Sunday, September 8, 2019

XFINITY: At Indy, J.J. Yeley finishes last, MBM impresses again, and Mike Harmon makes unexpected headlines

PHOTO: Kyle, @KDuke28
J.J. Yeley picked up the 9th last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Indiana 250 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when his unsponsored #38 RSS Racing Chevrolet fell out with suspension issues after 7 of 100 laps.

The finish, which came in Yeley’s 321st series start, was his third of the season and first since Road America, two races ago. This gives Yeley the lead in the 2019 LASTCAR XFINITY Series Championship for the first time this year, more than two months after teammate Jeff Green’s surgery cut short his season.

In the XFINITY Series last-place rankings, it was the 17th from suspension issues, the 19th for the #38, and the 535th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 41st for suspension issues, the 52nd for the #38, and the 1,684th for Chevrolet.

Following his last-place finish in the stand-alone event at Road America, Yeley ran double-duty last weekend in Darlington. His XFINITY Series ride for Rod Sieg’s team RSS Racing would be followed by a run in one of three Rick Ware Racing cars, a #52 Chevrolet honoring Daytona Beach Road Course winner Bill Blair. Following a 36th-place finish in the Saturday race, citing axle trouble, Yeley lined up 35th in a field of 39 for the 70th running of the Bojangles’ Southern 500.

We caught up with Yeley during the rain delay prior to Sunday’s action. He first talked about his weekend, and the challenges of running the Cup Series’ controversial 2019 package on such a demanding track:

“So far, it’s been going pretty good,” he said. “We didn’t make a whole lot of laps in practice with this car. The typical situation when you come to Darlington, trying to save as many sets of tires as we have, but with the 550 package, it’s very interesting to me. Obviously, I’ve been coming here quite a while, but the amount of on-throttle time you spend now at this race track is even higher than what you used to. It was hard getting acclimated to – not so much running wide open through one and two – but your entry speed and throttle lifting points into Turn 3 are so different than what they would be normally.”

“So, in a normal situation if we drove into Turn 3 as deep as we are now, everybody would’ve already knocked the fence down. It’s a little bit different getting used to. It’ll be interesting to see how the race plays out. This, to me, is one of the more fun race tracks we get to come out to. But at the same time, the leaders are gonna be coming in a hurry. There’s gonna be a huge difference in speed between the front of the field and the back of the field. There’s certainly no place to hide at this race track. So, we’ll do our best to keep her in one piece and just see how the race unfolds.”

Yeley added that running double duty in Cup and XFINITY was particularly challenging as the differences between each car required two completely different driving styles:

“With the old package, we had so much more horsepower, entry speed was a lot faster than we have now, so we had to lift a lot sooner. Now, because our entry speed is less, you drive a lot farther into the corner before you roll off throttle. You use a lot less brake than what you used to. Like I said, it’s kind of an odd thing to get used to. After yesterday, it was a little more difficult going in and out of the XFINITY car, getting back in the Cup car, and really just overdriving the XFINITY car because of the amount of time and how hard you can run a Cup car now with this package.”

“The XFINITY cars – small spoiler, you still have the speed, the tires fell off, you know, the cars were slipping around quite a bit yesterday. Didn’t have a lot of that yesterday in practice. Usually after one heat cycle in the tires - five laps, seven laps - you go back on the race track and lose two or three tenths, sometimes half a second. Yesterday, we made a three-lap run, came in, checked things out, and actually went faster, which is kind of unheard of when you come to Darlington other than in 2008, the year they repaved it.”

Following a 32nd-place finish in the Southern 500, Yeley would again run both series at Indianapolis. In addition to his “start-and-park” run in RSS Racing’s #38 on the XFINITY side, he’d be moved to a different Rick Ware Racing entry in Cup. He took the place of Garrett Smithley in the #54 Chevrolet, which carried Yeley’s returning sponsor Maximum Elevation Off-Road. The company backed Yeley last fall at Texas under the BK Racing entry acquired by Front Row Motorsports. That same car was run the following week at Phoenix under the Obaika Racing banner with Tanner Berryhill driving.

