Saturday, September 21, 2019

CUP: Erik Jones the first Cup Series driver classified last by disqualification since 1992

Jones' car in post-race inspection late Saturday night.
PHOTO: Bob Pockrass, @bobpockrass
Erik Jones picked up the 5th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at the Richmond Raceway when his #20 Craftsman Toyota finished 4th, but was disqualified after completing all 400 laps.

The finish, which came in Jones’ 103rd series start, was his second of the year and first since Charlotte, 15 races ago. In the Cup Series rankings, it was the 23rd disqualification, the 31st last-place finish for the #20, and the 157th for Toyota. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 34th disqualification, the 50th for the #20, and the 322nd for Toyota.

Reed Sorenson picked up the 18th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at the Richmond Raceway when his #77 Chevrolet was involved in a single-car accident after 233 of 400 laps.

The finish, which came in Sorenson’s 322nd series start, was his second of the season and first since Watkins Glen, six races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 34th for the #77, the 689th from a crash, and the 773rd for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 47th for the #77, the 1,197th from a crash, and the 1,689th for Chevrolet.

When Jones was last featured here in May, rumors were swirling about his future at Joe Gibbs Racing. Though he’d finished 3rd in both the Daytona 500 and at Kansas, he’d led just 44 laps and was still searching for his second career victory. Meanwhile, the Gibbs team was trying to figure out what to do with their next talent, Christopher Bell, who in the previous round at Dover had already scored his third win of the XFINITY Series season. But Jones responded quickly, scoring four straight top-five finishes from July into August, including a runner-up to teammate Denny Hamlin at Pocono. Then, while running a throwback paint scheme to his late model days, Jones scored an impressive victory in the Southern 500 at Darlington, outdueling his other teammate Kyle Busch. Just four days after the checkered flag, which locked him into this year’s Playoff field, Jones signed a contract extension, keeping him in the #20 for 2020.

But the races that followed were unkind to Jones. At Indianapolis, he was collected in an early wreck with Brad Keselowski, one that sent Keselowski’s #2 Discount Tire Ford hard into a nearby tire barrier. Then in the Playoff opener at Las Vegas, Jones was sidelined by a stuck throttle and a jammed transmission, sending him to the garage for 15 laps. Undeterred, Jones returned to the track and gained nine laps on the trailing cars, earning back two of the 15 laps he’d lost in the process. The rally averted a last-place finish, and saw him charge to 36th by the checkered flag.

Next came Saturday’s race at Richmond, where Jones entered 16th and last in the Playoff standings, 26 points short of the cutoff spot held by Aric Almirola. Strong runs in both stages and a good finish would go a long way to improving Jones’ odds of making the Round of 12. However, this was a track where he’d finished no better than 6th, and finished last driving Furniture Row Racing’s short-lived second team in 2017.

Mindful of the challenge, Jones started strong, ranking 7th in opening practice. He then dropped to 16th in Happy Hour, then stayed 16th in qualifying with a lap of 124.902mph (21.617 seconds). The lap was still enough to best four other Playoff contenders – Ryan Newman (19th), Alex Bowman (20th), William Byron (25th), and Joey Logano (28th).

On the other end of the field, the 38th and final starting spot fell to Quin Houff, who was returning to action in Cup for the first time since his 30th-place run in the night race at Bristol. Houff’s unsponsored #27 Chevrolet from Premium Motorsports was then joined by two other drivers whose cars failed post-qualifying technical inspection on Saturday – 31st-place Bubba Wallace in the #43 Victory Junction Chevrolet and 33rd-place J.J. Yeley in Rick Ware Racing’s #52 Byrna Ford. Since Wallace outranked Yeley in Owner Points, Yeley inherited last place with Wallace 37th, then Houff lifted to 36th. Houff would eventually take the green in 35th on the inside of Wallace despite a tail-end penalty for unapproved adjustments.

On the first pace lap, Yeley’s teammate Spencer Boyd, returning to action in Cup for the first time since his last-place run at Michigan, dropped to the rear in Ware’s #53 Chevrolet, lining up to the inside of Yeley in the final row. When the green flag fell, Yeley cleared Boyd on the backstretch, but the two followed each other at the end of a seven-car train led by the #00 University of Richmond Chevrolet driven by Landon Cassill. This train started to come apart by Lap 6, and on the 14th circuit, Boyd was already in danger of losing a lap to the leaders. Brad Keselowski caught Boyd on Lap 22, looking high in Turn 1, then pulling low to move past in Turn 2.

Moments earlier, on Lap 18, Boyd’s spotter told his driver that Reed Sorenson was “really overworking his brakes.” Sorenson, driving Spire Motorsports’ #77 Chevrolet, had dropped back from his 33rd-place qualifying spot to 36th by Lap 30, and was soon joined by both Houff and teammate Ross Chastain in the #15 Premium Motorsports Chevrolet. This allowed Boyd to reel in the trio by Lap 46. But as Boyd made his move through traffic, last place changed hands after the start of a series of early green-flag stops. First to come in was Chris Buescher, who started 23rd in the #37 Fast Lane to Flavor Chevrolet. Matt Tifft took last from Buescher on Lap 54 after pitting his #36 Surface Sunscreen Ford. Bubba Wallace took the spot for a moment on Lap 58, but Sorenson took it for the first time when he pitted his own car.

