Sunday, March 20, 2022

CUP: Noah Gragson’s team debut with Kaulig ends early in Atlanta; NY Racing Team breaks through with best-ever finish

PHOTO: Feliz Vigil,, @felizgoesrawr

Noah Gragson picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at the Auto Club Speedway when his #16 Chevrolet was involved in a single-car accident after 23 of 325 laps.

The finish came in Gragson’s second series start. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 16th for the #16, the 628th from a crash, and the 821st for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 36th for the #16, the 1,286th from a crash, and the 1,826th for Chevrolet.

This same Atlanta track was the site of a post-race scuffle between Gragson and Daniel Hemric, who tangled in the closing stages of last year’s XFINITY race. It was somewhat surprising, then, that Hemric and Gragson would become teammates at Kaulig Racing, sharing time in the #16 Chevrolet on the Cup side with A.J. Allmendinger. Gragson had already signed with Beard Motorsports for the Daytona 500, for which he qualified after he wrecked out of his qualifying race with them the previous year. Gragson locked himself in on speed, but was eliminated in a late-race wreck, leaving him 31st.

Atlanta marked Gragson’s first Cup start of the year in the #16, which had already earned a Top Ten this year with Hemric at Fontana. That day, Hemric made up seven laps after a broken shifter to finish 9th. With qualifying washed out for all three series, Gragson secured the 30th starting spot, and ranked just 33rd of the 37 entrants in the lone practice session, where he turned 36 laps. In the XFINITY race, he led 38 laps and was still contending for the top spot when he bounced off the wall. The run left him 26th, his first finish worse than 3rd all season, and one week after punching his Playoff ticket with a win in Phoenix.

Rolling off 37th and last was Greg Biffle, who along with the NY Racing Team returned to the circuit for the third time this year and the first time since Las Vegas. The only “open” team in the show, Biffle carried logos for a third different college, debuting a purple paint scheme for Stillman College. Joining him in the back would be 24th-place Brad Keselowski for unapproved adjustments on his #6 Kohler Generators Ford and 31st-place Harrison Burton for multiple inspection failures on his #21 Dex Imaging Ford. Burton would not have to serve a pass-through penalty after the green flag.

When the race started, Biffle was last across the stripe, 3.317 seconds back of the lead with Burton in 36th and the penalized Keselowski up to 32nd ahead of Corey LaJoie in the #7 Fraternal Order of Eagles Chevrolet, B.J. McLeod in the #78 Celsius Ford, and David Ragan in the #15 Select Blinds Ford. Biffle remained last at the end of Lap 1, 2.975 seconds back of the lead and 0.257 back of Ragan. Biffle remained within two-tenths of Ragan until Lap 5, when he dropped back a half-second.

The battle for last then intensified. On Lap 7, Biffle dropped Cody Ware to last in the #51 Nurtec ODT Ford, but the battle between both drivers and Ragan remained tight, each less than one-tenth of a second apart. The next time by, Cole Custer slipped to last in his #41 Dixie Vodka Ford with Ware now racing two other cars to his outside. Ragan slipped to 36th on Lap 12, when Custer pulled alongside to attempt a pass, 0.082 second apart at the stripe. Ragan escaped Custer’s grasp and put McLeod’s #78 between he and Custer. At the stripe, Custer was now just 0.001 back of McLeod. Custer completed the pass that time by, and McLeod took over last. But McLeod now caught Ragan, and the #15 was back to 37th on Lap 15. By then, McLeod had fallen a half-second back of Custer, and Ragan gradually lost touch with McLeod. By Lap 24, Ragan was still last, 0.903 behind McLeod, when the caution fell.


The reason for the yellow was Gragson, who broke loose in Turn 2 and slammed the outside wall nearly head-on. Gragson climbed out under his own power as he quickly took last on Lap 25, done for the afternoon. “It took off with no warning,” said someone on the team’s channel. “It got loose, and then it took off to the right.” After he was checked and released from the infield care center, Gragson said, in part, “I just got loose there through (turns) one and two. It was still early in the race, so I wasn’t pushing it. I was just trying to bide my time and stay patient. . .” NASCAR didn’t declare Gragson out of the race until Lap 88.

The next two retirees were brothers Austin and Ty Dillon, who were part of a pileup exiting Turn 4 on Lap 102. Entering the quad-oval, Austin’s #3 Bass Pro Shops / Tracker Off Road Chevrolet was running 3rd when he broke loose in front of Kyle Busch, putting both cars into the outside wall. Further back, Ty Dillon’s #42 Alsco Uniforms Chevrolet checked-up and spun, then collided with a passing Chase Briscoe. Austin went to the garage on Lap 103, followed by Ty on Lap 107, both eliminated under the “Damaged Vehicle Policy.” NASCAR declared the brothers out on Lap 112. Busch’ #18 M&M’s Toyota spent eight laps on pit road for repairs, but ultimately pulled behind the wall when his car broke loose on the backstretch, leaving him 33rd. By returning to the race, Busch passed Cole Custer, who was also eliminated with crash damage on Lap 154.

NY Racing Team’s 20th-place run with Biffle the highlight of race’s underdog contingent

Leading the underdog contingent was Corey LaJoie, who after a last-place run in Phoenix earned his first career Top Five finish by taking the checkered flag in 5th following the out-of-bounds penalty for runner-up Christopher Bell. LaJoie’s #7 Fraternal Order of Eagles Chevrolet successfully recovered from a mid-race spin through the grass where his car nearly caught air. It turned out to be a great day for Spire Motorsports as teammate Josh Bilicki came home 16th in the #77 Zeigler Auto Group Chevrolet, the second-best finish of his career outside of his 10th last summer in Daytona. B.J. McLeod, who joined Bilicki in earning his first Top 10 that night at Daytona, tied his second-best finish of 19th from the 2019 Daytona 500.

But the biggest standout had to be Greg Biffle, who finished 20th in just the third start of his return to the Cup Series with the NY Racing Team. After back-to-back races spoiled by faulty fuel pumps, Biffle climbed into the Top 20 in Stage 3, and narrowly averted disaster in a backstretch accident that ended Cody Ware’s own bid for a season-best finish. The result is by far the best finish for John Cohen’s NY Racing Team (formerly Team XTREME Racing), which since its debut in 2012 had never finished better than 32nd in a single Cup Series points race. That finish came with Reed Sorenson, who during the 2015 Daytona 500 had to enter a backup car following an accident in NASCAR’s short-lived and controversial group qualifying format. It also happens to be just the fifth race where Cohen’s car has crossed the finish line under power, the team having finished last four times. Congratulations to the #44 team as they continue to assemble their remaining schedule for 2022.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #16 in a Cup points race since July 5, 2008, when Greg Biffle crashed his #16 3M Ford after 69 laps of the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. The number had not finished last in a Cup race at Atlanta since April 4, 1971, when Dub Simpson turned 7 laps in his #16 1969 Chevrolet before he quit the Atlanta 500.

37) #16-Noah Gragson / 23 laps / crash
36) #42-Ty Dillon / 101 laps / crash
35) #3-Austin Dillon / 101 laps / crash
34) #41-Cole Custer / 150 laps / crash
33) #18-Kyle Busch / 171 laps / crash

1st) Trackhouse Racing (2)
2nd) Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, Spire Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (4)
2nd) Toyota (1)


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