Sunday, July 14, 2019

XFINITY: Jairo Avila, Jr. scores first last-place finish, underfunded drivers play “cat and mouse” for position in Kentucky

Jairo “JA” Avila, Jr. picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Friday’s Alsco 300 at the Kentucky Speedway when his #99 Art General Contractors Chevrolet crashed hard after 3 of 200 laps.

The finish came in Avila’s fourth series start. In the XFINITY Series last-place rankings, it was the 13th for the #99, the 325th from a crash, and the 529th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 34th for the #99, the 1,185th from a crash, and the 1,670th for Chevrolet.

Born in Los Angeles, the 24-year-old Avila is midway through his second part-time season in the XFINITY Series. He made his stock car debut five years ago, when he ran a limited schedule in the K&N Pro Series West. He finished 7th in his debut at the quarter-mile State Line Speedway in Idaho, his first of four Top Tens in just five races. The next year in 2015, he finished 16th in his ARCA Menards Series debut at Pocono, then a year after ran 23rd in his first K&N Pro Series East race at New Smyrna. Two seasons later, Avila joined B.J. McLeod’s XFINITY Series team, skipping the Truck Series altogether. The jump paid off with a 20th in his debut at Bristol, then an 18th in Kansas.

This year, McLeod has expanded his team to three full-time entries, bringing his partial #99 Chevrolet up to join the existing full-season efforts with the #5 (formerly #8 before a number swap deal with JR Motorsports) and the flagship #78. While the other two teams would see the same driver run each race – Matt Mills in the #5 and Vinnie Miller in the #78 – the #99 would swap hands all season. Coming into Kentucky, the car had been driven by D.J. Kennington, Tommy Joe Martins, Cody Ware, Todd Peck, Ryan Ellis, Stefan Parsons, Avila, and McLeod. Just last week, Parsons earned the team’s season-best finish with a 12th-place run in Daytona, following Mills and Miller across the finish line in a 10th-11th-12th team finish.

Avila, who handed the #99 its only DNQ of the year in Charlotte, would return to the #99 at Kentucky. His only previous start this year came in Las Vegas, where he finished a respectable 25th, eight laps down. Art General Contractors, his sponsor since late last season, would rejoin the effort with logos on the hood and lower quarter-panels. Avila’s name, shortened to “JA JUNIOR,” was on the roof rails.

Avila began the Kentucky weekend as one of four drivers who didn’t turn a lap in opening practice, then turned 20 circuits in Happy Hour to rank 31st of the 32 who took time, besting only owner-driver Mike Harmon. He then qualified 32nd on Friday, putting in a speed of 168.972mph (31.958 seconds). With exactly 38 drivers entered for as many spots, no drivers were sent home.

Originally, showed Camden Murphy with the 38th starting spot based on the rank in Owner Points of Rick Ware Racing’s #17 Chevrolet, which didn’t qualify at Texas, withdrew at Iowa and wasn’t entered in last Friday’s race at Daytona. By race day, the spot belonged to previous 37th-place starter John Jackson, returning to Carl Long’s #13 Toyota. Murphy had been moved up to 34th.

This wasn’t the only change in the rear of the field. All-time last-place leader Jeff Green, making his final XFINITY start of the season before upcoming rotator cuff surgery, was entered in RSS Racing’s #93 Chevrolet with sponsorship from By opening practice, Green had swapped rides with teammate Josh Bilicki, putting Green in RSS’ unsponsored #38. Green out-qualified 25th-place Bilicki with the 21st-best time.

Prior to the start, both Matt Mills and John Jackson came down pit road for unscheduled stops. Out on the track, Jeff Green and his crew talked over who they thought would draw the first caution. “I’m gonna go with 42,” said Green, referring to Chad Finchum. He then said, “Those fast cats up front could be the first caution.”

On the break, Jackson retained the last spot with Murphy and Shepherd in front of him. Jackson remained last at the end of the first lap, 8.571 seconds back, and was 10.878 seconds back after three. “Some of these cats up here pretty sketchy looking,” said Green’s spotter after Matt Mills raced Green hard, forcing him to let him by. Moments later, Avila clobbered the wall, then came down pit road with heavy damage. The right side was flattened, and the rear panel dangled behind the Chevrolet like a flag, clearly out of the race. “99 killed it,” said Green’s spotter. “I mean, he tried to knock the wall down.” The one available replay into Turn 3 showed Avila banged doors with another car, likely teammate Vinnie Miller in the #78 JW Transport Chevrolet. The contact sent Avila skating up the track, where he smashed the outside wall nearly flush with the passenger side. The wreck made Avila the first car one lap down and abruptly ended his night, also handing him his first Bottom Five of 2019.

