Sunday, April 28, 2019

XFINITY: Joey Gase out early; Gray Gaulding nearly scores first XFINITY Series victory

PHOTO: @JoeyGaseRacing
Joey Gase picked up the 5th last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Money Lion 300 at the Talladega Superspeedway when his #35 Donate Life / lost the engine after 35 of 113 laps.

The finish, which came in Gase’s 217th series start, was his second of the season and first since Las Vegas, six races ago. In XFINITY Series last-place history, it was the 5th for car #35, the 125th for Toyota, and the 256th from an engine problem. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 30th for the #35, the 313th for Toyota, and the 1,067th from engine trouble.

Talladega marked the first time Gase would drive Toyota’s new Supra body since Las Vegas, when he finished last following a crash with a spinning Donald Theetge. In the five races since, Gase has driven last year’s Toyota Camry body instead, and finished no better than 23rd, but no worse than 27th, completing all but 33 laps in that span. As in many of his starts, Gase’s #35 would carry sponsorship from the Donate Life organ and tissue donor initiative. This time around, the car would carry a new baby blue scheme with the Alabama chapter of Donate Life on the hood and the organization’s website on the quarter-panels.

Gase began the Talladega weekend 19th of the 35 drivers who attempted opening practice, then was one of the only thirteen drivers to attempt Happy Hour, ranking 9th overall. He qualified a respectable 27th of the 37 entrants, timing in at 182.762mph (52.399 seconds). At the site of his career-best 5th place finish for Jimmy Means in 2015, Gase would have his second-best starting spot at the track behind an 18th for Go FAS Racing just last year.

Starting 37th on Saturday was Gase’s teammate Chad Finchum. Finchum had been moved from his traditional #42 Toyota to the #13 as Max Tullman rejoined the circuit with new sponsorship from Top Tier. Finchum’s new ride, sponsored by attorney and MBM business partner James Carter, Esq., appeared to be the same grey #42 that John Jackson raced in Daytona, this time with a “13” on a large circle covering each door number.

On race day, Finchum was joined at the rear by three other drivers. Daytona last-placer Stephen Leicht’s #01 Flex Gliue Chevrolet timed in 20th, but was sent back for unapproved adjustments. John Hunter Nemechek gave up a 15th-place starting spot due to a right-rear tire change on the #23 Fire Alarm Services Chevrolet. Third of the group was Cody Ware, who unexpectedly pulled double-duty when he became driver of B.J. McLeod Motorsports’ #99 Toyota. The #99 was originally entered for D.J. Kennington with sponsorship from Lordco, but by opening practice, both driver and sponsor were not with the car. Since Ware practiced and qualified the car, it was unapproved adjustments, and not a driver change, that was reason for the penalty. On top of everything else, Ware pulled onto the apron in qualifying and spun in Turn 1, nearly hitting the outside wall.

Coming to the green flag, Ware, Leicht, and Nemechek had already moved up a few spots as four more cars dropped to the rear. B.J. McLeod dropped from 25th in JD Motorsports’ #15 Chevrolet, Matt Mills from 26th in the #5 J.F. Electric Toyota, Mills’ teammate Vinnie Miller from 29th in the #78 Pit Viper Toyota, and 31st-place Mike Harmon in the #74 Woobies Shoes Chevrolet. While Mills and Miller lined up in the final two spots for the green, Harmon slipped to last by Lap 4.

The first car to lose a lap was Brandon Jones, who drew the first caution on Lap 7. Heading through the tri-oval, Jones’ #19 1st Foundation Toyota was locked in a battle for 8th when he lost control in the inside lane and spun down to the apron, avoiding contact. Jones remained the last-place runner at the end of Stage 1 on Lap 26, at which point he earned the Lucky Dog.

