|PHOTO: Ricky Matthews, @WCYB_Ricky|
The finish came in Diaz’ fourth series start. In the XFINITY Series last-place rankings, it was the 4th for the #68, the 326th from a crash, and the 533rd for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 27th for the #68, the 1,192nd from a crash, and the 1,680th for Chevrolet.
A 19-year-old driver from Manassas, Virginia, Diaz’ journey into NASCAR is a familiar one for many of today’s up-and-comers – go-karts, Bandoleros, then the INEX Legends Series. He made the move to NASCAR through the Whelen All-American Series, first in Limited Late Model class and then to Late Model Stock Cars. All the while, he carried sponsorship from Southern Rock Carriers, themselves sponsors in the CARS Super Late Model Tour. Soon, he was balancing racing with his full-time studies at Old Dominion University, where he pursues a major in business and a minor in motorsports engineering.
Diaz was originally scheduled to run the full K&N Pro Series East schedule this year with MAD Motorsports. He was off to a solid start, coming back from a 14th-place finish in the New Smyrna opener to take 8th at Bristol, placing him 9th in points. But in the next round at South Boston, Diaz crashed in practice trying to pass a lapped car, severely damaging the right-rear of his #24 Ford. To make matters worse, the weekend was a double-header, and by failing to start both races, he dropped out of title contention. The team re-evaluated their travel costs and decided to scale back to a part-time effort.
During his rise through the ranks, Diaz has also competed in two of NASCAR’s top three series. He made his Truck Series debut for Brandonbilt Motorsports at Martinsville on October 28, 2017, qualifying a strong 9th and finishing 23rd. Last year, he made his XFINITY Series debut with Mario Gosselin’s DGM Racing, steering the #90 Chevrolet to a 19th-place finish at Richmond after starting 22nd. Brandonbilt and Diaz then reunited just this year, again at Richmond, and once more he was fast in time trials, taking 16th on the grid. But engine woes ended his night after just 63 laps, leaving him 36th. A crash-filled race at Charlotte was equally unkind, leaving him 30th at the halfway point.
Bristol not only marked Diaz’ third XFINITY start of the season, but the return of his K&N Pro Series East effort for the first time since South Boston. In the lower series, Diaz capitalized by qualifying 4th in the 16-car field and finishing there, following Sam Mayer, Ty Gibbs, and Ruben Garcia, Jr. to the checkered flag. On the XFINITY side, Diaz drove the team’s second car, a red-and-white #68 that resembled the car Will Rodgers drove in his series debut at Iowa. Diaz didn’t participate in the opening practice, then ran 34th of 38 drivers in Happy Hour. But again, he improved in qualifying, taking the 27th spot with a lap of 116.129mph (16.523 seconds).
A strong entry list of 42 drivers added drama to qualifying as four teams were sent home. Just eight-thousandths of a second bumped Chad Finchum from the field in Motorsports Business Management’s #66 Toyota. Next in line was Joe Graf, Jr., who was unable to make it in on time driving Kaulig Racing’s #10 EatSleepRace.com Chevrolet driven to top-five runs this summer by A.J. Allmendinger. Camden Murphy missed the cut in RSS Racing’s #38 Chevrolet while J.J. Yeley, swapped out of the ride, put up the 18th-fastest time in RSS’ #93. Rounding out the group was Morgan Shepherd, who debuted his “throwback” scheme on his Visone RV Chevrolet – a tribute to the Cliff Stewart-owned Performance Connection Pontiac that Shepherd drove to his first Cup win at Martinsville in 1981.
Taking the 38th and final starting spot was Tyler Reddick in the #2 Tame the BEAST Chevrolet. Reddick, the regular season points leader, was not allowed to take a qualifying time after his car failed inspection four times. This also incurred Reddick the same penalty as Matt Tifft in the Cup race at Dover earlier this year, requiring him to take a pass-through penalty at the start of the race. Joining him at the rear was 9th-place qualifier John Hunter Nemechek, whose #23 Midnight Moon Moonshine Chevrolet was sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments. Diaz also surrendered his 27th spot and started alongside Reddick in 37th, moving Nemechek up to the inside of the row in front in 35th.
When the race started, Reddick ducked down pit road as soon as he could, losing one lap in the process. But he didn’t take last as Diaz lost two laps in the race’s opening moments from an apparent trip to pit road. Diaz returned to action four laps back, only to clobber the Turn 2 wall on Lap 6. The car ground to a stop against the fence, the driver reporting something broke in the right-front of his car. “That thing just shot straight into the wall,” said someone on the team shortly after the accident. Diaz went behind the wall, done for the day. The crew continued to look over the right-front, trying to figure out what happened. On Lap 28, they examined the right-front suspension, and on Lap 36 looked over the ball joint. The crew saw something wrong with the upper suspension, but couldn’t determine if it happened before or after hitting the fence.
