|ALL PHOTOS: Dominic Aragon, TheRacingExperts.com|
The finish, which came in Clements’ 336th series start, was his first since April 14, 2018 at Bristol, 63 races ago. In the XFINITY Series last-place rankings, it was the 8th for the #51, the 261st from engine trouble, and the 544th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 40th for the #51, the 1,085th from engine woes, and the 1,707th for Chevrolet.
The perennial underdog and 2017 winner at Road America has endured a difficult start to the 2020 season. At Daytona, he was among the leaders when the hood on his #51 came loose down the backstretch, smashing itself against the windshield so hard that it shattered into pieces. Unable to replace his hood under NASCAR’s new rules – but not eliminated under the Crash Clock – Clements finished the race in 28th with bear-bond keeping his exposed radiator in place. Things didn’t go much better at Las Vegas, where the rear gear failed and left him 31st. But a 9th-place finish in last Saturday’s Fontana race seemed to signal a turnaround. But next on the schedule was Phoenix, where Clements had yet to finish better than 11th in 19 previous starts.
At Phoenix, Clements was one of 39 drivers entered for 36 spots, meaning three teams would miss the show. The JCR team did more than enough to keep their spot in the field, ranking 19th in opening practice, 16th in Happy Hour, and securing 18th on the grid with a lap of 131.334mph (27.411 seconds). General Tire rubber left behind from the previous day’s ARCA Menards Series race meant those with an early draw faced a particularly slick track. Two of the first nine qualifiers missed the cut – Matt Mills in the #5 J.F. Electric Chevrolet and teammate J.J. Yeley, swapped in for Mason Massey in the #99 B.J. McLeod Motorsports Chevrolet. Also sent home was Bayley Currey in Mike Harmon’s #74 Findlay Cadillac Chevrolet.
Starting 36th and last on the grid was West Series competitor Kody Vanderwal, who was making his NASCAR national touring series debut. He would take Yeley’s place in Jimmy Means Racing’s #52 Chevrolet but ended up struggling for speed all weekend. He would be joined at the back by both Ray Black, Jr., sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments on his #07 CDA Tech Chevrolet, and Landon Cassill. Cassill, in position to take his third consecutive last-place finish on the season, had again given Morgan Shepherd’s #89 a strong qualifying run, taking 16th on the grid. But he fell out of line prior to the start and would follow the rest of the pack to the green flag.
|Cassill on pit road during the early laps.|
Note the lack of replacement tires.
Vanderwal dropped a second lap down by Lap 27 and would not surrender the spot until Lap 33. That time by, Ray Black, Jr. had spun in Turn 2, and the crew needed to cut off a splitter bar to get him back on track. Black cleared the Crash Clock on the ensuing restart but remained in last. Meanwhile, Cassill climbed to 29th before he lost his first lap.
When Stage 1 ended on Lap 47, Cassill had dropped to two laps down, and was instructed by the team to drop to the tail end for the restart. He remained well ahead of both Black and Vanderwal, who again traded last place on Lap 51, when Black dropped the #52 back to 36th.
Clements did not enter the last-place picture until Lap 57, when NASCAR officials reported smoke coming off the #51. Two laps later, his was the first car behind the wall, citing mechanical issues. On Lap 62, Clements took last from Vanderwal, followed three circuits later by word from the JCR crew: “We’re done,” someone said. Moments later, Cassill pulled his #89 behind the wall, leaving him 35th. Both were officially noted as out by NASCAR officials on Lap 74 – Clements with engine trouble, Cassill due to a vibration. Vanderwal was also flagged for not maintaining minimum speed, though he would ultimately finish in 29th, 23 laps down.
Leicht took the 33rd spot ahead of Colby Howard, whose first turn in the #15 Project Hope Foundation Chevrolet ended with a crash, then a near-collision with the leaders as they split around him down the backstretch. Rounding out the group was Joe Nemechek, who for the second-straight Phoenix race was involved in a wreck driving one of Mike Harmon’s cars. This time, it happened 127 laps into his race after he lost the brakes in Turn 4.
There were fireworks between Dillon Bassett, whose yellow #90 Bassett Gutters & More Chevrolet wound up 18th after a tangle with 12th-place finisher Brandon Brown in his #68 Mid Atlantic Wrecker Service Chevrolet. Brown managed to improve one spot on his 13th-place qualifying run with a late pass on Justin Allgaier, earning Brown a tie for his fifth-best XFINITY Series finish. Bassett, who confronted Brown on pit road after the race, still walked away with his fifth Top 20 finish in just seven series starts. His best remains a 13th last fall at Richmond.
Finishing a strong 15th on Saturday was all-time last-place record holder Jeff Green. It was Green’s first start since his scheduled season debut at Daytona, where RSS Racing sold his qualified ride in the #38 C2 Freight Resources Chevrolet to allow the DNQ’d Ross Chastain to make the race. The Phoenix deal was set up afterward, and this time Green would climb aboard the #93. At a track where he’d finished last eight times since 2012 driving “start-and-park” entries for RSS and TriStar Motorsports, Green ran inside the Top 10 before settling back in 15th - his best finish on a non-superspeedway since another 15th-place showing at Dover on September 29, 2012.
Clements, meanwhile, heads into next week’s Atlanta race 25th in points.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #51 in an XFINITY Series race at Phoenix.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
36) #51-Jeremy Clements / 58 laps / engine
35) #89-Landon Cassill / 63 laps / vibration
34) #15-Colby Howard / 81 laps / crash
33) #66-Stephen Leicht / 101 laps / clutch
32) #47-Joe Nemechek / 127 laps / crash
2020 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Shepherd Racing Ventures (2)
2nd) Jeremy Clements Racing, SS-Green Light Racing (1)
2020 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (4)
2020 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP