Sunday, June 16, 2019

TRUCKS: Victory and adversity still hand-in-hand for Ross Chastain, the Truck Series’ first last-place finisher by disqualification

PHOTO: @ChicagolndSpdwy
Ross Chastain picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series career in Sunday’s M&M’s 200 at the Iowa Speedway when his #44 TruNorth / Paul Jr. Designs Chevrolet was disqualified after winning the race, completing all 200 laps.

The finish came in Chastain’s 69th series start. In the Truck Series last-place rankings, it was the 6th for the #44, the 374th for Chevrolet, and the very first series disqualification. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 60th for the #44, the 1,663rd for Chevrolet, and the 28th disqualification that classified the driver last.

Tyler Ankrum picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series career in Sunday’s M&M’s 200 at the Iowa Speedway when his #87 NEMCO Chevrolet fell out with brake issues after 17 of 200 laps.

The finish came in Ankrum’s ninth series start. In the Truck Series last-place rankings, it was the 10th for the #87, the 26th from brake issues, and the 374th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 53rd for the #87, the 162nd from brake issues, and the 1,663rd for Chevrolet.

Sunday’s disqualification was far from Chastain’s first serious obstacle in his racing career. Last fall, after years of strong runs with Johnny Davis’ JD Motorsports in the XFINITY Series, Chastain turned in breakout performances in Chip Ganassi Racing’s #42 DC Solar Chevrolet. He nearly won his first time out at Darlington before Kevin Harvick wrecked him out of the lead, then bounced back to win in Las Vegas. Ganassi signed Chastain to run the full XFINITY season for him in 2019, but all that came crashing down when sponsor DC Solar collapsed during the FBI’s investigation into allegations of fraud.

Undaunted, the affable watermelon farmer from Florida reunited with JD Motorsports, continued his Cup schedule in Jay Robinson’s underfunded #15 Chevrolet, and also went from part-time to full-time at Al Niece’s Truck Series team. This distinguished Chastain as the only driver to run every race in Cup, XFINITY, and Trucks from the Truck opener at Daytona through the XFINITY race at Michigan. He started the year with his first Top Ten in Cup, finishing 10th in the Daytona 500, then ran a season-best 7th in the XFINITY Series race at Las Vegas.

But while solid in the upper two series, Chastain has been exceptional in Al Niece’s truck. In his first full-time Truck Series campaign since 2012, Chastain opened the year with a 3rd-place finish in the #45 Chevrolet. Then he finished 6th at Atlanta, 10th at Las Vegas, and took a stage victory on his way to a 4th in Martinsville. While 13th in the XFINITY Series points, where he’d declared for the championship, Chastain’s top-ten streak continued on – 7th in Texas, 10th in Dover, and then his first series win at Kansas, where he held off Ben Rhodes.

With another 10th the next race in Charlotte, the decision was made – Chastain would stop running for the XFINITY title and instead go for the championship in Trucks. There were two big problems – the Kansas win wouldn’t lock him into the Playoffs, and he’d have to start from zero points. He would have to win one of the next eight races, and earn enough points by the cutoff round to take 20th in the standings. His next time out at Texas, Chastain did nearly that, finishing Top 10 in all three stages, including a 10th at the checkered flag. The next race was Iowa.

Chastain’s story ended up having much in common with Tyler Ankrum, the original subject of this article after he finished last in Iowa prior to the disqualification. Ankrum, a 19-year-old late model driver from Southern California, has been a quick study in stock cars. Just last year, he joined DGR-Crosley’s effort in the K&N Pro Series East and rolled to the title, taking four wins in fourteen starts and only twice finishing worse than 7th. That same year, he joined DGR’s Truck Series team in the #17, finishing 18th in his debut at Martinsville and then 6th at the ISM Raceway, completing all 350 laps. He returned as the team’s full-time driver in this year’s Martinsville race, and in the six rounds since finished outside the Top 20 only once. This was capped last week in Texas, where he survived a spin off Turn 4 that sent him sliding down pit road. He managed to not hit anything and recovered to finish third – a career-best finish, and his first Top Five. Everything seemed to be headed the right direction.

