Saturday, November 6, 2021

XFINITY: Last-place battle turns into a confrontation after Jeffrey Earnhardt and Joe Graf, Jr. crash out early in Phoenix finale

ALL PHOTOS: Brock Beard

Jeffrey Earnhardt picked up the 4th last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s XFINITY Series Championship Race at the Phoenix Raceway when his #0 Forever Lawn Chevrolet crashed after 57 of 204 laps.

The finish, which came in Earnhardt’s 131st series start, was his first of the season and first since July 4, 2020 at the Indianapolis Grand Prix Circuit, 53 races ago. In the XFINITY Series last-place rankings, it was the 22nd for the #0, the 359th from a crash, and the 585th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 90th for the #0, the 1,279th from a crash, and the 1,818th for Chevrolet.

Late last year, artificial turf company Forever Lawn signed with Jeffrey Earnhardt and Johnny Davis’ #0 team. The “Black-And-Green Grass Machine” debuted with a 33rd-place finish in Las Vegas, the first round of a three-race deal that expanded to most of the 2021 campaign. Despite a more stable amount of sponsorship, it’s remained a struggle for both Earnhardt and team. His best finish of the year was an 18th at Dover, where he came home two laps down, and three DNQs with five DNFs – four due to accidents – left him a distant 25th in the standings heading into the finale. 

With 42 drivers entered to attempt a 36-car field, the return of qualifying presented another challenge for smaller teams to even take the green flag. Earnhardt ran a solid 24th in the lone practice session with a lap of 127.231mph (28.295 seconds), and while he picked up in qualifying with a best of 128.374mph (28.043), he was in danger of missing the show. The last qualifier of the day was Harrison Burton, whose Joe Gibbs Racing-backed #20 Dex Imaging Toyota was sure to knock Earnhardt out of the field. But Burton had been penalized for a tire-related infraction in pre-race inspection, handing him a tail-end penalty for the start. Following this, Burton put up the slowest lap by far at 114.851mph (31.345 seconds), around three seconds off the pace, which locked Earnhardt into the race.

The six teams who missed the show were Landon Cassill in the #4 Voyager Chevrolet, Stephen Leicht in the #13 Jani-King / Sharelife Vacations Toyota, the #90 Mini Doge Chevrolet of Spencer Boyd, the #61 Coble Enterprises Toyota of Timmy Hill, Joey Gase in Jimmy Means’ nearly undecorated #52 Donate Life Texas Chevrolet, and Ryan Ellis in the #74 Beard Vet Coffee Chevrolet. Ellis had been swapped in for Gray Gaulding on Tuesday or Wednesday, thus eliminating Gaulding from contention in the 2021 LASTCAR XFINITY Series Championship. While Ellis and team struggled to find speed, three veteran representatives of Beard Vet Coffee still filmed multiple promotional videos with the car and took turns sitting in the driver’s seat.

When the field rolled off during the pace laps, two other drivers incurred pre-race penalties along with Harrison Burton. J.J. Yeley had wrecked in opening practice after an apparent brake failure, destroying the right side of his #07 Firman Power Equipment Chevrolet. With several representatives of the sponsor at the track, Yeley and the SS-Green Light Racing crew prepared the backup, which was the car Yeley ran 16th with last week in Martinsville. New number and sponsor decals were applied, changing it from the #17 to the #07, and Yeley put the car in the field, taking 29th.

Also sent to the back was LASTCAR Championship leader David Starr in the #66 Whataburger Toyota. Starr nearly joined his two Motorsports Business Management teammates after a litany of problems, starting with ignition trouble in the qualifying line that put them on the 5-minute clock. Then the tachometer broke off the dash, and when team owner Carl Long reached in to reattach it, NASCAR deemed that repair an unapproved adjustment, incurring the penalty. Despite the distraction, Starr pulled onto the track and on his first timed lap locked himself in, taking 27th on the grid. 

The early laps of Saturday’s race featured a competitive battle for the 36th spot. Burton started in the final row on Yeley’s inside, but by the backstretch on Lap 1, the two were locked in a three-wide battle with Joe Graf, Jr. in the #17 Model Electronics Chevrolet. Graf and Yeley pulled past Starr by Lap 2, when Burton tried to get under the #66 entering Turn 3. Burton completed the pass the next time by, but Starr was now bearing down on Graf for 35th. 

Starr pulled to the outside of Graf on Lap 5 and passed both he and Ryan Vargas in the #6 Swann Communications Chevrolet. Once Starr passed Vargas, the #6 fell into the clutches of Graf, who passed Vargas on Lap 8. Graf then pulled away from Vargas as Starr began to climb through the field, catching and passing Tommy Joe Martins in the #44 AAN Adjusters Chevrolet. Saturday would be the final race the #44 ran under the Martins Motorsports banner before its 2022 reorganization into Alpha Prime Racing. Despite an unscheduled stop with eight laps to go while running 20th, Martins managed to finish 24th.

Back on Lap 13, Martins was running back in the pack, trying to pass Matt Mills into Turn 3 in a race for 34th with Graf and Vargas trailing them both. Vargas reeled in Graf on the 15th circuit and tried to make a move into Turn 3, but Graf held him off. It wasn’t until Lap 16 that Jeffrey Earnhardt entered the battle as Graf caught him in a new race for 34th. First Graf, then Vargas passed Earnhardt, who took over the spot on Lap 17. Vargas opened the gap over Earnhardt by the 19th lap, and race leader Austin Cindric lapped Earnhardt the next time by, followed soon by Vargas. Now buried in lead-lap traffic, Vargas again opened up the advantage on Earnhardt, growing to a second by Lap 27. Vargas, meanwhile, caught new 34th-place runner Matt Mills on Lap 42. With Stage 1 running caution-free, Earnhardt was about to be lapped a second time just before the Lap 45 yellow, but managed to stay in front of the leaders. 

Under the Stage 1 caution, LASTCAR contender Bayley Currey took over last on Lap 49 following his pit stop in the #15 KSDT CPA Chevrolet. During the same caution, Graf was running a few spots up, but started to slow down the backstretch, dropping to the tail end of the line and taking over last by the Lap 52 restart. 

Earnhardt (far right) waiting for Graf after
Graf's car (far left) was towed to the garage.

Back under green, Mills nearly wrecked during another three-wide battle into Turn 3. While catching his car, Mills dropped to the last car in line, but was still ranked ahead of Graf. Graf then dropped Vargas to last again on Lap 56. He was still classified last on Lap 60, when Earnhardt spun halfway down the backstretch and nosed into the inside wall, drawing the second caution of the night and first for an incident. Earnhardt climbed from his car, done for the night, and took over last place soon after. Earnhardt’s car was towed rather quickly to the garage by Lap 70, where it was parked perpendicular to the JD Motorsports hauler near the second garage entrance. Both front fenders were pushed in and the left-rear tire was flat. The driver returned from the infield care center, followed by several supporters wearing Forever Lawn t-shirts, and I asked the driver what happened.

“Just racing around Joe Graf. Been going on all year,” he said. “You can buy equipment, but you can't buy talent. He can't race like an idiot. I mean, we shouldn't have been back there racing around him - we should have been a little better than that anyway. But it's just unfortunate for the Forever Lawn guys. We wanted to end the season strong and all the guys at JD Motorsports worked real hard. Just a kid who has no respect for anyone else, but himself.”

I asked if other drivers were racing too aggressively. “I mean, everyone's racing hard - it's the last race of the season. We all want to run good - I get it. But we're racing for, like, 30th, I don't know. Joe Graf's always a problem on the track just about any time we're racing with him. But everyone's just hungry, wants to have a good finish. And unfortunately, we got caught up in Joe Graf's mess.”

As fate would have it, Graf would be involved in a second accident, tangling with Sage Karam’s #31 Montage Mountain Chevrolet in Turns 1 and 2 on Lap 99. Graf’s car suffered serious damage to both ends, also done for the day, and arrived in the garage area on Lap 104. Graf’s hauler was just three away from Earnhardt’s, but the tow truck actually dropped the #17 well within sight of the #0 hauler. Thus, when Graf returned from the infield care center to examine his car, it only took Earnhardt a few steps to confront him. 

After the two exchanged words, I asked Graf what was discussed. “I don't know - he's (Earnhardt’s) just upset racing three-wide off Turn 2 there. I thought him and the 47 (Kyle Weatherman) got into it, he came down and wasn't clear, but I don't know, just hard racing three wide off of two at Phoenix.”

I also asked Graf about Earnhardt’s claim it was an ongoing problem. “I don't know why that would be an ongoing thing. I know we had words last year at some point. I thought we moved on from that and everything was good. I certainly didn't mean to wreck him. I have no problem with Jeffrey. I think we usually race pretty good - he might have other ideas, but it is what it is. Move on to next season.”

I then asked Earnhardt what he thought of Graf’s response. “The kid didn't even know he wrecked me. That's how bad he is. He's so bad, he don't even know he's screwed up. Like I said, daddy can keep buying him all the equipment he wants, but can't buy talent. He'll always suck and never realize how bad he is.”

Earnhardt and Graf finished 36th and 35th, respectively. Taking 34th was Stefan Parsons, whose #99 Rich Mar Florist / Springrates Chevrolet was towed to the garage after the engine let go. Jade Buford took 33rd when his early spin in the #48 Big Machine Spiked Coolers Chevrolet was followed by a late-race tangle with Josh Williams in the #92 Josh Williams Hospital Tour Chevrolet. Williams had significant damage to the passenger side of his car and was also eliminated, leaving him 32nd. 

Daniel Hemric shatters “oh-fer” streak in most dramatic way possible

The race – and championship – was won by Daniel Hemric, who after 208 combined Cup, XFINITY, and Truck Series starts without a single win broke through in dramatic fashion, prevailing in a bumper-banging photo finish with defending series champion Austin Cindric. Hemric’s two last-place finishes – one each in Cup and XFINITY – pale in comparison to his 10 runner-up finishes in XFINITY alone. Congratulations to Hemric on his victory.

David Starr clinches 2021 LASTCAR XFINITY Series Championship

Earnhardt’s last-place finish locked up the 2021 LASTCAR XFINITY Series Championship for David Starr, the only driver with three last-place runs this season. After briefly holding last place in the early laps, Starr began a determined march up to 21st at the finish, crossing the line on the lead lap. I caught up with Starr after the race.

“The most important part for us would have been to make the race - that was important,” he said. “And so that's really what we worked on yesterday in practice. We made about four or five runs and had the wrong air pressures in the tires. Then Carl put more camber in the right front for two laps to make it cut better in the center of the corner. So qualifying, the car would cut, and you'd get back to the gas quicker. Unfortunately, for the race, when the race started, when you lean that tire in and put more camber in, it wears out the inside of the tire. So as you run, the car gets worse. And usually when you run, you want the car to get better. So we were dealing with cording the right-front really bad. And they went to working on the race car from a handling standpoint. And they just kept working and working him and we just kept digging. You know, 21st is not what we want, but. . .the guys did a great job trying to put what we needed in the car to make it a long run car.”

Starr also commented on the challenges he and his team have faced this year, particularly with mechanical issues.

“That's one of the things I really tell my team to work hard on because mechanical failures - you've got to pay attention to the details. Losing engines and stuff like that. You're not a powerhouse team, you don't have all the money in the world, but you still gotta focus on details and watch everything. I'm okay finishing 16th, 15th, 17th, 19th, 20th - I'm okay with that as long as we've maxed out everything we had. When we finish in last, that hurts my feelings. That's what I don't like. It's just the circumstances. It's not what we work every day for but I'll take it.”

*This marked Earnhardt’s second last-place finish in a XFINITY race at Phoenix, following a November 8, 2014 race where, while also driving for Johnny Davis, his #4 JD Motorsports Chevrolet lost the engine on the opening lap of the DAV 200 Honoring America’s Veterans.
*This marked the first last-place run for the #0 in a XFINITY Series race since August 27, 2016, when Garrett Smithley crashed after 2 laps of the Road America 180 at Road America. The number had never before finished last in a XFINITY race at Phoenix.

36) #0-Jeffrey Earnhardt / 57 laps / crash
35) #17-Joe Graf, Jr. / 97 laps / crash
34) #99-Stefan Parsons / 123 laps / engine
33) #48-Jade Buford / 193 laps / crash
32) #92-Josh Williams / 194 laps / crash

1st) B.J. McLeod Motorsports (5)
2nd) Mike Harmon Racing (4) 
3rd) JD Motorsports, Motorsports Business Management (3)
4th) DGM Racing, 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 (24)
2nd) Toyota (8)
3rd) Ford (1)


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