Saturday, October 30, 2021

XFINITY: Difficult gear change hands Tommy Joe Martins first last-place finish in three years

PHOTO: @TommyJoeMartins

Tommy Joe Martins picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Dead On Tools 250 at the Martinsville Speedway when his #44 Gilreath Farms Red Angus Chevrolet fell out with rear gear issues after 36 of 257 laps.

The finish, which came in Martins’ 121st series start, was his first of the year and first in a XFINITY Series race since August 4, 2018 at Watkins Glen, 111 races ago. In the XFINITY Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 16th for rear gear issues, the 26th for the #44, and the 584th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 47th from a rear gear, the 65th for the #44, and the 1,1815th for Chevrolet.

Much has changed for Tommy Joe Martins since he was last featured here more than three years ago. After driving for both B.J. McLeod and Carl Long, Martins brought back his Martins Motorsports team just last year, fielding the #44 Chevrolet with multiple new sponsors, including AAN Adjusters and Gilreath Farms. After failing to qualify for the Daytona opener, his single-car effort gradually grew into a Top 20 effort, and drew the pole at Richmond. He ultimately scored the team’s first top-ten finish by passing Alex Labbe for 10th with three laps to go in Texas. 

This year, Martins has qualified for every race, starting with a 24th-place finish in his return to the Daytona opener, and a season-best 11th in Talladega. Returning to Richmond in September, Martins took the lead with five laps to go in Stage 1, set to score his first stage victory. But when he caught the lapped car of David Starr, A.J. Allmendinger caught and passed him at the stripe, leaving him a frustrated 2nd. A pair of accidents left him 37th at the checkered flag. He ran a new paint scheme that day following the August 30 announcement that Martins Motorsports would be reincorporated as Alpha Prime Racing for 2022, bringing on DGM Racing’s part-time driver Caesar Bacarella and up-and-coming Rajah Caruth. Martins started 19th at Martinsville, where he ran 16th last fall.

Rolling off 40th and last was the #74 Mike Harmon Racing entry, which for much of the week did not have a driver listed. That changed by Friday with Mike Harmon himself taking the wheel for his 289th series start, his first since a 17th-place showing at Talladega on October 3, 2020. Harmon’s #74 Findlay Cadillac / Lerner & Rowe Attorneys Chevrolet incurred a redundant tail-end penalty for the last-minute driver change, joined by two others with pre-race penalties for unapproved adjustments: 32nd-place Joe Graf, Jr. in the #07 Cover Seal Chevrolet and 37th-place Stephen Leicht in the #61 Jani-King “The King of Clean” Toyota.

During the pace laps, Harmon was told his engine might run flat at the start, but would run better once it warmed up. But shortly after the command, the engine cut off altogether. It refired, but the driver still felt it wasn’t running right, and discussed replacing the carburetor. The team decided against coming to pit road and took the green in 38th, two-tenths ahead of 39th-place Graf and three-tenths ahead of 40th-place Leicht. 

By Lap 3, Harmon was already 13.147 seconds back of the lead and 3.130 seconds back of 39th-place Akinori Ogata in the #78 Pneumatic Tools Toyota, and reported he was coming to pit road. He slowed on Lap 6 as he came down pit road, already two laps down, and had issues steering the car to the garage. The team believed Harmon was having an electrical issue, much as the #74 has had since the summer, and checked over the plug wires in the garage. “Damn, buddy,” said someone on the team. “I don’t know what to say, wire in the ignition or something.” The team got the car to re-fire on Lap 17, when he returned to the race 11 laps down.

As Harmon returned to race pace, he still wasn’t happy with the car. On Lap 30, he reported it was tight in the center, and believed the power steering wasn’t working. The crew said they set up the car with the splitter too high, choosing a conservative setup that needed significant adjustments. The team prepared to put on eight-lap scuffed tires on their next stop, but couldn’t find their jack. The driver called off the tire change, and the crew found the jack in time to make the needed adjustments. With this done, he drove through too many pit boxes coming off pit road, and incurred a tail-end penalty on Lap 34.

Two laps later, Tommy Joe Martins came to pit road with what was originally reported as a transmission issue. By Lap 43, he was pushed to the garage area, and now reported it was a rear gear failure. Harmon dropped Martins to last on Lap 49, and the #44 crew looked over the drive shaft. Unable to spin the shaft with the car in neutral, the crew knew they had to change the gear, but didn’t have a spare one on hand. Unable to get a replacement from another team, they secured one from JD Motorsports on Lap 65, but by Lap 83 had yet to remove the old gear from the car.

