Sunday, April 26, 2020

iRACING: Ill-timed push of the power button leaves Denny Hamlin last at Talladega

ALL SCREENSHOTS: Seth Eggert, Kickin' The Tires
Denny Hamlin finished last in Sunday’s fifth round of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational, the GEICO 70 at the Talladega Superspeedway, when his #11 FedEx “Delivering Strength” Toyota fell out with computer monitor issues after 51 of 74 laps.

Hamlin enjoyed the strongest possible start to the season, becoming just the fourth driver in NASCAR history to win the Daytona 500 in back-to-back years. However, in the three races that followed, the #11 FedEx Toyota was conspicuously absent from the lead, having not led a single lap since. He finished 17th in Las Vegas, 6th in Fontana, then struggled to a 20th-place run in Phoenix.

Things turned around once again during quarantine as Hamlin won the season opener for the Pro Invitational Series at Homestead, edging Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in a thrilling finish. Other than a 24th-place finish in the next round at Texas, his finishes remained strong on the sim racing side, taking 4th at Bristol and 6th in Richmond. While doing so, his #11 carried a thank you to FedEx’s team members as they continue to keep the country’s supply chain going during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hamlin, who won the spring Talladega race in 2014, had a difficult start to the sim race weekend. He qualified just 36th on the 39-car starting grid, having missed qualifying while trying to log onto TeamSpeak. He would immediately gain three spots. Due to their status as “Sim Racing Ringers,” William Byron, Timmy Hill, and Parker Kligerman were all sent to the rear of the pack, surrendering the 32nd, 33rd, and 35th starting spots. They would slot in behind original last-place qualifier Ryan Blaney in the #12 Menards Ford with Byron the new last-place starter.

Byron, running the same paint scheme with which he finished last in this year’s Daytona 500, maintained the last spot on Lap 1. He was soon joined by Kyle Busch, who surrendered the 19th spot by dropping to the apron just after the green flag. Busch and Byron raced each other for the spot before both moved ahead of Joey Gase, who took the 39th spot by Lap 5. Gase’s #53 ASC / Carolina Cooker Chevrolet carried a Bobby Allison throwback scheme similar to Tony Stewart’s from Darlington in 2016.

On Lap 6, Joey Logano took the last spot in his #22 Ford, followed four laps later by Ryan Preece in the #37 Chevrolet. On Lap 15, the spot then fell to Erik Jones, who had made a daring save in the tri-oval during the early laps. It was Hamlin who banged doors with Jones, sending the #20 Toyota into the grass. When Jones took last, he was also the first driver to trail by open track, sitting a full 21 seconds back of the lead.

Bowyer loses an engine for a second straight race.
Moments later, the first multi-car pileup unfolded in Turn 3, sending a returning Jeff Gordon into the catchfence. Gordon, making his first iRacing start of the year, drove another throwback to the Pepsi and DuPont-sponsored #24 he took to victory lane in the 2004 Aaron’s 499. Gordon was among those to use his “Quick Repair” and return to competition, and though he briefly held the last spot, he ultimately got his lap back in the process. Still two laps down, however, was Michael McDowell, who took over the 39th spot on Lap 19 in his #34 Ford. At the time, there was visible damage to the rear of McDowell’s car.

McDowell lost five laps for repairs, but continued on in the race. He soon linked up with Hamlin, who by then had been involved in another accident, this time with Cole Custer in the #41 Ford. The incident, which didn’t bring out the caution flag, left Hamlin’s #11 with heavy damage to the front of his car, and he locked onto the draft of McDowell. At the time, Hamlin had dropped to 38th with Custer some distance ahead of him in 37th. The pair of them were lapped by the leaders with 36 to go, putting McDowell a sixth lap down. Furious, Hamlin said “I’m just gonna start fuckin’ wrecking everyone, because they can’t drive for shit.”

Next to contend for last place was Clint Bowyer in the #14 Barstool Sports Ford. Last week at Richmond, Bowyer was involved in multiple accidents, then blew an engine, leaving him out of the race. Late in Sunday’s Talladega round, Bowyer moved into the lead and was working over Alex Bowman in the tri-oval when the engine blew once more. He pulled out of line and dropped to the apron, requiring a long trip back to pit road. Fortunately, unlike Richmond, Bowyer still had a “Quick Repair,” and returned to the race multiple laps down. He also avoided dropping further back than 38th as he didn’t lose as much time as McDowell, leaving the #34 in last.

Moments later, Hamlin unexpectedly crashed into the wall. He returned to pit road, overshot his stall, and threw his car into reverse. Initial reports were that Hamlin was booted from iRacing’s server for backing up into his pit stall, making him the first retiree from the race. Soon after, Jeff Gluck reported Hamlin’s computer monitor went out, causing the accident. An extra layer of intrigue came from Hamlin himself, who revealed his young daughter Taylor found the remote control and accidentally turned off the screen. “Uh oh,” she said.

Hamlin was kicked from the server and did not return to the race, dropping him to last with around 11 laps to go. McDowell ultimately climbed out of the Bottom Five to finish 34th, passing several other drivers eliminated in late-race incidents. Jeff Gordon tangled with teammate Chase Elliott, costing him nearly ten laps for repairs. He returned to the track, but was unable to pass both Jones and Logano, where eliminated in a big Turn 1 pileup started by Logano’s unexpected turn to the left. Rounding out the group was Matt DiBenedetto, who finished one lap down in a new blue-and-white scheme on his #21 Ford.

Restrictor plate racing has always held the potential for great runs by underdog drivers, and Sunday was no different. Ty Dillon was battling Alex Bowman for the lead for much of the late stages, his #13 GEICO Chevrolet pacing the field for eight laps. He was still in contention for the win when he was spun entering the tri-oval for the final time, leaving him 23rd.

Corey LaJoie, who won the pole for Sunday’s race, inherited the runner-up spot after a fine charge on the inside lane, then pulled low leaving the tri-oval. LaJoie came within just 0.037 of a second of pulling off the victory.

Brennan Poole qualified a strong 7th, contended for the lead early, and ran as high as 2nd. He then faced a setback after his #15 Chevrolet was collected in an accident. Following his “Quick Repair,” Poole rejoined the lead battle and finished 7th. All this came just days after word that his team owner Jay Robinson had completed a sale of Premium Motorsports to Rick Ware Racing.

One of the most impressive runs belonged to Joey Gase, who pitted off-sequence and got his #53 into the lead draft. Gase clawed his way into the Top 5 in the late stages and looked in position to take the lead before he was booted to the high groove with no help. He was then collected in Logano’s late-race accident, leaving him a disappointing 20th.

*Car #11 has just one last-place finish in a Cup Series race at Talladega. It occurred on April 25, 1999, when Brett Bodine’s Paychex Ford was collected in an eight-car wreck on the backstretch triggered by contact between Jeff Gordon and Mike Skinner. It was Bodine’s sixth of eight career Cup Series last-place finishes.
*Hamlin has never finished last in a Cup race at Talladega.

39) #11-Denny Hamlin / 51 laps / monitor / led 1 lap
38) #24-Jeff Gordon / 65 laps / running
37) #20-Erik Jones / 67 laps / crash
36) #22-Joey Logano / 67 laps / crash
35) #21-Matt DiBenedetto / 73 laps / running

Sunday, April 19, 2020

iRACING: Clint Bowyer goes to the digital booth after engine failure at Richmond

SCREENSHOT: @StewartHaasRcng
Clint Bowyer finished last in Sunday’s fourth round of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational, the Toyota Owners 150 at the Richmond Raceway, when his #14 Peak Antifreeze Ford lost the engine after 57 of 154 laps.

