Sunday, September 15, 2019

CUP: While Erik Jones makes up nine laps to avoid repeating in Las Vegas, Kurt Busch finishes last for the first time since 2008

PHOTO: @LVMotorSpeedway
Kurt Busch picked up the 6th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s South Point 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when his #1 Gear Wrench Chevrolet was eliminated in a single-car accident after 187 of 267 laps.

The finish, which came in Busch’s 675th series start, was his first of the season and first since November 16, 2008 at Homestead, 387 races ago. That race, the last NASCAR points race before LASTCAR went live in February 2009, saw Kurt run 207 of 267 laps before his #2 Miller Lite Dodge from Penske Racing was eliminated with crash damage.

In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 35th for the #1, the 589th from crash damage, and the 772nd for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 64th for the #1, the 1,195th from crash damage, and the 1,688th for Chevrolet.

In two decades of competing at NASCAR’s highest level, Kurt Busch has evolved from an outspoken young upstart who ruffled the feathers of many veterans, to a veteran in his own right. Between his fifth and sixth last-place finishes, he’s been released from Penske Racing and rebuilt his career with single-car teams Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing. It was Busch who nearly took an unsponsored Phoenix car to victory at Sonoma, then one year later put Furniture Row into its first Playoff battle. It was this same driver who finally broke through with his first Daytona 500 win in his 16th attempt, building up an expansion team at Stewart-Haas Racing. And it is this driver who has made Chip Ganassi Racing’s #1 Chevrolet his own, edging brother Kyle for victory in Kentucky to earn his spot in still another Playoff field.

Las Vegas marked the start of NASCAR’s postseason, and Busch looked to earn an elusive first victory at his home track. In nineteen previous starts, his best finish was a 3rd back in 2005. Six other times he finished 30th or worse, four of them from crashes. In opening practice, his black Chevrolet sat 23rd on the charts, last among the sixteen playoff contenders. He bounced back in Happy Hour, leading the session with his final lap at speed. He ended up qualifying 5th, best of the Chevrolets, with a lap of 178.112mph (30.318 seconds).

Starting 39th and last on Sunday was Joey Gase, who was back in the #66 Nevada Donor Network Toyota for the first time since his return to Cup at Darlington. Gase’s most recent weekend in Vegas this past spring could not have gone worse – he finished last in both races, crashing out on Saturday and suffering both mechanical and personnel issues in an incident dubbed here as "The Lastover." Gase would be joined at the rear by Reed Sorenson, whose unsponsored Spire Motorsports #77 Chevrolet had a new transmission, and both the #36 Surface / Maui Jim Ford of Matt Tifft and the #37 Natural Light Seltzer Chevrolet of Chris Buescher, both docked for unapproved adjustments.

During the pace laps, Buescher was first to fall to the rear, and selected the outside line. Tifft joined him and slotted behind Gase to take over the 39th spot on the inside line. Next to fall to the rear was Joe Nemechek, who moved toward the rear in Premium Motorsports’ #27 Chevrolet so he was now behind Buescher and to the outside of Tifft in the last full row. Falling behind those two was the penalized Sorenson, who left open some distance between himself and the rest of the field before he closed in just before the start.

When the green flag dropped, Sorenson caught Nemechek on the inside line and drew side by side down the backstretch. Sorenson cleared the #27 into Turn 3, dropping Nemechek to last at the stripe. Nemechek returned the favor two laps later by moving low inside Sorenson in Turn 1, dropping the #77 back to 39th. Two laps after that, Gase slipped behind Nemechek and into the clutches of Sorenson, so the two now ran door-to-door across the stripe. Sorenson cleared Gase in the low lane, dropping the #66 back to his original starting spot. Gase remained in Sorenson’s tire tracks, and on Lap 9 began to set up a move to the inside. Sorenson held him off in Turn 1, then crossed his nose the next time by, but Gase once again looked for a way around the #77.

Meanwhile, Kyle Busch slapped the Turn 2 wall in his #18 M&M’s Hazlenut Spread Toyota and on Lap 12 made an unscheduled stop for the damage to the right side of his car. He returned to action the first car one lap down and in danger of losing a second. It wasn’t until Lap 26 that Busch caught the 38th-place Gase and put the #66 back to last once more. At the time, Gase was still racing Sorenson hard for position, even as race leader Daniel Suarez put both another lap down. Busch retook last from Gase during green-flag stops on Lap 43, but it was Sorenson who took the spot back after his own stop the next time by. Gase, meanwhile, nearly collided with Joey Logano as the #22 Pennzoil Ford worked under him in Turn 4 to get to pit road. Gase took last once more on Lap 53 after a stop of his own.

