seconds back of the lead – and by Lap 7 was a full straightaway behind the now 35th-place Houff. Elliott closed the gap quickly, catching Houff on Lap 10, then passing him off Turn 2 on the 11th circuit. Two laps later on the 13th, race leader and polesitter Ryan Blaney caught Houff in the same spot, making the #77 the first car one lap down.

Next to join the last-place battle was 10th-place starter Erik Jones. On Lap 38, Jones lost control in Turn 2 with a flat right-rear tire. Jones made mild contact with the outside wall, damaging the right-rear corner, and nearly collecting a sideways Ryan Preece in the #47 Kroger Chevrolet. Jones darted down the nearby entrance to a closed pit road, incurring two penalties for his unorthodox entrance. When the crew discovered damage to the suspension on Jones’ #20 Reser’s Fine Foods Toyota, he was forced to pit a second time and lost three laps by Lap 42. That third lap dropped Jones behind Houff, taking the last spot.

Jones returned to the track on Lap 43, but would hold the 36th spot for much of the afternoon. The Lap 45 restart revealed how badly his car was damaged: “I don't know, man,” said the driver soon after the green, “I'm just trying to make minimum speed, but I don't know if I'll be able to. . .There’s something that’s really broke, or something in the front that’s really bent. . .It's hard to even go straight on the straightaway.” Further communications revealed the Joe Gibbs crew had put another wheel spacer on the right-rear. While intended to make sure the wheel held, it reduced the threads on the lug bolts, causing a vibration. This cost Jones a fourth lap on the 55th circuit.

Flat tires and mechanical issues continued to plague many of the front runners, including Brad Keselowski’s #2 Alliance Truck Parts Ford and the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet of Alex Bowman, who both wrecked in nearly the same spot as Jones. Keselowski slipped to 32nd, raced his way up to the Lucky Dog, then went laps down again following a two-minute pit stop to repair his car. Bowman suffered two flat right-front tires, the second breaking the suspension so badly that he fell out of the race. Daniel Suarez, McDowell’s foil on Friday, accidentally shut off his engine while trying to keep it cool under caution, costing him a lap he would never get back.

McDowell’s role in the last-place battle didn’t come until Lap 159. Locked in his own race for the Lucky Dog with Chris Buescher’s #37 Kroger Flavor Fill Up Chevrolet, McDowell was running a solid 22nd when he suddenly slowed entering Turn 3. As the driver revealed later, the throttle hung, and he locked the brakes in futility as he struck the outside wall. McDowell climbed out uninjured, but his car was destroyed, out of the race. Crews towed his #34 behind the wall using the infield entrance at the dog leg. McDowell officially took last from Jones on Lap 160, and the #20 would ultimately climb to 29th by the finish. Bowman’s second tire failure came on the ensuing green-flag run, leaving him 35th. Bowman was the only driver to earn his first bottom-five finish of 2019 on Sunday.

Finishing 34th on Sunday was Preece, who was collected in the day’s final two accidents, ultimately retiring with heavy damage to the front end. Finishing 33rd was Landon Cassill, who ended up 45 laps back of the leaders in StarCom Racing’s #00 Iron Mountain Data Centers Chevrolet. Cody Ware rounded out the Bottom Five, 12 laps back of the lead in the #51. Currey and Houff finished in the next two spots, both within a lap of each other.

Chad Chaffin's #34 at Phoenix in 2005
*This marked the first Cup Series last-place finish for car #34 at the ISM Raceway since November 13, 2005, when Chad Chaffin’s #34 Fiesta Inn Resort Chevrolet fell out with overheating issues. That race turned out to be the 35th and final Cup start for team owner William Edwards, whose two-year-old single-car program Mach 1 Motorsports was merged into Front Row Motorsports in 2006.
*The 157 laps completed by McDowell were the fifth-most of a last-place finisher in a Cup race at Phoenix. The record remains with Martin Truex, Jr., who turned 258 laps before a crash on November 13, 2016.

36) #34-Michael McDowell / 157 laps / crash
35) #88-Alex Bowman / 191 laps / crash
34) #47-Ryan Preece / 229 laps / crash
33) #00-Landon Cassill / 267 laps / running
32) #51-Cody Ware / 300 laps / running

1st) Front Row Motorsports (2)
2nd) Germain Racing, Motorsports Business Management (1)

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


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