Sunday, March 14, 2021

XFINITY: Jesse Little beats teammate for last place; Brown and Currey lead several impressive underdog performances in Phoenix

IMAGE: FS1, Screenshot by No Tires Just Gas on YouTube

Jesse Little picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Call 811 Before You Dig 200 at the Phoenix Raceway when his #78 Skuttle Tight Toyota was involved in an accident after 44 of 200 laps.

The finish came in Little’s 38th series start. In the XFINITY Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 8th for the #78, the 145th for Toyota, and the 343rd from a crash. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 38th for the #78, the 352nd for Toyota, and the 1,243rd from an accident.

In 2020, after his family’s JJL Motorsports team in the Truck Series was sold to Logan Puckett to form Diversified Motorsports Enterprises, Little made the jump to the XFINITY Series full-time. Driving for JD Motorsports in the #4 Chevrolet, he finished a season-best 10th at Pocono in June, then matched that run that August in Daytona. Among his backers was Skuttle Tight, which sponsored him in Trucks and also followed him this past offseason to B.J. McLeod Motorsports.

Skuttle Tight would back Little again in Saturday’s race, already his fourth different paint scheme in as many races this year. His season-best came on the Daytona infield road course, where he ran 14th after a 17th in the season opener on the oval. He then struggled on the 1.5-mile tracks, finishing two laps down at both Homestead and Las Vegas for finishes of 32nd and 26th, respectively. He finished 21st and 29th in both Phoenix races last year, and would start 23rd on Saturday by metric qualifying.

Rolling off 40th and last was Loris Hezemans, making his second series start and first since last summer at Road America, where he too ran for B.J. McLeod. After Our Motorsports acquired the RSS Racing / Reaume Brothers Racing #23, the Reaume team joined forces with Motorsports Business Management’s #13 team, putting Hezemans in a Hezeberg Systems Chevrolet with Reaume’s number font on the doors and roof. The preliminary entry list showed Chad Finchum in the #13 instead, which meant Hezemans would incur a redundant tail-end penalty prior to the start.

Hezemans had some issues prior to the start. The team couldn’t hear him on the radio, and told him to move the microphone closer to his mouth. The car then wouldn’t fire, but before NASCAR could bring out the push truck, the team told him to “put it in second gear and mash the clutch in.” He caught the tail end of the field, pulled to the apron to index the wheel, and turned on the brake fans as the field prepared to take the green. He remained in last for the start, 4.9 seconds back of the lead. “No pressure out back,” the spotter told him.

Matt Mills on pit road early at Phoenix.
PHOTO: Paul Vicinanza, @philvicinanza

On Lap 4, Matt Mills dropped to last place, his #5 J.F. Electric Chevrolet 10.711 seconds back of the lead and 0.475 back of Hezemans. The next time by, Mills was 3.630 seconds back of Hezemans, though the team soon told him “You’re running Top 20 lap times here.” Next to enter the last-place battle was Josh Williams, who was running flat-out in his #92 DGM Racing Chevrolet as the car wouldn’t pull down the straightaway. By Lap 13, Mills had dropped Williams to last, and the #92 team spotter said it sounded like a carburetor issue.

But it was Mills who first trailed smoke on Lap 15, pulling to the apron as the driver said “I think we’re done here.” He made it to pit road, and after the crew looked under the hood, was pushed behind the wall around Lap 19. NASCAR confirmed this on the 22nd circuit. “You think we’re done here?” asked someone on his channel. “No, we’re fixing to get it running again.” The crew discovered a line had come loose and touched the wire to the alternator, causing a short.

Meanwhile, Little had also dropped off the pace and made it to pit road on Lap 24. The crew topped off the fluids, then sent him back out so they wouldn’t lose a lap. With the competition caution out on the track, the team checked for a leak, then sent him back out. Meanwhile, Williams went behind the wall on Lap 26 to address his engine issue. The DGM crew made quick repairs, and his #92 returned by the next lap, when he was four down in 39th. Little and Mills both continued on laps down to the leader while the crew continued to work on Mills’ car.

But on Lap 47, as the caution fell to end Stage 1, Mills’ radio reported “Hey, Dave, if you’re still on, one car did wreck so there’s a spot.” This turned out to be Little, who apparently lost the brakes heading into Turn 1 and backed hard into the outside wall. Little climbed out without serious injury, but his car was done for the day. “Just trying to get caught up so we could work on it,” said Little’s team on Lap 50. 

Looking to gain at least one spot on the day, Mills’ team re-fired the engine on Lap 52 and returned to the track, still trailing smoke. The smoke started to clear up two laps later, and after another pit stop, he was 28 laps from catching Little. The team also decided to run scuffed tires for the rest of the race, and the driver looked to nurse the car home as it was otherwise handling well. On Lap 84, Mills dropped Little to last place. Mills would ultimately climb to finish 35th.