On that same lap, a pileup ensued in Turn 1, triggered by contact between Matt Mills, running 30th, 1 lap down, as Cole Custer and Christopher Bell raced up behind them. The gap between Mills’ car and the outside wall closed quickly, causing Custer to spin into Bell and slide down the track. Unable to avoid contact were two Cup regulars – Erik Jones in the XCI Racing #81 iK9 Stars and Stripes Toyota and Joey Logano in the #12 Snap-On Tools Ford. First Jones, then Logano slid into Bell’s stopped car, and both were eliminated from crash damage.
It was a rollercoaster weekend for the crew of the #17 Chevrolet fielded by Rick Ware Racing in conjunction with Mike Harmon Racing. Bayley Currey was named as driver for the XFINITY team’s first start since Iowa, but that changed Thursday when Currey was suspended indefinitely for accidentally violating NASCAR’s substance abuse policy. Currey said he’d been taking a sports supplement during his training which he didn’t realize contained the prohibited substance dimethylamylamine. The Ware team originally stated Kyle Weatherman would drive in Currey’s place for both the Cup and XFINITY races, but by Friday, it was Joe Nemechek behind the wheel of the #17. As in other times he’d been called upon during large entry lists, Nemechek stepped up with a 28th-best lap that put the car in the show. However, Nemechek lost at least four laps by the time of the Mills / Bell wreck and exited with a busted oil cooler.
Rounding out the Bottom Five was Justin Haley, who was battling near the Top 5 for the first 79 laps until smoke trailed from the pipes of his #11 Leaf Filter Gutter Protection Chevrolet, forcing him behind the wall with a blown engine. For Haley, Logano, and Jones, it was their first Bottom Five of 2019.
Teams big and small all found adversity in the race’s final stage as blown tires and the outside wall collected many contenders. One of the night’s biggest heartbreaks was suffered by Justin Allgaier, who was leading with 11 laps to go when a tire let go on his #7 BRANDT Professional Agriculture Chevrolet, leaving him 8th. The other was Ryan Sieg, whose top-ten car ran up as high as second inside the final 50 laps. But contact from Brandon Jones put his #39 Lombard Bros. Gaming Chevrolet into the outside wall, forcing an unscheduled pit stop, then a trip to the garage. He finished 25th.
But there were strong runs for underdogs as well, including Diaz’ teammate Brandon Brown, who rebounded after a track bar failure in opening practice put him into the outside wall. The crash forced extensive repairs before qualifying, and his car was even slow getting off the grid and joined the field halfway through the first pace lap. But Brown ran in or near the Top 10 for much of the night. He was 6th on Lap 73, and still held the spot on Lap 108 ahead of the big-dollar efforts of Chase Briscoe and Brandon Jones. Only late in the race did Jones slip off the lead lap for a 12th-place finish. Both he and Gray Gaulding, who impressed with a 6th-place finish in Bobby Dotter’s #08 Pannini Chevrolet, earned the second-best finishes of their young XFINITY Series careers. Gaulding’s run closed him within 97 points of Sieg for the final spot in the Playoffs.
Jeremy Clements finished 4th in his #51 RepairableVehicles.com Chevrolet, a return to form for his owner-driver operation at the track that also saw his first career last-place finish. It was the third top-five finish for Clements and his first since his upset victory at Road America two years ago.
And Timmy Hill with Motorsports Business Management made the most out of running the Hattori Racing Enterprises’ #61 entry that broke down in Austin Hill’s qualifying attempt last month at Daytona. Hill was a Top 10 car for much of the night and finished seventh, the first and only car one lap down. This matched Hill’s career-best finish in the series in two Daytona races in the spring of 2012 and fall of 2018.
For more on Mason Diaz, check out his website here: http://www.masondiazracing.com/
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #68 in an XFINITY Series race at Bristol. The most recent last-place finish for the number in the series was on April 29, 2011, when Matt Carter’s #68 Morro’s Truck & Welding Chevrolet fell out with a vibration after 6 laps of the Bubba Burger 250 at Richmond.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
38) #68-Mason Diaz / 3 laps / crash
37) #81-Erik Jones / 36 laps / crash
36) #12-Joey Logano / 37 laps / crash
35) #17-Joe Nemechek / 43 laps / oil cooler
34) #11-Justin Haley / 79 laps / engine
2019 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Motorsports Business Management (6)
2nd) RSS Racing (5)
3rd) DGM Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing (2)
4th) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Brandonbilt Motorsports, JD Motorsports, Jimmy Means Racing, Rick Ware Racing (1)
2019 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (14)
2nd) Toyota (8)
2019 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP