Monday, June 7, 2021

CUP: Stenhouse clears “Crash Clock” after hard Sonoma hit, but blown engine ends his day

PHOTO: Brock Beard

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. picked up the 9th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350 at the Sonoma Raceway when his #47 SunnyD Chevrolet fell out with a blown engine after 40 of 92 laps.

The finish, which came in Stenhouse’s 308th series start, was his first of the season and first since September 19, 2020 at Bristol, 23 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 34th for the #47, the 704th from engine failure, and the 807th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 52nd for the #47, the 1,102nd from engine failure, and the 1,784th for Chevrolet.

In his second season driving the flagship #47 at JTG-Daugherty Racing, Stenhouse has put himself in the fight to point his way into the 2021 playoff picture. He finished inside the Top 20 in each of the season’s first nine races, highlighted by a runner-up to Joey Logano in NASCAR’s return to dirt track racing at Bristol. But coming into Sonoma, Stenhouse had only once finished better than 20th, beginning with a 33rd-place finish at Talladega, site of his first Cup win. He also led 23 laps at Kansas, only to be eliminated in a late-race crash, putting him 34th. He entered Sunday’s race coming off a strong 12th in the Coca-Cola 600, having started on the outside-pole after a rare qualifying session.

At Sonoma, Stenhouse secured 14th on the grid. He’d carry the familiar colors of SunnyD, a sponsor that first backed his previous ride at Roush-Fenway Racing. It was with that team – but not that sponsor – that Stenhouse had finished last at Sonoma once before, back in 2017. The SunnyD scheme was nearly identical to that of his replacement, Chris Buescher, when he ran it most recently last fall in Talladega.

Rolling off 37th and last was Cody Ware in the #51 Nurtec ODT Chevrolet, fresh off a 15th-place run in the XFINITY race at Mid-Ohio’s road course the day before. He’d be joined at the rear by Anthony Alfredo, set to start 28th on his #38 MDS Ford before his crew chief was ejected for a body panel infraction during pre-race inspection. Also sent to the rear was 35th-place Scott Heckert for unapproved adjustments on his #78 Surface Sunscreen Ford.

When the race began, Alfredo held the last spot, but by the end of Lap 1 had passed Quin Houff in the #00 8 Ball Chocolate Whiskey Chevrolet. Alfredo was now racing Garrett Smithley in the #53 R.J.’s Paint Shop Ford, and the two nearly made contact running side-by-side in Turn 12. On Lap 3, Christopher Bell made an unscheduled stop in his #20 Rheem Toyota, which wasn’t running when he stopped in his stall. The crew looked under the hood, got the car refired, and he rejoined the race on the lead lap. By Lap 6, race leader Kyle Larson had caught Bell and the next time by put him a lap down.

By the time the competition caution fell on Lap 10, Bell had unlapped himself as many of the leaders pitted just before the yellow. Bell made another pit stop under the yellow, at which point he’d dropped Smithley back to last for the Lap 14 restart. On Lap 17, Smithley had caught Scott Heckert’s #78, and another round of pit stops just before the end of Stage 1 on Lap 19 dropped Ryan Newman to last in the #6 Guaranteed Rate Ford.

On Lap 22, Austin Dillon pitted his #3 Congressional Sportsmen’s Chevrolet, and the crew lifted the hood. Dillon had lost voltage, and would soon receive a new battery. The team planned to change batteries in each stage to keep the car running. Daniel Suarez then had a similar issue on his #99 CommScope Chevrolet, and took over last place on Lap 23. Smithley re-took last on the 26th circuit as Heckert battled with Josh Bilicki, who welcomed new sponsorship from California-based Pacific Coast Termite. According to a press release provided at the track, PCT sponsored Bilicki to thank their essential workers for their work during the pandemic.

The 29th lap saw Tyler Reddick take last in the #8 Childress Vineyards Chevrolet, citing smoke in the cockpit. The driver indicated fender damage caused the smoke, and the crew believed it was from a loose crush panel. Regardless, the damage dropped the #8 to last, the car running by itself on the track. Further ahead, Bilicki and Houff began to battle for position and on Lap 31 both were side-by-side coming off Turn 11 and heading into the first corner. Moments later, the caution fell, and the reason was Stenhouse.

Running around 22nd at the time, Stenhouse’s #47 clobbered the concrete barrier entering Turn 1 and slid into the dirt entering Turn 2. He managed to limp his car the rest of the way around the track as workers repaired the barrier. The team lost between one and two laps during their repairs, but returned to the track without the “Crash Clock” expiring. On Lap 36, he came across the stripe with the engine sounding rough, but managed to meet minimum speed in the process. He then slowed over the next lap, and came to the garage sometime after Lap 42.

