Sunday, November 3, 2019

CUP: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s simultaneous wreck saves Brad Keselowski from first last-place finish

PHOTO: David PeQueen, @CarSDS2078
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. picked up the 5th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway when his #17 Fastenal Ford was involved in a two-car accident after 52 of 334 laps.

The finish, which came in Stenhouse’s 254th series start, was his first of the year and first since June 25, 2017 at Sonoma, 90 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 31st for the #17, the 591st from a crash, and the 697th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 47th for the #17, the 958th for Ford, and the 1,199th from a crash.

One week after his most recent last-place finish, Stenhouse stormed to victory lane in Daytona, taking the second Cup Series win of his career. But along the way, the same aggressive moves that earned the Mississippi native his victories have also brought a fair share of controversy and criticism from his fellow drivers. He slipped from 13th in the points in 2017 to 18th last year, going winless and triggering two massive pileups in his return to the night race at Daytona. But he also led 133 laps that year, nearly three times as many as he’d paced in any previous season.

This year, Stenhouse has led another 108 laps and counting, 68 of which on the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega. He finished 5th in the Coca-Cola 600, ran 6th in Las Vegas, and was reported to have signed a two-year extension to stay with Roush-Fenway Racing. That all changed on August 1, when the team exercised its option to bring back Chris Buescher, who gave the team an XFINITY Series title in 2015. On October 16, it was announced that Stenhouse would take Buescher’s place in JTG-Daugherty’s #37 Chevrolet next year, though the driver swap wasn’t intended at the time Roush-Fenway selected Buescher.

Looking to close out the year strong, Stenhouse found he had a fast car at Texas, earning 4th in opening practice, 6th in Happy Hour, then qualifying in 9th with an average speed of 187.931mph (28.734 seconds).

Qualifying 40th and last was Timmy Hill, who after two difficult runs with Spire Motorsports reunited with Motorsports Business Management on the Cup side. A day earlier, Hill finished 35th in MBM’s XFINITY car, a #13 Toyota with a new silver paint scheme. Hill’s Cup ride was the same blue-and-orange car that Joey Gase ran at Kansas before he was spun by Kyle Larson, though now with sponsorship from Tex Talk.

With no drivers sent to the rear before the start, it was Hill and 37th-place qualifier Josh Bilicki in the #51 Jacob Companies Chevrolet racing side-by-side into the first corner. Hill on the outside line ran neck-and-neck with Bilicki until the backstretch, where Hill fell into the last spot once more. By Lap 8, Hill had lost touch with Bilicki and was running by himself, 18.1 seconds back of the lead. He was still on the lead lap when the first caution fell on Lap 10.

Heading into Sunday’s race, Chase Elliott needed a strong showing to stay in Playoff contention following his axle failure last week in Martinsville. After qualifying 14th, Elliott was working his way through the pack when he broke loose in Turn 2 and smacked the outside wall with the right-rear, then the right-front. The damage sent him to pit road under caution, where he and not Hill became the first driver to lose a lap. Elliott was still on pit road when the race restarted on Lap 13, and only started rolling again two circuits after that, leaving him five laps behind. Elliott’s crew tried to calm their driver over the radio after he said he “wasn’t even trying to push that hard” before his wreck. Elliott reached minimum speed on Lap 23, but said he “doesn’t have any spoiler” and soon lost another lap to the leaders.

Stenhouse towed to the garage after his wreck.
PHOTO: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles
By the time Elliott returned to the track, Ross Chastain had lost four laps in the #27 Low T Center Chevrolet. Chastain pulled off pit road on Lap 18 in 39th place, and was later shown with repaired damage to the right-rear of his car. Corey LaJoie dropped down the rankings after he, too, hit the wall in Turn 3 on Lap 45, damaging the right-rear and right-front of his gold #32 Schluter Systems Ford. LaJoie returned to the track two laps down, and met minimum speed on Lap 49. Elliott pitted another time during all this, and was 11 laps back by Lap 50.

Stenhouse didn’t enter the last-place picture until Lap 55, when the tricky Texas track snatched up a couple other contenders. Moments earlier, Stenhouse had a close encounter with Brad Keselowski, whose #2 Wurth Ford broke loose in Turn 2, nearly collecting them both. Then in Turn 3, Keselowski broke loose a second time and backed into the outside wall. Stenhouse, who was following Keselowski some distance back in the high lane, broke loose at nearly the same instant. This caused Stenhouse to slam the wall at a higher speed, then slam into the rear of Keselowski’s Ford. Both battered cars slid to a stop in the grass, done for the day under the Crash Clock.

Initially, NASCAR RaceView indicated Keselowski was ranked behind Stenhouse as the two dropped through the field. But on Lap 57, with the cars towed behind the wall, this changed with Stenhouse ranked below Keselowski. Stenhouse’s car was first to be “unavailable” on RaceView on Lap 58, and both drivers were confirmed out by accident by NASCAR officials on Lap 68. One circuit after that, both drivers dropped below 40th-place Chase Elliott, putting Stenhouse in last for the rest of the afternoon. Keselowski took 39th.

LaJoie’s afternoon went from bad to worse when he wrecked a second time in Turn 3, ending his day after just 67 laps. Hill finished 37th, citing engine failure on the #66. Rounding out the group was Garrett Smithley, whose #52 Victory Lane / Kendall Oil Ford was collected in a two-car accident with David Ragan in the #38 Mystik Lubricants Ford on Lap 191.

With two races to go, the three-way tie for the LASTCAR Cup Series Championship remains. Series leader B.J. McLeod wasn’t entered, while his closest competitors Erik Jones and Michael McDowell finished 10th and 25th, respectively. A last-place finish – or even a Bottom Five – by any of these three drivers could prove decisive in the title.

Meanwhile, John Hunter Nemechek enjoyed a strong Cup Series debut in the #36 Speedy Cash Ford originally campaigned by Matt Tifft. Nemechek lined up 29th, then ran 21st at the finish, just one lap down to the leaders. He also finished eight spots ahead of his father Joe Nemechek, who ran 29th in Premium Motorsports’ #15 Xchange of America / Southside Bank Chevrolet. Next week, both father and son are slated to run all three series races at the ISM Raceway.

Darrell Waltrip's car in the garage after the Lap 1 wreck, 1997
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #17 in a Cup Series race at Texas since April 6, 1997, when Darrell Waltrip was collected in the 13-car pileup on the first lap of the inaugural Interstate Batteries 500. Waltrip’s chrome #17 Parts America Chevrolet was the only car eliminated in the accident.

40) #17-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 52 laps / crash
39) #2-Brad Keselowski / 52 laps / crash
38) #32-Corey LaJoie / 67 laps / crash
37) #66-Timmy Hill / 156 laps / engine
36) #52-Garrett Smithley / 188 laps / crash

1st) Rick Ware Racing (9)
2nd) Stewart-Haas Racing (4)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing (3)
4th) Richard Childress Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing, Spire Motorsports (2)
5th) Germain Racing, Motorsports Business Management, StarCom Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (19)
2nd) Ford (11)
3rd) Toyota (4)


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