Earlier this year, Bowyer started his fourth season with Stewart-Haas Racing since he took over the ride of a retiring Tony Stewart. Though unable to win a race in 2019, he took a 9th-place finish in points, his best overall championship ranking since 2013. Prior to the suspension of the 2020 season, Bowyer appeared to pick up where he left off. Ironically, his worst finish of the season came at Fontana, where he won just the fourth pole of his career, only to cut a tire in the middle stages. He recovered at Phoenix for a season-best 5th, and climbed to 13th in points.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Bowyer has further developed his presence in broadcasting as the “in-race reporter” for the iRacing Pro Invitational. Stationed across the studio from FOX Sports’ Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon, Bowyer has provided entertaining commentary, though at the cost of his finishes. Even with Fast Repairs, Bowyer’s three previous sim racing finishes were a 16th at Homestead, then 11th at both Texas and Bristol. The Bristol race saw Bowyer tangle with Bubba Wallace in the early laps. With no Fast Repairs remaining after an earlier incident, Wallace had no choice but to angrily quit the race. On Sunday, driving a Billy Hagan throwback on his #43 Sunoco Chevrolet, Wallace recovered nicely from the slowest completed lap in qualifying - good enough for 28th - to finish 9th.

Richmond marked the first time the Fast Repair option would not be available to any of the 30 starters. This perhaps foreshadowed Sunday’s result as Richmond has been hit-or-miss for Bowyer in actual Cup Series racing. While he scored a wild victory on May 3, 2008 – a race which was re-broadcast on NASCAR’s YouTube channel in the lead-up to Sunday’s event - the track also saw him score his first Cup Series last-place finish on April 26, 2014.

Bowyer took the 30th and final starting spot after an ill-timed bathroom break during qualifying. He was joined in the final row by Christopher Bell, whose #95 Rheem Toyota didn’t complete a lap after a problem with Bell’s rig. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Daniel Suarez, who both transferred into the main event after Sunday morning’s qualifier, started a strong 4th and 6th, respectively. In actual Cup Series racing, a race at Richmond hadn’t seen only 30 starters since September 13, 1987.

When the race started, Bowyer and Bell raced side-by-side into the first corner. Bell drew ahead heading into the third corner, keeping the #14 in last place. Bowyer then passed Ty Dillon’s #13 GEICO Chevrolet on Lap 2, and the younger Dillon soon fell six seconds off the lead. On Lap 7, Dillon dropped Chase Elliott to last in the #9 NAPA Chevrolet, but Elliott moved past him once more on Lap 12. By the 23rd circuit, Dillon was 21.116 seconds back of the lead.

Next to join the last-place battle was Chris Buescher, whose #17 Fifth Third Bank Ford had a steering box issue heading into Turn 3. With the wheels cut hard to the right for the left-hand turn, Buescher spun and drew the caution flag. He fell to last by Lap 30, when he was three laps down to the leaders. On the restart, Bowyer was then collected in a multi-car pileup on the backstretch. Shortly after Alex Bowman and Ross Chastain spun into the inside wall, Bowyer was seen spinning up the track exiting Turn 4, slamming head-on into the outside wall. Despite his lack of a Fast Repair, Bowyer continued onward after lengthy repairs with the front valence missing from his car. On Lap 40, Bowyer took last from Buescher after the #14 fell a second lap down.

Joey Logano then dropped down the rankings after he triggered a multi-car pileup entering the first corner. Logano came up on the #1 GearWrench Chevrolet of Kurt Busch and turned him. Busch’s car spun and threw both Logano and the #3 American Ethanol Chevrolet of Austin Dillon into the outside wall. Both drivers spent several laps for repairs. Logano lost 19 laps while Dillon lost 53, but it was Logano who was the first to take last from Bowyer.

On Lap 60, with Dillon still on pit road, Bowyer’s car suddenly trailed smoke coming off Turn 4 and ran slow down the inside lane. Bowyer announced his engine had let go, and he was done for the day. He took last from the still-running Logano around 73 laps to go, and remained in that spot to the finish.

Bowyer joined Joy and Gordon for the play-by-play to the finish, watching as a series of accidents changed the rest of the Bottom Five. Austin Dillon climbed his way to 28th, passing Kevin Harvick, who lost 55 laps during pit road repairs of his own. Matt DiBenedetto took 27th, parked by iRacing after he retaliated against polesitter Ryan Preece for contact in an earlier crash. Rounding out the Bottom Five was Jimmie Johnson, his #48 Ally Bank Chevrolet collected in a late-race accident in Turn 3. Logano managed to just climb out of the Bottom Five to take 25th.

*Car #14 has never finished last in a Cup Series race at Richmond.

