Sunday, February 27, 2022

CUP: History repeats for Christopher Bell at Fontana; Smithley and McLeod impress

PHOTO: Brock Beard

Christopher Bell picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Wise Power 400 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California when his #20 Rheem Toyota fell out with engine issues after 94 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Bell’s 74th series start, was his first of the season and first since October 4, 2020 at Talladega, 43 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 33rd for the #20, the 174th for Toyota, and the 707th from engine issues. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 53rd for the #20, the 369th for Toyota, and the 1,113th for engine issues.

When the NASCAR Cup Series last arrived at the Auto Club Speedway, it was Bell who picked up the first last-place finish of his young career. Making just his third career start for Leavine Family Racing, Bell lost the engine after 80 laps after a piece of debris pierced his radiator. Following the season reset caused by the pandemic, Bell began to find a rhythm, and contended at both Loudon and Texas before the LFR team shut down. He landed at Joe Gibbs Racing, taking the place of Erik Jones in the #20 ride, and in his second start of the season scored a surprising victory on the Daytona Infield Road Course. This resulted in his first Chase appearance, and a 12th-place finish in the standings.

This year, tapping into his Chili Bowl experience, Bell made the main event during the Busch Light Clash and finished a solid 8th in the 23-car field. He also finished 5th in his Duel race at Daytona, only to suffer splitter damage in a tangle down the backstretch during the 500 that left him a distant 34th. The trip to California came next.

With only the 36 Chartered entries making the trip west, Bell ranked a strong 9th in Saturday’s brief practice session, then timed in 19th in the first round of qualifying with a lap of 171.887mph (41.887 seconds). Bell had tied Chris Buescher’s lap to the thousandth of the second and was credited with the tiebreaker over the #17 Fastenal Ford.

Starting 36th and last was Kurt Busch, whose #45 Monster Energy Toyota had all but secured the spot before a single car took a lap. As pre-race inspection ran into the late hours of Friday night, it was reported Busch’s car had failed inspection three times, receiving both a tail-end penalty and a pass-through to be served after taking the green flag on Sunday. 

Busch would be one of six drivers to not take a lap in qualifying, joined by five who had issues on the track during a windy Saturday morning. Kevin Harvick backed his #4 Subway Ford into the Turn 4 wall, requiring repairs that employed teammate Cole Custer’s backup car. Ross Chastain hit the same wall with the right-front of his #1 Casa Del Sol Tequila Chevrolet, and the Trackhouse crew had to prepare and wrap their backup. Bubba Wallace suffered minor damage when he spun his #23 Wheaties Toyota, and Aric Almirola slid sideways through Turn 4 in the #10 Rush / Mobil Delvac 1 Ford. Justin Haley did not take a lap in qualifying, and the team had to change the oil cooler on his #31 Leaf Filter Gutter Protection Chevrolet. Of this group, only Almirola would not incur a tail-end penalty.

On Sunday, another three drivers were sent to the back, bringing the total to nine of the 36 starters: 13th-place Kyle Larson in the #5 Chevrolet for swapping out a failed ignition switch, 7th-place Joey Logano in the #22 Shell / Pennzoil Ford, and 9th-place Brad Keselowski in the #6 Violet Defense Ford. This did not include a tenth driver – Garrett Smithley – who surrendered the 29th spot on the grid to join Kurt Busch in the final row as the field addressed the starter’s stand for the green flag.

During the pace laps, where Kurt trailed the five-wide salute by himself in the high lane - he and his crew had both sought clarification from NASCAR about when they should serve their pass-through penalty if a caution flag happened on the first lap. Despite all the incidents in practice, qualifying, and the XFINITY race, the first lap ran clean, and Busch came down pit road at the end of Lap 1. Back on the track, Smithley now trailed a three-car single-file pack that had fallen behind the rest of the leaders. Ahead of him were teammate Cody Ware in the #51 Nurtec ODT Ford and B.J. McLeod in the #78 Pala Casino Ford. 

When Busch served his penalty, he returned to the track on Lap 2 on the lead lap, 16.127 seconds back of the lead and 10.509 back of 35th-place Smithley. By the time he was back up to speed on Lap 3, the deficit to Smithley had grown to 24.091 seconds. By Lap 5, Busch had cut it down by more than three seconds to 20.711, then 10.551 on Lap 10. That time by, McLeod had lost touch with Ware and Smithley was racing the #78 for position. The pair were side-by-side across the stripe on Lap 12, just 0.046 second apart, Smithley diving under McLeod into Turn 1, with Busch 7.494 seconds from catching them both. 

On Lap 15, Kurt Busch was just 3.857 seconds back of Smithley when the caution came out for Busch’s brother. Kyle Busch’s #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota spun on the backstretch, moving up the planned competition caution set for Lap 20. As Kyle made his pit stop, Kurt passed him on the track, dropping the #18 to last on Lap 16. Cody Ware then took the spot the next lap after his own stop with Kyle Busch pitting again soon after. At the time, Ware was fighting an issue with his throttle, believing either the pedal or the throttle stop was malfunctioning. This issue manifested on the Lap 20 restart, when after starting side-by-side with Kyle Busch, Ware quickly lost touch with the field, losing a second to the pack by Lap 21.

On Lap 25, when he had dropped 6.886 seconds back of 35th place, Ware radioed the crew that “it’s not even letting me hit the gas pedal at all.” Just five circuits later, race leader Chase Elliott caught and passed Ware at the stripe, pulling to his outside as he put the #51 the first car one lap down. From there, Ware held the bottom lane to let faster traffic by, only to watch as Kyle Busch made an unscheduled stop on Lap 36. This time, the reason was an overheating engine, and the crew brought out a leaf blower to cool the radiator. The next time by, when Chase Elliott spun off Turn 2, drawing the caution, Busch shut off the motor. Ware pitted under the same yellow so the crew could attempt to repair the throttle issue, and both continued to slowly lose laps. 

On Lap 41, Ware re-fired his engine and passed Busch on pit road, dropping the #18 to last place. The #18 crew locked down the hood soon after and then completed a four-tire stop. By then, he’d been joined a few stalls back by Daniel Hemric. Hemric had qualified a strong 7th in Kaulig Racing’s #16 Poppy Bank Chevrolet, but had broken the shifting linkage in the early laps. He, too, lost laps on pit road, rejoining the race 5 laps down in 35th on Lap 46. At that point, Hemric was running behind Busch but ahead of Ware. 

During this exchange, Ware had become the first driver to go to the garage, the crew unable to fix the throttle on pit road. Ware roared back onto the track on Lap 53, just as track employees pushing the rolling pedestal with the race winner’s trophy nearly walked into his path. Ware took four tires and fuel the next time by and reported his car was neutral. Now 15 laps down, the focus for Ware was testing a setup for next week’s race in Las Vegas.

By Lap 68, all 36 drivers were still running with 31 of them still on the lead lap. For Kyle Busch, Ware, and Hemric, their early issues persisted. Ware reported his steering was starting to feel heavy, and reported “we’ve got a bigger problem here” on Lap 79. Hemric pitted from 35th place on Lap 83, and returned to the track as Kyle Busch slowed with a flat left-rear tire on the backstretch. By then, Busch had made at least one other stop for the overheating issue, again calling for the leafblower.

Kyle Busch’s overheating problem, which by now had taken him out of contention, was fought by nearly all of his Toyota teammates, except Bubba Wallace. This included Bell, who cited an airflow problem on Lap 41 that required an extended stop. Bell managed to stay on the lead lap, though he ran by himself the next time by. On Lap 91, as Denny Hamlin hit pit road in his #11 FedEx Toyota, Bell spun from Turn 4 and made contact with the wall with the left-rear corner of his rear bumper. Stranded on the apron with at least one flat tire, Bell was one of the beneficiaries of a late rule change by NASCAR, allowing cars to be towed back to the garage without retiring from the race. Bell made it to pit road, though he lost six laps in the process. He returned to the track on Lap 97, and two circuits later cleared the six-minute “Crash Clock” by reaching minimum speed. The message had hardly been relayed by NASCAR when Bell’s engine cut off entering Turn 1. He passed his pit stall on Lap 101, and pulled directly behind the wall.

Bell had parked his car in the first of the track’s three garage buildings, which was unexpected because his hauler was parked on the opposite side of Garage 2. The crew put the car on jack stands, and Bell climbed out. By Lap 109, when Bell took last place from Ware, some of his crew filtered back to the hauler in Garage 2. Bell headed to the motorcoach lot on Lap 112, just after he was interviewed by MRN radio. The reason for Bell’s exit at first appeared to be the initial accident, though there was nothing more than a swatch of blue paint on the left corner of the rear bumper. It wasn’t until Lap 122, when NASCAR confirmed “20 out, engine,” that the cause was clarified.

Also declared out that time by was Chris Buescher, who spun and slapped the Turn 1 wall with the driver’s side of his #17 Ford on Lap 112. Four laps later, Buescher rolled behind the wall through the same entrance used by Bell, his car listed out due to accident. Cody Ware, meanwhile, climbed to 34th by the checkered flag, finishing under power 13 laps behind winner Kyle Larson. The two cars he passed were William Byron in the #24 Axalta Chevrolet and Harrison Burton in the #21 Dex Imaging Ford, which were both involved in incidents off Turn 2. It was Byron who made contact with a slowing Tyler Reddick, whose #8 Lenovo Chevrolet swept the stage wins and led 90 laps before a flat left-rear tire entering Turn 1 dropped him to 24th.

