Sunday, February 6, 2022

CUP: Trio of sudden mechanical failures - not crashes - decide Busch Clash's last-place battle

ALL PHOTOS: Brock Beard

Denny Hamlin finished last in Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum when his #11 FedEx Express Toyota lost power steering after 52 of 150 laps.

The 2021 season saw Hamlin reach the Championship 4 for a third consecutive year, only to fall short of an elusive first Cup Series title. He finished 3rd that day, some distance behind teammate Martin Truex, Jr., and winner Kyle Larson. That same season saw the debut of his own new racing venture, 23XI Racing, where he and his longtime idol Michael Jordan hired Bubba Wallace to drive their new #23 Cup Series car. Wallace broke through in a rain-shortened event at Talladega, scoring the first Cup win by an African-American since Wendell Scott in 1963.

Both events were among the last experienced under NASCAR’s “Gen-Six” car, introduced in 2013. At the end of the brief offseason would come the debut of the all-new “NextGen” car, featuring a litany of changes from single-lug wheels to rear diffusers. Like the previous generation, these cars would debut in the Busch Clash exhibition race, but with another massive change. The venue would not be Daytona, but the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where a quarter-mile bullring was constructed in just 41 days.

In Saturday’s opening practice, Hamlin was part of the first group to take the track. He ranked 10th of the 36 entrants with his top lap of 66.347mph (13.565 seconds) coming on his 99th of 102 laps turned. He qualified 17th that night in time trials, putting up a lap of 63.043mph (14.053 seconds), just over three-tenths off teammate Kyle Busch’s pole run. This would place Hamlin 5th in the lineup for Sunday’s 25-lap Heat Race #1.

Qualifying 36th and slowest overall was Ty Dillon, making his return to full-time Cup competition in the #42 Black Rifle Coffee Co. Chevrolet fielded by Petty GMS Motorsports. Dillon, who ran just 27th in practice, anchored Saturday night’s speed charts with a lap of 61.932mph (14.532 seconds), which ironically was just 0.787 second off the pole. This would place Dillon 9th and last on the grid for the fourth and final heat race on Sunday.

When Heat Race #1 rolled off, the 9th and final spot belonged to Ross Chastain in Team Trackhouse’s new second team, the #1 Howler Head Chevrolet. On the start, a three-wide battle for last ensued, shaking out B.J. McLeod in the #78 SkyView Partners Ford. Just three laps into the race, McLeod trailed the field by two seconds, and on Lap 11 was lapped by leader Kyle Busch in Turns 3 and 4. Busch then lapped McLeod a second time off Turn 4 with just three laps to go, and the #78 finished under power. This same heat saw Hamlin finish in the same 5th spot he started – one spot short of transferring – sending him into the first 50-lap Last Chance Qualifier.

In Heat Race #2, Martin Truex, Jr. started last in the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, which couldn’t break the Top 30 in either of its qualifying laps on Saturday. On Lap 1, Truex held the low lane through Turns 1 and 2 when the outside line stalled behind outside-polesitter Cole Custer in the #41 Ford. This allowed Truex to slip under Brad Keselowski in the debut of his #6 Violet Defense Ford under the Roush Fenway Keselowski banner. Keselowski trailed Truex by a second on Lap 5, but began to reel in both the #19 and Harrison Burton in the #21 Motorcraft / Quick Lane Ford. Burton then fell into Keselowski’s clutches as both lost ground to Truex. Race leader Tyler Reddick in the #8 Guaranteed Rate Chevrolet was about two seconds behind the trailing Keselowski when Reddick took the win.

Heat Race #3 saw Cody Ware in last driving the #51 Nurtec ODT Ford. Unlike both previous heats, Ware elected to take a slower start, and caught 8th-place runner Corey LaJoie in the #7 NationsGuard Chevrolet. Ware then got under LaJoie during the first ten laps to drop the #7 to last place. Over the next five laps, Ware opened up the advantage over LaJoie, growing from a second with 6 to go to around three seconds with 3 to go. As in Heat Race 2, the leader – this time Justin Haley in the #31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Chevrolet – was within sight of the last-place running LaJoie when the race ended, leaving all nine cars on the lead lap.