Under the Avila caution, Green was asked if teammate Josh Bilicki’s car was smoking, but said it wasn’t. He also remarked his own car “drives so good,” unfortunate since prior to the start the team reminded him they would only run ten laps. It then became clear Green’s team was counting on more accidents to gain as many spots as possible, deciding to go another five after the restart. After 19 laps, the team said “Go ahead and bring it to us whenever you’re ready.” Green broke out of line, signaling to Morgan Shepherd’s #89 Visone RV Chevrolet to avoid a collision. As Green came down, Timmy Hill was two laps down in the #66 in 37th, where he’d finish after early electrical issues. “We’ll run a couple more here,” the crew said, sending Green back on the track to beat Hill. At that moment, Landon Cassill also slowed in the Johnny Davis-prepared #15 JD Motorsports Chevrolet, losing two laps and falling to 35th. Green pitted a second time, but again returned to action laps down when Cassill entered the garage. Cassill then returned to the track laps down himself, and ultimately climbed out of the Bottom Five to finish 26th, the last car under power. Finally, after 29 laps, Green pulled into the garage area, done for the day with a 36th-place finish. “I mean, I'm running 80, 90%, we're running so fast. Wish I could race it,” said Green. “We'll work on it for next year," said the crew. Green’s last transmission was a simple “Thank you.”

After Green’s exit, Josh Bilicki and other underfunded drivers continued their spirited battle of “cat and mouse,” each trying to outwit the other to gain the most spots. On Lap 56, Bilicki’s spotter updated his driver that Austin Cindric “may be done” after the #22 Mazak Ford backed into the wall in Turn 4. Trying to pass Cindric caused Bilicki to stay out longer than the team had planned, a risk since the crew didn’t have a fuel canister ready in the pits. As Cindric returned to competition, Bilicki stretched his fuel under caution, the team watching as Morgan Shepherd pulled his #89 into the garage, another spot gained. Shepherd ended up 34th, separated from 36th-place Green after Ray Black, Jr. burned the clutch on his #07 Isokern Fireplaces & Chimneys / Scuba Life Chevrolet.

The battle then turned to last-place starter John Jackson, who the Bilicki spotter said was “waiting on us” to pull into the garage. When Bilicki pitted, the crew managed to hustle up fuel and was told to “have a look as if something’s wrong.” This drew Jackson’s #13 to pit road along with Camden Murphy’s #17, but the ruse failed as both Jackson and Murphy returned to the track. The crew first told Bilicki to climb out, but then changed their minds once more when Ronnie Bassett, Jr.’s #90 Bassett Gutters & More Chevrolet slowed from what seemed to be a mechanical issue. Bilicki stayed in the car, even when it was reported Bassett had only cut a tire. Murphy’s #17 then turned down pit road with the hood up, then pulled behind the wall. Bilicki returned to the track, advised by NASCAR to use the same gate he entered, looking to gain the four laps needed to pass the #17. This he accomplished, dropping Murphy to 33rd. After 78 laps, Bilicki was called to the garage once more, and the crew said “I think we’re done done now,” then “Thanks guys, see you in Loudon.” Bilicki ended up 32nd with 71 laps complete. Not to be outdone, Jackson kept the #13 on track until three to go in the stage, besting Bilicki for 31st by 11 laps.

*This marked the first XFINITY Series last-place finish for the #99 since October 6, 2018, when Stephen Leicht’s B.J. McLeod Motorsports Chevrolet fell out with electrical issues after 13 laps of the Bar Harbor 200 at Dover. The number had never before trailed an XFINITY race at Kentucky.
*As of this writing, only twice has the last-place finisher of an XFINITY race at Kentucky completed more than 6 laps – September 23, 2017, when Jeff Green turned 16 laps, and the disqualification of Tim Sauter for unapproved rollbars after he turned 166 laps on June 16, 2001.

38) #99-Jairo Avila, Jr. / 3 laps / crash
37) #66-Timmy Hill / 18 laps / electrical
36) #38-Jeff Green / 25 laps / ignition
35) #07-Ray Black, Jr. / 39 laps / clutch
34) #89-Morgan Shepherd / 55 laps / overheating

1st) Motorsports Business Management (5)
2nd) RSS Racing (4)
3rd) DGM Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing (2)
4th) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, JD Motorsports, Kaulig Racing, Rick Ware Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (10)
2nd) Toyota (7)


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