30) #14-Clint Bowyer / 57 laps / engine
29) #4-Kevin Harvick / 99 laps / running
28) #3-Austin Dillon / 101 laps / running
27) #21-Matt DiBenedetto / 112 laps / parked
26) #48-Jimmie Johnson / 123 laps / crash

Monday, April 13, 2020

COMMENTARY: There are no winners in Larson debacle

PHOTO: Brock Beard
Last night, during an iRacing livestream, NASCAR Cup Series driver Kyle Larson uttered a racial slur that was heard on all channels. Today, as NASCAR, Credit One Bank, Chip Ganassi Racing, and iRacing have all taken punitive action, Larson publicly apologized in a video on his Twitter account. 

What Larson did last night was stupid and reckless. The slur uttered inflames the emotions more than all others. It was shocking that a public figure would exercise such poor judgment on a livestream that he knows is being watched by so many people. I do believe that Larson was sincere in his apology video. But I also agree that this same morning, NASCAR and their partners were right to take disciplinary action – not simply to punish Larson, but as a warning to others. I’m also pleased that NASCAR has offered a road back through sensitivity training. A second chance is an intrinsic American value.

It’s beyond an understatement to say this has been the latest chapter in what has been a horrible year for everyone. This news broke in the midst of a pandemic that has forced us to shelter in place for a nearly a month, with still no clear indication when we can return to our normal lives. We are scared, frustrated, angry, and trying to make the best out of an impossible situation. iRacing – both for competitors and viewers – has been one of the few outlets available for us all to try and feel some sense of normality. It should not have been surprising that everyone’s emotions were running so high in the aftermath. One could even consider it a betrayal.

But the response on social media last night quickly turned ugly in its own right. What began as understandable disgust grew to demands that Larson lose his sponsors and even be kicked out of NASCAR. The fire then grew even bigger as others concluded that he would, even crowning Ross Chastain as his replacement. Some seemed to express near glee in making memes out of Larson. Others insisted this is proof NASCAR has never escaped the worst shadows of its past, unwittingly writing today’s headlines for outsiders who have an ax to grind against stock car racing.

With fear and anger adding more fuel to the fire, the outrage wasn’t focused simply on Larson anymore, but quickly spread to others who didn’t completely agree with the trajectory of the discussion. I was among those targeted when I expressed my distaste for “cancel culture,” where such a concerted effort of online bullying and shaming stemming from a single act is geared toward destroying a person’s entire reputation and career. Social media has granted the court of public opinion so much power with responsibility to no one, and feels no consequences for its collective actions. It acts beyond the law, and should be used with extreme caution.

Some who agreed – as I do – that it is useless to explain intent when using a racial slur were also trying to convince me that putting someone “on blast” is different from “cancel culture.” Others looked no further than my skin color and shouted me down with the same kind of hate that, if said on a livestream, would see this same phenomenon turned on them. This was outrageous and deeply hurtful. I dread to know how much it pales to what Larson must be experiencing.

Nothing good came from last night – not from Larson, and not from social media. No evil was vanquished, and no war was won. I pray that, in our self-isolation, we all take a moment to understand what is important to us, and most importantly, what price we are willing to pay to see it happen. Maybe then, we will all return to our senses.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

iRACING: Bubba Wallace ragequits at Bristol

SCREENSHOT: Seth Eggert, Kickin' The Tires
Bubba Wallace finished last in Sunday’s third round of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational, the Food City Showdown at Bristol Motor Speedway, when his #43 Blue-Emu Chevrolet was eliminated in an early crash after 9 of 150 laps.

Entering this, his third full-time season with Richard Petty Motorsports, Wallace’s best finish of the season was a strong 6th back in Las Vegas, following a 15th in the Daytona 500. He then struggled in the following two rounds, finishing 27th at Fontana and 19th at Phoenix, but thus far has completed all but two laps in the abbreviated 2020 season. Following the suspension of track activities, Wallace joined the iRacing action at Homestead, where he ran 7th, then took 25th at Texas.

This past week, Wallace carried sponsorship from Blu-Emu, the same pain reliever which has continued to back Landon Cassill’s #89 Chevrolet in his digital efforts. Cassill debuted a new look to his sim rig on Sunday, featuring two wall decorations to resemble the inside of a race car. Wallace’s own Blue-Emu machine would be run on a familiar red-and-blue throwback paint scheme, reminiscent of some of Richard Petty’s old STP cars from the 1970s. Wallace had himself enjoyed one of the best runs of his first full season two years ago, leading his first six laps in the Food City 500.