Heat Race #4 started with the aforementioned Ty Dillon – slowest in qualifying – rounding out the nine-car lineup. On the first lap, Dillon ducked under Kurt Busch in the #45 Monster Energy Toyota and nearly completed the pass by Turn 4 until teammate Erik Jones in the #43 FocusFactor Chevrolet washed up the track, causing Dillon to check up. Dillon still cleared Busch, but moments later both were suddenly ahead of outside-polesitter Landon Cassill in the #77 Voyager: Crypto for All Chevrolet. On Lap 5, Dillon suddenly slowed in Turn 4 and pulled into the infield, drawing a caution. The reason cited was an accident, but the driver said after he broke a transmission shifter linkage pin, requiring some repairs in the infield. The infield’s limited space allowed for only limited equipment for even more limited changes, and there was doubt he’d start the Last Chance Qualifiers. Dillon’s car sat in Box 17 in the infield before it was pushed to the last box on the outside line, well back of the others.

Aric Almirola, the first retiree, is also first to be towed
out of the track.

Next came Hamlin’s own turn in the Last Chance Qualifiers, where he started on pole for the first 50-lap race. Rolling off 10th and last was Corey LaJoie – last in Heat Race #3. On the opening lap, LaJoie ran side-by-side with B.J. McLeod’s #78 until LaJoie cleared him. Once again, the #78 began to lose touch with the field until the caution flew on Lap 4. Aric Almirola in the #10 Farmer John Ford had traded bumps with rookie Todd Gilliland in the #38 First Phase Ford. The last exchange ended in Turn 4, where contact from Gilliland sent Almirola’s car into the outside wall, destroying his right-front. The race was red-flagged as Almirola’s became the first car towed from the garage. McLeod exited the race under the same caution, and was classified last behind Almirola – in part because caution laps didn’t count in any of the races. Hamlin went on to win the qualifier, earning him 17th in the 150-lap main.

Todd Gilliland debriefed with his father David, and apologized for the incident with Almirola. “He (Almirola) got really good momentum off (Turn) 2 and thought that he's going to be clear of me,” said Gilliland. “So I was looking in my mirror at the 17 (Chris Buescher) behind me, kind of inside, it was going to be close. I was trying to pinch him (Buescher) a little bit just as I was looking down left - I barely turned left - and it barely got a minute. It didn't take much. So I definitely apologize to those guys. I know no one has really has much equipment to put together, let alone tear up before the season, so I definitely feel really bad about that.”

Ty Dillon's car after his LCQ win was stripped.

The second and final Last Chance Qualifier did end up including Ty Dillon’s #42, which was able to join the tail end of the field despite reported crash damage in Heat Race #4. It did not include Martin Truex, Jr., who ended up electing an exemption from NASCAR for the highest-ranked driver in points not already qualified for the Clash. Truex ended up sitting out the race, locking up last place in the event, and the 23rd and final spot in the 150-lap main. This unofficially changed once more moments after Ty Dillon rallied from last on the grid to take the victory. Dillon incurred a post-race tail-end penalty for jumping the start a second time on the final green flag, crossing the stripe a full carlength ahead of the next car. This took Dillon out of the 150-lap main, and lifted 4th-place finisher Harrison Burton back into the finale.

“The very first one with Kurt (Busch), I thought I gave the spot back to the guy,” said Dillon of his first jumped restart. “We were nose-to-nose going into one, so I don't know what kind of advatage they thought I had from jumping that start. I might have fired, but I stopped. We got nose-to-nose. So, that one I'm a little more confused on. They've gotta make a call - I understand.”

“The second one, I was rolling, and knew I needed to get a good launch, and I'm sure I just got to the throttle just a little bit before the (restart) zone and I was just trying to make the most of it. I didn't want the guys behind me in a classic restart where the leader got punted. I didn't want to be that guy - I wanted to go out and finish. I agree with them a little more on the second one, but personally I don't. But they've gotta make a call and I'm not here to bad mouth them at all. . .When you're given a last chance at anything you make the most of it. You don't just sit back and watch things happen.”

Tyler Reddick bumps last-place Bubba Wallace,
about to put him a lap down.

