|SCREENSHOT: NASCAR, FS1|
The finish, which came in Blaney’s 171st start, was his first since July 7, 2018 at Daytona, 63 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 29th for the #12, the 596th from a crash, and the 698th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 43rd for the #12, the 959th for Ford, and the 1,206th from a crash.
Since his most recent last-place finish, Blaney has developed a happy talent for winning at critical moments. He’s made the Playoffs in each of the last two seasons, and extended his title run well into the closing weeks with a single victory. In 2018, that win came in the inaugural Charlotte “Roval,” where he passed a spinning Martin Truex, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson in the final corners. Last year, it was the fall race at Talladega, where he edged Ryan Newman in a photo finish. That win kept Blaney in the fight until the penultimate round at Phoenix, one round further than he’d reached the year before.
This year, Blaney has been already been close to victory several times, only to face last-minute misfortune. He was again locked in a battle with Newman in this year’s Daytona 500, and seemed poised to claim his second straight superspeedway victory. But in an instant, the two made contact, and Newman suffered the most serious crash of his career. Denny Hamlin edged Blaney in another photo finish. Blaney nearly bounced back in Las Vegas, following Alex Bowman in a late charge to the front. But a late caution and a pit stop handed the victory to Joey Logano. At Fontana, Blaney was again on Bowman’s heels, but this time blew a tire in the final laps, leaving him 19th. He didn’t get nearly as close at Phoenix, where this time Hamlin stuffed him into the wall, leaving him next-to-last in a field of 37.
During the season’s two-month pause, Blaney participated in five rounds of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. But, as at Phoenix, luck wasn’t on his side. He ran no better than 17th in the first four races, then closed out strong with a 7th in the finale at North Wilkesboro.
Back in action this month, Blaney earned a pair of mid-pack performances at Darlington, then ran 3rd in both rounds at Charlotte, instantly tripling his season total of Top Fives. He looked to be strong at the next round in Bristol, where in three of the last four runnings he had led at least 100 laps. While his best run in the span was a 4th in the 2019 spring race, he was perhaps even closer the year before. Out front for his 100th lap, Blaney couldn’t avoid a pileup in Turn 3 and smashed headlong into the Rick Ware Racing entry driven by Harrison Rhodes. Blaney finished 35th.
For Sunday’s race, Blaney drew the fourth starting spot, closing out Ford’s sweep of the first two rows.
Drawing the 40th spot was J.J. Yeley, who rejoined Tommy Baldwin Racing for the first time since the Coca-Cola 600, this time carrying sponsorship from The Medicine Shoppe. He’d be joined at the rear by 30th-place Gray Gaulding in the #27 Panini Ford and 33rd-place Ryan Preece in the #37 Bush’s Baked Beans Chevrolet, each docked for twice failing pre-race inspection.
During the pace laps, Bayley Currey dropped back to 40th in his #53 Belmont Classic Cars Chevrolet, soon to be joined by Rick Ware Racing teammate Joey Gase in an unsponsored #51 Chevrolet. According to Twitter user @StartAndParkCar, Gase’s car had been thrown together in two days, the team trying to shoehorn a Bristol setup into their Atlanta car. This proved significant in the ensuing battle for last place.
When the green flag dropped, Currey held the 40th spot, but caught up to 39th-place Garrett Smithley in the unsponsored #77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet. By the end of Lap 2, each had moved around Gase, who dropped 7.2 seconds back of the lead. Next to challenge was Quin Houff, whose new-look #00 Mane ‘n Tail Chevrolet was booted out of the groove, dropping him to last on Lap 5, then a lap down soon after. He then got his lap back on the seventh circuit, when Ryan Newman’s spin drew the first caution. Newman’s #6 Castrol Ford and Brennan Poole’s #15 Spartan Mosquito Pro Tech Chevrolet traded the last spot under caution before Hoof took it over on Lap 12.
Gase continued to struggle with a tight condition on the #51, and took over last place on Lap 16. By the Lap 21 competition caution, he had backed up the corne r so much he was a full 13.867 seconds back of the leader, narrowly averting a lost lap before the yellow. The spot was then traded under caution between Houff and B.J. McLeod in the #78 Circle Track Warehouse Ford. Poole took over on Lap 27, followed by Smithley on Lap 31, then Gase on Lap 34. Gase then lost his first lap on the 41st go-round.
For the rest of the afternoon, Gase continued to lose ground, and was so frequently bumped by faster traffic that he soon had damage to the left-rear corner of the rear bumper. One such hit came just before the second competition caution on Lap 60, where the driver complained his car wouldn’t turn on corner entry. The team also proposed putting a packer in the right-front as Gase’s splitter was bouncing off the track. Gase lost his second lap on Lap 47, and his third after the second competition caution around Lap 73. From there, he lost the fourth on Lap 91, the fifth on Lap 105, the sixth on Lap 115, and nearly a seventh just before the Lap 126 caution that ended Stage 1. By then, NASCAR was warning Gase to pick up his speed. Some of his laps clocked in at just 18 seconds.
On Lap 161, NASCAR black flagged Gase for the first time, giving them a chance to make repairs and meet minimum speed. By then, the driver said he couldn’t “run the bottom, the front is bouncing like no other.” The spotter helped him through traffic and onto pit road, then returned to action on Lap 168, a full 11 laps down.
Meanwhile, Currey’s own race in the Ware #53 became a struggle of its own. On Lap 171, he made an unscheduled green flag stop and dropped seven laps back. “I think something’s broken,” said Currey. “It’s vibrating and acting really weird.” Currey had apparently made contact with the wall, as NASCAR said he met minimum speed four circuits later. By Lap 193, Currey was 11 laps down – just two circuits ahead of last-place Gase. Currey had just struck the wall again on Lap 198 when the caution came out moments later.