In qualifying, Wallace ran 16th fastest, 0.222 second off the fastest lap by eventual race winner William Byron. He lined up in 8th for Heat Race 2 and finished in the same spot, just over seven seconds back of a photo finish between John Hunter Nemechek and Ryan Preece. This put the #43 in the 16th spot on the grid for the 150-lap main event. No drivers failed to qualify as the extra entrants ran yesterday’s Saturday Night Thunder on the same track.

Starting 32nd and last was Clint Bowyer, who ran teammate Aric Almirola’s Smithfield scheme on his #14 Ford this week. Bowyer struggled right from the start. He spun in qualifying and turned the slowest time, a full 1.4 seconds off the pole speed. This lined him up next-to-last in Heat Race 2, but fell behind last-place starter Bobby Labonte at the green flag. He climbed up to 12th on Lap 22, but that time by hit the wall, and soon after tangled with Labonte in a race for position. Now one lap down, Bowyer said “I broke my give a damn” and started bumping several drivers. He ultimately wrecked down the backstretch and took last from Labonte with six to go in the 50-lap heat.

Bowyer started alongside Erik Jones, whose #20 DeWalt Toyota finished last in Heat Race 1 after an internet connection issue prevented him from turning a single lap. The issue returned around five laps into the main event as Jones’ #20 was shown three circuits down on Lap 8. It seemed Jones would join Noah Gragson at Atlanta and Ty Majeski at Kansas as drivers to recently finish last due to internet issues.

However, that soon changed as Bubba Wallace ran the outside lane to pass Bowyer for position. On Lap 10, Bowyer twice crossed into Wallace’s path, stuffing the #43 into the outside wall. Frustrated, Wallace pulled low on the backstretch, summoned his car to the pits, and called it a day. “All right – you have a good one,” he said. “That’s it. That’s why I don’t take this shit serious.”

Moments later, Jones surprisingly returned to action, at least 10 laps down. Around Lap 25, he passed the exiting Wallace, dropping the #43 to last place. Jones completed just five more laps before he, too, disconnected, leaving him 31st.

The 30th spot fell to Chase Elliott, whose #9 NAPA Chevrolet was involved in several incidents. Kyle Larson took 29th when his #42 McDonald’s Chevrolet was parked by iRacing for trying to wreck Daniel Suarez, who was parked last week in Texas. Suarez just worked his way past Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. to climb out of the Bottom Five, leaving the #47 Kroger Chevrolet in 28th. Both Stenhouse and Suarez were credited with 72 completed laps.

*Car #43 has never finished last in a Cup Series race at Bristol, a track where Richard Petty won three times including a season sweep in 1975.

32) #43-Bubba Wallace / 9 laps / ragequit
31) #20-Erik Jones / 14 laps / internet
30) #9-Chase Elliott / 31 laps / disconnected
29) #42-Kyle Larson / 71 laps / parked
28) #47-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 72 laps / disconnected

Saturday, April 4, 2020

TRUCKS: Bobby and Roger Reuse Enjoy a Solid Afternoon in Mosport

Roger Reuse
PHOTO: Brock Beard
Traveling to Canadian Tire Motorsports Park poses a logistical challenge to the competitors of the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. Last year’s running saw just 29 starters make the journey, three short of a full field. Curiously, it was one of the series’ underfunded teams – Jordan Anderson Racing – which brought three trucks for the race. While Anderson himself would drive his #3 Chevrolet, the other two would be run by brothers Roger Reuse and his younger brother Bobby.

Bobby Reuse
PHOTO: Brock Beard
The Alabama-born Reuse brothers own WCIParts, a longtime backer of Anderson’s. The two owned the WCIParts-sponsored pro late model Anderson drove to victory at Alaska Raceway Park last May. Bobby bought the Anderson team’s uniforms in 2019. The two are also racers themselves, having competed against each other on road courses across the country. “We’ve raced together a long time,” said Roger. “We’ve road raced together, so it seems like we’re always running around each other.”