The Busch Light Clash itself was all that remained, consisting of two 75-lap segments with a six-minute break for Ice Cube’s concert in between. Truex rolled off 23rd, though the spot nearly went to A.J. Allmendinger, whose #16 Chevrolet briefly stopped on the track. Coming to the green flag, the last few spots arrived unevenly with Ryan Preece now last in a single-file line behind Truex and Allmendinger. Preece was the only driver with a pre-race penalty, his for unapproved adjustments. Truex was last again by Lap 8, when Harrison Burton was racing Bubba Wallace’s #23 Door Dash Toyota for 21st. First Burton, then Truex on Lap 11 passed Wallace, dropping the #23 to last for the first time. Tyler Reddick, the race leader, lapped Wallace on Lap 18. 

Wallace had struggled in opening practice, running the slowest lap of the session, but improved to 18th in qualifying. Like his team co-owner Hamlin, he was one spot short of transferring from his heat, taking 5th in Heat Race #2, but also like Hamlin earned a strong finish in his Last Chance Qualifier, inheriting the runner-up spot to Ryan Preece after Ty Dillon’s penalty. In the main event, however, Wallace struggled from the moment he was lapped onward. He nearly clipped the backstretch wall on Lap 24, lost a second lap to Reddick on Lap 42, and was nearly spun five laps after that. So much of the field was lapped in the opening 53-lap green-flag run that Wallace did not get one of his laps back when Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. spun his #47 Slim Jim Chevrolet. However, Wallace would soon find himself passing several cars.

Hamlin in the infield. Back on the track, leader
Tyler Reddick (#8) and 4th-place Chase Briscoe (#14)
would also falter under this caution.

It was under this same caution that a rash of freak mechanical issues eliminated three contenders. Hamlin was the first, who after getting his lap back under green slowed in the high lane off Turn 2, then stopped in the infield with a reported overheating issue, reportedly after a belt came off the power steering pump. The crew looked under the hood, and the driver climbed out soon after, his helmet off. Moments later, Chase Briscoe pulled his #14 Mahindra Tractors Ford behind Hamlin, and the #11 crew pushed their car toward the tow truck stationed near Turn 4. On top of this, Tyler Reddick, who had dominated the race up to this point, stalled entering Turn 1 with a possible transaxle failure, and had to be pushed into the infield. While Reddick’s crew worked under the right side of the #8 for some time, Hamlin and Briscoe’s cars were parked at the far end of the infield when the race restarted. By Lap 56, the lapped Wallace had passed all three, dropping Hamlin to last place.

Ryan Preece took 20th after what the team reported to be brake issues (though listed in the results as “oil pressure”) at the halfway point resulted in his car parking next to Hamlin and Briscoe’s next to the tow truck. Rounding out the Bottom Five was Justin Haley, whose #31 was turned by Kyle Larson on the frontstretch, resulting in the final caution of the race. Haley’s car suffered heavy right-front damage in an impact that moved the infield barriers, and his car was the first to be towed out after Joey Logano took the checkered flag. Reddick and Hamlin rode in their cars as theirs were pushed out by trucks, followed some time later by Briscoe’s. Preece’s car managed to re-fire after the checkered flag, and followed a group of other cars out of the stadium moments earlier.

*With Hamlin’s finish, all four of Joe Gibbs Racing’s teams have now finished last in four consecutive runnings of the Busch Clash. Martin Truex, Jr. took last on the Daytona Road Course in 2021 driving the #19. The Daytona oval saw Kyle Busch’s #18 crash out in 2020, one year after Erik Jones in the #20 in 2019.
*This was the first time the #11 finished last in the Busch Clash since February 8, 2003, when Geoffrey Bodine’s turn in brother Brett’s #11 Hooters Ford ended after 3 laps around Daytona with suspension issues. The only other time the number finished last in the Clash was on February 8, 1986, when Darrell Waltrip finished under power and on the lead lap.

23) #11-Denny Hamlin / 52 laps / power steering
22) #14-Chase Briscoe / 53 laps / drivetrain
21) #8-Tyler Reddick / 53 laps / drivetrain / led 51 laps
20) #15-Ryan Preece / 75 laps / oil pressure
19) #31-Justin Haley / 116 laps / crash

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