Just five laps in front of Ware at the checkered flag was Michael McDowell, whose #34 Stage Front Ford was running in the Top Ten during the late stages before the engine began to sour on Lap 189. An electrical issue was the listed reason why he pulled off the track just seven laps short of the finish. Meanwhile, Daniel Hemric, who lost seven laps following his shifter issue, gained all of them back with only one Lucky Dog and multiple wave-arounds, managing to finish 9th. Kyle Busch got the last of his laps back under the final caution and finished 14th.

Garrett Smithley and B.J. McLeod, who were running near the very back of the pack in the race’s early laps, came home in 21st and 22nd, respectively, each passing Justin Haley, who crashed into the inside wall entering Turn 1 on the final lap. For Smithley, it was a new career-best finish, improving on his 24th-place run in the Brickyard 400 two years ago. For McLeod, it was tied for his best Cup finish on a non-superspeedway, matched by 22nd-place runs in the same Indianapolis race as Smithley and last fall’s Texas race. The FOX telecast mentioned McLeod specifically, and that he had stayed on the lead lap since receiving the Lucky Dog on Lap 39.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #20 in a Cup race at Fontana since February 26, 2006, when Tony Stewart’s #20 Home Depot Chevrolet lost the engine after 214 of 250 laps of the Auto Club 500. To date, Stewart remains the only last-place finisher at Fontana to have led laps in that race (28).
*Along with Landon Cassill, who finished last in the Saturday race at this same track, the last-place finishers of the 2022 NASCAR races at Auto Club are exactly the same as those from the last races here in 2020.

38) #20-Christopher Bell / 94 laps / engine
37) #17-Chris Buescher / 111 laps / crash
36) #24-William Byron / 151 laps / crash
35) #21-Harrison Burton / 157 laps / crash
34) #51-Cody Ware / 187 laps / running

1st) Joe Gibbs Racing, Trackhouse Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet, Toyota (1)


Saturday, February 26, 2022

XFINITY: Landon Cassill okay after frightening engine fire ends his race in Fontana

PHOTO: Brock Beard

Landon Cassill picked up the 4th last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Production Alliance Group 300 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California when his #10 Carnomaly Chevrolet lost the engine after 6 of 165 laps.

The finish, which came in Cassill’s 178th series start, was his first of the season and first since February 29, 2020 – the last XFINITY race at the same Fontana track – 65 races ago. In the XFINITY Series last-place rankings, it was the 73rd for the #10, the 360th from engine issues, and the 587th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s three series, it was the 131st for the #10, the 1,112th for engine problems, and the 1,822nd for Chevrolet.

All three of Cassill’s previous XFINITY last-place finishes came driving for Morgan Shepherd, whose humble owner-driver operation was nevertheless helped tremendously by the journeyman driver. It was with Cassill driving at Homestead in 2019 that Shepherd’s #89 finished 15th – the team’s best run in several years. When the pandemic altered, among other things, NASCAR’s qualifying procedure, Shepherd’s team suspended operations, and Cassill was again looking for a ride. He reunited with JD Motorsports to drive the team’s #4, but his 2021 season was plagued by mechanical issues. 

One positive that came out of 2021 was Cassill’s new sponsorship from various cryptocurrency firms. Voyager, a trading group, backed many of his runs in the #4 car while the vehicle-themed Carnomaly backed him in his return to the Cup Series. These were superspeedway starts for the Gaunt Brothers, where he finished 36th in the Playoff cutoff race at Daytona, then 24th in Talladega that fall. This led to changing fortunes in both the Cup Series, where he’s run part-time for Spire Motorsports, and XFINITY, where he’s now the full-time driver of the #10 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing. He was particularly strong in last Saturday’s Daytona opener, challenging for the lead and finishing 14th. Carnomaly would back him for the second round in Fontana, where he ran 15th in practice and timed in 7th in qualifying with a lap of 177.927mph (40.466 seconds).

The entry list for Saturday’s race started at 44 cars, but shrank throughout the week. On Tuesday, Emerling-Gase Motorsports withdrew their #53 while DGM Racing pulled the #90, the latter intended for Dexter Bean. The next day saw Jimmy Means Racing withdraw Harrison Rhodes, marking the first time since November 16, 2013 that Means’ #52 wasn’t entered in a XFINITY Series race.

Mechanical issues awaited some of the remaining 41 entries. In practice, Jeffrey Earnhardt encountered a gear oil leak on his #26 Forever Lawn / Toyota, and the crew pushed his car to the garage before qualifying. Kyle Sieg likewise didn’t clock a lap as the crew set to work changing the engine on his #28 Ford. Mike Harmon Racing, which only brought the #47 due to the large entry list, tried but came up shirt. A float in the carburetor was found under the hood of the unsponsored #47 Mike Harmon Racing Chevrolet, to be driven by a returning Brennan Poole. But the team was first on track for qualifying, meaning they had no time to fix it. Poole went out to attempt a lap, only for it to be called off as he sputtered down the frontstretch. Like Poole, Will Rodgers picked up the first DNQ of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career after his #33 Kelly Benefits Toyota couldn’t pick up enough sped. Both team owners Mike Harmon and Josh Reaume have failed to qualify for the first two races of the season. 

Third among the DNQs was Joe Graf, Jr., which was a surprise. For the first time, Graf’s #08 Bucked Up Energy Drink Ford was a Stewart-Haas Racing car, just like eventual winner and Cup Series regular Cole Custer in the #07. The SHR alliance was for the team’s races on the 1.5 and 2-mile ovals. The only problem was the team had later fit the #08 for David Starr, who was set to run it next week in Las Vegas, and reportedly not told Graf, who had been fitted into it previously. Since Starr is much shorter than Graf, Graf couldn’t get behind the wheel, and they missed most of practice making the adjustment. By the time Graf took to the track, he was well off the pace, and out of the field. With sponsor representatives of Bucked Up Energy in attendance, the goal became buying a spot in the field.

Into the mix came the RSS Racing #38, which had its own strange path to the Fontana grid. Tahoe Blue Vodka had signed with RSS team to sponsor the car, and J.J. Yeley had agreed to run the car during the “West Coast Swing,” starting in Fontana. But after that deal had been made, a separate sponsorship deal came about that allowed Yeley to run the full XFINITY season. Yeley took this deal to Motorsports Business Management, replacing Timmy Hill as driver of MBM’s #66, and swapping out Hill’s sponsorship for Yeley’s. When the decision came to fill the #38 for the west coast races, Yeley suggested Hill take his place, putting Hill into the #38 for Fontana. Hill put up a good speed, running 24th in practice and placing 18th in qualifying.

Unfortunately for Hill, his #38 was one of only five other Fords on the starting grid, and – other than Graf’s Cup teammate Cole Custer in the #07 – the only one not driven by a full-time XFINITY competitor in 2022. A deal whose details are unclear was thus struck for Graf to take Hill’s place in the #38, a car which was reportedly not a SHR chassis like its RSS teammates. It also helped that Hill and Graf are about the same height, meaning adjustments would be minimal. Graf’s name was thus added to the roof rails of the car, and the quarter-panel decals for Tahoe Blue Vodka were replaced by Bucked Up stickers. Hill’s name remained on the windshield and rear windscreen banners as Graf took to the track. After all that, Graf managed to earn a solid 15th-place finish. 

When the field was finally set, Kyle Sieg remained the 38th and final qualifier. The team completed their engine change before the field was pushed out onto the grid, and the #28 lined up in its assigned spot. He remained in the back through all of the pace laps, but wasn’t the first car across the stripe. This was Josh Williams, whose #78 American Iron Rentals / I.M.S. Chevrolet was one of six cars sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments, not including Sieg’s engine change or Graf’s swap into the RSS #38. Williams ran single-file behind Sieg across the stripe with two of the other docked drivers – Jeffrey Earnhardt’s #26 and Jesse Iwuji’s #34 Chevy Truck Month Chevrolet – running side-by-side in front. Earnhardt dove to the very bottom lane in Turn 1, and had climbed all the way to 31st by the end of the first lap. First Sieg, then Williams passed Iwuji off Turn 2, and the #34 was already trailing the pair by nearly a second to start Lap 2.

On Lap 2, the #21 United Rentals Chevrolet of Daytona winner Austin Hill began smoking into Turn 1, forcing him to make an unscheduled trop down pit road. An extended stop ensued, dropping him to last on Lap 3 as the trailing Iwuji moved clear. The stop took two laps before he re-fired the engine. A moment later, another car erupted in smoke, then flames entering the first corner. This was Cassill, who on Lap 7 pulled to the apron with flames erupting from behind both front wheels. He dropped the window net, but a few tense seconds passed before he climbed from the machine. The car’s fire extinguisher went off a moment later, just as crews arrived at the scene. Long trails of fluid led from the groove to where the car stopped between Turns 1 and 2.

Under caution, having taken last from Hill, Cassill’s car was towed to the garage. The car had near-identical scorch marks across both doors, the hood badly warped from the heat. The entire engine compartment was blackened, and a crew member pointed out it was leaking brake fluid as it sat there, meaning it had to be brought back to the shop.

Cassill, now dressed in plain clothes, debriefed with his crew as they looked over the wreck, then spoke with me. According to Cassill, there was no warning that the engine was going to let go. “No, it just started smoking,” he said. With the big exception of the incident, the weekend had otherwise gone well. “Car was great,” he said. “We qualified fast, so I have speed. My teammate’s on the pole. I know the speed’s there, I just gotta finish the race now.” As of our discussion, the team had not yet figured out what caused the fire.

On Lap 10, Iwuji pulled his struggling #34 behind the wall and into his garage stall. The crew jacked up the driver’s side of the machine and worked under the rear deck in the area of the fuel cell. He returned to action 30 laps down, and would only pass one more car by the checkered flag – the #48 Big Machine Spiked Coolers Chevrolet of Jade Buford. Buford was running the high line off Turn 2 when, on Lap 122, he broke loose and slapped the inside wall with the driver’s side. The wreck knocked the rear end out of alignment, and he was done for the day. 

Finishing one spot ahead of Iwuji was Ryan Vargas, whose transmission exploded on his #6 Swann Security Chevrolet. The shifter boot – and a piece of the top of the transmission – came loose, causing debris to enter the cockpit and strike Vargas on his thumb. As of this writing, the injury is not reported to be serious. Rounding out the group was Vargas’ teammate at JD Motorsports, Bayley Currey, who after multiple unscheduled stops finished 11 laps down, his #4 KSDT CPA Chevrolet still under power at the finish.

Jeffrey Earnhardt, Sam Hunt Racing threaten for Top Ten before late issue

After starting in the back with his gear oil issue, Jeffrey Earnhardt rallied as high as 11th in the final nine laps, only for a late-race mechanical issue to drop him to 29th, four laps down.

“I think we came from the back to the front three times today,” said Earnhardt. “With the gear issue, having to start in the back, and then I think we had a tire loose, and then we got some trash on the nose and had to come down pit road to put water in it. So we had speed all day, which was definitely impressive, but we believe we might have cooked the alternator whenever we got the motor hot there on that one run. So unfortunate because I think our Forever Lawn Toyota Supra was going to be in the Top Ten by the end of this race. And it was good to go and show speed. And I think everyone saw it - it just hurts when you don't get the result.”

Despite his disappointment, Earnhardt was also excited at the year ahead, where he’ll share his Sam Hunt Racing ride with other drivers. “I'm excited, man. The effort these guys put in and just the opportunity to be in a competitive car is really exciting. I'm just thankful to be here, man. All the people that have given me the opportunity to be here, Sam (Hunt), Forever Lawn, all the people that have made this happen. It's just like I said, it hurts when you don't get the result that you know you deserve because these guys work hard. And I'm sure they'll go show it at at Las Vegas with John Hunter (Nemechek) - he's in the car next weekend. So I'm sure he'll carry the speed over and into next weekend. And hopefully, we'll keep improving as the year goes on.”

Brandon Brown finishes 11th despite right-front damage

In his own post-race interview, Brandon Brown was more frustrated for causing the damage to the right-front corner of his #68 Chevrolet than he was happy at the 11th-place finish that followed.

“Self-inflicted wounds - it's something that you need to avoid and I didn't (laughs). I gave us our own self infliction, but hey we'll just say that I'm getting it out of the way now and that way at the end of the year when we're running for a championship, we'll be premiere. So I can't say enough about TradeTheChain, Sent, Brandonbilt Motorsports, Zero-FG, just everybody that comes in to make this possible for us and give us the best equipment and give me the best shot possible to go out and compete. So, ecstatic with the the rally effort, but man, wish I didn't have to.”

Many of Brown’s late-race moves were the result of choosing the less desirable lower lane on restarts. "I kind of had it in my mind that we were going to the bottom no matter what, just because I know people were going to be scared of it because of the track treatment. But you could just make up so much ground if people bottlenecked up at the top. So risk versus reward and there's already right side damage on the car, so the risk was there. So we already gotta fix it or start in the back in Vegas. It is what it is.”

He also made sure to thank his spotter. “I also got to thank T.J. Majors. He was instrumental this entire race on helping guide me through all the craziness and three, four-wide racing. This track's wide enough to go five and six-wide, but don't tell any of the other drivers that, or they might try it (laughs). So he really is a veteran up there and it's almost like I'm just the other end of the remote control car. He's telling me what to do.”

Mason Massey recalls avoiding a last-place finish at Bristol in 2020

Finally, Mason Massey recalled his Bristol Night Race in 2020, where the B.J. McLeod Motorsports #99 entry missed the start, then came back out midway through the event, thus avoiding a last-place finish.

“We had a clutch go out on the pace laps there. We got back out there with about 100 to go and never seen the racetrack before. So I pulled out there under green flag. So I'm like, "Man, this is kind of sketchy." But we finished the race and we ran good lap times, which it didn't matter. But it was good to know we were pretty fast. And so that's something I'll probably take into this year when we go to Bristol, and just see how we do there and see how we do everywhere else.”

Massey bounced back from his DNQ in Daytona and finished the race under power in 28th, driving DGM Racing’s #91 Brunt Workwear Chevrolet.

*This marked the fourth last-place finish for the #10 in a XFINITY Series race at the Auto Club Speedway. All three previous runs came with TriStar Motorsports’ #10 when it was on “start-and-park” duty, most recently by Matt DiBenedetto on March 19, 2016. This is only the third last-place run for the #10 since Kaulig Racing picked up the number, and the first that wasn’t due to disqualification.

38) #10-Landon Cassill / 6 laps / engine
37) #48-Jade Buford / 123 laps / crash
36) #34-Jesse Iwuji / 131 laps / running
35) #6-Ryan Vargas / 150 laps / crash
34) #4-Bayley Currey / 154 laps / running

1st) Alpha Prime Racing, Kaulig Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (2)


Thursday, February 24, 2022

PREVIEW: Cup "open" teams and XFINITY teammates not among Fontana entries


This weekend, I will be returning to the track to cover the “battle” for last place in both the XFINITY and Cup Series as NASCAR returns to the two-mile oval. Be sure to follow my Twitter feed @LASTCARonBROCK for updates from the garage all weekend long!

Saturday, February 26, 2022 (5:00 P.M. ET, FS1)
XFINITY Race 2 of 33
Production Alliance Group 300 at Auto Club
2020 Last-Place Finisher: Landon Cassill

Following three withdrawals, there are still 41 drivers entered for 38 spots, meaning three drivers will be sent home after qualifying.

DRIVER CHANGE: #18-Joe Gibbs Racing
As announced just days before the Daytona 500, Trevor Bayne has signed a part-time deal to drive JGR’s #18 Toyota, the same entry Daniel Hemric took to the championship just last year. The first of Bayne’s seven slated races will be this Saturday, where he takes the place of Drew Dollar, 36th in Daytona. The result is Bayne’s first XFINITY Series start since August 6, 2016, when he ran 5th for Roush-Fenway Racing at Watkins Glen.

MISSING: #24-Sam Hunt Racing
DRIVER SWAP: #26-Sam Hunt Racing
Many of the mid-tier XFINITY teams which entered two cars have scaled back to just one car this weekend, starting with Sam Hunt’s Toyota effort. Jeffrey Earnhardt moves from the #24, which isn’t entered, to the flagship #26, replacing Ryan Truex., a faith-based organization, has joined Forever Lawn as sponsor of Earnhardt’s car.

TEAM UPDATE: #31-Jordan Anderson Racing
Myatt Snider has been medically cleared to race this Saturday following his frightening last-lap flip into the Daytona catchfence.

DRIVER CHANGE: #33-Reaume Brothers Racing
The Reaume team will enter their XFINITY car which failed to qualify for the Daytona opener with Natalie Decker. Taking the wheel is Will Rodgers, who eyes his 8th series start and first since last fall on the Charlotte “Roval,” when he ran for Sam Hunt. Kelly Benefits is the listed sponsor. This would be Rodgers’ first XFINITY start at Fontana.

DRIVER SWAP: #35-Emerling-Gase Motorsports
WITHDREW: #53-Emerling-Gase Motorsports
On Tuesday, the Emerling-Gase effort elected to leave the #53 in the shop, moving team co-owner Joey Gase to the #35 in place of Shane Lee. It was at this same Fontana track two years ago that the hauler for H2 Motorsports, the ill-fated team which once fielded cars for Lee, was sighted in the infield in the hands of new owners. One Legacy will sponsor Gase, who finished 26th in Daytona ahead of Lee in 33rd.

WITHDREW: #90-DGM Racing
Also on Tuesday, Mario Gosselin pulled his flagship #90 entry, which was set to be driven by Dexter Bean for his season debut. Bean had been slated to take the place of Alex Labbe, who returns to his familiar #36 this week in place of Josh Bilicki. Bilicki, who ran a career-best 9th last week in Daytona, will not run the XFINITY race, but is instead set to run in Cup for Spire Motorsports (see below).

C.J. McLaughlin was the center of some controversy when his spinning car cut to the right late in the Daytona race, eliminated several other contenders. McLaughlin is not in the car after his 35th-place finish, and has somewhat surprisingly been replaced by Timmy Hill. Hill, who for years has driven for Carl Long, will instead steer the #38 Ford with new sponsor Tahoe Blue Vodka. This will be Hill’s first XFINITY start for RSS Racing.

DRIVER CHANGE: #45-Alpha Prime Racing
Fresh off racing The Money Team into the Daytona 500, Kaz Grala will take the place of Daytona last-place finisher Caesar Bacarella in the second Alpha Prime entry. Ruedebusch joins Lilly Finance as sponsor as Grala eyes his first XFINITY start since last fall at Texas, when he ran 15th for Jordan Anderson. Grala finished 14th in his only previous XFINITY start at Fontana back in 2018.

DRIVER CHANGE: #47-Mike Harmon Racing
MISSING: #74-Mike Harmon Racing
Mike Harmon will not bring the #74 to the west coast after both his cars failed to qualify in Daytona, meaning it will be at least another week before the team can rebound from its offseason testing penalty. The #47 will make the trip, but it will not be run by Gray Gaulding or Tim Viens, the teammates from Daytona. In fact, the driver’s name remained blank on the entry list until Wednesday. Taking the wheel will be Brennan Poole, who when NASCAR last arrived at this track in 2020 was just beginning his rookie season in Cup with Premium Motorsports, soon to be merged with Rick Ware Racing. Poole has not made a XFINITY start since he closed out the 2017 season at Homestead with Chip Ganassi Racing.

WITHDREW: #52-Jimmy Means Racing
For the last nearly 300 consecutive XFINITY Series races covering just over eight full seasons, Jimmy “Smut” Means has entered his #52 with several up-and-coming drivers. Most recently, he entered Harrison Rhodes, who missed the cut last week in Daytona driving a plain black car with practically zero sponsorship. Rhodes was slated to try again this week, but by Wednesday, Means withdrew his entry. Saturday marks the first time since November 16, 2013 at Homestead where the #52 is not in the garage area. Whether the team will attempt the rest of the “West Coast Swing” is still to be determined.

MISSING: #77-Bassett Racing
The opening of the 2022 season looks too much like that of 2021 for upstart Bassett Racing. Last year, the #77 failed to qualify for the opener, then along with Jordan Anderson and the cancelled #03 entry of Our Motorsports, was entered for multiple races where they wouldn’t have a chance to qualify. While practice and qualifying are back, the standings’ reliance on attempts is not, and the #77 is this time not even entered in Fontana after Ronnie Bassett, Jr. missed the cut in Florida.

DRIVER CHANGE: #07-SS-Green Light Racing
DRIVER SWAP: #08-SS-Green Light Racing
The lone Cup regular in Saturday’s field is Cole Custer, who carries race sponsor Production Alliance Group on Bobby Dotter’s #07 Ford. Custer takes the place of Joe Graf, Jr., who moves to the #08 entry with which David Starr failed to qualify in Daytona. Graf ran 29th last week.

CUP INVADERS: #07-Cole Custer

Sunday, February 27, 2022 (3:30 P.M. ET, FOX)
CUP Race 2 of 36
Wise Power 400 at Auto Club
2020 Last-Place Finisher: Christopher Bell

Just as in the Clash at the Coliseum earlier this month, only the 36 Chartered entries will venture west in the first Cup race at the Auto Club track in two years. The result is the first short field of 2022, and the fewest entries to ever take the green flag in the track’s Cup race.

DRIVER CHANGE: #15-Rick Ware Racing
While the preliminary entry list first showed David Ragan still in the #15, following up his strong 8th-place run in last week’s 500, it has since been reported that Garrett Smithley will rejoin RWR to run all of the “West Coast Swing.” Jacob Companies will sponsor the car this week.

MISSING: #27-Team Hezeberg
MISSING: #44-NY Racing Team
MISSING: #50-The Money Team
MISSING: #55-Motorsports Business Management
MISSING: #62-Beard Motorsports
MISSING: #66-Motorsports Business Management
Not one of the six “open” entries from last week’s Daytona 500 has elected to run Fontana, including both Motorsports Business Management entries that failed to qualify for the big race. Beard Motorsports has only once attempted a non-superspeedway race while Team Hezeberg and The Money Team are likely to return in COTA. The NY Racing Team’s status remains unknown, though Greg Biffle has reportedly been in discussions to run further races.

TEAM UPDATE: #42-Petty GMS Motorsports
Ty Dillon carries sponsorship from Allegiant Airlines, Maury Gallagher’s airline that has sponsored his GMS Racing team since its inception. The sponsor was last seen in Cup for Spencer Gallagher’s only Cup race at Watkins Glen in 2018.

DRIVER CHANGE: #77-Spire Motorsports
The preliminary entry list showed Landon Cassill in the #77, as he’d been in both the Clash and the 500. However, Sunday will see the season debut of Josh Bilicki, who brings with him sponsorship from Pacific Coast Termite, his backer at Sonoma last year. This will be Bilicki’s first-ever Cup start at Fontana, though he does have three XFINITY starts here with a best finish of 29th in both 2019 and 2020.

Friday, March 4, 2022 
TRUCKS Race 2 of 23
Bucked Up 200 at Las Vegas
2021 Last-Place Finisher: Conor Daly

The Truck Series takes the week off and will return in Las Vegas.

TODAY IN LASTCAR HISTORY (February 24, 2002): Stacy Compton picked up the 4th last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Subway 400 at Rockingham when his #14 Conseco Pontiac, fielded by A.J. Foyt Racing, lost the engine after 25 laps. For Compton, who had started 42nd in the field of 43, this would be his final Cup Series last-place finish. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

ARCA: Caudell’s early spin leads to first LPF in over four years

PHOTO: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles

by Ben Schneider Guest Contributor

Eric Caudell picked up the sixth last-place finish in his ARCA Menards Series career in Saturday’s Lucas Oil 200 Driven by General Tire at Daytona International Speedway when his #7 Red Tide Canopies / Coble Enterprises Ford crashed out of the event after completing 21 laps.

The finish came in Caudell’s 59th career series start and was his first LPF since Road America in 2017.

While Caudell did not appear in NASCAR or ARCA before 2014, the 55-year-old energy trading software consultant has been racing for decades. He told in 2017 that he had developed an interest in racing as early as high school, and he began running asphalt late models in the late 1990s. He then found a home in the United States Super Trucks (USST), becoming a series regular until the series folded due to the effects of the 2008 financial crisis.

Caudell then began searching for opportunities in NASCAR, making one start in the Camping World Truck Series for Cefalia Motorsports in 2014. He would make his ARCA debut a year later, and in 2017 ran the full season with Hixson Motorsports en route to a tenth-place points finish. While the demands of a full-time schedule proved to be grueling, he has continued to remain in ARCA, running a handful of races every year for his CCM Racing team. His career highlight is perhaps an eighth-place finish at Winchester in 2020, a race that saw Caudell, Brad Smith, and Con Nicolopoulos all score their first career top-ten finishes.

Caudell qualified 28th for Saturday’s race at Daytona and had picked up a handful of spots, running just outside the top-twenty before his day came to an end. After his early retirement, series veteran Will Kimmel and Jason Kitzmiller crashed on Lap 50, ending both of their races. The accident capped a tough weekend for Kitzmiller, who was looking to make his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut but was forced to withdraw from the event after a practice crash. Eighteen-year-old Bryce Haugeberg persevered through mechanical issues to complete 61 laps, while last year’s ARCA Menards Series East winner at New Smyrna, Max Gutierrez, bested Haugeberg by two laps to round out the Bottom Five

Up front, the race was dominated by Corey Heim, who won the season-opener at Daytona for a second straight season after leading 74 of 80 laps. Heim, who finished runner-up to Ty Gibbs in the 2021 ARCA Menards Series Championship, will split the season in Venturini Motorsports’s No. 20 Toyota with Jesse Love, who won the championship each of the last two seasons in the ARCA Menards Series West.

36) #7-Eric Caudell / 21 laps / crash
35) #68-Will Kimmel / 50 laps / crash
34) #97-Jason Kitzmiller / 51 laps / crash
33) #94-Bryce Haugeberg / 61 laps / running
32) #32-Max Gutierrez / 63 laps / running

1st) Ford (1)

1st) CCM Racing (1)


Tuesday, February 22, 2022

ARCA EAST: Tinkle’s first standalone East race ends before it begins

PHOTO: @ZacharyTinkle

by Ben Schneider Guest Contributor

Zachary Tinkle finished last for the 1st time in his ARCA Menards Series East career in last Tuesday’s Race to Stop Suicide 200 at New Smyrna Speedway when his #0 Ford did not start the event due to a transmission issue.

The finish came in Tinkle’s second career “East Series” start; his first was a combination race with the main ARCA Menards Series at Bristol last season.

Like many young drivers, Tinkle began his career in go-karts, working his way up the ladder and eventually winning late model races en route to beginning a career in stock cars. Tinkle made his debut for Wayne Peterson Racing in 2021, finishing thirteenth at Berlin Raceway. His best finish last season came at the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds; despite recording a DNF, a high rate of attrition allowed him to score an eighth-place finish.

Tinkle arrived at New Smyrna and immediately faced adversity when the front shaft of his car’s transmission broke. While the team was able to acquire a new transmission, Tinkle announced shortly before the start of the race that he would not be able to get it in time for the race. He was subsequently credited with a sixteenth-place finish. Despite not starting the event, Tinkle’s official “reason out” was listed as “transmission” rather than “did not start.”

Immediately following Tinkle up the final race results was ARCA veteran Brad Smith, who parked with engine trouble after completing 8 laps. Fast Track Racing’s Tony Cosentino was next to pull off the track, suffering brake issues after Lap 21. Caleb Costner, last year’s last-place finisher at the ARCA Menards Series West race at Portland, completed 47 laps before retiring with overheating issues, while series newcomer Steve Austin (not the wrestler) completed the bottom five after completing 122 laps before he also encountered brake problems. The only other retirement was 11th-place finisher Christian Rose, who crashed out after 145 laps.

At the front of the field, defending series champion Sammy Smith picked up right where he left off, leading 167 of 200 laps on the way to his fourth career East Series win. Smith’s No. 18 Toyota is now under the Kyle Busch Motorsports banner as KBM acquired the assets to Joe Gibbs Racing’s ARCA program over the offseason.

16) #0-Zachary Tinkle / 0 laps / transmission
15) #48-Brad Smith / 8 laps / engine
14) #12-Tony Cosentino / 21 laps / brakes
13) #95-Caleb Costner / 47 laps / overheating
12) #22-Steve Austin / 122 laps / brakes

1st) Ford (1)

1st) Wayne Peterson Racing (1)


Sunday, February 20, 2022

CUP: NY Racing Team gets Greg Biffle back on the road, dropping Ross Chastain to last in Daytona 500

PHOTO: @TeamTrackhouse

Ross Chastain picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s 64th Annual Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #1 Advent Health Chevrolet was involved in a multi-car accident after 62 of 201 laps.

The finish, which came in Chastain’s 116th series start, was his first since April 16, 2018 at Bristol, 137 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place standings, it was the 40th for the #1, the 625th from a crash, and the 818th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 71st for the #1, the 1,281st from a crash, and the 1,821st for Chevrolet.

When upstart Trackhouse Racing lost their lease on Daniel Suarez’ Charter during their inaugural season last year, it began a “Silly Season” chain reaction that would see the end of one of NASCAR’s long-running two-car teams. This was Chip Ganassi Racing, the last vestiges of both Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and Team SABCO following a series of mergers dating back to 2000. Ironically, it was Chastain who had just that year been hired to drive CGR’s #42 in the Cup Series, a journey delayed after a previous XFINITY Series deal with the team fell apart after team sponsor DC Solar collapsed in disgrace. Chastain enjoyed a few strong runs – most notably in the Southern 500, where he nearly beat Bubba Wallace in ending the “McDonald’s Curse” that had seen the sponsor absent from Victory Lane since 1994. He finished 3rd that night, one spot short of his season-best 2nd at Nashville.

When Trackhouse acquired CGR late last year, they claimed both the team’s Charters and their shop. It wasn’t until later they also acquired one of their drivers in Chastain, tabbing him to run Trackhouse’s new second team to join Suarez’ #99. Trackhouse would keep the #1, which had run alongside the #42 in years past, as they wanted to hold the series’ highest and lowest car numbers. Advent Health, which had backed Chastain in recent ventures, including a Daytona 500 run with Spire Motorsports, would back his #1 for this year’s 500. A subtle watermelon pattern was added in front of the rear wheels, a reference to Chastain’s family melon farm as NASCAR’s “Melon Man.”

Chastain’s was one of 42 entrants set to contest 40 spots on the starting grid. He ran 30th in opening practice and 25th in the second. He then found speed in qualifying, jumping to 7th overall with a lap in the second round of 179.845mph (50.043 seconds). This put Chastain 4th on the grid for Duel Race 1, where he took the last points position in 10th. He ran 20th in the third practice, then was among the half of the field to sit out Happy Hour. He’d roll off 19th in “The Great American Race.”

Greg Biffle's #44 for the NY Racing Team
PHOTO: Dominic Aragon,

Starting 40th was Jacques Villeneuve, making his first Daytona 500 start in Team Hezeberg’s #27 Woodie’s Wash Shack Ford. Following a throttle cable issue in Thursday’s Duel that left him in last place, the team changed engines and re-wrapped the car for the Woodie’s sponsorship, incurring a redundant tail-end penalty. Also sent to the back was 20th-place Joey Logano, sent to a backup #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford after a last-lap wreck in his Duel. Chase Briscoe’s 9th-place #14 Mahindra Tractors Ford went to the back for twice failing pre-race inspection while Daniel Hemric also dropped to the rear after his 33rd-place #16 Heritage Pool Supply Group Chevrolet failed inspection three times. This would also force Hemric to make a pass-through penalty after the green flag.

When the race started, Hemric was last across the stripe, 3.977 seconds back of the lead to Villeneuve’s 3.847. But a minor stack-up ensued among the last half-dozen drivers who didn’t get going, forcing Villeneuve’s spotter to have him check up as cars pulled three-wide at the stripe. As Hemric prepared to serve his pass-through on Lap 1, Villeneuve had already lost touch with the rest of the pack, saying something was wrong with his #27. By Lap 4, Villeneuve was already 8.074 seconds back of 38th place with Hemric 32.709 seconds back of the lead. The race stayed green, and Hemric was first to be lapped on the 10th circuit, pulling high near the entrance of Turn 3 as the leaders rushed by. On Lap 15, as Hemric drafted his Kaulig Racing teammate Justin Haley in the #31 Leaf Filter Gutter Protection Chevrolet, Villeneuve was also lapped entering Turn 3, now citing a tight condition. Villeneuve, too, found drafting help from David Ragan in the #15 Select Blinds Ford.

Still under green on Lap 26, Greg Biffle – making his first Cup start since 2016 in the NY Racing Team’s first start since 2018 – began to drop back in the #44 Grambling State University Chevrolet. That time by, he was 38th, 18.831 seconds back of the lead and out of the draft, a full 12.419 seconds back of the next car. He was making a pit stop, but was then posted by NASCAR for his crew coming over the wall too soon. “Taking it to the garage, Jerry?” the driver asked. Instead, the team told him to pull up to the Rolex sign past the garage entrance to diagnose an electrical problem. This was done on Lap 28, when he took last from Hemric.

According to Biffle, his #44 had not been reading the right fuel pressure since the pace laps, and believed there was a restriction in the fuel line. On Lap 33, Biffle’s crew pushed the car to the garage, preparing to change the fuel pump. By the 43rd circuit, Biffle still had just nine pounds of fuel pressure, and the team checked the filters. Work continued past the race’s one-quarter mark, the team updating their driver on which other cars were having trouble. 

Chastain (center) wrecks on Lap 63.
PHOTO: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles

Meanwhile, on Lap 63, Chastain was still on the lead lap when trouble broke out ahead of him. Harrison Burton, whose #21 Motorcraft / Dex Imaging Ford had already been repaired after his tangle with Logano in Thursday’s Duel, broke loose off the nose of Brad Keselowski’s #6 Kohler Generators Ford, steering him directly into the inside line led by William Byron’s #24 Axalta Chevrolet. An accordion effect ensued, causing the next three cars to rear-end each other. Last of these was Christopher Bell, whose #20 DeWalt Toyota cut to the right as Chastain tried to thread the needle. Instead, Chastain struck Bell’s car with his left-front, then was rear-ended by a spinning Alex Bowman in the #48 Ally Chevrolet. As Burton’s car flipped down the backstretch, Chastain skidded to a stop in the infield grass, done for the day along with Burton, Byron, and one lap later, Hamlin.

Under the ensuing caution, Biffle was told five cars were eliminated in the wreck, and still had more than half the race left to make up the 39-lap deficit he needed to pass them all. On Lap 71, the NY Racing Team crew retrieved a new fuel pump, and nine laps later were reinstalling the passenger-side window. On Lap 84, Biffle re-fired his engine, and was back up to speed o Lap 87. He still had to serve his pass-through penalty from earlier, and completed his 27th lap of the race on Lap 89. “Nice work, guys,” said Biffle. “I know it was a lot of scrambling there.” Biffle would ultimately finish the race under power in 36th place, having dropped Chastain to last on Lap 126. The rest of the Bottom Five was filled by drivers eliminated in the Lap 63 wreck.

Strong finishes by Rick Ware Racing and both new teams

Sunday’s race was won by Austin Cindric, who claimed his first Cup victory in just his eighth career start, and first in Penske Racing’s flagship #2 Discount Tire Ford. Among the members of Cindrics crew is mechanic Kyle Belmont, son of longtime Cup and ARCA owner-driver Andy Belmont. The race took place 30 years after Andy attempted to qualify for the 500 in 1992.

Also finishing strong was David Ragan, who made his 16th consecutive Daytona 500 start on Sunday, this time as driver of Rick Ware Racing’s #15 Select Blinds Ford. Ragan avoided no fewer than three multi-car pileups by narrow margins, and was in the three-wide battle to the stripe, only to be wrecked as he crossed the stripe in 8th place. This was Ragan’s best finish since the 2020 Daytona 500, when he ran 4th. Cody Ware, Ragan’s teammate, finished 17th in the #51 Nurtec ODT Ford – a new career-best, two positions better than his 19th at Talladega two years ago. Combined with Ware’s strong run in the Busch Light Clash earlier this month, it appears the Rick Ware Racing team has turned the corner through their Stewart-Haas Racing alliance.

Jacques Villeneuve, who started the race in 40th, went on to finish 22nd, two laps down to the leaders. This was just one spot short of his own career-best Cup finish, which was 21st in his Talladega debut on October 7, 2007. The Team Hezeberg effort finished highest of programs with no previous Cup starts, though Kaz Grala overcame a left-rear wheel that came off his car to still take 26th in The Money Team’s #50 Pit Viper Sunglasses Chevrolet.

*Chastain’s finish was the first last-place run for the #1 in the Daytona 500. The number’s most recent last-place finish in a Cup race was September 11, 2021, when Kurt Busch #1 Monster Energy Chevrolet crashed after 40 laps at Richmond.
*This marked the first last-place finish for Trackhouse Racing.

40) #1-Ross Chastain / 62 laps / crash
39) #21-Harrison Burton / 62 laps / crash
38) #24-William Byron / 62 laps / crash
37) #11-Denny Hamlin / 63 laps / crash
36) #44-Greg Biffle / 136 laps / running

1st) Trackhouse Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (1)


Saturday, February 19, 2022

XFINITY: Caesar Bacarella’s engine lets go in Daytona’s early laps

PHOTO: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles

Caesar Bacarella picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner 300 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #45 Lilly Finance Chevrolet lost the engine after 11 of 120 laps.

The finish, which came in Bacarella’s 22nd series start, was his first since March 16, 2019 at the Auto Club Speedway, 95 races ago. In the XFINITY Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 13th for the #45, the 270th from engine trouble, and the 586th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 42nd for the #45, thee 1,111th from engine issues, and the 1,820th for Chevrolet.

A native of Parkland, Florida, the 46-year-old Bacarella has become a regular sight on the track’s two superspeedways, plus the oval in Homestead. Coming into Saturday, Daytona, Talladega, and Homestead had made up 16 of his 21 previous XFINITY Series starts. His best finish came in the 2021 opener, when he ran 12th for DGM Racing, though he ran even better in two years earlier. With 3 laps to go in the 2019 renewal, he was running 10th within eight-tenths of the lead when he broke loose and slapped the outside wall.

This year, Bacarella embarks on a new journey into team co-ownership. Late last season, it was announced he’d invest in Tommy Joe Martins’ single-car team, Martins Motorsports, which would now expand to two teams and hire multiple drivers. The new team would be called Alpha Prime Racing, named for the Alpha Prime fitness company, of which Bacarella is founder and CEO. Ironically, just after the season concluded, Bacarella would run afoul of NASCAR’s substance abuse policy when he unwittingly used a workout supplement with a banned substance. Bacarella complied with NASCAR’s testing, and was cleared in time to run the Daytona opener in the team’s new #45 alongside Martins in the flagship #44. Lilly Finance, a “medically focused cryptocurrency” according to the press release, signed with Bacarella for select XFINITY races starting with Daytona, plus his road course ride in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo Series.

Bacarella and Martins were among the 47 entrants set to contest the 38 spots on the starting grid. Bacarella’s #45 ran 27th in practice and took the 22nd spot in qualifying with a lap of 180.054mph (49.985 seconds), just over two-tenths ahead of Martins, who ranked 32nd. 

Getting both Alpha Prime cars into the field was a significant accomplishment for the team as many of their contemporaries could not. Two of DGM Racing’s four cars missed out – the #90 Larue Industrial Snowblowers Chevrolet of Alex Labbe and the #91 Brunt Workwear Chevrolet of Mason Massey. David Starr was the fastest to miss in SS-Green Light Racing’s second car, the #08 Ticket Smarter / Special Report with Bret Baier Ford. Stefan Parsons was sent home in B.J. McLeod Motorsports’ third car, the #99 SOKAL Chevrolet, as were both Mike Harmon Racing entries of Gray Gaulding in the #47 Safe Hedge Chevrolet and Tim Viens in the unsponsored #74 Chevrolet. Rounding out the group were three single-car teams: Natalie Decker in the Reaume Brothers’ #33 Nerd Focus Toyota, Ronnie Bassett, Jr. in his family’s #77 Jerry Hunt Supercenter Chevrolet, and Harrison Rhodes in Jimmy Means Racing’s #52 Chevrolet. The only logo on Rhodes’ car was for Best Western’s Space Shuttle Inn on the TV panel.

Sam Hunt Racing barely got both of their cars in the field. Ryan Truex took the 38th and final spot via Owner Points, his #26 Circle B Diecast Toyota slower than five of the DNQs and 18 spots behind teammate Jeffrey Earnhardt in the #24 ForeverLawn Toyota. Truex incurred a redundant tail-end penalty for unapproved adjustments, the same penalty by 34th-place Sam Mayer in the #1 Accelerate Pro Talent Chevrolet and Shane Lee, 37th in the #35 Kitty Kat Coin Toyota. Also dropping to the rear voluntarily were Matt Mills in B.J. McLeod’s #5 J.F. Electric Chevrolet and J.J. Yeley in the #66 Remote Health Solutions Chevrolet for Motorsports Business Management.

When the green flag dropped, Ryan Truex trailed the outside line with Mills bringing up the rear of the inside line. The outside line advanced first, pulling Truex 3.945 seconds behind the leader in 36th ahead of Yeley, 3.963 seconds back in 37th and Mills now last, 4.323 behind. On Lap 3, Mills reeled in Shane Lee’s #35, pulling side-by-side 0.075 second apart at the stripe. The next time around, Mills climbed to 36th, putting Lee back to last behind new 37th-place Jesse Iwuji in the #34 Equity Prime Mortgage Chevrolet. During this same run, Anthony Alfredo lost the passenger-side window on his #23 Dude Wipes Chevrolet between Turns 3 and 4. NASCAR black-flagged Alfredo on Lap 4, and he served the penalty the next time by. This put Alfredo to last on Lap 6, already on the verge of 3 laps down.

As Alfredo got back up to speed, the Alpha Prime Racing teammates dropped to the rear with Bacarella in 37th and Martins in 36th. While Joey Gase in the #53 Kitty Kat Coin Ford had also dropped back to join Shane Lee, his teammate at Emerling-Gase Motorsports, Bacarella was losing ground to Martins on the track. By Lap 12, the #45 was 9.148 seconds back of Martins, and soon pulled down pit road with engine trouble. On Lap 14, as the caution came out for a wreck between Drew Dollar’s #18 Lynx Capital Toyota and Jeremy Clements in the #51 All South Electric / One Stop Convenience Chevrolet, Bacarella took over last place from Alfredo. “I hate dropping out early,” said someone on the #45 team’s channel. “Motor problems.” “It’s still under warranty,” someone joked.

Clements and Dollar’s wreck put them 37th and 36th in the finishing order. The next two spots were the result of 35th-place finisher C.J. McLaughlin, who lost control of his #38 Sci Aps Ford entering the tri-oval on Lap 92. The resulting pileup collected nine more cars, including Brett Moffitt’s #02 Hometown Lenders Chevrolet. Moffitt finished 34th after heavy splitter damage.

Myatt Snider’s terrifying last-lap flip into the catchfence entering Turn 3 ended the race under caution. As Snider climbed from his car with only a sore left foot, others who drove through the ensuing carnage managed to earn strong finishes. Anthony Alfredo, who lost three laps and held last place until Bacarella’s issues, got back on the lead lap and finished 7th. Two spots behind Alfredo came Josh Bilicki in a career-best 9th, significant damage behind the left-front wheel on his #36 Zeigler Auto Group / Elliott’s Custom Trailer Chevrolet. Ryan Truex, who started last, flirted with a Top Ten late before settling in 12th. And despite his car picking up a truck arm from Snider’s disintegrating Chevrolet, J.J. Yeley took home 13th in Carl Long’s #66 Remote Health Solutions Chevrolet.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #45 in the February XFINITY race at Daytona. The number had once before finished last in a XFINITY race there, which came on July 6, 2018 with Josh Bilicki’s engine issues after 33 laps behind the wheel of the #45 Prevagen Toyota.

38) #45-Caesar Bacarella / 11 laps / engine
37) #51-Jeremy Clements / 13 laps / crash
36) #18-Drew Dollar / 14 laps / crash
35) #38-C.J. McLaughlin / 91 laps / crash
34) #02-Brett Moffitt / 91 laps / crash

1st) Alpha Prime Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (1)


Friday, February 18, 2022

TRUCKS: Pit road wreck leads to long night for Dean Thompson

PHOTO: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles

Dean Thompson picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career in Friday’s NextEra Energy 250 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #40 Worldwide Express Chevrolet fell out with brake issues after 36 of 106 laps.

The finish occurred in Thompson’s second series start. In the Truck Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 7th for the #40, the 28th from brake issues, and the 417th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 41st for the #40, the 164th from brake issues, and the 1,819th for Chevrolet.

