Sunday, October 4, 2020

CUP: While several underdogs brighten ugly finish for NASCAR, Christopher Bell finishes last at Talladega


Christopher Bell picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s YellaWood 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway when his #95 Rheem / Procore Toyota was eliminated in an accident after 1 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Bell’s 31st series start, was his second of the year and first since Fontana, 28 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 18th for the #95, the 166th for Toyota, and the 605th from a crash. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 27th for the #95, the 348th for Toyota, and the 1,228th from a crash.

When we last featured Bell in February, he was struggling to make the adjustment to the Cup Series, having finished no better than 21st. But his performance improved noticeably after the season’s suspension lifted in May. His first top-ten finish came with a 9th in the Coca-Cola 600, followed by three more finishes of 9th or better in the next seven races, capped by a career-best 4th in Pocono. Bell then enjoyed one of his strongest runs of the year at Loudon, where he flirted with a possible victory before he spun near the halfway point, leaving him 28th. He was again among the leaders just last week in Las Vegas, but a late-race wreck left him 24th.

All of this was against the background of Leavine Family Racing’s impending closure, which was announced this past summer along with Bell’s move to Joe Gibbs Racing’s #20. With the sale of the LFR team’s Charter to Spire Motorsports and the Toyota contract headed to the new Michael Jordan / Denny Hamlin venture in 2021, this year would mark the Bob Leavine-owned team’s tenth and final in the Cup Series. The Talladega race was one of the last opportunities for the LFR team to score their first win in 251 combined Cup starts. Bell would roll off 22nd in Sunday’s field.

Rolling off 39th and last was Brendan Gaughan, who prior to the season indicated he would retire from NASCAR’s top three series after running the four plate races for Beard Motorsports. That plan later changed to include the Daytona infield road course, where he finished last, and he’s reportedly considered running next year’s Daytona 500.

Gaughan’s #62 South Point Hotel & Casino Chevrolet would be joined at the rear by Cody Ware, a late driver change with J.J. Yeley in the #27 Thriv5 Ford set to start 34th, plus two other drivers for multiple inspection failures: 32nd-place Brennan Poole in the #15 Goettl Air Conditioning & Plumbing Chevrolet and 37th-place Timmy Hill in the #66 Trump 2020 Ford, a Go FAS Racing car run in place of Motorsports Business Management’s Toyotas. Go FAS ran Schluter Systems as Corey LaJoie’s sponsor instead, decorating a chassis Roush Racing built in 2008 for David Ragan.

When the green flag dropped, Gaughan pulled ahead of Hill, who held last across the stripe, 3.311 seconds back of the lead. Hill then moved to the high lane and passed at least one car, which appeared to be the blue #15 of the penalized Poole. Poole was still running in last when trouble broke out in the middle of the pack. 

Heading into Turn 3, Bell’s #95 unexpectedly spun to the inside directly into the path of Tyler Reddick. Reddick cut to the right and nearly cleared Bell, but suffered damage to the front of his #8 CAT Next Gen Dozers Chevrolet. Both drivers made it to pit road under caution, but while Reddick returned to stay on the lead lap, Bell’s crew was still hard at work. Both rear tires were flat, and the track bar had been bent into a “U” shape. On Lap 4, Bell had still yet to complete a lap, and the crew had just one minute and fifteen seconds left on the “Crash Clock.” “If it’s not straighter, it’s gonna smoke a tire.” Still, the team got Bell back onto the track, but the problem wasn’t at all fixed. While being advised by the crew not to run near anyone, the driver said. “I can barely drive it.” The crew responded, “Don’t get yourself hurt here.” Then Bell said “I just broke a driveshaft,” and he was told to go to the garage. With just one completed lap, he pulled behind the wall, done for the day under the “Damaged Vehicle Policy.”

Finishing 38th was Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., whose #47 Hungry Jack Chevrolet was turned by John Hunter Nemechek exiting the tri-oval, sending his car backing into the inside wall. James Davison dropped to 37th in the #53 America’s Best Value Inn Chevrolet after he pulled behind the wheel around 30 laps in with grease leaking from the right-rear hub getting on the tire. The team attempted to replace the rear gear, and finally succeeded in the closing laps before the car dropped debris near the very end. He ultimately climbed to 30th by the end, the last car under power.

