Sunday, May 16, 2021

CUP: For the second-straight race, Aric Almirola finishes last after a brutal hit at Dover


Aric Almirola picked up the 14th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Drydene 400 at Dover International Speedway when his #10 Smithfield / Weis Markets Ford crashed after 300 of 400 laps.

The finish, which came in Almirola’s 365th series start, was his third of the year and second in a row. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 37th for the #10, the 614th from a crash, and the 708th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 129th for the #10, the 975th for Ford, and the 1,253rd from a crash.

One week after his wreck in Darlington, Almirola returned to his familiar black-and-white colors, this time with associate backing from Weis Markets on the quarter-panels and rear decklid. He rolled off 32nd.

Starting 37th and last was Josh Bilicki, who had new sponsorship from on his #52 Ford. Bilicki was joined at the rear by the #77 Diamond Creek Water Chevrolet, which was slated to roll off 29th with Justin Haley behind the wheel. When Haley was then sidelined late Thursday due to COVID-19 protocols, Josh Berry was tabbed as driver to make his series debut. Also sent to the rear was Chase Elliott, whose #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet was set to start 8th before twice failing inspection. Ryan Newman ended up next to Elliott instead of 13th, despite his team contesting that NASCAR incorrectly concluded they made unapproved adjustments to their #6 Guaranteed Rate Ford, as they had midway through the race in Kansas.

When the race started, Elliott and Newman lined up ahead of Bilicki and Berry, who occupied the final two spots with Berry in last on the inside line. Berry pulled up on Bilicki in Turns 1 and 2, putting them side-by-side through the corners until Bilicki pulled out ahead. Berry then caught and re-passed Bilicki on Lap 6, and would ultimately climb to 33rd before he was lapped for the first time. Bilicki, meanwhile, was caught by the leaders on Lap 16. Martin Truex, Jr. passed Bilicki on his inside while runner-up William Byron elected the high lane, allowing Byron to complete a pass for the lead.

Bilicki held the last spot until Lap 40, when during pit stops, teammate Garrett Smithley took over the spot in the #53 RichMar Florists Chevrolet. Smithley then dropped to last yet another Rick Ware Racing entry in James Davison, whose #15 Smart Sanitizer Chevrolet took over the spot on Lap 41. Davison had expressed concerns with the padding in his helmet, and was requesting it be changed out with different material in his helmet bag. He was five laps down when, on Lap 82, he dropped Bilicki back to last place.

Meanwhile, Kyle Busch in the #18 M&M’s Mix Toyota was struggling to stay on the lead lap since early reports around Lap 30 that his car was not running on all eight cylinders. Believing it to be a valve spring issue, Busch was instructed to stay on the track until he saw smoke. By Lap 53, he was in 29th, the last car on the lead lap, and a full 6.674 seconds back of the next car in line.

On Lap 69, Corey LaJoie slowed off Turn 2 in his #7 Drydene Chevrolet with a flat right-front tire. LaJoie had been bumped by Erik Jones and bounced off the outside wall, but like Busch had managed to not fall to last place. On Lap 74, LaJoie was four down – on the same lap as Smithley, Bilicki, and Davison, but still holding the 34th spot.

The next last-place contender arrived on Lap 120, at the end of Stage 1. That time by, rookie contender Chase Briscoe was running 19th in his #14 Ford Performance Racing School Ford. At the time, his was the last car on the lead lap, and directly in the sights of then-leader Kyle Larson. Entering Turn 1, Briscoe apparently cut a right-rear tire and slapped the outside wall with the right-rear corner of his Ford. This drew the caution immediately before the end of the stage, allowing him to come down pit road. While Briscoe’s rear deck was knocked loose by the impact, he managed to reach minimum speed.

Moments after Almirola's wreck, as
seen from the stands.
PHOTO: No Tires Just Gas on YouTube

During this same caution, Busch’s crew raised the hood and took particular notice of the passenger side of the engine bay. Davison had hardly taken last from Bilicki on Lap 126 when on Lap 127, Busch took last from them both, and returned to the track 7 laps down. Busch’s team reported the issue was repaired, but Busch was frustrated that he had no chance of getting back on the lead lap. “Just a test session for never racing here again with these cars,” he said. Now fighting a tight condition on the restart, Busch put Davison back to last place on Lap 155.

Briscoe’s damaged car pulled behind the wall by Lap 162, when he was shown nine laps down, and took last from Davison the next time by. There was little radio traffic on Briscoe’s main channel until Lap 200, when the crew assembled back at the pit stall. On Lap 203, Briscoe re-fired his engine, and by the time he was back up to speed, was a full 50 laps down, 40 laps behind 36th-place Davison. With still just under half the race remaining, Briscoe would run the rest of the race unless he couldn’t maintain minimum speed.

By Lap 278, all 37 cars were still running, and Briscoe had lost another 5 laps. The team soon had radio trouble, and couldn’t hear their driver to make further adjustments. On Lap 300, Briscoe had just completed his 242nd lap, breaking the record for most laps complete by a last-place finisher at Dover – 241 by Dale Jarrett’s #44 UPS Toyota on June 4, 2007 – when the caution came out.

Up until this point, Almirola had enjoyed one of his best runs of the year. He was running on the lead lap in 13th, but soon felt something was wrong in the front of his car. He’d barely reported it when a possible suspension issue entering Turn 3 sent his car straight into the outside wall. A small fire erupted in the right-front corner, and Almirola was noticeably woozy as he climbed from his wrecked machine. Almirola was later checked and released from the care center, but his day was done. Briscoe finally dropped Almirola to last on Lap 362.

By the time Briscoe caught Almirola, B.J. McLeod had pulled his #78 Koolbox Ice Ford behind the wall with engine trouble. If Briscoe stayed on the track, and the approaching rain held off, he’d have a chance at passing McLeod for the 36th spot. With four laps to go, Briscoe’s car slowed and pulled to the apron, apparently done for the day. But at the finish, Briscoe had edged McLeod by a single lap, moving him to 35th, his car still under power. Bilicki and Davison rounded out the Bottom Five.

Kyle Busch reached 27th by the checkered flag.

The race saw all four of Hendrick Motorsports’ cars sweep the top four finishing positions, a feat a Cup team hasn’t accomplished November 20, 2005, when four of the five Roush-Fenway Racing entries swept the spots at Homestead (Kenny Wallace finished 21st). The first time a team swept the top four occurred on December 30, 1956 at the Titusville-Cocoa (Florida) Speedway road course, when DePaolo Engineering saw four of its five teams sweep the spots. Their fifth car, the #J12 driven by Joe Weatherly, finished last with clutch issues. It was the first last-place finish of Weatherly’s career.

*This marked only the second last-place finish for the #10 in a Cup race at Dover. The only other occurrence was back on May 15, 1977, when Raymond Williams’ unsponsored Ford lost the engine on the first lap of the Mason-Dixon 500.

37) #10-Aric Almirola / 300 laps / crash
36) #78-B.J. McLeod / 334 laps / engine
35) #14-Chase Briscoe / 335 laps / running
34) #52-Josh Bilicki / 381 laps / running
33) #15-James Davison / 382 laps / running

1st) Stewart-Haas Racing (3)
2nd) Motorsports Business Management, Rick Ware Racing, Spire Motorsports (2)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Hendrick Motorsports, StarCom Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (6)
2nd) Ford (5)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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