Engine failures in the first half eliminated JR Motorsports teammates Noah Gragson in the #9 Bass Pro Shops / True Timber Camo and Michael Annett in the #1 Pilot / Flying J Chevrolet. Gragson’s car began dropping fluid on an early restart, and a small fire developed before he pulled behind the wall, out of the race. By staying out on old tires, Ryan Sieg briefly took the lead in the #39 CMR Construction & Roofing Ford, only to be put in the wall in Turn 1, ending his run. Rounding out the group was still another JRM entry, and the car who wrecked Sieg – Josh Berry – whose #8 Chevrolet Accessories Chevrolet was bounced into the wall by Santino Ferrucci, then hit again by Blaine Perkins before a hard driver’s side crash in Turn 4. A displeased Berry climbed from his car and gave a “double bird” to passing traffic.

Ferrucci went on to finish 15th – his second straight top-fifteen finish following a 13th last week in Vegas. His was just one of several impressive underdog performances.

Brandon Brown scored a career-best 3rd, taking just his second top-five finish in the #68 Larry’s Hard Pink Lemonade Chevrolet. Just a week after picking up a last-minute sponsor in Las Vegas, Brown now sits 9th in points with just one finish worse than 11th in the season’s first five races. Brown was running 11th when the final caution fell with 8 laps to go.

Bayley Currey earned a career-best 7th-place finish, his first Top 10 in his 55th XFINITY Series start. His bright yellow #74 Lerner & Rowe Chevrolet was turned around quickly from last week’s race in Las Vegas, and was soon battling inside the Top 15. The finish is a new team-best for Mike Harmon Racing, which broke through last year after many strong runs with Currey and teammate Kyle Weatherman. It was Weatherman who scored the team’s first top-ten finish with an 8th last summer in Kentucky.

Jeremy Clements finished 10th in his #51 First Pacific Funding Chevrolet, which is already his third top-ten finish in only five races this season.

J.J. Yeley earned still another impressive finish for Rick Ware Racing and SS-Green Light Racing’s XFINITY program in his first NASCAR start of the year. From 33rd on the grid, he climbed to the Top 20 in Stage 1, then his #17 Diamondback Land Surveying Chevrolet engaged in a spirited battle with Riley Herbst for 11th place with 11 to go. He briefly entered the Top 10, holding 9th with 8 laps to go, before he slipped to 13th on the final restart – a run made all the sweeter by coming on his home track.

Timmy Hill charged from 39th on the grid to finish 14th – a new season-best to improve on his 16th at Homestead. Running a black Toyota with Interstate Batteries on the hood, Hill peaked in the final laps, earning a new track-best finish for him in the series. His previous best of 18th came back in 2011, when he drove for Rick Ware. Prior to Saturday, he’d finished no better than 23rd at the track since then, but only once failed to finish.

Behind these drivers, Colby Howard finished 16th despite missing the rear panel on his #15 Project Hope Foundation Chevrolet. Tommy Joe Martins overcame contact with the Turn 2 wall to finish 17th in his #44 Diamond Gusset Jeans Chevrolet. Stefan Parsons and Jeffrey Earnhardt found their way into the Top 10 with Parsons rebounding from his rough Las Vegas race to take 18th in the #99 Sokal Digital Toyota, followed by Earnhardt’s #0 KSDT CPA Chevrolet. 

Finishing 20th was Jade Buford, who in the final stage was running much better than that. In fact, his #48 Big Machine Spiked Coolers Chevrolet was running around 10th place inside the final 50 laps. He re-took the 10th spot with 29 to go, but with 21 to go bounced off the outside wall while racing Riley Herbst for 11th. The team still managed to keep him on the lead lap and ahead of several other fast cars.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #78 in an XFINITY Series race at Phoenix. The number’s most recent last-place run in the series came August 23, 2020 at Dover with Vinnie Miller behind the wheel.
*This streak of six consecutive first-time XFINITY last-place finishers is the longest since March 5 through May 5, 2005, when nine consecutive races saw first-time last-placers. Three other nine-race streaks occurred from August 27, 1982 through February 26, 1983; February 22 through April 19, 1997; and July 8 through September 7, 2001. The all-time record stands at 18 - the first 18 XFINITY races ever run back in 1982.

40) #78-Jesse Little / 44 laps / crash
39) #9-Noah Gragson / 67 laps / engine
38) #1-Michael Annett / 93 laps / engine
37) #39-Ryan Sieg / 133 laps / crash / led 2 laps
36) #8-Josh Berry / 146 laps / crash

1st) RSS Racing / Reaume Brothers Racing (2)
2nd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, DGM Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

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


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