Sunday, May 17, 2020

CUP: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. first since 1993 to fail to complete a lap at Darlington

SCREENSHOT: @SeriesRoblox, from FOX Sports
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. picked up the 6th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400 at the Darlington Raceway when his #47 Kroger / Nature Valley / Healthy Choice Chevrolet crashed out without completing any of the 293 laps.

The finish, which came in Stenhouse’s 261st series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup Series race since November 3, 2019, seven races ago. In the Cup Series last-place records, it was the 31st for the #47, the 594th from a crash, and the 779th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 47th for the #47, the 1,204th from a crash, and the 1,708th for Chevrolet.

The 2020 season has been one of change for the aggressive superspeedway driver from Mississippi. After driving nearly his entire eleven-year NASCAR career for Roush-Fenway Racing, including the last seven as Matt Kenseth’s replacement in the #17 Ford, Stenhouse was released by the team and replaced with Chris Buescher, who claimed the 2015 XFINITY title with the team. It was not until sometime after that Stenhouse landed Buescher’s old ride at JTG-Daugherty Racing, where he also swapped rides with new teammate Ryan Preece.

But with crew chief Brian Pattie joining Stenhouse on his move to the Chevrolet team, the pair authored a surprising qualifying run for the Daytona 500, putting the #47 on the pole for “The Great American Race.” Stenhouse led 24 laps in the race and was still among the leaders when a late spin caused his hood to come loose, leaving him 20th. He recovered to finish 3rd at Las Vegas, lifting him to 5th in points, but then struggled to a 20th at Fontana and 22nd at Phoenix.

During NASCAR’s suspension of the season, Stenhouse then participated in four rounds of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitaitonal Series at Homestead, Texas, Bristol, and Talladega. It was perhaps unsurprising that his best finish of these came at Talladega – site of his first Cup win in 2017 - where he ran 14th.

When the circuit returned to action in Darlington, Stenhouse drew the 23rd starting spot in the 40-car field. The list originally showed just 39 cars, but was soon joined by a returning Tommy Baldwin Racing. TBR hadn’t attempted a race since the 2019 Daytona 500, where Ryan Truex failed to qualify in a #71 Accell Construction Chevrolet. This time, the team returned to Baldwin’s favorite #7 and hired Josh Bilicki to drive. Bilicki brought his Insurance King sponsorship to join primary backer Gravely. The car was towed to the track in a small unmarked white toy hauler.

Bilicki secured the 40th starting spot in the final draw between himself and B.J. McLeod as both teams had yet to start a race. While McLeod had raced for Rick Ware Racing, Darlington would see him field his own car in Cup for the first time, adopting the #78 of his XFINITY Series effort. Christensen Arms, which backed McLeod’s run for Ware in this year’s Daytona 500, returned as sponsor.

On race day, Kyle Busch’s #18 M&M’s “Thank You Heroes” Toyota failed inspection twice, forcing him to surrender the 4th starting spot. Although Busch was the only driver penalized in an event with no practice or qualifying, he never actually started in the 40th spot. Coming to the green flag, his white #18 could be seen accelerating in the high lane of Turn 4, pulling ahead of six other drivers. The final two cars in line were a pair of black cars, likely the original final row of McLeod and Bilicki. This was confirmed at the green flag, where Bilicki resumed his 40th running position. He would not hold it for long.

Coming off the second corner, Stenhouse attempted a pass to the inside of Corey LaJoie’s #32 Dtydene Ford when the two made contact. Stenhouse’s car jumped to the left, then nose nearly head-on into the inside pit wall, just past the gap in the barrier. The wreck brought out the first yellow as Stenhouse limped onto pit road trailing flames from his leaking fluid. The crew instructed him to avoid as many pit boxes as possible to shorten clean-up, and the #47 pulled behind the wall, out of the race under the “Crash Clock” protocol. “We’re going to the garage anway,” said someone on the team. “We’re done, boys.”

On Lap 4, the team told the spotter they were done for the day. It was not until Lap 41 that NASCAR officials confirmed Stenhouse’s DNF, saying “47 out, accident.”