By then, Sorenson confirmed the Ware spotter’s concerns, saying his brake pedal was going to the floor: “Brakes are cooked,” said Sorenson as he slowed under caution at the end of Stage 1. “Brakes are absolutely terrible. I've gotta pump em up about six times. Tight in the center, just lose the grip off. . .brakes go all the way to the floor.” Sorenson came in for major adjustments on Lap 105, but quite suddenly passed Chastain for the 37th spot.

As it turned out, Chastain had the same brake issues as Sorenson, and was now the first car in the garage area, pumping his brakes as the crew put the car on jack stands. The Premium crew traced the issue to the right-front brake caliper, and had to remove a brake duct to access it. At this point, the crew considered parking the car for the night and transferring their tires to teammate Houff’s #27. Multiple attempts seemed to have little effect, as Chastain said his pedal was still slowly going to the floor after he’d pumped them. Finally, on Lap 136, the Premium crew dropped the hood and Chastain returned to the track, 38 laps down. He blended back into traffic two circuits later. By Lap 181, Chastain was clocking laps that were among the fastest 12 in the field, once timing in at 110.479mph (24.439 seconds). On Lap 226, Chastain was passing cars on the inside lane as he clocked in at 113.794mph, faster than any car up to 25th-place Alex Bowman.

Despite this, the #15 crew continued to second-guess running on the track: “It's questionable that we would even keep running,” said someone on Chastain’s crew over the radio at the halfway point. “They don't like lapped cars out there. Plus, we're burning through cash. . . We don't really want to race them too much, considering our situation.”

During this whole time, Sorenson stayed on track with his same brake issues, and managed to stay within ten laps of the leaders. That all changed on Lap 243, when Sorenson’s right-front failed, sending him bouncing off the wall in Turn 1. Sorenson was uninjured, but drove his car into the garage are with flames licking from behind his right-front wheel. Done for the night under the Damaged Vehicle Policy, Sorenson’s car was unavailable on RaceView by Lap 248.

Even then, it was not guaranteed that Chastain would be able to drop Sorenson to last. On Lap 260, Chastain was informed that Houff needed to pit for fresh tires, again raising the issue whether Chastain would park so his tires would be surrendered to Houff. It was later discovered that Houff had two sets of tires ready to go for the final stage. On the 267th lap, Chastain lost his first lap since the brake issue put him behind the wall, putting him 39 laps back of the leaders. He then pitted for fresh tires on Lap 274, and two circuits later finally dropped Sorenson to last. On Lap 303, Chastain’s crew once again raised the subject of parking the car. “I don’t know if they want us out here doing this,” said the #15 crew. Four laps later, and still 30 laps from catching a still-running Houff, Chastain pulled into the garage area. NASCAR’s official channel indicated the reason was a mechanical issue, and was not parked by officials. On Lap 310, Chastain was done for the night, the crew saying “See you boys in Charlotte.” One set of tires from Chastain went to Houff’s stall, giving him three sets for the final green-flag run. Houff finished 36th, 16 laps down to race winner Martin Truex., Jr. Boyd took 35th, four laps ahead of Houff, with Yeley 34th, another three ahead of Boyd.

Had the results been made official, Sorenson would have owned three of the ten-most laps completed by a last-place finisher of a Cup Series race at Richmond, including the all-time record of 390 laps set in 2016. But then came the results from technical inspection, where a disqualification bumped Yeley back out of the Bottom Five.

Around an hour after the race, Bob Pockrass tweeted the above picture of NASCAR officials taking a long time looking over Jones’ #20, which had just finished fourth to round out the first-ever top-four sweep by the Joe Gibbs Racing team. Further reports from team members, including Jimmy Makar, confirmed the reason why – Jones’ car had failed inspection for a rear toe issue. Under the 2019 rules, this was tantamount to a disqualification.

The disqualification not only dropped Jones to last place, moving Reed Sorenson out of the spot, but also broke Sorenson’s record for most laps complete by a Cup Series last-place finisher at Richmond. It also marked the first last-place finish by disqualification in the Cup Series since October 11, 1992, when Bobby Hillin, Jr. was docked at Charlotte for a cylinder head and intake issue, 935 races ago.

Credited with last-place points, Jones went from finishing 9th and 4th in the two stages, 3 points off the cut line to 45 points below, meaning he’d have to win next Sunday’s race on the Charlotte Roval to make the next round.

*This marked the first last-place finish for car #20 in a Cup Series race at Richmond since February 23, 1975 when Rick Newsom’s Newsom Racing 1973 Ford lost an engine after 5 laps of the Richmond 500. Only 22 cars started that race, where Richard Petty won by leading 444 of 500 laps.
*This marked the first last place finish by disqualification in a Cup Series race at Richmond, and the first time car #20 finished last by disqualification in any Cup race.

38) #20-Erik Jones / 400 laps / disqualified
37) #77-Reed Sorenson / 233 laps / crash
36) #15-Ross Chastain / 265 laps / brakes
35) #27-Quin Houff / 384 laps / running
34) #53-Spencer Boyd / 388 laps / running

1st) Rick Ware Racing (8)
2nd) Stewart-Haas Racing (4)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Front Row Motorsports (3)
4th) Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Spire Motorsports (2)
5th) Germain Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Motorsports Business Management, StarCom Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (16)
2nd) Ford (9)
3rd) Toyota (3)


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