On the XFINITY side, Yeley started the weekend a strong 20th of 35 drivers in opening practice and didn’t participate in Happy Hour. He put the black #38 Chevrolet 24th on the grid with a lap of 161.152mph (55.848 seconds), just over eight-hundredths off the 23rd-best lap of teammate Josh Bilicki in the RSS #93 Chevrolet.

The final row of the 38-car field belonged to Mike Harmon Racing, a team which gained some unexpected exposure in the lead-up to the race. During final practice, Harmon’s #74 Chevrolet was following the #1 Pilot / Flying J Chevrolet of Michael Annett, driving for JR Motorsports. As the two exited Turn 4, Annett pulled down pit road in front of Harmon. Unable to completely avoid a collision, Harmon swiped the rear of Annett’s car, knocking the TV panel off the rear of Annett’s Chevrolet. While Harmon apologized for the incident, comments by Annett led to a rather heated exchange on social media. The situation appeared resolved by Saturday, where Annett qualified 15th and Harmon in 37th.

The car Harmon drove appeared to be exactly the same “throwback” car he ran the previous week at Darlington, all the way down to the reflective chrome stripe on each side which had to be removed as they interfered with NASCAR’s cameras during inspection. Harmon explained the paint scheme last week in Darlington. “Mid-90s to 2000, we ran it on our late models, super late models, had a lot of success. I’ve always been partial to it. . .It looked kind of flashy.” The veteran also explained his approach to racing at Darlington: “You’ve gotta stay out of the wall, which we all know that. It’s a very fast race track. Just gotta race smart. If you have a lot of respect for other drivers, you expect a lot of respect for yourself. It’s a very challenging track to run. Just running the track will keep your attention. It’s a mental thing – it’s not as bad as Daytona or Talladega, but it’s close. It’s a lot of fun. I like mental challenges. . .Race with the race track, that’s the main thing.”

Prior to Indianapolis, Harmon’s team had steadily improved through August’s stretch of road course races as Dan Corcoran, Aaron Quine, and Nicolas Hammann took turns driving the #74. Hammann’s 15th-place finish at Road America became the team’s best of the season, improving on Harmon’s 23rd-place showing at Talladega:

“Well, Nick (Hammann) did a tremendous job as far as Road America,” said Harmon. “With road racing, knowing the track is about fifty percent of it, and he grew up there three miles away. He’s been riding bicycles around it, driving race cars around it, for twenty-something years. So, he was the one I handed the wheel to. And I don’t say I don’t enjoy [road racing] – it’s not my cup of tea. We didn’t do that much growin up. And at this part of my career, I’m not interested in starting all over doing that. And I like working with the guys, and Aaron (Quine) did a good job as far as Mid-Ohio, got caught up in a crash. And then Dan (Corcoran) did a good job wherever he drove (Watkins Glen). I enjoy seeing other guys get opportunities they never had. I know what it meant to me when I got my first opportunity.”

Harmon also reflected on his team’s progress through the first part of 2019, including their change from the retired Dodges to current Chevrolet Camaros:

“It’s going pretty good. At the beginning of the year, I had zero equipment, basically. We ran the Dodges most all the time last year, and the rules, got caught up with them, so it wasn’t any good anymore. So, we started out the season with one motor and one car, and we’ve got three or four motors now, three or four cars. We’re gaining on it. Actually, it’s been a pretty decent year so far, as a whole. I haven’t got any complaints. Looking forward to the rest of the season – I’ve got some good tracks coming up. And I’ve got some other people coming back. Connor Mackie is gonna do some driving for us. That’s what it takes – it’s dollars, man. Sponsors get dollars. And I’ve got a business to run before I got the race car to drive.”