McLeod’s first Cup start as an owner-driver ended after just 13 laps. Heading down the backstretch, the engine sounded off to the spotter, and McLeod noticed the car “wouldn’t pull.” McLeod slowed onto pit road, saying there had been no indication of a temperature issue – the water ran 209 degrees and the oil at 220. He pulled behind the wall on Lap 14, parking next to Stenhouse's hauler, and on Lap 20 someone said “As soon as I confirm, we’re out.” Ultimately, McLeod was listed out on Lap 41 during the same transmission from NASCAR officials on Stenhouse’s exit.

Finishing 38th was Jimmie Johnson, whose spirited run in Stage 1 was undone by bad luck. During the opening laps, he reeled in teammate Alex Bowman for the lead and took the top spot on Lap 81. He was still leading on the final lap of the stage when he caught Chris Buescher’s #17 Fastenal Ford between Turns 1 and 2. As the two came off the corner, Johnson bumped Buescher, who clipped the wall, then bounced back into Johnson. Just like Stenhouse, the #48 headed straight into the inside wall, abruptly ending Johnson’s run.

It wasn’t until later in the race that Johnson was passed by Quin Houff, who lost several laps with a fuel pump issue that required replacement of the entire fuel cell in the #00 Units Chevrolet. Houff ended up completing 137 laps before he fell out in 36th, citing electrical issues. The last car he passed was Garrett Smithley, who was swapped from Rick Ware Racing’s #52 Chevrolet to the #53 Chevrolet, bringing with him his sponsor Trophy Tractor. Engine issues, then a loss of power steering knocked Smithley out of the running ten laps short of Houff.

In front of empty grandstands and crew members wearing masks in accordance with lingering CDC guidelines, several drivers enjoyed strong runs. Tyler Reddick scored his second top-ten finish in just seven series starts, taking a career-best 7th in the #8 Caterpillar “Thank You” Chevrolet. John Hunter Nemechek earned Front Row Motorsports’ best-ever Darlington finish with a 9th, charging from 34th on the grid in the #38 SCAG Power Equipment Ford. It was Nemechek’s first top-ten finish in just eight series starts.

The old guard was also well represented by the weekend’s two big stories. Matt Kenseth, the 2013 Southern 500 winner, returned to the Cup Series for the first time in more than a year, taking over for Kyle Larson in the #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet. Kenseth finished 10th – his 13th top-ten finish in 26 Cup starts at the track. Ryan Newman was equally strong in his return from serious injuries suffered at Daytona in February. Newman flirted with the Top Ten for much of the afternoon before a late miscue at pit entrance left him 15th in the #6 Oscar Mayer #FrontYardCookout Ford.

The series will return for another run at Darlington this Wednesday, where Stenhouse will roll off last by virtue of his finish in Sunday’s race. He will trail a 39-car field this time as Bilicki’s #7, which managed 34th, is not entered.

*This marked the first last-place finish for car #47 in a Cup race at Darlington. The number hasn’t finished last in the series since June 24, 2018, when A.J. Allmendinger lost the engine at the Sonoma Raceway.
*Stenhouse is just the seventh driver in Cup Series history to fail to complete a lap of a Cup race at Darlington:
April 30, 1966 - Sonny Lamphear’s #96 1964 Ford lost an engine
May 13, 1967 – Jabe Thomas’ #25 Star City Body Shop 1967 Ford involved in a multi-car crash
May 11, 1968 – Larry Hess’ 1967 Rambler lost the engine
April 13, 1980 – Neil Bonnett’s #21 Purolator Mercury involved in a multi-car crash
April 10, 1983 – Terry Labonte’s #44 Budweiser Chevrolet involved in a multi-car crash
September 5, 1993 – Bob Schacht’s #85 Burger King Ford did not start

40) #47-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 0 laps / crash
39) #78-B.J. McLeod / 13 laps / engine
38) #48-Jimmie Johnson / 89 laps / crash / led 9 laps
37) #53-Garrett Smithley / 127 laps / power steering
36) #00-Quin Houff / 137 laps / electrical

1st) Motorsports Business Management (2)
2nd) Hendrick Motorsports, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Leavine Family Racing (1)

1st) Toyota (3)
2nd) Chevrolet (2)


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