By then, Harmon had come back into the garage on Lap 52, this time citing an overheating issue that the team first believed was due to a faulty gauge. The #74 crew only noticed a brake duct hitting a shock, but by Lap 61 noted water spraying from the overflow. By the time the second Harmon car of Kyle Weatherman pulled behind the wall on Lap 94, Harmon was heard on the radio for Weatherman’s #47 Daa Bin Chevrolet, addressing the team’s brake issue. 

On Lap 101, NASCAR confirmed that both Harmon and Martins were out of the race, the pair just two laps apart. Four circuits later, Martins confirmed they were done, and instructed the team to sell their tires to another team. It was decided to sell to JD Motorsports for their help in securing a replacement gear. Harmon finished in 39th. 

The next two spots in the Bottom Five were filled after a big wreck on Lap 193. On the restart before that, Spencer Boyd had stayed out on old tires in Jimmy Means Racing’s #52 Sparrow Dynamics Chevrolet, giving Boyd the lead. After the first restart, Boyd had slipped back a few spots, but only to 6th place. When the race went green again, he was moved to the outside lane as Jeb Burton in the #10 Ntrien Ag Solutions Chevrolet and Michael Annett in the #1 PFJ Veterans Salute Chevrolet went to his inside exiting Turn 2. At the same moment, Riley Herbst threaded the needle between Annett and Burton with his #98 Monster Energy Ford, turning Annett into Burton, who collected Boyd. Burton and Annett were eliminated with crash damage while Herbst took 10th with Boyd 30th. Brandon Brown rounded out the Bottom Five in his #68 Larry’s Lemonade Chevrolet.

Alex Labbe finished 8th in his Halloween-themed #36 Rousseau / Prolon Controls / Globocam Chevrolet, taking his fourth top-ten finish of the year and first since Darlington, eight races ago. It had been just as long for Jeremy Clements, who finished 9th in his #51 Spartan Waste / Fox Sports Chevrolet. Labbe’s teammate Josh Williams finished not far behind in 11th in the #92 Alloy / Sleep Well / StarTron Chevrolet, which along with his 11th on the Charlotte “Roval” were his best finishes since Mid-Ohio. Colin Garrett’s 14th-place run in Sam Hunt Racing’s #26 Veterans Grow America Toyota matched his career-best last year at Homestead, and J.J. Yeley’s 16th-place finish in the #17 Alcova Mortgage Chevrolet was his third Top 20 in his last four starts.

But the biggest standout had to be Landon Cassill, whose 12th-place finish was his best since the spring race at Darlington, and came after a frustrating six-race stretch where he failed to finish four times for various mechanical issues on his #4 Voyager Chevrolet.

David Starr finished 24th, and remains the 2021 LASTCAR XFINITY Series Championship leader by a single finish heading into next Saturday’s season finale in Phoenix. Only three drivers are still in contention to take the title: Brandon Jones, Gray Gaulding, and Bayley Currey. All three could take the title by finishing last at Phoenix, no matter where Starr finishes.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #44 in a XFINITY race since October 14, 2011, when Jeff Green – then driving for TriStar Motorsports – scored his 26th series last-place run in the Dollar General 300 Miles of Courage at Charlotte due to electrical issues on his Spirit Halloween Chevrolet after 3 laps.

40) #44-Tommy Joe Martins / 36 laps / rear gear
39) #74-Mike Harmon / 38 laps / overheating
38) #1-Michael Annett / 192 laps / crash
37) #10-Jeb Burton / 194 laps / crash
36) #68-Brandon Brown / 204 laps / crash

1st) B.J. McLeod Motorsports (5)
2nd) Mike Harmon Racing (4) 
3rd) Motorsports Business Management (3)
4th) DGM Racing, JD Motorsports, Jimmy Means Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, JR Motorsports, Our Motorsports, RSS Racing / Reaume Brothers Racing (2)
5th) Brandonbilt Motorsports, Martins Motorsports / Alpha Prime Racing, Sam Hunt Racing, Rick Ware Racing / SS-Green Light Racing, SS-Green Light Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (23)
2nd) Toyota (8)
3rd) Ford (1)


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