Monday, July 12, 2021

SRX: Penultimate-lap melee at Slinger drops Michael Waltrip to last

ALL PHOTOS: William Soquet

by William Soquet Staff Writer

Michael Waltrip finished last for the first time in his Superstar Racing Experience career in Saturday’s event at the Slinger Super Speedway when his #15 Progressive Insurance car retired with crash damage after completing 148 of the race’s 150 laps.

The finish came in Waltrip’s fifth career start. Across series history, it was the first for car number 15 and the second for crew chief Jeff Hammond.

After finishing out his NASCAR Cup Series career in the 2017 Daytona 500, Michael Waltrip has still found the limelight. He's continued as a broadcaster for FOX Sports as both a Cup pre-race analyst and a Truck Series in-race commentator. He also launched his own brewing company, focusing on ales and lagers. He was announced as a driver for the Superstar Racing Experience in February 2021.

The personnel lineup for Slinger was in flux for perhaps the longest time of any event this season. Hailie Deegan stepped in as a sub for Tony Kanaan, who had racing duties in Brazil for the weekend. Famed Wisconsin short-track racer and 1999 Craftsman Truck Series Rookie of the Year Scott Hansen was brought on as the ringer crew chief. However, the driver that filled the ringer car was not known until late Tuesday night.

That was because the car went to the winner of the Slinger Nationals, an annual super late model event held the first Tuesday in July. The 17-year-old Luke Fenhaus, a rising senior at Wausau East High School in Wausau, Wisconsin, won the race with a late bump-and-run over NASCAR Truck Series driver Derek Kraus and, after initially waffling on it post-race, accepted the invite to race in the SRX event. Fenhaus’ family team is chasing the points championship in the ARCA Midwest Tour, and while that series had an event scheduled at Grundy County Speedway in Illinois on Saturday night, Fenhaus chose to run with the SRX drivers at Slinger. (The Midwest Tour race was later rained out in a stroke of luck for Fenhaus’ championship bid.)

Practice lasted for three hours on Saturday morning, and Fenhaus paced all drivers with a lap of 11.785 seconds around the quarter-mile bullring. Bill Elliott brought up the rear of the practice charts, clocking a best lap of just over 12.5 seconds.

Greg Biffle drew last place for the beginning of Heat 1, but he didn’t stay there for long. Entering Turn 3 on the opening lap, he got a nose out in front of Waltrip, who started 11th, and completed the pass at the end of the front straightaway. Within the opening minute, Biffle also moved past Willy T. Ribbs for tenth place. The field then sorted themselves into a mostly single-file appearance, and despite being the only driver besides Fenhaus to ever have made laps at Slinger before Saturday, Waltrip couldn’t find an opening to move past the 17 car until the commercial-break caution midway through Heat 1.

On the ensuing restart, Waltrip got a good jump to the outside of Ribbs but was unable to make a clear pass for the first couple of laps. He had just cleared Ribbs in turn one a couple of laps in when Ernie Francis Jr., who had been driving very defensively all race long, decided to go on offense and run the apron in to turn one in order to punt Paul Tracy. Tracy looped it in turn two, brought out the caution, and then proceeded to door Francis during the caution. On the ensuing restart, Tracy discovered that he had cut a tire when he doored Francis, and drew another caution when his car went straight and slowed. He retired for the heat with two laps to go.

Perhaps because of finishing laps down in the previous heat or perhaps because series officials deemed his actions as something they didn’t want to see more of, Tracy was denied the Heat 2 pole position usually awarded to the last-place finisher of Heat 1. That left Ribbs and Elliott as the front row. Marco Andretti, who more or less dusted the field in Heat 1, lined up 11th, with Tracy to his outside in 12th. The two split Fenhaus, who struggled to come up to speed on the restart, and Andretti cleared him by the end of the first lap, dropping the patriotically-painted car to last, a nose behind Tracy. On the second lap, however, Ribbs spun by himself from the third position, dropping the 17 to last.

Fenhaus immediately cleared Ribbs on the restart and set sail, destined for a top-five finish by the time the heat ended. In turns three and four, Waltrip washed up the track and Greg Biffle darted by. Helio Castroneves tried to do the same thing on the frontstretch, but found Waltrip’s back bumper instead. The impact was forceful enough that it caved in the rear wing on Waltrip’s car and created a tire rub. He parked on track to cause a caution, then pulled in to the pits, where he was promptly interviewed by Matt Yocum. While Waltrip touted his car’s long-run speed, that would be the end of his heat race.

Despite the track public address saying that the finishing order of the second heat would be the starting lineup for the feature, the series did set the feature starting grid by average heat finish. Tracy, with an average finish of 11.5 in the heats, sat on the last row along with Waltrip, who averaged 10.5. Waltrip immediately cleared tenth-place driver Willy T. Ribbs, and Tracy dove inside as well on the opening start. Tracy gave Ribbs a good nudge in the door panel through turns one and two of the opening lap, and Ribbs responded by running Tracy down to the grass in turns three and four, setting the stage for what could potentially be a short race for one or both of those drivers.

However, after the opening skirmish, Tracy settled his lime green machine in behind Ribbs and stayed single-file until Lap 18, when both Ribbs and Tracy passed Elliott in the same lap. The 9 car struggled for pace at times in the opening portion of the feature event. It took until about Lap 80 for Elliott to make a successful move on Ribbs, who admitted that he had never seen, much less raced, on a track like Slinger in his racing career. Waltrip suffered a flat tire on Lap 105 and drew a caution, taking over 12th position. The ensuing restart featured multiple fireworks between Tracy, Francis and Deegan, but it also featured Waltrip overtaking Elliott and dropping the 9 car to another stint at the rear.

Paul Tracy's damaged car after the race.

On the Lap 138 restart, Biffle spun Castroneves in turn one and both were sent to the rear, bumping Elliott to tenth. Biffle made it by the 9 car fairly quickly, but Castroneves took more time, advancing past Elliott on Lap 143. Meanwhile, as Fenhaus took the white flag as the leader, Deegan turned Tracy in turn four, and the 13 car skidded to a stop in the middle of the track at the exit of turn four, collecting Waltrip, Ribbs and Castroneves. Waltrip’s and Tracy’s cars were terminally damaged, and since Waltrip was behind Tracy at the beginning of Lap 148, he was classified last in the race. Castroneves rounded out the Bottom Three after a rough end to the race as the last car running.

When the author made it down to the pit area a handful of minutes after the conclusion of the race, Waltrip’s car was still being looked over by a few series workers and the driver himself was nowhere within sight. Tracy was already in a t-shirt and shorts, signing autographs for fans who recognized him when he wasn’t wearing a firesuit. His car sat all alone, resting at the end of the backstretch pit lane. After a public Instagram exchange between the two drivers, Deegan later revealed that she and Tracy had a conversation in one of the series motorhomes after the race.

12) #15-Michael Waltrip / 148 laps / crash
11) #13-Paul Tracy / 148 laps / crash
10) #3-Helio Castroneves / 150 laps / running

1st) Jeff Hammond (2)
2nd) Mike Christopher, Keith Kunz, Todd Parrott (2)


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