In 2014, the Reuse brothers made the jump from Trans-Am into NASCAR national series competition. Both started out driving for Mike Harmon, who also helped Anderson in his rise through the ranks. Bobby made his debut at Road America and finished 29th despite engine trouble. Roger’s first start came at Watkins Glen, where he finished under power in 30th. In the next round at Mid-Ohio, the two then raced against each other in a pair of Harmon cars. Bobby finished 24th while Roger finished last in the 39-car field.

The 2019 running at Bowmanville offered the brothers still another chance to compete against one another. Prior to the race, Bobby finished 17th in the 2017 running for Mark Beaver while Roger ran 27th for the Little family’s team in 2018. This time, the brothers would each drive one of Anderson’s trucks, each using the Owner Points of a different single-truck team. Roger would drive the truck Anderson raced the previous round at Bristol, converted to a road course setup, and bearing the #04 of the Texas-based Roper Racing. Bobby ran a third Anderson truck with Hill Motorsports’ #56 on the yellow-and-white Chevrolet.

“The Ropers are out of Texas and they weren’t gonna run this race,” said Anderson. “Same thing with Timmy Hill. We were able to go to them and get some of their guys up here with us to make it all happen. So I’ve always believed the small teams need to stay together to make it as healthy as possible for all of us.” Both the Reuse’s trucks carried associate sponsorship from WCIParts and had Ilmor engines under the hood. The brothers also provided a hauler of their own to help bring the three trucks north.

The weekend got off to a rough start when Anderson backed his #3 into a tire barrier in practice, completely destroying his rear clip. With just 30 combined crew members among his three entries, and no backup truck due to the Reuse effort, Anderson had no choice but to rebuild the rear of his truck, hammering the pieces straight. The team rebuilt and re-decaled the truck in time for the main event, where Anderson matched his 2018 finish of 16th.

“I’m really proud of Jordan,” said Roger Reuse. “It’s amazing what he’s been able to do. And to pull this off with three teams. That’s what I tweeted out earlier – three teams, there was two practices, one qualifying, and all three of us. He had a wreck, but he was able to qualify, and he did it all in the second practice. So we made all the practices, all the qualifying, and we were all running at the end.”

As for the Reuse brothers, Bobby came out ahead, taking the checkers in 22nd despite a persistent tight condition and a spin on the last lap. “It was good,” said Bobby. “I had a lot of fun. Raced with Jason White for a long time and tried really hard to get around him. And when I finally got close to him coming up the frontstraightaway, I was a carlength off of him, and I guess I decided to give the frontstraightaway crowd a show, and I did two pirouettes in the middle of the track and threw it in first gear and kept going.”

Bobby also engaged in the same class racing that’s become a part of today’s NASCAR, where teams not contending for the win battle hard against one another to be best of their group. “I think we weren’t the best today, but we might have been the best of the rest. And we beat the guys we were supposed to beat. I really wanted to race with Jason (White) and that was fun to do. I really wanted to beat the 12 (Gus Dean) – I needed to get a little bit faster. I know we were faster in the race today than we were in qualifying. And that’s all you can ask for - as long as everytime you go on the track you go faster. It was a good day. No scratches.”

“He seemed to handle this a lot better than I did,” said Roger, who finished three spots behind his brother in 25th. “I got to see him a few times, but he was faster.” For Roger, the challenge was radio issues, which drew a black flag late in the third stage. “My radio wasn’t working, so they black-flagged me. I couldn’t hear and I was trying to get out of the way. I really didn’t think I was going that slow. I was just trying to get out of the way and let them all get by. So I’m not really sure. The problem is I couldn’t talk to anybody to find out what it was for. I figured it was coming out of the radio, but I came in and no one knew I was coming in. So I don’t understand why NASCAR didn’t tell the crew what was going on.

For all the challenges, the three teammates enjoyed their afternoon north of the border. “The fans here are fantastic,” said Bobby. “Every caution you’re riding around and they’re waving at you. You can’t really wave under caution, but I do my best to wave at them after the race, before the race. I’m only in Canada today, I want to be supportive, and these fans are supportive up here. It’s fantastic.”