Last fall’s championship finale saw Thompson make his Truck Series debut, where he ran 21st in Niece Motorsports’ #44 Thompson Pipe Group Chevrolet. At the time, both Thompson and Lawless Alan (the night’s last-place finisher) had each landed full-season rides with the team. Thompson, who hails from Anaheim, California, has logged many laps at the Irwindale Speedway in late models, and last year advanced to the ARCA Menards Series West. One of his two West poles came at the track, where he led 144 of the first 146 laps before Jesse Love snatched away the win. 

This year, Thompson drives Niece’s #40, driven last year by Ryan Truex. Thompson was among the 42 drivers entered to contest just 36 spots in qualifying – a list reduced to 41 after Jason Kitzmiller withdrew following a wreck in practice that destroyed his #97 A.L.L. Construction Chevrolet. Thompson’s #40 ranked 18th in opening practice, then qualified 17th with a lap of 177.057mph (50.831 seconds). Joining Kitzmiller among the DNQs were Clay Greenfield, Jordan Anderson, Jennifer Jo Cobb, Chase Purdy, and Matt Jaskol in G2G Racing’s #46 Toyota.

Rolling off 36th and last was the #47 Toyota of Johnny Sauter, who took the Past Champions Provisional as Jaskol’s teammate, giving G2G Racing their first start. Sauter would be joined in the back by four drivers with pre-race penalties. When the command to start engines was given, Austin Wayne Self’s #22 AM Technical Solutions / Airbox Chevrolet didn’t fire and needed a push. After some tinkering by the crew, the engine re-fired, though Self would thus be penalized for unapproved adjustments. Self would take the green on the outside line ahead of Tate Fogleman, also for unapproved adjustments on his 32nd-place #30 Rangeline Group Toyota. The final two trucks on the inside line were the #75 Food Country USA Chevrolet of 31st-place Parker Kligerman, who missed driver introductions, and 35th-place Timmy Hill for an engine change on his #56 Coble Enterprises Toyota. Also dropping back voluntarily was Spencer Boyd, whose #12 Rimtyme Chevrolet crossed the stripe in 34th place ahead of Hill and Kligerman.

Kligerman took the green flag 4.626 seconds behind the leader, but by the end of the first circuit had climbed to 34th over Boyd and Hill, who were just 0.091 of a second apart in a side-by-side battle for last place. Boyd shook off Hill by Lap 3, though Hill’s #56 remained within two-tenths of 35th place for the next two circuits. On Lap 6, Jason White had slipped back to last in his #33 Powder Venture Excavations Toyota, 6.304 seconds back of the lead, but still just over a tenth from Hill. White was joined by his Reaume Brothers Racing teammate Thad Moffitt on Lap 7, whose #43 STP Chevrolet took over last that time by.

Next to join the battle was Lawless Alan, who was docked for locking bumpers with his #45 Auto ParkIt Chevrolet. A frustrated Alan returned to the track the first driver one lap down, where he caught the draft of Johnny Sauter’s Chevrolet. As he did, Alan observed Sauter seemed down on power, which turned out to be early signs of the electrical issue that ended his race. Bryan Dauzat’s #28 FDNY / O.B. Builders Chevrolet made a pit stop on Lap 12, then served a pass-through penalty for his crew jumping over the wall too soon. This dropped Dauzat to last place behind Alan on Lap 19, moments before the end of Stage 1.

Thompson entered the last-place battle under the ensuing caution, when he was struck in the left-front of his Chevrolet by Corey Heim in the #51 JBL Toyota. The contact sent Heim into a spin with the right-front of his truck heavily damaged. Thompson stopped on pit road, then was in his stall by Lap 24. Already down a lap with four minutes left on his “Crash Clock,” Thompson returned to the track, but reported a tire rub that sent him back onto pit road. The crew took a saws-all to the damaged left-front fender, cutting away two inches behind the tire. Just as the field took the green on Lap 26, Thompson was exiting pit road, trying to reach minimum speed. He cleared the clock on Lap 27, around 15 seconds before Heim did the same. 

Thompson smelled something in the cockpit, but continued under green until Lap 38. “Coming down!” the driver shouted as the left-front tire went down on the backstretch. He pulled to the apron dragging sparks from his damaged truck, and NASCAR didn’t throw a caution for the incident. Back on pit road and apparently not on the “Crash Clock” for a second time, Thompson waited for his crew to complete additional work on the left-front wheel. The damaged wheel and destroyed tire had wreaked havoc with the hub, and the crew called for a pry bar to pull the caliper back. On Lap 45, the crew tried to piece the caliper back together. Meanwhile, Bret Holmes pulled behind the wall on Lap 48, moments after his left-front wheel locked up exiting his pit stall. Thompson didn’t join Holmes until Lap 51, which NASCAR reported as a mechanical issue, meaning they could still return. But by Lap 74, both Thompson and Holmes were listed out of the race, eight laps apart.

Sauter’s electrical issue knocked him out of the race after 60 laps, just before Jack Wood’s #24 Make An Impact Foundation crashed by himself off Turn 2. Corey Heim’s truck, which started Dean Thompson’s long evening, was eliminated in the final laps with most of the right-front fender cut away.

Parker Kligerman, who briefly held last place in the early laps, was in position for the win as he pushed Zane Smith to the lead in overtime. But when the race-ending caution came out, Kligerman was 5th and Smith had won.

*This marked only the second time the #40 finished last in the Truck Series race at Daytona. The other occurrence was on February 15, 2008, when Chad Chaffin’s #40 Key Motorsports Chevrolet was involved in a crash after 18 laps. Ryan Truex scored the number’s most recent Truck Series finish last April in Richmond.
*This marked the first time the last-place finisher of the Truck race at Daytona fell out due to brake issues.

36) #40-Dean Thompson / 36 laps / brakes
35) #32-Bret Holmes / 44 laps / clutch
34) #47-Johnny Sauter / 60 laps / electrical
33) #24-Jack Wood / 63 laps / crash
32) #51-Corey Heim / 91 laps / crash

1st) Niece Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (1)


Thursday, February 17, 2022

CUP: Noah Gragson brings home fast “open” car in one piece; last-lap heartbreak for J.J. Yeley

PHOTO: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles

Noah Gragson finished last in Thursday’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel Race 1 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #62 Beard Oil Distributing / South Point Chevrolet finished under power, completing 57 of 60 laps.

In his brief career, Gragson has become one of the sport’s most excitable and outspoken personalities. Last year, he turned around a disappointing start to his season by making it his best ever, racking up three victories in the final ten races. The run was capped by a hard-fought victory at Martinsville, where he battled door-to-door with Austin Cindric, then celebrated with fans on the frontstretch. He made the Championship Four at Phoenix, where a late slide into the outside wall dropped him to 12th as Daniel Hemric took his first win – and the championship.

This year, Gragson and Hemric are teammates at Kaulig Racing’s Cup team, each sharing a partial schedule in the #16 with fellow 2021 championship contender A.J. Allmendinger. Hemric will drive the #16 this weekend, however, as Gragson’s Daytona 500 plans were one of the first to be announced. He would drive for Beard Motorsports, a single-car effort that has become a frequent sight at NASCAR’s superspeedways in Daytona and Talladega.

In the lead-up to last year’s Daytona 500, Gragson was signed by the Beard team to attempt the race, taking the place of a retired Brendan Gaughan. In the final laps, Gragson was in a tight battle for the last transfer spot with Garrett Smithley, then driving for Motorsports Business Management. Exiting the tri-oval, Brad Keselowski came up into Smithley, steering both cars into Gragson. The resulting crash took both Smithley and Gragson out of the show, a particularly sad moment for the driver of the #62. Mark Beard, Sr., the team’s founder, had died just days earlier at age 72.

This year’s 500 marks the first time Gragson has driven for the Beard team since that night. The team races on in Mark’s memory with Linda Beard as team owner. Gragson again showed speed, running 18th and 32nd in the week’s first two practice sessions, each time ranking second among the six “open” cars that would contest the final four spots in Sunday’s field. In qualifying, he drew the 22nd spot – and most importantly, last of the six “open” teams to take time. His lap clocked in at 33rd fastest – 177.553mph (50.689 seconds) – fastest of the “open” teams, three spots ahead of the next in that class, and most importantly locked-into Sunday’s Daytona 500. He’d roll off 17th in Thursday’s first Duel race.

Rolling off 21st and last in Race 1 was J.J. Yeley, who had extra incentive to qualify for Sunday’s Daytona 500. Running one of two new Fords entered by Motorsports Business Management, Yeley was promised $1 million in cryptocurrency from team sponsor if he finished 3rd or better in the Daytona 500. He’d have his work cut out for him as both he and teammate Timmy Hill were the two slowest drivers in qualifying.

Competing for Yeley’s spot was fellow “open” driver Kaz Grala in The Money Team’s #50 Pit Viper Sunglasses Chevrolet. Grala, set to roll off 19th, had been sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments, namely an issue with the digital dashboard. Looking to secure boxing champion Floyd Mayweather’s first NASCAR start, Grala would have to do so from 21st. He would pass a car just before the start as Gragson had voluntarily dropped to the rear in what was likely a defensive maneuver. Unlike many of the sport’s big teams, Beard Motorsports had no backup car, and Gragson had no incentive to put his machine in danger. What ensued appeared to be a defensive strategy. 

