Monday, June 10, 2019

CUP: Upstart Kyle Weatherman’s first last-place finish comes at Michigan

Kyle Weatherman picked up the 1st last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at the Michigan International Speedway when his #51 Jacob Companies Ford was involved in a single-car accident after 69 of 203 laps.

The finish came in Weatherman’s 10th series start. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 25th for the #51, the 583rd from a crash, and the 692nd for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 37th for the #51, the 951st for Ford, and the 1,182nd from a crash.

The Missouri-born Weatherman began his racing career at age eight, competing against his brother Clayton in go-karts. By the time he was fifteen, he’d already advanced through Bandoleros and Legends Cars, and on April 28, 2013, made his Menards ARCA Racing Series debut at Salem. Driving a Dodge fielded by his family, Weatherman finished 4th, his run overshadowed by a last-lap battle between Tom Hessert III and Spencer Gallagher. The run was no fluke. That same season, he finished 12th at Toledo, 4th at Winchester, then two consecutive runner-up finishes to Grant Enfinger in Iowa and Kyle Benjamin in Salem.

A ride with the Roulo Brothers followed the next season, where his season-best was a 4th in Berlin. Then a jump to Cunningham Motorsports, where things really took off – his first pole at Nashville, his first win on the road course New Jersey Motorsports Park – all in season where he finished 10th in points despite running just 15 of 20 races, finishing 5th or better ten of those times. The performance earned him his NASCAR debut, where he finished 23rd in the Truck Series finale at Homestead for Lira Motorsports.

A career-best 6th-place rank in the 2016 ARCA standings was followed by a jump to the Cup Series. His debut came at Martinsville, where Rick Ware tabbed him to drive the #51 Chevrolet. Weatherman qualified 38th and finished 35th, seventeen laps down to race winner Kyle Busch. He then finished 34th at Phoenix. He also nearly won in ARCA for his return to Nashville, where he again won the pole and led 134 of 200 laps before Chad Finley took the victory. Then came another partial Cup season, this time for StarCom Racing. Driving the team’s second “open” car, the #99 Chevrolet, Weatherman earned a career-best 26th-place finish at Las Vegas.

Earlier this year, Weatherman made his first XFINITY Series starts, reuniting with Rick Ware for the first time in three years. He ran back-to-back short track races at Bristol and Richmond, steering the #17 East Carolina University Chevrolet to a 28th-place finish in the former and 32nd in the latter. Michigan would see him return to XFINITY – and Cup – for the first time since.

Weatherman’s weekend began with Mike Harmon Racing, where he was switched in for the owner-driver in the #74 The Journey Home Project / Charlie Daniels Chevrolet. He qualified 24th, matching his series-best from Bristol, but alternator issues put him out after only 29 laps, leaving him 34th.

On the Cup side, Weatherman was again driving for Rick Ware, this time in the same #51 driven last week at Pocono by Bayley Currey and a week earlier by Cody Ware in the Coca-Cola 600. As with both races, the car was David Marrero’s P-40 Warhawk paint scheme, though unlike each, the stenciled car numbers were replaced with the Ware team’s traditional bold-faced font. The car ran 32nd of the 36 entrants in opening practice, then 33rd of 34 in Happy Hour. His qualifying lap of 180.900mph (39.801 seconds) ranked him 33rd on the starting grid.

Starting last in the shortest Cup field at Michigan since 1981 was Garrett Smithley, who one year prior finished last in this same race during his Cup debut, driving for the same StarCom #99 team Weatherman joined. This time around, Smithley took over for Ross Chastain, who missed out in his first Cup, XFINITY, or Truck Series race just days after declaring for Truck points. As a result, the #15 Chevrolet carried Smithley’s sponsorship from Victory Lane Quick Oil Change and associate backing from Kendall Oil, former sponsors of Sabco Racing in 1994 and 1995. With rain in the area Sunday, Smithley talked with his crew about his strategy to stay “tucked up” with the cars in front, then said “We've gotta get going, gotta get the Vortex Theory going on!" During these same pace laps, a gathering mist turned to rain, and the field pulled down pit road. As at Dover, the race was eventually postponed to Monday, though this time in the afternoon.

When the race finally went green Monday, no drivers were sent to the rear for pre-race penalties, leaving the #15 in last. On the break, Smithley pulled ahead of 35th-place Quin Houff, whose #77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet started to his inside. Houff didn’t let Smithley go far, and pulled back alongside him through Turn 1 before relenting off Turn 2. Smithley also made quick work of Weatherman, who fell into Houff’s clutches in Turn 3. Coming around to complete the first lap, Houff pulled alongside Weatherman, and the two ran side-by-side across the stripe. Weatherman got the advantage off Turn 2, then re-passed Smithley in Turns 3 and 4, putting the two black Chevrolets back into the final two spots.

The battle continued on Lap 3, when Houff worked over Smithley, then got by him two circuits later. After seven laps, Smithley was now by himself in last place, 13.1 seconds back of the lead. “Stay in there with 'em if you can,” said his crew. Some distance ahead, the battle was now for 35th between Houff and Josh Bilicki, Weatherman’s Rick Ware Racing teammate in the #52 Chevrolet. By Lap 17, Houff had dispensed with Bilicki, and Smithley was closing in. The advance slowed, then reversed soon after, and the #15 held last place by open track by the first competition caution on Lap 21. At the time, none of the starters had lost a lap – the leaders hadn’t even drawn close to the tail end of the field.

The ensuing caution saw more last-place changes, this time between a pair of drivers who collided on pit road. The right-front of Jimmie Johnson’s #48 Ally Chevrolet struck the left-rear of Matt DiBenedetto’s #95 Toyota Express Maintenance Toyota, causing damage to both cars. First DiBenedetto, then Johnson traded last place as they were pitted in front of one another. DiBenedetto returned to the track first, followed by Johnson, and the #48 returned to pit a second time after the restart was waved-off. This caused Johnson to roll off pit road as the leaders were in Turns 3 and 4 for the restart. By the time the field was at full speed on Lap 26, the #48 was still by himself, 12.1 seconds back of the lead.

On Lap 30, Johnson had lost another second to the lead, but was closing in on the tail end of the field. He finally caught 35th-place Houff seven laps later. This happened just as Houff caught Smithley once more, and the pair ran side-by-side off Turn 4. After Smithley pulled ahead of the #77 once more, Houff’s spotter told him to stay in line to avoid losing more ground to the leaders. The pair caught Bilicki’s #52 on Lap 42, still managing to stay on the lead lap, but unable to catch Weatherman in front of them. At the time, Weatherman was in a two-car draft of his own, following the #00 Superior Essex Chevrolet of his former StarCom teammate Landon Cassill.

Despite Joey Logano’s dominant car, it wasn’t until Lap 54 that he caught Houff and the rest of the tail-end of the field. When he did, the rest of the top-five closed in rapidly, causing a hair-raising moment off Turn 4. Houff pulled low to let Logano by, but just then 2nd-place Aric Almirola pulled his #10 Smithfield / Meijer Ford to Logano’s outside in a bid for the lead. This put Almirola directly behind Smithley’s #15, blocking him in and keeping the #22 out front. Houff pulled lower to avoid trouble while the three sorted themselves out.

At nearly the same moment, Kevin Harvick made an unscheduled stop from the lead pack for a vibration. The move confused Houff’s crew, who thought it was a strategy call. Since Harvick was so far ahead of the now-lapped Houff, it was a moment later when the #4 Busch Light Ford fell to last, just as he pulled back onto the track one lap down. Unlike Johnson’s rally, it took just four laps for Harvick to catch and pass Houff on the frontstretch to drop the rookie back to last once more. Harvick’s bid for the Lucky Dog fell two cars short as he, too, was unable to catch Cassill and Weatherman, now the first two cars one lap down, before the end of Stage 1. Cassill got his lap back instead.

Under this caution, Weatherman briefly took last on Lap 64 while officials also reported a safety violation on teammate Bilicki, who dropped to 35th. Houff took the last spot once more on Lap 65, followed by Harvick, who made another pit stop. Harvick then worked his way through traffic on the Lap 69 restart, dropping Bilicki to last for the first time. Seconds later, the last-place battle came to an abrupt end.

Weatherman had worked his way up the Bottom Five before his car wrecked in Turn 2, knocking off the rear decklid. The cameras caught his car rolling along the apron, the decklid dangling from behind his car on its tether like a kite. When he got to pit road, the crew made a quick diagnosis. “It's over,” someone said. “Can't race without a decklid, boys.” The car pulled behind the wall, out under the Crash Clock, and was pulled from RaceView on Lap 73.

Finishing 35th was a frustrated Clint Bowyer, who also shortened the rear of his #14 Haas Automation / ITsavvy Ford when contact from Chris Buescher sent him into the outside wall for two hard hits. The 34th spot fell to David Ragan, whose #38 Citgard Heavy Duty Engine Oil Ford suffered nose damage early, tangled with teammate Matt Tifft, then slowed again in the final laps, ultimately losing eight laps. Houff managed to stay just one lap down until Lap 105, ultimately finishing 32nd, five circuits back. Bilicki finished 33rd, and joined Ragan and Weatherman in earning his first Bottom Five of 2019.

For more on Kyle Weatherman, check out his website here.

*Weatherman is the first first-time last-place finisher in the Cup Series since last fall’s Homestead finale, where Regan Smith trailed in the Leavine Family Racing #95.
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #51 at Michigan since June 16, 2013, when Bobby Labonte’s #51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet wrecked after 5 laps of the Quicken Loans 400.

36) #51-Kyle Weatherman / 69 laps / crash
35) #14-Clint Bowyer / 130 laps / crash / led 1 lap
34) #38-David Ragan / 195 laps / running
33) #52-Josh Bilicki / 197 laps / running
32) #77-Quin Houff / 198 laps / running

1st) Rick Ware Racing (4)
2nd) Front Row Motorsports (3)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (2)
4th) Germain Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Motorsports Business Management, Richard Childress Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (7)
2nd) Ford (6)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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