Saturday, May 8, 2021

XFINITY: Rescinded penalty causes Matt Mills to prevail in four-day last-place battle

ALL PHOTOS: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles

UPDATED Wednesday, May 12, 2021 to reflect the rescinded Gragson penalty

Matt Mills picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Steakhouse Elite 200 at the Darlington Raceway when his #5 J.F. Electric Chevrolet was eliminated in a single-car accident after 44 of 148 laps.

The finish, which came in Mills’ 80th series start, was his first of the season and first since September 16, 2017 at Chicagoland, 115 races ago. In the XFINITY Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 11th for the #5, the 346th from a crash, and the 568th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 35th for the #5, the 1,251st from a crash, and the 1,777th for Chevrolet.

Fresh off his Cup Series debut at Kansas, where he drove team owner B.J. McLeod’s #55 Siebert Electric / J.F. Electric Ford to a 38th-place finish, Mills returned to his XFINITY effort with McLeod. Coming into Darlington, Mills had come home 25th at Talladega, his first finish better than 33rd since Homestead. Mills rolled off 32nd on Saturday.

Noah Gragson picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Steakhouse Elite 200 at the Darlington Raceway when his #9 Bass Pro Shops / Black Rifle Coffee Chevrolet finished 4th, but was disqualified after completing all 148 laps.

The finish, which came in Gragson’s 78th series start, was his first of the season and first in the series since October 17, 2020 at Kansas, 12 races ago. In the XFINITY Series last-place rankings, it was the 12th for the #9, the 15th from disqualification, and the 568th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 42nd from disqualification, the 54th for the #9, and the 1,777th for Chevrolet.

After last year’s disappointing end to his second full-time XFINITY season with JR Motorsports, Gragson has continue to be one of the sport’s most exciting – and controversial – competitors. At Homestead, he surprised many when he openly adopted a “checkers or wreckers” approach to the season, despite no wins in the first two races and no finishes better than 28th. He was well on his way to victory that night in Florida, but with two laps to go, while running the high lane with plenty of open track over second place, he collided the David Starr, who was enjoying a career night in 12th before a blown tire put him in Gragson’s path. The wreck left Gragson 33rd, and he’d two races later blown an engine in Phoenix. Other than that, his #9 has finished strong, taking 5th in Las Vegas, 4th in Atlanta, 2nd in Martinsville, and 6th in Talladega.

Gragson started 5th on the grid for Darlington. Prior to the race, he had the opportunity to sit in a restored #8 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would drive during the pace laps of the race.

Rolling off 40th and last was Matt Jaskol, whose team was particularly committed to the return of “throwback” weekend. He’d already been slated to run a new version of the #13 Glidden Paints Chevrolet that Mike Skinner ran in Cup from 1990 through 1992. That car had been owned by Thee Dixon, who at Mansion Motorsports became Carl Long’s first Cup Series team owner in 1998. The Motorsports Business Management team had the car towed to the track on Long’s old open-top late model trailer, which had recently been refurbished.

Jaskol’s #13 Lift Kits 4 Less Toyota only held the last spot briefly, as another driver struggled to even start. Prior to the race, the 40-car starting grid had been formed up on the now-unused backstretch pit road. The cars would then fire engines and cue up to the frontstretch, where they’d shut down again for opening ceremonies. A video posted by Bob Pockrass showed all 40 cars make the trip, including the #52 Panini America Chevrolet of 37th-place Gray Gaulding. Gaulding’s car stopped for a moment, then continued on out of frame.

Gaulding's car (far right) with issues just before
the green flag

But Gaulding’s car wouldn’t fire at the command, and photos by Luis Torres showed the Means Racing crew pushing the car back to their stall as the leaders addressed the starting line for the green flag. Gaulding’s pit was Stall 26, just five stalls from the starting line. Perhaps it was this reason timing and scoring showed Gaulding 3.402 seconds back of the leader at the start with Jaskol in 40th, 4.571 back. Gaulding was then classified last at the end of Lap 1, and by Lap 4 was being directed to the garage entrance. “No volts,” someone said on the radio. “Wouldn’t turn over.” Gaulding remained in the car, and by Lap 14 was told to shove in the clutch. The next time by, the engine fired, and he rolled back onto the track. “We’re up shit creek,” said someone on the radio. “We’re 15 laps down, and we just need to keep a clean car here.” Gaulding slotted in at the tail end of the field, just ahead of the damaged #26 Toyota of Brandon Gdovic, three laps down after an early wreck with Joe Graf, Jr. and J.J. Yeley.

Gaulding completed his first lap on the 17th circuit, and was deemed to have reached minimum speed with the rest of the field. While back on the track, Gaulding now reported some smoke in the cockpit, and that the volt meter was fluctuating. He remained on track, looking to reach the end of Stage 1 on Lap 45. That time by, another driver found trouble. Matt Mills in the #5 J.F. Electric Chevrolet spun off Turn 4 and slammed head-on into the inside wall. He managed to re-fire the engine, but stopped at the apron of Turn 1 under caution. No sooner had a wrecker come to pick up Mills’ car than it was called to pit road, where Josh Williams’ Rusty Crews “throwback” had collided with another car. Williams’ #92 Starbrite / Alloy Employer Chevrolet was pushed to the garage. The team looked for replacement parts from JR Motorsports, but would ultimately be declared out on Lap 106. By then, NASCAR had also declared Mills out, as reflected on the FS1 leaderboard with 44 to go. Mills had taken last from Gaulding on Lap 61, and had apparently locked-up last place.

Mills' car being towed to the garage

Gragson, meanwhile, led 40 laps and looked to be closing on the leaders in the final run to the checkers. He again had a fast car, and one caution was warned twice by NASCAR to slow down for the yellow. He ultimately came home 4th behind two of his JR Motorsports teammates – runner-up Josh Berry in the #8 Tire Pros / Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 2001 Pepsi 400 Chevrolet and winner Justin Allgaier in the #7 Good Humor Ice Cream / Dale Earnhardt 2000 Daytona 500 Chevrolet. He still finished ahead of 12th-place A.J. Allmendinger for the $100,000 bonus under XFINITY’s “Dash 4 Cash” program.

Only later was it announced that Gragson’s Chevrolet had failed post-race inspection, handing the bonus to Allmendinger and taking last from Mills. The reason was Gragson’s suspension mounts, specifically a violation of Rule 20.14.c governing mounts that allow too much abnormal movement.

The penalty lifted Mills to 39th with Williams in 38th, and bumped Brandon Gdovic out of the Bottom Five. Gaulding only made it to 37th after he’d eventually spin entering Turn 3, ending his race. Graf’s damaged #07 Bucked Up / Back to the Future Chevrolet rounded out the group, eliminated in a second accident during the final laps.

But JR Motorsports appealed the penalty, which was rescinded on Wednesday, putting him back to 4th and returning his $100,000 bonus. This put Mills back to last place once again, dropping Brandon Gdovic back into the Bottom Five.

After the penalty was overturned, Jeremy Clements missed his first Top Five of 2021, taking 6th in the #51 All South Electric / 2006 Dale Jarrett Chevrolet. Alex Labbe was also impressive, taking 10th in his #36 Larue Industrial Snow Blowers / 1995 Kenny Wallace Chevrolet. Landon Cassill edged Allmendinger for the 12th spot for his best run of the season in JD Motorsports’ #4 MaintenX Chevrolet.

One of the day’s most impressive runs belonged to Tommy Joe Martins, who turned heads with his “throwback” to Rich Bickle’s 10-10-345 Pontiac – even Bickle himself was looking to get one of the team’s shirts. In the race, Martins took tires early, allowing him to take 4th in Stage 1. He bounced off the wall midway through the race, but still clawed his way back up the order to finish 15th. After Gragson’s penalty, Martins was afforded 4th-place points in the first stage and a solid 15th-place finish.

Ryan Ellis (16th), David Starr (17th), and Tanner Berryhill (21st) also secured solid finishes. For Berryhill in Our Motorsports’ #23 Realty Connect Chevrolet, Saturday was his first XFINITY start since 2014.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #5 in an XFINITY race at Darlington since August 30, 1997, when Terry Labonte’s Alka-Seltzer / Bayer Chevrolet lost an engine after 6 laps.

40) #5-Matt Mills / 44 laps / crash
39) #92-Josh Williams / 48 laps / suspension
38) #52-Gray Gaulding / 107 laps / crash
37) #07-Joe Graf, Jr. / 132 laps / crash
36) #26-Brandon Gdovic / 140 laps / running

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

1st) Chevrolet (7)
2nd) Ford, Toyota (1)



NASCAR said...

Noah Gragson has his 4th-place finish reinstated now.

Brock Beard said...

Now updated!