While PRN reported Stenhouse was out, the driver was still behind the wheel, the car jacked up on the right side with the window net up. The crew was working under the hood and on the right-front of the car. On Lap 55, the car was off the jack, and the team had bolted on sticker tires for another run. By the 58th circuit, Stenhouse re-fired the engine, backed out of his garage stall, and returned to the track. Just two laps later, the car began to trail smoke, and he pulled into the garage again from the Turn 11 entrance, leaving a tall cloud behind him. Soon after, as the crew examined the fuel cell, Stenhouse dropped the window net and climbed out, his day done.

I spoke to Stenhouse as he walked back to his hauler. “Just racing, and then I got on the splitter and got into the guardrail there. And then, I don’t know, something happened with the engine after that. So, just a bad day.” He also said it was unlikely grass on the grille from driving off-course in Turn 2 was the culprit for the engine failure.

At the time, Stenhouse’s car was the only one in the garage, but the area filled up quickly. Quin Houff dropped out after 69 laps, citing rear gear trouble after his second spin left him stalled on the track. William Byon’s fast #24 Axalta Chevrolet was eliminated in a pileup in Turn 11, also collecting teammate Alex Bowman. Cody Ware’s day ended entering The Esses, where Ryan Preece spun out, then rejoined the track in front of Ware. The two collided, destroying the steering on Ware’s Chevrolet. Preece finished 21st. Rounding out the group was Ryan Newman, the last car on the lead lap, who spun off Turn 11 in a chain-reaction incident coming to the checkered flag.

Garrett Smithley finished the race one spot ahead of Newman in 32nd, and commented on his first Sonoma race, which happened to be his 200th combined NASCAR start. “We came home clean and I ran 32nd, which internally is my goal every week, so I feel like ‘mission accomplished.’ Didn’t have any damage on the car. We were kind of hitting the splitter a little bit to start out with and the brakes were kind of squishy. Wish we could’ve gotten at least one round of practice in. Normally I’m ‘Team No Practice,’ but at a place like this, it’s so difficult.”

Smithley focused on saving his brakes, which accounted for him running some distance behind the pack at several points during the race. Victory Lane Quick Oil Change and its partners, who have often backed Smithley’s Cup efforts, were not on his black #53 this week – in fact, the only logo was on his mask. R.J.’s Paint Shop, the car’s only logo on the lower rear quarter-panels, is a local California-based business, whose owners invited Smithley to come visit their shop before the race weekend. Smithley says Victory Lane has signed on for six to seven races in 2021, including the fall races at Las Vegas and the Charlotte “Roval.” 

Several drivers eyed a surprising top-ten finish in the final laps, only to drop down in the order. Corey LaJoie restarted in the Top Five in the final laps, but with 12 to go, his #7 Nations Guard Chevrolet spun off the nose of Ross Chastain entering Turn 11, dropping him to 18th. Michael McDowell was battling Alex Bowman for a spot in the Top Ten when the two banged wheels in Turn 7 on the final lap, putting McDowell into the dirt. McDowell straightened out the car, only to be spun by Daniel Suarez the final time through Turn 11, dropping the #34 Love's Travel Stops Ford to 28th. 

Enjoying a career weekend was Anthony Alfredo, McDowell’s teammate, who recovered from the penalty that dropped him to last place at the initial start to challenge for his first career top-ten finish. Still fighting to stay around the 10th spot with one lap to go in regulation, Alfredo was collected with Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, and Alex Bowman in a multi-car tangle heading to Turn 4. Heavy right-front damage caused Alfredo’s #38 to drag the bodywork during braking, leaving him a disappointing 31st.

*This marked the third last-place finish at Sonoma for JTG-Daugherty Racing’s #47 team, each with a different driver. On June 23, 2013, Bobby Labonte lost an engine on the opening lap. And on June 24, 2018, A.J. Allmendinger lost the engine after 33 laps when he shifted to the wrong gear off Turn 11.
*Stenhouse completed the fifth-most laps of any Cup Series last-place finisher at Sonoma. The record remains 68 laps (out of 110), set by Hideo Fukuyama on June 22, 2003.

37) #47-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 40 laps / engine
36) #00-Quin Houff / 69 laps / rear gear
35) #24-William Byron / 76 laps / crash / led 5 laps
34) #51-Cody Ware / 84 laps / crash
33) #6-Ryan Newman / 92 laps / crash

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

1st) Chevrolet (9)
2nd) Ford (5)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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