On the Lap 32 restart, Jones made quick work of the back of the field, dropping B.J. McLeod to the last spot. Three laps later, McLeod was still running in last, 6 seconds back of the lead, when Gase pulled into the garage with engine woes. Two laps earlier, Gase had been running in the 29th spot. Gase was followed one lap later by Finchum, out with gear problems on the #13.

Finishing 35th was Jeff Green, who along with his RSS Racing teammates had acquired full-race sponsorship for the race. Green qualified 21st in his C2 Freight Resources Chevrolet, but made only 52 laps before the engine let go. Ray Black, Jr. finished 34th, his #07 Isokern Fireplaces & Chimneys / Scuba Life Chevrolet out with crash damage after he abruptly drove down pit road on Lap 66. Rounding out the group was Green’s teammate Josh Bilicki, whose new-look #93 CMR Construction & Roofing Chevrolet broke the transmission. Incidentally, didn't show Bilicki's name on the official results, showing a "null" placeholder until late afternoon.

Saturday’s win very nearly went to a resurgent Gray Gaulding, who enjoyed the finest run of his young career. Gaulding’s #08 Panini / NASCAR Racing Experience Chevrolet timed in 8th, backing up his strong qualifying showing from Daytona, and finished 5th in Stage 1. When the race restarted with just two laps to go, Gaulding had worked his way to 6th, surrounded by the Cup-backed efforts of Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe, and Brandon Jones. In those two laps, Gaulding raced past all of them and had caught leader Tyler Reddick, who had to throw some daring blocks to keep Gaulding at bay. Gaulding, too, worked both lanes, successfully defending a career-best 2nd-place finish. Gaulding had finished no better than 12th in 17 prior XFINITY starts and has finished worse than 17th just once all season.

Gaulding’s performance nearly earned team owner Bobby Dotter his first win as an owner. Though Dotter took his own checkered flag in an XFINITY race at the New River Valley Speedway on May 2, 1992 (driving for Ed Reizen), his best finish as an owner had been only 5th, which he earned as an owner-driver at Hickory and Myrtle Beach in 1995, then again fielding Andy Lally’s road course car at Mid-Ohio two years ago.

Also rebounding was Josh Williams in DGM Racing’s #36 Star Tron / Star Brite / General Formulations Chevrolet. Just two weeks ago in Richmond, Williams was out of the #36 after a sponsorship fell through. The driver was put in DGM’s unsponsored #92 Chevrolet, which didn’t qualify for the race. Back at the track with added backing from the Star Tron brand, Williams ran as high as 5th in the early laps and finished 8th, his first top-ten finish in his 37th series start.

Chris Cockrum squeezed into the Top 10 those final two laps, snatching away 10th for not only a career-best in the series, but his first finish better than 21st in 17 XFINITY Series starts. The strong run for Cockrum’s #17 Advanced Communication Group Chevrolet was a feather in the cap for team owner Rick Ware, who has fought to make the #17 a full-time effort in 2019 with the help of drivers Bayley Currey and Kyle Weatherman.

Like Gaulding, Brandon Brown continued his strong 2019 campaign despite a continued lack of funding, and like Williams, did so after having to hand over his ride to another driver in Richmond. Having overcome a penalty for locking bumpers with John Hunter Nemechek, Brown lined up 7th on the final restart, just one spot behind Gaulding, but was shaken out and finished 15th. Despite this, Brown extended his streak of finishing no worse than 23rd in any race this season, and has turned all but 16 laps.

*This marked the first XFINITY Series last-place finish for the #35 at Talladega.

38) #35-Joey Gase / 35 laps / engine
37) #13-Chad Finchum / 36 laps / gear
36) #38-Jeff Green / 52 laps / engine
35) #07-Ray Black, Jr. / 56 laps / crash
34) #93-Josh Bilicki / 86 laps / transmission

1st) Motorsports Business Management (4)
2nd) RSS Racing (2)
3rd) DGM Racing, JD Motorsports, Rick Ware Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (5)
2nd) Toyota (4)


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