But on Tuesday, just four days after the Texas race, Ankrum tweeted a video saying he would no longer be running the Truck Series full-time. The reason was sadly familiar – at least one sponsorship deal had fallen through. In his previous starts, May’s Hawaii and the Modern Meat Company had sponsored Ankrum’s efforts. Modern Meat had been backing him since his late model days. Neither would be the sponsor of the #17 at Iowa, where Kyle Busch Motorsports driver Raphael Lessard would drive in Ankrum’s place. Ankrum stated he is still working closely with the DGR-Crosley team on the possibility of running future races. Railblaza, his backer from Texas, has already agreed to run a handful of races later this season.

Tyler Ankrum exits Joe Nemechek's #87 at Iowa
PHOTO: Colby Evans, @COLBYEVANSBRAND
Two days after that came another opportunity. Joe Nemechek’s two-truck effort NEMCO Motorsports had originally entered Iowa with Nemechek himself in the #87. However, as son John Hunter mentioned Sunday, Joe was out of the country for Iowa weekend, leaving an open space in his “start-and-park” Chevrolet. The truck first went to Josh Reaume, who had climbed out of his own #33 to bring on ARCA Menards Series driver C.J. McLaughlin. But by late afternoon, Ankrum took Reaume’s place. Teamed with Ankrum in the NEMCO #8 was Trey Hutchens, swapped in for Camden Murphy after Hutchens wrecked his own #14 truck at Texas.

Ankrum’s Iowa weekend began with just four laps turned in opening practice – fewest of any of the 32 remaining entries – but still managed to rank 25th. He again turned the fewest in Happy Hour, turning only three circuits, but ranked 26th out of the same 32. Only a rained-out qualifying session was the reason he started 31st. Chastain, meanwhile, ran 11th and 12th in the two practices, then lined up 19th. As part of the championship declaration, Chastain was moved from the #45 he’d driven up to that point to Niece’s #38 at Charlotte, then the team’s third #44 truck at Iowa. All three would carry his familiar black-and-white paint scheme with green door numbers.

Exactly 32 drivers took practice times because of two late withdrawals. On top of bringing on C.J. McLaughlin, Josh Reaume had planned on debuting a new third team and bringing Daniel Sasnett aboard to run the new #32 Chevrolet. The team ended up withdrawing, joining another truck that had shown up at the track but wasn’t quite race-ready. This was the #74 Kramer Service Group / A&A Haulers Chevrolet, the former Mike Harmon Racing entry purchased in January by Green Bay native Lou Goss. Goss’ truck was not only missing decals on the front valence, but according to LASTCAR reader Colby Evans who was trackside, the truck didn’t have a fuel cell, and the engine was still missing a few parts. This forced the team to withdraw.

Starting 32nd on Sunday’s rain-postponed race was Jennifer Jo Cobb, who drove her own #0 Driven2Honor.org Chevrolet. Cobb drove this truck instead of her more familiar #10 as she, too, had stepped out for another newcomer, Juan Manuel Gonzalez, who would make his series debut after a DNQ in Martinsville earlier this year. The only truck joining Cobb at the back was Tyler Hill, whose second turn in Hill Motorsports’ #56 Southern Freight Services Chevrolet saw him penalized for unapproved adjustments. The penalty only dropped the #56 two spots from their scheduled 30th place on the grid.

When the race started, Hill drove past Cobb, who held last place on the first lap. In that same first circuit, Tyler Ankrum had already jumped to 28th, and he was out of the Bottom Five by Lap 5. By then, Cobb was 17.066 seconds back of the lead, and nearly two seconds back of new 31st-place runner McLaughlin in the Reaume #33. On Lap 10, Cobb was the first to be lapped by polesitter Chandler Smith in Kyle Busch Motorsports’ #51 Safelite Auto Glass Toyota.