Garrett Smithley entered the last-place battle on Lap 67 when his #52 Honest Abe Roofing Ford fell five laps down. On the 80th circuit, Smithley caught and passed Gase in the low lane of Turn 1, dropping the #66 to the final spot once more. The battle between Gase and Sorenson resumed at the start of Stage 2 on Lap 87. By Lap 92, Gase had worked his way past Sorenson, this time in the high lane off Turn 2.

Next to enter the battle was Erik Jones, who made a pit stop early in Stage 2. The crew looked under the driver’s side on pit road as the driver complained of a stuck throttle and issues with the transmission sticking between gears. Both issues sent Jones behind the wall by Lap 94, his #20 Craftsman / Gas Monkey Garage Toyota the first car in the field to spend time in the garage. On Lap 102, the crew finished their repairs and hurriedly pushed their car back out of its stall. The next time by, Jones was on pit road, 15 laps down and nine circuits behind the duo of Gase and Sorenson for the next two spots. With just over half the race remaining, Jones’ crew told him to try and catch as many cars as he could for points.

Thus began a fascinating battle at the back of the field as Jones gradually closed the gap on the final few runners. In races past, such battles usually come about when a higher-ranked car falls out of the race ahead of lapped cars still running. While nine laps back of Gase on Lap 103, he closed to within five laps on Lap 142, and within one lap on Lap 180. Although some of this gain could be attributed to Jones’ relative speed to the last few cars running ahead of him, Jones still had issues with his throttle and said it was at times worse than it had been prior to the first pit stop. Jones also gained back two of his fifteen laps, coming within 13 laps of the leader on Lap 184. Two laps later on a restart, Jones’ advance slowed, and he was stuck in the outside lane with several cars passing him.

Only then did Kurt Busch enter the last-place battle. Despite his speed in Happy Hour and qualifying, Busch had around an 8th-place car, and was running around that spot when the green flag came out. As the field fanned out around him, he made contact with Martin Truex, Jr. in the #19 Bass Pro Shops / Tracker Toyota. The contact caused wisps of smoke to come from his Chevrolet as Chase Elliott followed him around the corners. Then, entering Turn 3 on Lap 190, the left-front tire went down, sending Busch hard into the outside wall. The driver climbed out uninjured, but his car was totaled, done for the night under the damaged vehicle policy. With no other cars out or even in the garage, Busch quickly dropped to last on Lap 202.

Jones, meanwhile, continued his charge with designs on escaping the Bottom Five. On Lap 211, shortly after the restart from the Busch caution, Jones passed Gase down low off Turn 2, finally putting the #66 Toyota behind him. By Lap 226, he had also dispensed with Sorenson, reaching the 36th spot. While now within two laps of catching Smithley for 35th, Jones ran out of laps by the finish. However, on Lap 253, he did manage to pass teammate Kyle Busch on the track, even before Busch rammed Smithley and damaged the right-front of his #18. Smithley hung onto his car during the incident, and the Bottom Five remained the same.

*This marked the first Cup Series last-place finish for car #1 at Las Vegas since March 5, 2000, when Steve Park’s #1 Pennzoil / Mission to Mars Chevrolet lost an engine, making him the lone DNF from a rain-shortened 400. Busch’s Cup debut wouldn’t come for another eight months.
*Busch’s 187 laps complete set a new record for the most laps completed by a Cup Series last-place finisher at Las Vegas. The previous record of 150 was set in the inaugural Cup race here on March 1, 1998 by Hut Stricklin, who had electrical issues on the Stavola Brothers’ #8 Circuit City Chevrolet.
*The time between Busch’s most recent two last-place finishes of 10 years, 9 months, and 30 days is fourth-most behind Joe Ruttman (15 years, 6 months, 22 days from 1988-2004), Mark Martin (14 years, 11 months, 5 days from 1982-1996), and Stanton Barrett (12 years, 11 months, 7 days from 2005-2018).

39) #1-Kurt Busch / 187 laps / crash
38) #66-Joey Gase / 249 laps / running
37) #77-Reed Sorenson / 250 laps / running
36) #20-Erik Jones / 254 laps / running
35) #52-Garrett Smithley / 255 laps / running

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

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


1 comment:

MarshallDog said...

Kyle Busch needs to retire and take his grumpy ass home. He did his own version of the buttfumble at the end of that race and blames the guy he rear-ended. He said, "I thought he was gonna go high so I went high, then he went middle..." How freaking high did he expect Smithley to go? Those lower-tier teams should do nothing to get out of baby Busch's way from now on. If he wants to pass them he should have to work for it.