Sunday, April 7, 2019

CUP: Left turn into Bristol garage area seals last-place finish for Aric Almirola

PHOTO: @StewartHaasRcng
Aric Almirola picked up the 11th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Food City 500 at the Bristol Motor Speedway when his #10 SHAZAM! / Smithfield Ford was eliminated with crash damage after 3 of 500 laps.

The finish, which came in Almirola’s 288th series start, was his first since July 30, 2017 at Pocono, 59 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 34th for the #10, the 578th from a crash, and the 690th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 122nd for the #10, the 949th for Ford, and the 1,175th from a crash.

The veteran Almirola experienced his most recent last-place finish in one of his first starts since he returned from the most serious accident of his Cup career. A back injury suffered at Kansas sidelined the Florida native for seven races. The 2017 campaign was also his sixth and final driving for Richard Petty Enterprises, and Almirola’s sponsorship from Smithfield followed him to Stewart-Haas Racing’s #10 Ford for 2018, a ride vacated by a retiring Danica Patrick.

The move to SHR paid off immediately. Almirola came within two corners of winning the Daytona 500, came close again at Chicagoland, Loudon, and Dover, then finally broke through in Talladega’s Playoff race. The win brought Almirola within three spots of making the Championship 4 at Phoenix, and he finished a career-best 5th in the series standings with 17 top-ten finishes and just two DNFs.

Almirola arrived in Bristol on a hot streak. One week after he was collected in the night’s biggest crash during the Daytona 500, the Smithfield Ford won the pole at Atlanta and finished 8th, kicking off a streak of six consecutive top-ten finishes. His season-best finish came at Phoenix, now set to be the 2020 season finale for the Cup Series, and he started outside-pole at Martinsville. It was on the short track that Almirola debuted a new maroon paint scheme promoting the upcoming DC Comics film “Shazam!” The scheme would run again at Bristol, the Sunday following the film’s U.S. release.

Almirola began the weekend 11th in the opening practice, then jumped to second-fastest to Ryan Blaney in Round 1 of qualifying. He dropped one spot to third in Round 2, edged by eventual polesitter Chase Elliott. This put the #10 Ford in the third and final round, where he ran the most laps of anyone in the session – six – and clocked in 6th with a speed of 130.602mph (14.692 seconds).

Almirola was one of just 37 drivers to arrive in Bristol, marking the smallest Cup field at the track since March 31, 1996, a running of the Food City 500 that had 43 entrants. Securing the final starting spot was Ross Chastain, who continued his streak of starting every Cup, XFINITY, and Truck Series race in 2019. Following a crash on Saturday with Jeff Green that left him 33rd in the Alsco 300, Chastain would drive Sunday in Premium Motorsports’ #15 Rim Ryderz Chevrolet. Chastain’s car would be the only official Jay Robinson entry in the race (though Spire Motorsports’ #77 operates out of their shop) – the #27, to be driven by Reed Sorenson, was withdrawn earlier in the week.

Prior to the start of the race, Chastain was joined at the back by 30th-place starter Ryan Preece, who was sent to a backup #47 Kroger Chevrolet after, as Lee Spencer tweeted Saturday, a track bar mount ripped out of the primary during Happy Hour. Also sent to the rear was 13th-place Kevin Harvick, whose #4 Hunt Brothers Pizza Ford failed pre-race inspection three times. In addition to starting in the rear, Harvick’s team engineer was ejected from the track, and the #4 would have to make a pass-through penalty at the start of the race. That start would prove critical to Harvick – and Almirola.

When the race began, Harvick, Preece, and Chastain were ahead of new last-place starter Timmy Hill, who was swapped in for Joey Gase in a deep blue #66 Toyota from Carl Long’s team Motorsports Business Management. As the leaders completed Lap 1, Harvick made a move down to pit road on the backstretch, taking over last as he fell of the lead lap. Just seconds later, two separate accidents slowed the action, preventing Harvick from taking the Lucky Dog. After two laps, outside-polesitter William Byron in the #24 Axalta Chevrolet slid up the track in Turns 1 and 2, making contact with Almirola. Almirola nearly regained control before the right side slapped the fence. At almost the same instant on the same backstretch, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s #17 Sunny D Ford rear-ended a slowing Kyle Busch in the #18 Skittles Toyota, and Busch’s rear clip was pushed in by a passing Ryan Preece.

The two incidents sent Almirola, Stenhouse, and Busch to pit road, where they briefly traded last place, and all three incurred tail-end penalties for pitting when pit road was closed. Harvick was also further hampered by a loose wheel which forced an additional stop. Almirola took the last spot on Lap 5, and after an extended stop, the crew found the lower control arm was bent, needing further repairs. Almirola returned to the track, only to drag out a jack stand which had to be retrieved in Turn 1. He then entered the garage through the opening just past the first pit stall on the frontstretch. With the car parked next to an outbuilding, the crew set to work on the right-front suspension, only to be told that they were now out of the race. Under NASCAR’s “Crash Clock,” or Damaged Vehicle Policy, the trip to the garage for crash damage without turning a lap above minimum speed meant their day was done. On Lap 14, someone on the crew argued that the #10 was reported behind the wall due to a mechanical issue and not crash damage. However, NASCAR’s ruling stood, and Almirola was listed as out due to a crash, similar to Joey Logano last summer at Watkins Glen. SHR’s Twitter reported that Almirola’s steering was damaged too severely to be repaired. On Lap 27, Almirola’s car disappeared on RaceView.

The rest of the Bottom Five was filled by a series of mechanical issues:

In 36th place went Gray Gaulding, making his 50th Cup start and first since last fall at Richmond. Driving Rick Ware Racing’s flagship #51 Jacob Companies Chevrolet (originally entered with Cody Ware as driver), Gaulding pulled behind the wall with engine woes, saying he had the car “wide open and it’s not going anywhere.” After a trip to the garage on Lap 146, the team called it a day on Lap 168.

In 35th was Timmy Hill, who reported his #66 Toyota was getting looser in the middle of the corner, and that none of the team’s changes were fixing the issue. Hill pulled behind the wall around Lap 227, then returned to action by Lap 268, only to fall out with suspension issues soon after.

Corey LaJoie took 34th, having crunched the nose of his #32 Dude Wipes Ford in the Lap 38 incident that spun Chase Elliott out of the lead down the frontstretch. After another door-rubbing match with Kyle Busch while leaving pit road, LaJoie later retired with crash damage after completing just over half distance.

Rounding out the Bottom Five was Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who like LaJoie destroyed the nose of his car when he rear-ended the slowing Kyle Busch on Lap 2. Stenhouse was then plagued with a persistent overheating issue, and the crew expressed concern over losing it on the track. “Don’t melt this engine down,” he was told, “If it’s running hot, bring it down and we’ll cool it down.” Stenhouse did this, pitting on Lap 130, then pulling behind the team’s transporter. He returned to action on Lap 177, 46 laps down, then made at least one more extended stay in the garage during Stage 2. He finished the last car under power, a full 105 laps back of the leaders.

For Stenhouse, Gaulding, and Almirola, Sunday marked their first Bottom Five of 2019.

A handful of underdogs turned heads with strong runs on Sunday. Ty Dillon stayed out on old tires and waged a spirited three-lap war with Clint Bowyer for the win in Stage 1. After blows were traded, Dillon’s #13 GIECO Chevrolet in the high lane edged out Bowyer, handing the youngster his first stage victory. Dillon finished 15th, three spots behind 12th-place Matt DiBenedetto, who ran as high as 6th, matching his career-best run in this same race in 2016. Only a late caution and final pit stop kept him from a possible Top 5. Chris Buescher was also running exceedingly well, flirting with a Top 5 of his own before his #37 Bush’s Beans Chevrolet made an unscheduled stop with just 41 laps remaining.

*This marked the first time car #10 finished last in a Cup Series race at Bristol since August 26, 1995, when Ricky Rudd’s #10 Tide Ford crashed after 138 laps of the Goody’s 500. This was the same race that saw Dale Earnhardt tangle with Terry Labonte across the finish line.
*It had been even longer since the #10 finished last in the Bristol spring race – April 8, 1990, when Derrike Cope’s #10 Purolator Chevrolet wrecked out after 56 laps of the Valleydale 500. This was also a historic Bristol race which saw Davey Allison edge Mark Martin by eight inches in a photo finish, as well as a post-race confrontation between Sterling Marlin and Ricky Rudd.
*Almriola’s sixth-place starting spot was also the fourth-best starting position by a Cup Series last-place finisher at Bristol. The record remains with none other than nine-time Bristol winner Rusty Wallace, who started outside-pole before a crash on August 24, 1991.

37) #10-Aric Almirola / 3 laps / crash
36) #51-Gray Gaulding / 142 laps / engine
35) #66-Timmy Hill / 239 laps / suspension
34) #32-Corey LaJoie / 308 laps / crash
33) #17-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 395 laps / running

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

1st) Ford (4)
2nd) Chevrolet (3)
3rd) Toyota (1)


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