Sunday, May 23, 2021

CUP: A returning Justin Haley charges to 13th at rainy COTA before steering issues

PHOTO: @SpireMotorsport

Justin Haley picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s EchoPark Texas Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas when his #77 Fraternal Order of Eagles Chevrolet fell out with steering issues after 12 of 54 laps.

The finish, which came in Haley’s 16th series start, was his second of the season and first since April 18 at Richmond, five races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 23rd for steering issues, the 36th for the #77, and the 805th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 29th from steering woes, the 49th for the #77, and the 1,780th for Chevrolet.

The Circuit of the Americas saw Haley return to NASCAR after he missed both Cup and XFINITY races at Dover due to COVID-19 protocol. The last-minute change ultimately led to both replacements struggling: in the XFINITY race for Kaulig Racing, Zane Smith finished 36th after tangling with Brandon Jones, while Josh Berry’s Cup debut in the Spire #77 saw him bounce off the wall and finish 30th.

With a medical waiver from NASCAR allowing him to still compete for the XFINITY championship, Haley would again run for Kaulig and Spire at COTA. He began the week 9th in Saturday’s 46-lap event after he qualified in 6th. In Cup practice, Haley ran 29th with just six laps around the track. He timed in 30th with a lap of 89.572mph (2:17.051).

Starting 40th and last was Quin Houff in StarCom Racing’s #00 Mane ‘n Tail / Spirit Untamed Chevrolet. He’d be joined at the rear by no less than nine drivers who were all docked for unapproved adjustments: 26th-place Aric Almirola in the #10 Smithfield Ford, 19th-place Denny Hamlin in the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, 27th-place Chase Briscoe in the #14 Ford, 32nd-place James Davison in the #15 Skip Barber Racing School Chevrolet, 28th-place Chris Buescher in the #17 Auto Tempest Ford, 37th-place Anthony Alfredo in the #38 MDS Ford, 29th-place Erik Jones in the #43 Black Entrepreneur Chevrolet, 35th-place Cody Ware in the #51 Nurtec ODT Chevrolet, and 15th-place Daniel Suarez in the #99 ONX Homes / iFly Chevrolet. Hamlin had a power steering issue in the first round of qualifying while Suarez had to change transmissions.

When the penalized drivers had all fallen to the back, two more cars from Penske Racing joined them. Brad Keselowski qualified 24th in the #2 Thomas Built Buses Ford, but the team had to remove grille tape when they decided to switch from wet tires to dry along with most of the field. Ryan Blaney also surrendered the 9th spot in his #12 Body Armor Ford, and was lined up next to Houff in the last row as the field prepared to start. Soon after, Blaney and Houff were joined by 34th-place Ryan Newman, whose #6 Guaranteed Rate Ford was last across the stripe, 6.16 seconds back of the lead with Houff 5.844 back of first place.

With rain continuing to fall, forcing most of the field to make green-flag stops for wet tires, Newman pulled ahead of Houff in the first few corners. Both then passed Cody Ware, who was shown in last place on Lap 2. By the next time by, Ware had re-passed Houff and opened up a 1.890-second advantage. On Lap 4, the spot fell to Garrett Smithley in the #53 Jacob Companies Ford. On Lap 5, Josh Bilicki took over last place in still another Rick Ware Racing entry, his #52 Junction Fuels Ford 4.940 seconds back of Houff, who was again 39th as Smithley passed him. Bilicki turned in a good lap, and cut the deficit to Houff down to 2.071 seconds the next time by. At that point, 39th-place Houff was a full 6.114 seconds back of Smithley. The rest of the deficit disappeared on Lap 7, and Houff now trailed Biicki by 1.260 seconds.

Haley's car in the garage
PHOTO: @SpireMotorsport

By Lap 7, Daniel Suarez had at least once wheel-hopped his #99 and run off-course. That time by, he dropped off the pace in Turn 13 and needed a push. Suarez reported the engine was still running, but was having trouble with his backup transmission. Suarez took over last place on Lap 8, when he was pushed to the garage area. Behind the wheel, the frustrated driver removed the shifter boot and called for a knife to make further repairs. The team felt the linkage was fine, and thus decided to change the transmission for the second time that day.

Haley entered the last-place battle while entering the Esses on Lap 12. At the time, he’d worked his way up to 13th when his car slowed, then limped its way around the track. He turned into the garage on Lap 14, and two laps later the crew reported he’d broken a tie rod that was now stuck under the car. Across the garage, Suarez’ car re-fired on Lap 17, and after some difficulty finding their way onto pit road, returned to the track 10 laps down. Suarez finally completed his seventh lap of the day on the 18th circuit.

Back in the Spire garage area, the first call of “We’re done” came on Lap 20. For the next several laps, there was confusion from the team as to if that meant they were done for the day, and Haley had reportedly climbed from the car. This was compounded the next time by, when the first of two grinding multi-car accidents unfolded on the fastest portion of the track. Meanwhile, Suarez dropped Haley to last on Lap 22.

On Lap 23, Haley’s crew again said, “Alright, we’re done,” but someone else on the channel waited for NASCAR to make it official. On Lap 24 came the message “We’re done, buddy. Thank you for your help.” NASCAR announced Haley was out on Lap 30.

The same lap Haley was declared out, NASCAR also confirmed the exits of five other drivers collected in the two aforementioned wrecks, four of which completed the Bottom Five. On Lap 19, when Ryan Blaney slowed at the entrance to Turn 12, Kevin Harvick checked-up in his #4 Ford and was rear-ended by the closing Bubba Wallace in the #23 Door Dash Toyota. Also collected was Christopher Bell, who stoved in the nose of his #20 Craftsman Toyota. Wallace, Bell, and Harvick fell out – Harvick attempted to keep going, but was told to stop after he leaked oil. Rounding out the group was Cole Custer, who in the same spot six laps later slammed his #41 Ford into the back of the disabled #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota of Martin Truex, Jr. Both drivers walked away startled, but uninjured.

Suarez managed to climb to 33rd when the race was cut short by even heavier rain.

Haley’s teammate Corey LaJoie clawed his way to 5th at the end of Stage 2, and looked for a solid finish in his #7 Schluter Systems Chevrolet. But he ran off-track in the closing stages, and had to settle for a 20th-place finish. His was one of many surprising runs through the race, including Ryan Preece and Ross Chastain, who both made spirited bids at the lead, and defending XFINITY Series champion Austin Cindric, whose “open” #33 Pirtek Ford led the wet opening four laps on slick tires.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #77 in a Cup Series race since November 1, 2020, when Garrett Smithley’s turn in the #77 Chevrolet ended with electrical issues after 100 laps of the XFINITY 500 at Martinsville.
*Haley is the first driver to finish last in a Cup race due to steering issues since August 4, 2019, when Reed Sorenson – also driving the Spire entry – fell out after 65 laps of the Go Bowling at the Glen at Watkins Glen. That was also the last time the #77 finished last in a Cup road course race.

40) #77-Justin Haley / 12 laps / steering
39) #23-Bubba Wallace / 18 laps / crash
38) #20-Christopher Bell / 18 laps / crash
37) #4-Kevin Harvick / 19 laps / crash
36) #41-Cole Custer / 24 laps / crash

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

1st) Chevrolet (7)
2nd) Ford (5)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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