Through the first 200 laps, Ryan Blaney had returned to form from the first four races of the season. Despite early damage to the left side of his rear bumper, he finished 2nd to Chase Elliott in Stage 1 and led 60 of the first 169 laps. He was still battling inside the Top 5 on Lap 199 when he broke loose in Turn 2, then spun sideways down the backstretch. He’d barely stopped with his driver’s side exposed to oncoming traffic when Ty Dillon bore down on him in the #13 GEICO Chevrolet. Dillon cut left, but couldn’t avoid a collision. The impact ripped off the front valence of Blaney’s car and destroyed Dillon’s right-front. First Blaney, then Dillon pulled into the garage, both of them out under the Damaged Vehicle Policy.
Under the ensuing caution, Currey fell onto the same lap as Gase and briefly took the last spot on Lap 204. The two swapped the spot again on Lap 206, then traded paint soon after. On Lap 211, Currey reported he had smoke coming off the right-rear tire and said “Joey just drove into the back of us.” FOX’s cameras then showed Gase spun to a stop with more damage to the front of his car. Had the damage been more severe than it was, Gase would have edged Blaney for last place by just a couple laps. Instead, Blaney took over last on Lap 213. “Just before that happened,” said Gase’s spotter, “you’d run within a tenth of your best lap.”
Bad luck then swung Currey’s way once more as he stalled on the backstretch, immediately slowing the action after a restart. Currey returned to his pit stall, then was pushed behind the wall for a possible battery issue. As the crew set to work, unable to get the car re-fired, Jimmie Johnson bumped Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. into a spin on Lap 229, triggering a multi-car pileup that drew the red flag. It was during this red flag that a NASCAR official informed Currey’s team they were out of the race under the Damaged Vehicle Policy. Confused, the crew contested the call, but were told they were indeed out of the race. According to NASCAR, Currey was on the six-minute clock from his Lap 198 hit into the outside wall, and didn’t meet minimum speed before the battery failed. Thus, the push behind the wall just before the red meant they were out by the DVP, not from the mechanical issue. The technicality left Currey in 38th.
Gase climbed past the four retirees from the red flag to take 33rd and eventually finished 33rd before he was flagged off the track for falling below minimum speed. This dropped two of the victims of the Lap 229 accident – the #88 ChevyGoods.comn / Adam’s Polishes Chevrolet of Alex Bowman and Tyler Reddick in the #8 Alsco Uniforms Chevrolet – into the final two spots in the Bottom Five.
As the concrete dust settled, there were a number of surprising runs in “Thunder Valley.”
Christopher Bell in the #95 JBL Toyota finished 9th with the same Leavine Family Racing team Matt DiBenedetto nearly won with the previous summer, equaling his career-best in last week’s Coca-Cola 600.
Bubba Wallace was in and around the Top 10 for much of the final stage before taking 10th, his first top-ten finish since Las Vegas in February. Wallace, who ran the Victory Junction colors on his #43 Chevrolet, led six laps under green as a rookie in this race two years ago. In five starts at the track, he’s only finished outside the Top 20 once.
Daniel Suarez came back from losing two laps after he failed to serve an early tail-end penalty to finish 18th in the #96 It’s Good To Be Genuine Toyota. Suarez scored the Gaunt Brothers Racing team’s best finish of the year and only their second of the season on the lead lap. Only three times has the team ever finished better in a Cup Series race – all of them on superspeedways.
Then there was Timmy Hill, who made the most of his 101st series start. With added backing from RoofClaim.com following his sim racing exploits, and returning sponsorship from Pit Boss Grills, Hill finished on the lead lap in 19th, just 4.835 seconds back of race winner Brad Keselowski. It was Hill’s second-best Cup Series finish to his 14th-place showing at Indianapolis three years ago. Incidentally, Hill acquired some of the tires from Blaney’s team, which is why his car carried yellow rims at one point.
Further back, Garrett Smithley finished 26th in an unsponsored Spire Motorsports #77 Chevrolet. Just four days after a first-lap mechanical failure prevented him from even completing a lap at Charlotte, Smithley inched his way up the field, besting his 28th at Indianapolis last year. It also stands as the 6th-best finish by the Spire team, and their best on a track less than 1.5 miles in length.
*Blaney’s 60 laps led set a new record for most laps led by a last-place finisher of a Cup Series race at Bristol, besting Kevin Harvick’s mark of 28 set just last summer.
*This marked only the second time car #12 has finished last in a Cup Series race at Bristol. The only other occurrence came on March 30, 1980, when Buck Simmons’ #12 Ramey’s Chevy City Chevrolet started 9th in the 32-car field, but burned the clutch after 168 laps. It was the fifth of Simmons’ eight career Cup starts from 1979 through 1980, and also marked his career-best start. He shared the ride that year with Donnie Allison and Lennie Pond.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #12-Ryan Blaney / 199 laps / crash / led 60 laps
39) #13-Ty Dillon / 201 laps / crash
38) #53-Bayley Currey / 203 laps / damaged vehicle policy
37) #88-Alex Bowman / 228 laps / crash
36) #8-Tyler Reddick / 228 laps / crash
2020 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Hendrick Motorsports, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Motorsports Business Management (2)
2nd) Leavine Family Racing, Penske Racing, Rick Ware Racing (1)
2020 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (5)
2nd) Toyota (3)
3rd) Ford (1)
2020 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP