|Dillon's car pushed to the garage after his early wreck.|
PHOTO: Mike Raphael, @Mike_motorsport
The finish, which came in Dillon’s 207th series start, was his first since September 20, 2015 at Chicagoland, 130 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 17th for the #3, the 582nd from a crash, and the 763rd for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 28th for the #3, the 1,179th from a crash, and the 1,660th for Chevrolet.
In the four seasons since his most recent last-place finish, the older of the two Dillon brothers has shown significant improvement. After rounding out the 2015 season just 21st in points, he jumped to 14th in 2016 on the heels of four Top Fives and thirteen Top Tens, four and nearly three times his previous year totals, respectively. He improved to a career-best 11th in 2017, and in the Coca-Cola 600 parlayed fuel mileage to become the latest driver to score his first Cup Series win in the Memorial Day classic.
The return of Richard Childress Racing’s iconic #3 to victory lane was followed the next February by another marquee win in the Daytona 500. Twenty years after Dale Earnhardt’s lone 500 victory, Dillon dumped race leader Aric Almirola on the final lap and held off Bubba Wallace and Denny Hamlin for the checkered flag. Dillon’s Playoff run lasted through the first round before a wreck at the Roval ended his bid. He still closed the year strong, finishing 11th or better in five of the remaining seven races en route to a 13th-place showing in points.
This 2019 season marks the 50th anniversary of the Richard Childress team, and the arrival of a new rookie teammate in XFINITY Series regular Daniel Hemric in the #8. After a slow start to the season, Dillon picked up the pole at Fontana in unusual circumstances after he and the rest of the Round 3 participants waited too long to turn in a timed lap. His 10th-place finish that day was one of only two top-ten finishes in 2019, the other a 6th in Richmond. Another pole followed in single-car qualifying at Talladega, where this time the Dow Chevrolet ran 14th. He arrived in Pocono just 21st in points, having lost three spots after a late crash with Kyle Larson in his return to the Coca-Cola 600.
On the 2.5-mile track, Dillon began the weekend just 19th in opening practice, but qualified 10th with a speed of 171.661mph (52.429 seconds). He ran 19th again in Happy Hour, then participated in Saturday’s XFINITY Series race in Matthew Kaulig’s part-time #10 car. Dillon started 11th and finished 10th, his second-best finish in three series starts this season. With 10 previous Cup starts at Pocono, but no finishes better than 12th, Sunday’s outcome for the #3 was anyone’s guess.
Starting 37th and last in the shortest Cup field at Pocono since June 16, 1991 was J.J. Yeley, who was making his first Cup start of the season. Yeley took over the Rick Ware Racing #52 ride from Bayley Currey, who moved to the flagship #51 in place of Cody Ware. The car carried both Yeley’s sponsor Steakhouse Elite, which backed Currey’s run at Richmond, and local sponsor Weis Markets, who backed Bubba Wallace’s first last-place run in this race last year. Yeley ended up the only driver to not complete a qualifying lap on Saturday as, running in a three-car group with Quin Houff and Chris Buescher, his #52 spun off Turn 1 and narrowly avoided crashing into the inside wall. Yeley’s flat-spotted tires needed changing, and on race day, he incurred a redundant tail-end penalty as a result.
Joining Yeley at the back of the pack was 22nd-place qualifier Matt DiBenedetto, whose team had changed engines on his #95 Toyota Express Maintenance Toyota. By the last of the parade and pace laps, both DiBeneedetto and Yeley were ahead of two other cars which voluntarily fell to the rear: 35th-place starter Reed Sorenson in the #27 VIPRacingExperience.com Chevorlet and 36th-place Quin Houff in the #77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet. Though unsponsored in practice, Houff acquired sponsorship by race day from Aireshelta North America, whose logo was on the hood of his Chevrolet.
On the break, Houff held down last, but unlike previous races managed to stay in touch with the back of the field, hugging Sorenson’s rear bumper for the first three circuits. Only after this did the pair of them started to drop back, with Houff 11 seconds off the lead at that point. Over the radio, the Spire Motorsports crew discussed how soon their driver would be lapped, estimating it would take between 20 and 25 laps. Incidentally, in many of my last-place articles, it’s taken an average of 14 laps for the leader to catch the last-place runner. This time around, it took until Lap 16, when polesitter William Byron steered under Houff off Turn 1.
As faster traffic whistled past, Houff struggled with the handling of his car, saying it was plowing off the exit on Lap 18. Two circuits later, after Sorenson had also lost a lap in 36th, the two black Chevrolets were so far apart that the 36th-place Sorenson reached the stripe as Houff was entering Turn 3. Other cars up to the 31st spot were also running by themselves with more than a second’s gap between each. This allowed Kevin Harvick, the first of many drivers to try short-pitting before scheduled cautions, to make a green-flag four-tire stop and come out on the lead lap in 32nd, ahead of two lead-lap cars of 33rd-place Landon Cassill and 34th-place Yeley.
Houff remained in last when the competition caution fell on Lap 22. Yeley, who just lost a lap to Byron, earned the Lucky Dog. Houff remained a circuit back in last, and on the restart entered a tight race with the lead-lap cars of Yeley and Sorenson. Sorenson earned his lap back by taking the wave-around, and on Lap 28 was forced to make a green-flag pit stop when the caution didn’t fall. On Lap 30, as Sorenson returned to action one lap down once more, the caution fell for trouble in Turn 3.
At that moment, Austin Dillon was racing with the leaders in Turn 3, closing in on the #48 Ally Bank Chevrolet of Jimmie Johnson and holding off a closing Paul Menard in the #21 Motorcraft / Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford. According to Dillon, Menard drove into the corner too deep and bumped Dillon up the track. The young driver nearly saved the car, but ran out of race track, and the right side slammed hard into the outside wall. Though the hit was glancing, it tore off the rear decklid and mangled the right-rear corner. He barely drove it back to pit road, and the six-minute Crash Clock began to tick down. With three minutes left on the Clock, the crew realized the damage was too severe to continue, and Dillon climbed out, done for the day. The crew had to push the car nearly halfway down pit road before they pulled into the garage. On Lap 31, Sorenson and Houff’s lapped machines passed Dillon under caution, and the #3 remained there the rest of the afternoon.
Finishing 36th was Corey LaJoie, a disappointing turn of events one week after the second-generation racer equaled his career-best 12th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600. LaJoie’s #32 Visone RV Ford got some quality TV time from the FS1 booth at the start, but slapped the wall after a flat tire and heavily damaged the right-rear corner of his machine. The damage didn’t appear as visibly bad as Dillon’s, but LaJoie pulled into the garage soon after, done for the day.
The 35th spot fell to last week’s winner Martin Truex, Jr., whose engine seized up on the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, ending a mid-pack run just past the halfway point. It was Truex's first DNF from engine failure since 2017 at Sonoma.
In 34th came Yeley, who spent more than 40 laps in the garage for a loss of brake pressure. The issue arose during a pit stop on Lap 54, and so little pressure remained in the lines that Yeley had to creep his car through Turn 3 just to safely enter the garage. He ended up the last car under power, 50 laps down. Yeley, Truex, and Dillon all picked up their first Bottom Fives of 2019.
Rounding out the Bottom Five in 33rd came Matt Tifft, whose #36 Surface Sunscreen Ford clipped the apron off Turn 2 and spun, nearly collecting Currey’s #51. Like Yeley, Tifft spent multiple laps in the garage area, only to return and finish 18 laps ahead of the #52, but still 32 behind race winner Kyle Busch.
After his close call in the Tifft wreck, Bayley Currey finished 25th in the same P-40 Warhawk decorated car from last week's Coca-Cola 600. It was Currey's best career finish in just his seventh career start and his first better than 31st. One spot ahead of Currey came the flagship Premium Motorsports entry of Ross Chastain, whose 24th-place showing in the #15 LowT Centers Chevrolet was his best in the series since his career-best 10th in this year's Daytona 500.
*This marked the first time car #3 has ever finished last in a Cup Series race at Pocono. As of this writing, the only other single-digit car number to never trail a Cup race at Pocono is the #9.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
37) #3-Austin Dillon / 28 laps / crash
36) #32-Corey LaJoie / 68 laps / crash
35) #19-Martin Truex, Jr. / 91 laps / engine
34) #52-J.J. Yeley / 110 laps / running
33) #36-Matt Tifft / 128 laps / running
2019 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Front Row Motorsports, Rick Ware Racing (3)
2nd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (2)
3rd) Germain Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Motorsports Business Management, Richard Childress Racing (1)
2019 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (7)
2nd) Ford (5)
3rd) Toyota (2)
2019 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP