Sunday, November 10, 2019

CUP: Tire failure takes Chase Elliott out of one championship and throws him into another

Elliott's car towed to the XFINITY garage. Note the left-rear tire.
PHOTO: Brock Beard
Chase Elliott picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Bluegreen Vacations 500 at the ISM Raceway when his #9 NAPA AutoCare Center Chevrolet was involved in a single-car crash after 165 of 312 laps.

The finish, which came in Elliott’s 148th series start, was his third of the year and first since Dover, five races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 33rd for the #9, the 592nd from a crash, and the 776th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 52nd for the #9, the 1,200th from a crash, and the 1,698th for Chevrolet.

Elliott’s last-place finish has set up one of the closest LASTCAR championships in history as he is now one of five drivers who can clinch the title in next week’s season finale. Elliott, Michael McDowell, Erik Jones, and Cody Ware can take the title just by finishing last. Ware is eligible despite trailing by one finish since he has more Bottom Fives and Bottom Tens than the other four contenders. If none of those four drivers finish last, current leader B.J. McLeod will take the title no matter where they finish.

The same late-season struggles that cost his father Bill Elliott the title in 1985 seemed to rear their ugly head in recent weeks as the younger Elliott has become a frequent LASTCAR contender, placing him in a series of “must-win” scenarios. Elliott’s last-place run at Dover necessitated his 8th-place finish at Talladega and a 2nd in Kansas, where his rally to the front stalled out in a series of late-race restarts. He advanced to the Round of 8 and started outside-pole for the opener in Martinsville, but a snapped axle on Lap 184 left him a disappointing 36th of 38 starters. This increased the pressure in Texas, where Elliott slipped in Turn 2 and slapped the outside wall just 10 laps into the race. Once again, he climbed out of last place and managed to finish 32nd out of 40. Now last in the Playoff rankings, 100 points short of the lead, only a win would be enough.

Elliott began the weekend 18th in opening practice, then jumped to the top of the board in Happy Hour, nearly three-tenths ahead of the next-fastest car of Ryan Blaney. He qualified 6th with a speed of 139.179mph (25.866 seconds), which also placed him sixth of the eight championship contenders. He did all this in a slightly different version of his blue-and-white NAPA Auto Parts paint scheme which promoted the NAPA AutoCare Center.

The 39th and final starting spot was originally slated for the #66 Toyota of Joey Gase, who was driving his second “Fan Memories” paint scheme since Talladega. This time, the track theme was Watkins Glen with names of fans printed on bricks that adorned both sides of the car. Gase then lost the spot to J.J. Yeley, who originally took 34th in the #53 Factor One Source Pharmacy Ford. The time was disallowed since his window net fell down during his timed laps, as he explained on race day:

“The detents, there was a failure in the spring. So when they put the window net up, even though it was in its locked position, it wouldn’t stay locked. So, halfway through my first lap it started to come down. It came down fully on the second lap. And based off a rule in the NASCAR rulebook, if you don’t run a window net, it’s a failure. So our lap was disallowed and we were relegated to the tail instead of the 33rd position.”

Yeley then looked ahead to the race itself: “It’s been good. We were pretty happy with the car in practice. Just struggled making the thing rotate the way I really wanted to. I think we were 32nd and 33rd in practice, which our goal is to be in the Top 30 with these finishes like we’ve had the last couple of weeks. So we’ll work hard all day long and see if we can’t do the same thing.”

When the field rolled off pit road, 24th-place qualifier Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. stayed in his spot as the crew addressed an issue with the radio. He didn’t roll off until the end of the first pace lap, then reassumed his position on track. Yeley remained in the 39th spot, but now had to his inside the #77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet of Reed Sorenson, who was also having radio issues and was slated to start 37th. Sorenson continued to lag back until the green flag dropped, at which point Yeley was a row ahead with teammate Garrett Smithley, swapped in for B.J. McLeod in the #51 Jacob Companies Chevrolet, on his inside.

At the end of the first lap, Sorenson now had Gase in front of him while Yeley and Smithley battled for position some distance ahead. Sorenson reeled in Gase on Lap 5, then got under him off Turn 2 on the seventh circuit, dropping Gase to last. As Sorenson pulled away, the leaders reeled in Gase, who they lapped on Lap 12. Kyle Busch, the leader at the time, pulled low at the stripe and dropped the #66 one lap down. Gase lost a second lap by Lap 28, and a third by the 39th circuit.

Sorenson reassumed last place with an unscheduled stop on Lap 45, which dropped him five laps down. This time, Busch caught Sorenson first and on Lap 64 put the #77 Chevrolet a sixth lap back. Moments later on Lap 67, Stenhouse drew the first caution when a right-front tire let go, dropping debris on the track. Stenhouse pitted and returned to action, clearing the Crash Clock without falling lower than 31st.