Gonzalez’s run in the #10 didn’t go much better. He fell to last on Lap 17, by which point he was three circuits back of the leaders. He went down a fourth lap on the 19th time by. MRN reported that Gonzalez made one unscheduled stop for a flat right-front tire. It’s unclear whether this stop caused him to lose the four laps around Lap 19, or if the stop occurred on Lap 31, when the Penalty Report showed he was snagged by NASCAR for speeding exiting pit road.

What is known is that by Lap 20, Ankrum had pulled the #87 behind the wall, and had dropped to 29th. Colby Evans reported Ankrum looked visibly frustrated as he climbed from the truck, which took last from Gonzalez on Lap 24. It appeared he would finish there, scoring the first last-place finish in just his ninth series start. It was also going to be the first last-place finish for the #87 at Iowa.

On Lap 60, Ross Chastain took the lead by snatching away the Stage 1 victory from Johnny Sauter. He would go on to lead the rest of the way, sweeping both stages and taking the victory by 2.717 seconds over runner-up Brett Moffitt. In just his second start since declaring Truck Series points, Chastain had apparently accomplished his first of two steps needed to make the Playoffs.

Then the inspection results came back.

Chastain’s truck was found to be “extremely low” in the front, according to NASCAR officials. Under the new Disqualification Procedure for 2019, this results in an immediate disqualification that strips the win and classifies him in the last spot. Under existing LASTCAR rules, this means that Chastain and not Ankrum will be the officially-credited last-place finisher of the race. As of this writing, an appeal is being pursued by team owner Al Niece, and the result of this could change the result once more. In the meantime, rather than extending Chastain’s top-ten streak through all ten of the season’s first races, it ends at nine.

The last-place finish also had the consequence of saving Johnny Sauter from his first Bottom Five of 2019. Sauter was listed 28th in the results when his #13 Tenda Heal Ford was parked by NASCAR for wrecking Austin Hill under caution. The remainder of the Bottom Five stayed the same. Following 31st-place Ankrum was Juan Manuel Gonzalez, who blew a second right-front tire and slammed the Turn 4 wall, drawing the first caution of the race. Trey Hutchens, Ankrum’s teammate, exited after 61 laps with brake issues on the #8. Chad Finley finished 29th with rear end issues on the #42 Auto Value / Strutmasters / Air Life Chevrolet.

Chastain, Ankrum, Gonzalez, and Hutchens all earned their first Bottom Fives of 2019.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This is the first time a driver was classified last due to disqualification in any of NASCAR’s top three series since April 16, 2005, when Johnny Sauter’s #1 Fleet Pride / Yellow Dodge was docked in the O’Reilly 300, an XFINITY Series race at Texas. It’s the first time it’s happened to the race winner in any of the top three series since August 19, 1995, when Dale Jarrett’s #32 Mac Tools Ford was DQ’d from the Detroit Gasket 200, an XFINITY race at Michigan, where he won the pole and led 89 of the 100 laps. Both Jarrett and Sauter were docked for illegal carburetors.
*The 141 laps led are the most by a driver classified last in any of NASCAR’s top three series. The previous record for the Truck Series was 24 (Rich Bickle at Colorado on June 1, 1998), the XFINITY Series is 89 (Dale Jarrett in the aforementioned Michigan race on August 19, 1995), and in Cup is 95 (Greg Biffle at Darlington on May 10, 2008).
*This marked the first Truck Series last-place finish since May 6, 2016, when Tommy Joe Martins’ suspension failed on his #44 Diamond Gusset Jeans Chevrolet after 26 laps of the Toyota Tundra 250 at Kansas.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
32) #44-Ross Chastain / 200 laps / disqualified / led 141 laps
31) #87-Tyler Ankrum / 17 laps / brakes
30) #10-Juan Manuel Gonzalez / 40 laps / crash
29) #8-Trey Hutchens / 61 laps / brakes
28) #42-Chad Finley / 68 laps / rear end

2019 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) NEMCO Motorsports, Young’s Motorsports (2)
2nd) Copp Motorsports, DGR-Crosley, Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing, Niece Motorsports, Norm Benning Racing, Reaume Brothers Racing (1)

2019 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (9)
2nd) Toyota (1)

2019 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

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