Sunday, March 3, 2019

CUP / XFINITY: “The Lastover” - missing crew member adds intrigue to Joey Gase’s two-race last-place Las Vegas sweep

PHOTO: Chris Madrid,
On a weekend that saw Kyle Busch win two of the weekend’s three races at Las Vegas, Joey Gase finished last in two of those races. The sweep concluded on Sunday, where Gase picked up the 5th last-place finish of his NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series career in the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway after his #66 Donate Life Nevada Toyota fell out with engine trouble after 10 of 267 laps.

The finish, which came in Gase’s 31st series start, was his first since September 2, 2018 at Darlington, fourteen races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it’s the 56th for car #66, the 155th for Toyota, and the 685th from engine trouble. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 66th for the #66, the 311th for Toyota, and the 1,064th from engine woes.

But that’s only the beginning of the story.

The 2019 season marks Gase’s sixth in a row as a full-time XFINITY Series competitor and a part-timer in Cup. Last year, he reunited with team owner Archie St. Hilaire through a technical alliance with SS-Green Light Racing, and tied his career-best 20th in the XFINITY Series point standings. He also drove eight Cup starts for four different team owners, yielding a season-best 18th in the fall Talladega race for Derrike Cope’s StarCom Racing. Through it all, Gase has continued his efforts to spread awareness of the Donate Life program for organ donation, and also brought in new sponsors to the sport like Sparks Energy, Inc.

In January came news that Gase had signed with Carl Long’s team Motorsports Business Management, a team which also announced it would focus more on XFINITY than Cup this season. Nevertheless, Long entered Gase in both series openers at Daytona, fielding the #35 (Gase’s number in 2018) for Saturday’s race, and a #66 for the 500. Both cars carried identical paint schemes with sponsorship from Medic Air Systems, AGRI Supply, and Eternal Fan, the latter two among Gase’s many longtime backers. Gase’s debut in the XFINITY Series’ new Toyota Supra yielded a 16th-place finish, his best in the series since Kansas the previous fall. But he fell short of a starting spot in the 500 despite a spirited side-by-side battle with fellow “open” driver Brendan Gaughan in Duel Race 2.

Las Vegas marked Gase’s first Cup attempt since Daytona, and he would once again run on both Saturday and Sunday. This time around, he was guaranteed a starting spot in Sunday’s main event as just 38 drivers arrived to contest the 40 available spots. Gase ran slowest in both Cup practices, and only climbed to 36th in qualifying when two other drivers didn’t turn a lap. Those two drivers were Ross Chastain, driving Premium Motorsports’ #15 Rim Ryderz Chevrolet, and garage mate Reed Sorenson, making his season debut as driver of Spire Motorsports’ unsponsored #77 Chevrolet.

During the pace laps, two drivers were sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments: 31st-place starter Landon Cassill in StarCom Racing’s #00 Manscaped: Below the Belt Grooming Chevrolet and Ty Dillon, slated to start 14th in Germain Racing’s #13 GEICO Chevrolet. Before the two could fall to the rear, two more cars were slow getting off pit road: Daniel Suarez in the #41 Haas Automation Ford and the #52 Mtel-One Ford of B.J. McLeod. While Suarez regained his 22nd starting spot, McLeod’s Ford, which looked nearly identical to Cody Ware’s #51 Chevrolet, remained behind Chastain and Sorenson, taking the last spot in the high line. As at Atlanta, both Cassill and Dillon didn’t start in the final two spots – Sorenson held the last spot as the field came to the green.

On the break, Sorenson retained the 38th spot, but already had his sights set on the #52 of McLeod. On Lap 3, Sorenson caught and passed McLeod in Turns 1 and 2, dropping the #52 to last. From there, McLeod progressively lost touch with the tail end of the field, falling to 12 seconds back of the leader on Lap 5.

Gase in the garage.
PHOTO: Motorsports Business Management Facebook
Soon after, trouble found Joey Gase. On Lap 9, his #66 had slipped behind Sorenson into the 37th spot, and last-place McLeod was starting to inch closer. The next time by, Gase shut off the motor and coasted onto the apron. He crept onto pit road, losing a lap in the process, and pulled into the first opening to the garage on Lap 13. After pulling into their garage stall, the crew looked over the #66, saying “I think it’s something internal.” Attention soon turned to the engine, specifically the fifth cylinder, and the team grew concerned that their car was running too lean.

It was on Lap 59 that the situation took a bizarre turn – a member of the crew was missing.

“I don’t know how he got away from us,” another crewman said. The first communication indicated the man, named Mark, was still at the hotel, and was between 30 and 40 minutes from getting to the track. Around Lap 67, Carl Long himself broke into the radio and said Mark was 15 minutes away. Still trying to diagnose the issue, Long expressed concern about getting the car back out on the track, saying he didn’t want to risk blowing an engine as the team prepared for Fontana in two weeks, but also wanted to give the car more visibility for the sponsors in attendance. “You’re the team owner,” said the crew.

The wait for Mark continued on for the first third of the race. “Yes,” said Long, exasperated, “he's still in the ten-minute range or so. He’s in the hotel, so by the time this thing happens. I don’t even know why he was in the damned hotel in the first place. I’ve gotta have someone in my pit stall who can look over this stuff until the checkered flag falls.” Long also expressed his concern over their next race in Fontana: “We need him to look at it, because we can't take it to California if something's wrong.”

By the start of Stage 2 on Lap 88, Long and crew considered switching to another radio frequency after I tweeted their communications: “I'd suggest going to Channel 2 because someone on Twitter is broadcasting on our frequency.” Moments later, on Lap 94, another voice broke in. “Mark is here. Mark is here.”

Now 87 laps down, Gase and crew looked to use the rest of the race as a test session. Attention continued to swirl around the engine, specifically the fifth piston. “It’s a burned piston, does that mean it’s too lean?” said a crewman. “Ask him how we’re supposed to go to California and put another motor in it if the computer’s wrong.” Gase joined in the conversation by recalling what he felt on Lap 10, saying, “I’ve had a rocker or a piston go before, and that’s what it felt like.” He also believed the car had been running too lean in qualifying.

On Lap 121, the team pulled the plug, and the car was listed “out” on FOX and “unavailable” on RaceView. Long then relayed a message to the team’s sponsors. “Let his sponsors know, we’ll try and run the same group in California for free. We will promote Nevada in the state of California if they want it.”

Gase turned out to be the only retiree from the race. The only other competitor to spend any time in the garage was McLeod, who lost 37 laps for a vibration, then rejoined the race by Lap 132. McLeod finished 37th, 47 laps down to the leaders.

The rest of the Bottom Five lost laps on the track: Sorenson finished 36th, 15 laps back, and one circuit behind 35th-place Cody Ware in Rick Ware Racing’s flagship #51 Jacob Companies Chevrolet. Rounding out the group was Matt Tifft, who finished 34th, eight laps back, in Front Row Motorsports’ #36 Surface Sunscreen / Tunity Ford.

Gase, McLeod, and Sorenson were handed their first Bottom Fives of 2019. Michael McDowell took the 2019 LASTCAR Cup Series lead with his second bottom-ten finish – a 30th – on Sunday.

*This marked the first Cup Series last-place finish for car #66 since November 11, 2018, when Timmy Hill had an oil leak after 40 laps of the Can-Am 500 at the ISM Raceway. Neither the number – nor Gase - had ever finished last in a Cup race at Las Vegas.

38) #66-Joey Gase / 10 laps / engine
37) #52-B.J. McLeod / 220 laps / running
36) #77-Reed Sorenson / 252 laps / running
35) #51-Cody Ware / 253 laps / running
34) #36-Matt Tifft / 259 laps / running

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

1st) Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota (1)


Gase (#35) wrecks with Donald Theetge (#90)

The day before, Gase picked up the 4th last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in the Boyd Gaming 300 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when his #35 Nevada Donor Network Toyota was involved in a two-car accident after 1 of 213 laps.

The finish, which came in Gase’s 211th series start, was his first of the season and first in the series since July 21, 2013 at Chicagoland, 183 races ago. In XFINITY Series last-place history, it was the 15th for car #35, the 123rd for Toyota, and the 321st from a crash. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 29th for the #35, the 310th for Toyota, and the 1,171st from a crash.

Gase now takes the early lead in the 2019 LASTCAR XFINITY Series rankings in a tiebreaker with John Jackson, who was not entered in Vegas.

Following a 29th-place run in the XFINITY race at Atlanta, Las Vegas was next on the list. Gase didn’t participate in opening practice, then ranked 27th of 36 drivers in Happy Hour. A rained-out qualifying session left him 33rd on the grid. Curiously, teammate Chad Finchum in the #42 took outside-pole by virtue of the Owners Points inherited from Chip Ganassi’s closed XFINITY program.

Starting 38th and last on Saturday was Morgan Shepherd, assured his second-straight start of the season after exactly 38 drivers arrived to take time. Shepherd’s #89 Chevrolet was joined in short order by two other drivers penalized for unapproved adjustments: 30th-place starter Stephen Leicht, the Daytona last-placer, in JD Motorsports’ unsponsored #01 Chevrolet, and 3rd-place starter Christopher Bell, whose #20 Rheem / Smurfit Kappa Toyota was snagged for illegal body modifications.

As the penalized drivers fell to the rear, one car was still sitting on pit road. Bayley Currey turned heads in Atlanta when he finished 22nd in Rick Ware Racing’s #17 Chevrolet, an unsponsored car. Invited back for Vegas, Currey was to start 21st, but his car wouldn’t fire. During Regan Smith’s pre-race report from pit road, the FS1 cameras caught Currey’s car being pushed by a support vehicle. The issue caused Currey to miss the start of the race, which perhaps allowed him to miss a hard crash on Lap 2.

That time by, the penalized Christopher Bell was already racing 23rd-place starter Donald Theetge, making his season debut in DGM Racing’s #90 Mercedes-Benz St-Nicolas / Circuit Acura Chevrolet. As the pair raced into Turn 3, Theetge lost control in the upper lane and slid up the track, narrowly missing another car. Lost in the smoke, Joey Gase found himself barreling toward Theetge’s driver’s side door. The two collided, destroying the nose of Gase’s car and caving in Theetge’s driver’s door just in front of the rear wheels. Theetge made it back to the garage, eliminated under the Crash Clock in 36th place. Gase’s car, unable to be repaired, was also eliminated, placing him 37th.

However, it wasn’t until the end of Stage 1 that last place was finally settled. The Rick Ware team was still hard at work on Bayley Currey’s #17, and managed to get the car fired again during the caution at the end of Stage 1, which came out on Lap 47. By Lap 51, the #17 was back on pit road, and joining the back of the field. When the race went green the next time by, Currey jumped past both Gase and Theetge, dropping the drivers to the final two spots. Currey ended up completing a total of 24 laps before an electrical issue knocked him out of the race just before the end of Stage 2.

Between Currey, Gase and Theetge in the final running order were Josh Bilicki and Stan Mullis, both drivers who were swapped into LASTCAR-contending rides. Bilicki was swapped into teammate Jeff Green’s unsponsored #93 at RSS Racing, and turned just 13 laps. Stan Mullis, driving in place of Atlanta last-placer John Jackson in MBM’s #13 Fluidyne / Toyota, turned 14 laps before he cited a vibration.

For Gase, Theetge, Mullis, and Currey, Las Vegas marked their first bottom-five finish of 2019.

When the dust settled on Saturday, several drivers enjoyed fine runs. While Bilicki and Green finished outside the Top 30, the flagship RSS Racing car with Ryan Sieg earned its second top-ten of the young season with a 6th-place finish. Sieg now sits in a three-way tie for seventh in the series standings.

In 7th came Ross Chastain, the most recent XFINITY winner at Las Vegas, who came from a lap down to take 7th for JD Motorsports.

And SS-Green Light Racing took the 11th and 12th spots with this time Ray Black, Jr. ahead of Gray Gaulding. Gaulding, who started 35th, continued his strong start to the 2019 season by climbing to 18th at the end of Stage 1, keeping Kyle Busch from taking the Lucky Dog in the process.

Danny O'Quinn, Jr.'s Rensi Motorsports #35 in late 2008
PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
*This marked the first XFINITY Series last-place finish for car #35 since November 8, 2008, when Danny O’Quinn, Jr. earned his first last-place run following a vibration on his unsponsored Team Rensi Motorsports Ford after 5 laps of the Hefty Odor Block 200 at Phoenix.
*Before O’Quinn’s last-place run, the #35 had finished last in two other XFINITY races at Las Vegas: March 6, 1999 with Lyndon Amick, and March 12, 2005 with Jason Keller.
*This was also the first last-place finish for a Toyota Supra in NASCAR. John Jackson, last week’s last-placer in Atlanta, ran an older Camry model.

38) #35-Joey Gase / 1 lap / crash
37) #90-Donald Theetge / 1 lap / crash
36) #93-Josh Bilicki / 13 laps / electrical
35) #13-Stan Mullis / 14 laps / vibration
34) #17-Bayley Currey / 24 laps / electrical

1st) Motorsports Business Management (2)
2nd) JD Motorsports (1)

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


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