Elliott's car towed back out of the XFINITY garage.
PHOTO: Brock Beard
On the restart, Sorenson pulled behind Gase, who was now a lap ahead of his #77. Sorenson pulled to the high lane on Lap 75, but no position changed hands due to the interval. During this run on Lap 80, Sorenson told his crew to take a stripe of tape off the front grille. Responding was likely John McDowell, the crew chief, who asked who had added the tape that morning. He then instructed his crew to never touch the grille. This happened during the caution at the end of Stage 1, which kept Sorenson a lap behind Gase. On Lap 85, Sorenson passed Gase a second time, and again the positions did not change. The one-lap gap remained as Sorenson lost a sixth lap around the 96th circuit, a seventh on Lap 110, and an eighth on Lap 126.

All the while, Sorenson was fighting a bad tight condition, and was also losing his brakes. Entering the second corner on Lap 132, he was nearly run over by his technical teammate Ross Chastain in the Premium Motorsports #15 Chevrolet after Chastain was trapped behind him in the high groove as faster traffic passed in the lower lane. Despite this, Sorenson was still gradually reeling in 38th-place Gase, drawing from a full lap down to a half-lap by the 139th go-round. Stage 2 ended on Lap 152, and all 39 cars were still running with Sorenson nine laps down.

In the run-up to the end of Stage 2, Chase Elliott was in the fight of his championship life. Behind a dominant Kyle Busch and later Joey Logano, the two waged a tight battle for stage points. Denny Hamlin, first below the cutoff line, edged Elliott for the win in Stage 1, and after nearly colliding with a lapped car on the dogleg near the end of Stage 2, Hamlin prevailed in a side-by-side battle to take second spot with Elliott in 3rd. The car they nearly hit was Joe Nemechek, who closed out his triple-header weekend in Premium’s #27 Chevrolet.

The third and final stage took the green on Lap 160, when Sorenson was still nine laps down. The driver also complained that his “heels are chattering,” a statement that confused his crew chief. The issue didn’t keep Sorenson from passing Gase for a third time, and on Lap 166 he was edging away from the #66 when trouble broke out in Turn 2.

Chase Elliott was still in the thick of the lead battle when his left-rear tire blew, sending him spinning and backing into the outside wall, completely destroying the rear of his car. Elliott climbed out under his own power, but was visibly dejected as he walked down the banking. He was later checked and released from the infield care center, first to be eliminated from the final round of the Playoffs. Elliott took over last from Sorenson around Lap 176.

The car finally arrives at Elliott's garage stall.
PHOTO: Donald White,
Elliott’s car was towed to an opening just short of the entrance of pit road in Turn 2, then pulled into the vacant XFINITY Series garage. The tow truck driver then turned around and pulled the car up the main avenue to the rear entrance of the Cup garage behind the media center. It was several minutes before the car made it to its proper garage stall on the opposite end of the paddock. Once there, two armed guards stood separating onlookers from the car. A crew member took the mangled rear bumper panel and rear spoiler and placed them next to the team’s hauler.

Next to pull into the garage area on Lap 204 was Gase, who dropped a cylinder then retired with engine woes. Sorenson took 37th, pulling out with what the team cited as brake issues. Taking 36th was David Ragan, whose #38 Mannington Commercial Ford made at least two stays in the garage area for what was cited as a suspension issue. The team radio indicated they were having problems setting the toe, and though they ran 40 laps down on Lap 242, they wouldn’t reach the finish. Rounding out the group was Corey LaJoie, who made several pit stops for a faulty fuel pump, including a lengthy stop on Lap 275 where the crew was examining the fuel cell. LaJoie’s #32 Bluegreen Vacations Ford was the last to finish under power, 18 laps down.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #9 in a Cup Series race at the ISM Raceway in Phoenix.
*Elliott completed the fifth-most laps of any Cup Series last-place finisher at Phoenix. The top four ahead of him are Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (179 on March 15, 2015); Derrike Cope (202 on November 7, 1999); David Stremme (248 on April 21, 2007), and current record holder Martin Truex, Jr. (258 on November 13, 2016).

39) #9-Chase Elliott / 165 laps / crash
38) #66-Joey Gase / 170 laps / engine
37) #77-Reed Sorenson / 226 laps / brakes
36) #38-David Ragan / 261 laps / suspension
35) #32-Corey LaJoie / 294 laps / running

1st) Rick Ware Racing (9)
2nd) Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing (4)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Front Row 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 (20)
2nd) Ford (11)
3rd) Toyota (4)


1 comment:

Vic said...

When is the last time this battle was this close? And who was involved? I know Josh Wise's title was close, but was it the most recent?