When Davison got back up to speed, 37th went to Aric Almirola, whose #10 Smithfield Power Bites Ford was turned after contact from fellow Playoff contender Alex Bowman as the pair battled for the lead at the end of Stage 1. Bowman managed to recover in 14th while Almirola dropped even further back in the Playoff standings, needing a win in Charlotte to advance. The 36th spot fell to Michael McDowell, whose #34 Love’s Travel Stops / Luber Finer Ford unexpectedly pulled out of the lead draft entering the tri-oval, then pulled behind the wall with a hole in the radiator. Rounding out the group was Gaughan, who nearly avoided the day’s biggest wreck until Kyle Busch’s spinning car crossed his path entering Turn 1, destroying his #62. As of this writing, there is no news as to whether he’ll return to run Cup in 2021.

While the finish of Sunday’s race was negatively affected by NASCAR’s interpretation of the outdated and controversial “Yellow Line Rule,” several underdog drivers enjoyed some of the best runs of their careers. Just like LFR, Germain Racing will shut down at the end of this season as a result of a lost sponsor and the “Air Jordan” venture. In the team’s 420th series start, Ty Dillon handed Germain their best-ever Cup Series finish by taking 3rd in the #13 GEICO For Your RV Chevrolet. Five spots behind him came the #38 Speedy Cash Ford of John Hunter Nemechek in 8th, matching his equally strong bid for the lead when the Cup Series last ran at Talladega in June.

One spot behind Nemechek in 9th came Brennan Poole, who wasn’t even in the #15 Geottl Air Conditioning & Plumbing Chevrolet for Rick Ware Racing just two rounds ago in Bristol. Despite running over debris in one of the day’s biggest wrecks, damaging his front splitter, he managed to take 9th – his first career top-ten finish and a significant improvement over his previous career-best of 15th under the lights at Daytona. Justin Haley, back in Spire Motorsports’ #77 Parts Plus Chevrolet in a points race for the first time since his upset win at Daytona, escaped with an 11th-place finish, just one day after he took the checkers in the XFINITY race.

Quin Houff took 13th in the #00 Permatex Chevrolet, a full ten spots better than his previous best Cup finish of 23rd earlier this year at both Indianapolis and Daytona. Only Landon Cassill’s 11th-place finish in July 2019 at Daytona saw the Derrike Cope effort finish better in a Cup points race. Two spots back in 15th, Timmy Hill briefly entered the Top Ten in a partnership between Motorsports Business Management and Go FAS Racing in the #66 Trump 2020 Ford, running as high as 3rd and coming within one spot of MBM’s best-ever Cup finish at Indianapolis three years ago.

Finally, two Rick Ware Racing entries also turned heads, starting with Cody Ware, who was not even entered in the #27 Thriv5 Chevrolet until mid-week, when he took the place of original entrant J.J. Yeley. Making his first Cup start since August 2019, Ware climbed as high as 5th and was still in the lead draft when he wrecked on the final lap of the race, dropping him to 19th – nine spots better than his previous best of 28th, also at Talladega. Among the drivers who inched past Ware was his teammate Joey Gase in the #51 Jimco Windows / Donate Life Ford. This was just enough to improve on Gase’s own career-best with StarCom in this same race two years ago.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #95 in a Cup race at Talladega.
*The one lap Bell completed is the fewest by any Cup Series last-place finisher at Talladega since April 17, 2011, when Kevin Conway’s #97 ExtenZe Toyota fell out with electrical issues after 1 lap of the Aaron’s 499.

39) #95-Christopher Bell / 1 lap / crash
38) #47-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 8 laps / crash
37) #10-Aric Almirola / 57 laps / crash
36) #34-Michael McDowell / 79 laps / overheating
35) #62-Brendan Gaughan / 108 laps / crash

1st) JTG-Daugherty Racing (7)
2nd) Motorsports Business Management, Rick Ware Racing (5)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Leavine Family Racing, Penske Racing (2)
4th) Beard Motorsports, B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Front Row Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, StarCom Racing, Tommy Baldwin Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (19)
2nd) Toyota (8)
3rd) Ford (4)


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