Sunday, March 7, 2021

CUP: Aric Almirola’s blown tire puts car #10 in last place at Las Vegas for first time since 1999

PHOTO: @StewartHaasRcng

Aric Almirola picked up the 12th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 Presented by Jiffy Lube at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when his #10 Smithfield Power Bites Ford was eliminated in a single-car crash after 178 of 267 laps.

The finish, which came in Almirola’s 356th series start, was his first of the season and first since April 7, 2019 at Bristol, 68 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 35th for the #10, the 609th from a crash, and the 704th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 127th for the #10, the 970th for Ford, and the 1,242nd from a crash.

Entering his fourth season as driver of Stewart-Haas Racing’s #10 Ford, and celebrating a decade of sponsorship from Smithfield Foods since his past driving duties with Richard Petty Motorsports, the soft-spoken Almirola is still looking for consistency. His only win with the team remains October 14, 2018, where he and his three teammates dominated the event in a controversial four-car breakaway. Since then, “The Cuban Missile” has picked up another seven top-five finishes, including a runner-up to Kevin Harvick at Texas in the fall of 2019, but time and again has fallen just short of victory lane.

Coming into this year’s Daytona 500, an event where he was two corners from victory before a bump from Austin Dillon in 2018, driver and team looked to be one of the favorites. After coming just short of a front-row start, he dominated his qualifying race, leading 52 of 60 laps. But just 14 laps into the 500 itself, it was Almirola who was first to be turned into the outside wall when the field exploded into a multi-car pileup entering Turn 3. He finished just 34th that night, and after runs of 17th on the road course and 30th in Homestead after a tangle with Ryan Blaney, arrived in Las Vegas a distant 26th in the point standings. This put him 28th on the grid for the Vegas race itself.

Rolling off 38th and last was last week’s last-place finisher Timmy Hill, whose blue #66 Toyota from Motorsports Business Management carried returning sponsorship from on the quarter-panels, plus new backing from Diamondback Land Surveying, which purchased space on the hood and on two places on each side. Diamondback’s red logo was appreciated by the spotter as it made the car easier to see. When the engines fired, however, Hill was concerned about a car in front of him. “One of the RWR cars out here blowing up,” he said. This was the #53 Trophy Tractor Ford of 31st-place Garrett Smithley, who reported no issues on the gauges despite smoke from his exhaust pipes. The team believed it was extra oil burning off, which did dissipate during the pace laps.

Hill remained in last place when the field took the green flag, then by the end of Lap 1 passed Smithley’s teammate Joey Gase in the #15 Nevada Donors Network Chevrolet. On Lap 5, Gase reported his car was “shoving the nose” and “hard on the splitter,” and dropped more than two seconds back of Hill. By the 15th circuit, the leaders had caught and lapped Gase, passing to his inside to put him the first car one lap down. Hill, too, was struggling at this point, and Gase put the #66 back to last place just before the Lap 25 competition caution. Both drivers received adjustments with Hill’s crew pulling a rubber from the right-rear.

On the restart, still another Rick Ware entry found trouble as Cody Ware plummeted behind both Gase and Hill on Lap 32. “I can’t drive the car,” said Ware of his #51 Nurtec ODT Chevrolet. “Something’s broke. . .It’s shooting up towards the wall.” Though Ware could smell his splitter dragging on the track, he caught and passed Gase on Lap 37, and Gase dropped Hill back to last two laps later.

Next to enter the last-place battle was Bubba Wallace, whose #23 Columbia Sportswear Toyota came down pit road for an unscheduled pit stop around Lap 40. By Lap 42, he’d dropped to last place as the crew looked under the hood, attending to a faulty power steering pump. He returned to the track three laps down, but was still fighting to get the car around the track. “I'm trying to make some laps. Sorry if I fuckin' K.O. this thing,” said Wallace on Lap 45. “Shit, can't turn the damn wheel.” A debris caution came out moments later, allowing him to make a second stop under yellow. The team spent until Lap 51 completing repairs, and the steering appeared fixed. By then, Wallace was six laps down.

Josh Bilicki, in still another Rick Ware Racing entry, received extra media attention earlier in the week. Chuck Brennan, the founder of Bilicki’s sponsor, Dollar Loan Center, bet $10,000 that Bilicki's #52 Ford would win the race. His driver had such long odds that, if he did win, the resulting $10 million payout at the Circa casino would be enough to pay off the loans of the company’s Nevada clients. Unfortunately, by Lap 85, Bilicki was already off the lead lap, and pulled behind the wall with a mechanical issue. He returned just moments later after the crew re-attached a plug in the fuel cell which had caused the car to lose fuel pressure. The car re-fired, ran another lap, then made a second stop under green to make sure the repair was completed. It was only after this second stop that Bilicki lost enough laps to drop behind Wallace on Lap 87.

On Lap 108, Bilicki caught and passed Hill, who made a green-flag stop of his own, and returned to the track eight laps behind. He and Bilicki remained one lap apart on the 130th circuit, and on Lap 133 Hill reported a possible issue with the engine. At the end of Stage 2 on Lap 162, Hill was still running, but when asked if the team had made any progress on the car’s handling, he said, “No. None whatsoever.”

Hill was still running last, a full 13 laps down, when Almirola finally entered the last-place battle on Lap 179. “Got one slow up in Turn 2, might have a right-front there. No caution,” said Hill’s spotter. Then the yellow came out as Almirola came off the Turn 2 wall, the right-front down and right side heavily damaged. He made it to pit road, but the team soon said “We’re done,” and pushed the car behind the wall. On Lap 181, NASCAR reported “10 to the garage, dvp,” then the garage spotter relayed “10 out, accident” on Lap 189. Almirola took last from Hill on Lap 193.

Taking 37th was Corey LaJoie, who for the second-straight week dropped out because of mechanical issues during a long green-flag run. This time, his vibrant #7 Built Bar Chevrolet dropped out with rear end trouble. LaJoie joined Almirola as the only retirees from the race. Hill, Bilicki, and Gase finished under power, each more than 10 laps down to race winner Kyle Larson.

*The 178 laps completed by Almirola were the second-most of a Cup Series last-place finisher at Las Vegas, trailing only Kurt Busch’s 187 laps on September 15, 2019.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #10 in a Cup Series race at Las Vegas since March 7, 1999, when Ricky Rudd’s #10 Tide Ford dropped out with engine failure after 115 laps.

38) #10-Aric Almirola / 178 laps / crash
37) #7-Corey LaJoie / 188 laps / rear end
36) #66-Timmy Hill / 246 laps / running
35) #52-Josh Bilicki / 252 laps / running
34) #15-Joey Gase / 255 laps / running

1st) Motorsports Business Management, Rick Ware Racing, StarCom Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (2)
2nd) Ford, Toyota (1)


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