Saturday, May 22, 2021

XFINITY: Spectacular engine failure leaves Noah Gragson last at COTA

PHOTO: @Leuel48Fan

Noah Gragson picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Pit Boss 250 at the Circuit of the Americas when his #9 Bass Pro Shops / Black Rifle Coffee Chevrolet fell out with a blown engine after 13 of 46 laps.

The finish, which came in Gragson’s 80th series start, was his first of the season and first in the series since October 17, 2020 at Kansas, 14 races ago. In the XFINITY Series last-place rankings, it was the 12th for the #9, the 266th from engine issues, and the 569th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 1,100th from engine trouble, the 54th for the #9, and the 1,779th 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 those two races, Gragson has finished strong, finishing no worse than 15th in the five races leading up to COTA. This included Darlington, where NASCAR reversed his disqualification for illegal shock mounts and wrote a new rule. Gragson finished 4th that day, securing a $100,000 bonus from XFINITY’s “Dash 4 Cash” program.

At COTA, Gragson ran 6th in the opening practice, but only qualified 20th for the main event with a speed of 74.192mph (2:45.462). In the rain, he ran off-course in Turn 1 and became stuck in the gravel trap. He was among the 43 drivers entered for the 36-car starting grid, which included Jordan Anderson’s #31 and Bassett Racing’s #77, shut out of the season’s first ten races due to the lack of qualifying since Daytona. Richard Childress Racing’s duo of Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick got both cars into the show, starting 17th and 5th, respectively. They would finish strong, too, taking 13th and 8th.

Bumped from the field were both Mike Harmon Racing entries of Kyle Weatherman (#47 Beau’s Beautiful Blessings Chevrolet) and Bayley Currey (#74 JM Steel / Cutek Chevrolet), two of the four DGM entries of Caesar Bacarella (#90 Maxim / AP Sports Regimen Chevrolet) and Josh Williams (#92 Alloy Employer Services Chevrolet), plus Jeffrey Earnhardt in the #0 Forever Lawn Chevrolet, Stephen Leicht in the #61 Jani-King Toyota, and Jesse Little in the #78 Shriners Hospitals for Children Toyota.

Rolling off 36th and last on the grid was Kris Wright, whose #26 Boot the Ban Toyota at Sam Hunt Racing promoted a ballot measure to allow seven-day sales of distilled spirits in Texas. The measure also sponsored an in-car cam for Wright’s entry. Wright incurred a redundant tail-end penalty for an engine change in practice, the same reason that dropped 34th-place Ryan Sieg in the #39 A-Game Ford. Daniel Hemric’s team changed the transmission on his #18 Poppy Bank Toyota, but would ultimately struggle with the gearshift for much of the race, requiring frequent pit stops from Lap 9 onward.

When the rain that plagued the morning’s practices and Truck Series race had waned, the track was deemed “damp,” allowing the field to pit for racing slicks before the green flag. During their stop, Sieg’s team made an illegal body modification, resulting in a second tail-end penalty to go with their engine change. Coming to the green flag, Sieg was still in last when Brandon Brown’s #68 Good Sam Chevrolet stalled in Turn 12. Brown reported a possible ignition problem as his car wouldn’t re-fire, and the start was waved off for another lap so he could be pushed to pit road. Brown’s crew discovered the alternator wire was the issue, and completed repairs just after the field took the green flag.

By the time Brown left pit road, 35.982 seconds back of the lead, the field was entering the Esses. Up front was Ross Chastain, a last-minute replacement for Joe Graf, Jr., who had suffered a knee injury. Chastain qualified 2nd in Graf’s #07 G Coin Chevrolet, but swung wide in the Esses, handing him NASCAR’s first penalty for violating track limits. But his car soon slowed, and Chastain reported he’d broken an axle. He made it back to the pits and turned hard left into the garage area. Since the entrance to the garage was short of the recognized starting line near pit exit, Chastain was not yet credited with completing a lap.

On Lap 11, Chastain’s crew was just about ready to return to the race, making adjustments along the way, when a car stalled out on the track. This was famous “road course ringer” Boris Said, making his return to NASCAR for the first time in four years, this time in Motorsports Business Management’s #13 Whataburger Toyota. Heading down the track’s longest straight, Said’s car suddenly shut down, then coasted to a stop against the left side of the track. NASCAR tried to tell Said to pull his car behind the wall, but the car stopped just past one of the entrances. The caution wouldn’t be thrown until moments later, when Ryan Ellis’ #99 / Keen Parts Toyota stalled on another part of the track. Both drivers were pushed to pit road under the ensuing caution with Ellis pushed so hard that he was concerned the truck would wreck him. Ellis’ car re-fired on pit road, and moments later, Chastain returned from the garage 10 laps down, but Said’s issue took more time. The team attempted to change the battery on pit road, but then pushed him to the garage on Lap 13. The next time by, the #13 was behind the team’s hauler.

Gragson didn’t enter the last-place picture until Lap 14, at the end of Stage 1. Coming down the same straight as Said, Gragson’s engine suddenly exploded into flame, causing his car to spin to a stop and nearly collecting the #66 Toyota of Timmy Hill. FS1’s cameras made it seem like it was an ordinary spin, but soon he was towed to the garage area, done for the race with engine failure. On Lap 20, NASCAR’s garage official reported Gragson was out of the race. The next time by, as Said took last from Chastain, the #13 re-fired in the garage and returned to action 11 laps down, one lap back of Chastain. By then, both were within five laps of dropping Gragson to last place. Chastain dropped Gragson to 35th on Lap 25, and on Lap 26, the #13 Whataburger Toyota – the same car involved in the Homestead wreck – dropped Gragson to last.

Ultimaely, Said finished 31st with Chastain in 30th as multiple incidents filled out the Bottom Five. Taking 35th was Tommy Joe Martins, whose #44 Diamond Gusset Jeans Chevrolet likewise suffered a sudden engine failure in a plume of smoke, ending Martins’ 100th XFINITY Series start. Miguel Paludo took 34th in the #8 Brandt Agriculture Chevrolet, which dropped the drive shaft on pit road as he pulled into the garage. Timmy Hill’s #66 fell out after 29 laps when his car stalled, and Kris Wright climbed from his #26 after the same number of laps, both victims of blown engines.

A few road course specialists turned in fine runs during the 46-lap race. Taking 19th was 46-year-old sports car veteran Spencer Pumpelly, whose NASCAR debut in JD Motorsports’ #6 Fast Life / Grid Rival Chevrolet yielded a strong 19th-place finish. Jade Buford, who returned to the track where his Big Machine Racing team began to come together, finished 3rd in Stage 2 and brought his #48 Big Machine Spiked coolers Chevrolet home in the 15th spot. Andy Lally continued his strong series of runs in the #23 The A Team / MFI Fantasy Racing Chevrolet for Our Motorsports, taking 4th in Stage 1 and finishing in 18th.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #9 in an XFINITY Series road course race.

36) #9-Noah Gragson / 13 laps / engine
35) #44-Tommy Joe Martins / 19 laps / engine
34) #8-Miguel Paludo / 25 laps / rear gear
33) #66-Timmy Hill / 29 laps / engine
32) #26-Kris Wright / 29 laps / engine

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

1st) Chevrolet (8)
2nd) Toyota (2)
3rd) Ford (1)


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