When the race started, Gragson was 2.053 seconds back of the lead, and 0.788 back of Grala. By the time the field crossed the stripe to end Lap 1, Gragson had dropped back even further to 3.361 back of the lead, and 1.476 back of 20th place. While a few trailing cars formed a single-file pack, Gragson wasn’t able to catch them, and the team remained quiet on the radio. By Lap 15, Gragson was 36.058 seconds back of the lead and 21.480 seconds back of 20th place. Told to hold the high line when the leaders caught him, he did so on Lap 20, pulling right in Turns 1 and 2 as the leaders rushed by on the inside line. Unable to catch the line’s draft as it passed, Gragson continued to run by himself. “Karen, are you okay with this?” someone asked nervously over the radio on Lap 23.

On Lap 32, Yeley was lapped along with his lone drafting partner B.J. McLeod in the #78 NASCAR Ignition Ford as the pair entered the tri-oval. Two laps later, Kaz Grala was lapped in Turns 1 and 2, followed by a critical mistake on Lap 35. Grala was caught speeding in Section 7 on his green-flag stop, forcing a pass-through penalty that dropped him a second lap down. It was Grala who finally took last from Gragson the next time by. “Don’t worry,” his crew said. “We’re not out of it, man.” 

Gragson retook last around Lap 44, by which point he was two laps down along with Grala. With two laps to go, Gragson was lapped for a third time as a tight race for the lead developed. On the final lap, this same group of leaders caught Yeley and McLeod, putting both a second lap down – and on the same lap as Grala. This proved critical as Grala had latched onto another pack of cars which passed first McLeod, then Yeley off Turn 2. Thus, with just over a half-lap to go, Grala snatched away Yeley’s spot in the 500 field with an 18th-place finish. 

Gragson will start 39th in Sunday’s Daytona 500, four spots behind Grala.

The #16 Heritage Pool Supply Group Chevrolet of Daniel Hemric rounded out the Bottom Five as the lowest classified driver one lap down.

*This marked just the second time the #62 finished last in either of the Duel races at Daytona. The other occurrence was on February 13, 1992, when Ben Hess’ #62 Gray Racing Ford was collected in a multi-car wreck entering the tri-oval. Hess drove for Henley Gray, who was winless in 374 Cup starts from 1964 through 1977, and claimed 13 last-place finishes of his own.
*Gragson is the seventh driver to finish a Duel race under power, and the first since February 14, 2019, when Rick Ware Racing teammates B.J. McLeod and Cody Ware both took the checkered flag within 3 laps of the leader.

21) #62-Noah Gragson / 57 laps / running
20) #78-B.J. McLeod / 58 laps / running
19) #55-J.J. Yeley / 58 laps / running
18) #50-Kaz Grala / 58 laps / running
17) #16-Daniel Hemric / 59 laps / running

CUP: Throttle cable issue stops Jacques Villeneuve, who still makes first 500 start on Sunday

ALL PHOTOS: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles

Jacques Villeneuve finished last in Thursday’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel Race 2 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #27 Hezeberg Engineering Systems Ford fell out with electrical issues after 34 of 60 laps.

The last time NASCAR made such a significant change to the chassis for the Cup Series was in 2007, when the “Car of Tomorrow” was phased in for 16 of the season’s 36 races. Among those 16 races was the fall race at Talladega, the car’s superspeedway debut in anticipation of the Daytona 500. It was in this race that Villeneuve made his Cup debut, though not without controversy. 

At the time, NASCAR’s “open-wheel invasion” had barely begun with Juan Pablo Montoya closing out his impressive rookie season with Chip Ganassi Racing. Villeneuve’s racing resume was already just as impressive, if not more so – a champion of both IndyCar and Formula One. But many still argued that Villeneuve simply wasn’t ready to run at Talladega, especially in a new car during the championship playoffs, and with just two NASCAR starts in the Truck Series. Unphased, Villeneuve qualified 6th on the grid in Bill Davis Racing’s #27 Toyota, sponsored by the UNICEF foundation. He dropped to the tail end of the field on race day, kept his nose clean, and brought the car home in one piece, taking a solid 21st. 

The following February, Villeneuve and Davis would attempt to qualify for the 50th Daytona 500. At the time, the open-wheel contingent included not only Montoya and fellow rookie contender A.J. Allmendinger, but Dario Franchitti and Patrick Carpentier. During Duel Race 2, Villeneuve was in a tight battle for 15th when he lost control in Turns 3 and 4, triggering a multi-car wreck that took both himself and Stanton Barrett out of the 500 field. In the 14 years since, Villeneuve would dabble in each of NASCAR’s divisions – most recently the Whelen Euro Series – but didn’t attempt another Cup race after 2013. He also hadn’t entered a Daytona 500 since that day in 2008.

This past offseason, one of the first new teams to spring up was Team Hezeberg Powered by the Reaume Brothers. A combined effort between Truck Series owner-driver Josh Reaume and the Hezeberg Systems firm out of the Netherlands, the team elected to run road courses and short tracks with both Loris Hezemans from the Whelen Euro Series and a returning Jacques Villeneuve. It wasn’t until much later that the team decided to add the Daytona 500 to their schedule, and tabbed Villeneuve to drive. Just as in 2008, the car number would be 27.

Villeneuve started off just 40th of the 42 entrants in opening practice and dropped to 41st in the second session, raising concerns the team would be able to make the show with such limited experience on ovals. In qualifying, Villeneuve drew the 16th spot – second to Greg Biffle’s #44 Grambling State University Chevrolet from the NY Racing Team among the “open” drivers. There, another surprise - he put up a lap faster than Biffle’s – 176.436mph (51.010 seconds), which stood as the fastest lap by an “open” team until Noah Gragson bested him by three spots. Gragson’s lap made no difference, however, as Villeneuve had locked himself into his first Daytona 500 field on speed. He’d roll off 18th in Duel Race 2 on Thursday.

The 21st and last spot in Race 2 belonged to Timmy Hill, who moments earlier had seen his Motorsports Business Management teammate J.J. Yeley come just over a half-lap short of racing into the Daytona 500 field. Hill faced an even stiffer challenge as his #66 Ford was slowest overall in Wednesday qualifying. Like his teammate, Hill ended up with the worst pit stall – the only one flanked by teams on either side. While Hill had raced one of MBM’s cars into the 500 just two years earlier – ironically by beating Yeley – this time around wouldn’t turn out so favorably.

Villeneuve with the hood up before the start.

But as the field rolled off pit road, Hill did pass another car – Villeneuve’s. After the command to start engines, the driver reported an issue under the hood, and the crew pushed him to a pit stall. Josh Reaume, the team’s co-owner, urged caution to his crew. “Please do not break my hood pins,” he said. “Let’s do this nice and slow.” As the crew discovered what turned out to be a faulty throttle cable, there were discussions about whether they needed to even start the race, since they were already locked in. “We need to take the start, okay?” was the answer. The crew dropped the hood, and instructed Villeneuve to take it easy with the throttle. “I need you to make one lap,” he was told. The team would later attempt relay messages by Channel 2 on the radio, then by phone. “Tommy, check your phone for me, bud,” someone said on the radio on Lap 4.

When the race started, Villeneuve was on the outside of the final row and - like Noah Gragson in Race 1 - dropping fast. He was 2.035 seconds back of the lead at the stripe, then 2.475 at the end of Lap 1, 1.391 seconds back of 20th-place David Ragan in Rick Ware Racing’s #15 Select Blinds Ford. Villeneuve asked about a minimum speed, and was only told “We’re fine.” By Lap 7, he was already being instructed to pull to the high lane when the leaders caught him, which happened on Lap 12. Timmy Hill lost his first lap three circuits later in Turns 3 and 4.

With their car well past completing just one lap, the crew continued to check with their driver. “How’s your water temperature right now?” they asked on Lap 19. “178” was the answer. On Lap 23, Villeneuve caught and Hill, putting the #66 back to last for the first time since the command. Each were shown two laps down on Lap 34, when Villeneuve was caught speeding on pit road in Sections 11 and 12, forcing a pass-through. Five laps later, the #27 was back on pit road, then pushed backwards behind the wall. The crew reported their driver was running 68% throttle to save the cable, and would finish diagnosing the issue in final practice.

Villeneuve will start 40th and last in Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Timmy Hill joined his teammate on the short list of DNQs, finishing 20th, four laps down. Despite running out of fuel in the final laps, Greg Biffle and the NY Racing Team took the final spot in the field with a 13th-place run. Ragan finished 17th, just ahead of Aric Almirola in the #10 Smithfield Ford and Austin Dillon in the #3 Bass Pro Shops / Tracker Off Road Chevrolet.

*This marked only the second time the #27 finished last in either of the Duel races at Daytona. The other time was on February 14, 1985, when Tim Richmond’s #27 Old Milwaukee Pontiac lost an engine after 3 laps of Race 1.

21) #27-Jacques Villeneuve / 34 laps / electrical
20) #66-Timmy Hill / 56 laps / running
19) #10-Aric Almirola / 58 laps / running
18) #3-Austin Dillon / 58 laps / running
17) #15-David Ragan / 58 laps / running