Starting alongside Harmon’s #74 was the #17 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet driven by Kyle Weatherman. According to Harmon’s team, Harmon and Ware have been partners “since the beginning,” and have continued that relationship to this day. Thus, while Weatherman’s #17 was entered with Rick Ware as the listed owner, Harmon runs the daily operations of the #17 team. The partnership is represented through the car numbers on the #17, which for weeks have matched the same font as Harmon’s #74. Interestingly, both drivers weren’t originally named as the drivers to their respective cars until after the preliminary entry list was published.

Weatherman’s team changed engines on the #17, and he incurred a redundant tail-end penalty as a result. Joining him in the rear were three other drivers, all for unapproved adjustments: 21st-place B.J. McLeod in the #15 JD Motorsports Chevrolet, 20th-place Ronnie Bassett, Jr. in DGM Racing’s #90 Bassett Gutters & More Chevrolet, and 23rd-place Bilicki in the RSS #93.

When the race began, Yeley took over last from this group, already 3.697 seconds back of the lead with Weatherman in front of him in 37th. Yeley passed Weatherman by the end of Lap 1, and the next time by, the #17 was 12.094 seconds back. After five laps, Weatherman was 18.853 seconds back with 37th-place Morgan Shepherd in the #89 Visone RV Chevrolet, just passed by Yeley who took 36th. At six laps complete, Shepherd fell to last behind Weatherman and remained in that spot until Yeley came down pit road, then pulled into the garage with seven laps in the books. Yeley was the first to be lapped, and NASCAR officials reported “38 to the garage, mechanical,” moments later. Yeley was announced out with suspension issues on Lap 23, officially done for the day. In the next day’s Cup race, Yeley climbed from last on the 40-car grid to finish 26th, three laps down.

Weatherman followed Yeley into the garage on Lap 13, but rejoined the race four laps down around Lap 16. This allowed Weatherman to climb past Austin Dillon, who after qualifying 14th in a one-off in Kaulig Racing’s #10 Ellsworth Advisors Chevrolet stalled his car to draw the first caution of the afternoon. Dillon also returned to action at the end of Stage 1 and ultimately completed two more laps than Weatherman before fuel pump issues ended his race in 34th. Between last place Yeley and 35th-place Weatherman were Shepherd, out with handling issues after 34 laps, and David Starr, who lost an engine on Lap 23, stopping his #52 Northern Builders Chevrolet.

Harmon, meanwhile, earned the race’s first two Lucky Dogs and climbed to 32nd before electrical issues ended his race just before halfway. Annett finished 12th.

PHOTO: MBM Motorsports Facebook
The top underdog of the day was Austin Hill, who made his long-awaited XFINITY Series debut following a disappointing DNQ in the July race at Daytona. Like Timmy Hill’s strong run at Bristol just last month, Austin drove a Carl Long chassis with fresh tires from Hattori Racing Enterprises, who also provided the car’s wrap. And just like Timmy, who steered his car to a 7th-place finish, Austin notched another Top Ten for Motorsports Business Management with a well-earned 9th-place showing. Both runs bookended a pair of 30th-place showings for the #61 at Road America and Darlington with road racer Dick Karth and MBM teammate Chad Finchum trading turns in the car.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the third consecutive last-place finish for RSS Racing in the XFINITY race at Indianapolis, but the first for Yeley, the #38, and suspension issues. The seven previous XFINITY races saw five last-place finishers out due to a vibration and the other two with first-lap engine failures. All seven races saw the last-place finisher complete no more than nine laps.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
38) #38-J.J. Yeley / 7 laps / suspension
37) #52-David Starr / 23 laps / engine
36) #89-Morgan Shepherd / 34 laps / handling
35) #17-Kyle Weatherman / 35 laps / overheating
34) #10-Austin Dillon / 37 laps / fuel pump

2019 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) RSS Racing (7)
2nd) Motorsports Business Management (6)
3rd) Joe Gibbs Racing (3)
4th) DGM Racing, Kaulig Racing (2)
5th) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Brandonbilt Motorsports, JD Motorsports, Jimmy Means Racing, Rick Ware Racing (1)

2019 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (16)
2nd) Toyota (9)

2019 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

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