Saturday, March 5, 2022

XFINITY: Joe Graf, Jr.’s rough afternoon in Vegas ends with a DQ in Fontana winner

PHOTO: Chris Knight, @Knighter01

Joe Graf, Jr. picked up the 4th last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Alsco Uniforms 300 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when his #07 Bucked Up / LFG Burn Ford finished 29th, but was disqualified after completing 194 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Graf’s 68th series start, was his first of the season and first since September 25, 2021 at this same Las Vegas track, 9 races ago. In the XFINITY Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 12th for the #07, the 15th from disqualification, and the 159th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 23rd for the #07, the 47th from disqualification, and the 984th for Ford.

Brennan Poole picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Alsco Uniforms 300 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when his #47 Lerner & Rowe Injury Lawyers Chevrolet lost the engine after 3 of 200 laps.

The finish came in Poole’s 84th series start. In the XFINITY Series rankings, it was the 15th for the #47, the 361st from engine issues, and the 588th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 55th for the #47, the 1,114th from engine trouble, and the 1,823rd for Chevrolet.

Last Saturday’s race in Fontana saw Bobby Dotter earn his first NASCAR XFINTY Series victory as an owner, watching as Cup regular Cole Custer ran the team’s Stewart-Haas Racing prepared #07 took the victory. The victory came following a frustrating qualifying session as the team’s second car, the #08, missed the cut with Joe Graf, Jr. behind the wheel. The reason was an apparent miscommunication at the shop, where Graf’s #08 was being adjusted to fit the shorter David Starr for the Vegas weekend. Adjusting the car back cost the team valuable practice time, and the presence of Bucked Up sponsor representatives forced a buying out of Timmy Hill’s ride with RSS Racing. Even with a non-SHR chassis beneath him, Graf crossed the line 15th, improving on his 29th in the Daytona opener.

For Vegas, Starr would indeed be entered in the #08 while Graf would take the wheel of the exact same #07 that Custer drove to victory lane. Starr failed to qualify, joining Stan Mullis in Motorsports Business Management’s #13 Sharelife Vacations Toyota and Josh Williams, who never turned a lap after engine issues on B.J. McLeod’s #78 Silverton Casino Chevrolet. Graf ran a solid 22nd of the 41 entrants in opening practice and qualified 23rd with a speed of 177.515mph (30.420 seconds). Incidentally, Graf had tied to the thousandth of a second with Kaz Grala in the #45 Lily Finance / Ruedebusch Chevrolet, but lost the tiebreaker for 22nd.

Saturday’s starting lineup saw a massive change caused by a new NASCAR rule for this season requiring XFINITY teams use the same car, engine, and transmission from Fontana at Las Vegas, or else start at the tail end of the pack. After multiple crashes and mechanical issues in last Saturday’s race, this meant 14 of the 38 starters would have to drop to the rear, including ten for backup cars alone. Mason Massey was a late addition to the list after multiple flat tires suffered on his #91 Brunt Workwear Chevrolet in California. Landon Cassill, who finished last at Fontana after a massive fire erupted in his engine compartment, was erroneously listed as entered in a backup car. Cassill reported in the broadcast that the crew had brought the #10 Carnomaly Chevrolet back to the shop and completely rebuilt it for the race, now sponsored by StormX.

The backup cars for 21st-place Brandon Jones in the #19 Menards / Barracuda Pumps Toyota, 8th-place Sheldon Creed in the #2 Whelen Chevrolet, and 15th-place Austin Hill in the #21 Bennett Transportation & Logistics Chevrolet were being prepared in the garages at the Auto Club Speedway during last Sunday’s Cup race. The three mechanical issues were 19th-place Matt Mills for an engine change on his #5 J.F. Electric Chevrolet, 28th-place Ryan Vargas in the #6 Swan Security Chevrolet with a transmission swap, and both an engine and transmission change on the #44 Four Loko USA Chevrolet, driven last week by Tommy Joe Martins and this week by Ryan Ellis. 

This list of penalized drivers grew from 14 to 16 – nearly half the field – after qualifying on Saturday. Ty Gibbs qualified 11th in his #54 Monster Energy Toyota, but was docked for unapproved adjustments. Jeb Burton secured the 38th and final spot as a race winner from last season, his timed lap not completed after he lost a tire on his #27 Alsco Uniforms Chevrolet and hit the wall. The Our Motorsports team manage to complete repairs without going to a backup, but still incurred the same penalty. 

When all the positions had changed and the field addressed the starter’s stand, Jeb Burton had moved up to 34th, starting alongside Brennan Poole, who had retained his 33rd position. Just last week in Fontana, Poole was the surprise choice by Mike Harmon Racing to make his return to attempt his first XFINITY Series start since the end of his tenure with Chip Ganassi Racing. With the #74 team saddled by a testing violation penalty last season, Poole would run the #47 which had likewise failed to qualify in Daytona. Wearing his Goettl-sponsored uniform and Spartan Mosquito helmet from his time with Premium Motorsports, Poole attempted to make the show in an unsponsored Chevrolet with front and rear bumper numbers made of white strips of tape. A float in the carburetor malfunctioned, and as the first car out to take time, there was no time to repair it. Poole’s lap was called off as he sputtered down the frontstretch, handing him his first DNQ across NASCAR’s top three series.

The MHR team set to work preparing their car for Las Vegas, tuning up the engine for another run at making their first start of the season. There would also be a cosmetic change as the Lerner & Rowe Injury Lawyers law firm would rejoin as sponsor for the team in a car whose numbers were changed from dark red to bright yellow. Poole would also return, but again had his work cut out for him. With 41 drivers entered for 38 spots, he ranked just 39th in practice. Then, in qualifying, he put up a fast lap of 174.752mph (30.901 seconds), more than a full second faster than the 31.938 he put up in practice. The lap secured him 33rd on the grid, the last spot on speed.

Based on intervals tracked at the starting line, the 38th spot fell to Jesse Iwuji, who spun his #34 Chevy Truck Month Chevrolet after turning in the slowest lap of the session, more than seven full seconds off the pole, but didn’t incur an unapproved adjustments penalty. Here’s the rest of the lineup, indicating their qualified starting position and where they actually took the green:

1-1) 16-Allmendinger
2-2) 8-Berry 0.19
3-3) 98-Herbst 0.266
4-4) 9-Gragson 0.297
5-7) 18-R. Truex 0.392
6-6) 11-Hemric 0.397
7-10) 26-Nemechek 0.601
8-9) 1-Mayer 0.666
9-12) 51-Clements 0.852
10-13) 02-Moffitt 0.827
11-16) 7-Allgaier 1.061
12-17) 36-Labbe 1.125
13-25) 23-Alfredo 1.27
14-20) 39-Ry. Sieg 1.275
15-5) 10-Cassil 1.457
16-22) 07-Graf 1.459
17-11) 54-Gibbs 1.601
18-24) 38-Ky. Sieg 1.747
19-15) 21-Au. Hill 1.797
20-26) 92-Weatherman 1.99
21-19) 5-Mills 2.036
22-34) 31-Snider 2.117
23-21) 19-Jones 2.215
24-36) 35-Gase 2.264
25-8) 2-Creed 2.421
26-23) 45-Grala 2.46
27-27) 4-Currey 2.591
28-14) 48-Buford 2.611
29-18) 68-Brown 2.758
30-31) 28-McLaughlin 2.914
31-28) 6-Vargas 3.006
32-30) 66-Yeley 3.144
33-33) 47-Poole 3.148
34-38) 27-J. Burton 3.283
35-29) 99-Parsons 3.405
36-32) 91-Massey 3.467
37-35) 44-Ellis 3.565
38-37) 34-Iwuji 3.662

When the race started, Iwuji began to lose touch with the rest of the field, and was 7.672 seconds back of the lead and 1.935 seconds back of 37th. That 37th-place runner was Poole, who had already lost spots in the race’s early moments. Further up, coming off Turn 4, a battle for 12th spot came to blows when Ty Gibbs’ #54 Monster Energy Toyota made light contact with the left-rear of Ryan Sieg’s #39 CMRroofing.com / A-Game Ford. This caused Sieg’s car to skate up the track and slap the outside wall with the right-rear. The race stayed green as Sieg slowed down the backstretch, but another car erupted in smoke as he made it to pit road. This was Poole, who followed Sieg down pit road with smoke billowing from behind the right-front wheel. Poole took last by Lap 5, when he showed two laps down, and NASCAR’s clean-up crews were still cleaning a puddle of fluid in the garage on Lap 9. He was not declared out by engine trouble until Lap 25, following a lengthy delay for snow. Pending post-race inspection, it would be Poole’s first last-place finish in 147 combined starts across NASCAR’s top three national series.

Sieg, meanwhile, cleared the “Crash Clock,” though his #39 dropped several pieces of debris before the red flag, causing NASCAR to watch his car more critically for loose body panels. After speaking with Gibbs, then the FS1 crew about the incident, he restarted the race at the tail end of the field. Sieg had just been warned by NASCAR to pick up his speed before he slowed entering Turns 3 and 4 on Lap 29, just as Ty Gibbs approached to his outside. Sieg moved up the track, then appeared to lose control, causing slight left-front damage to Gibbs’ car. Caught up in the incident were both Sheldon Creed’s #2 and Brett Moffitt in the #02 Half Off Wholesale Chevrolet. Trapped in the outside line, both bounced off the wall and made contact with the spinning Sieg. While Creed and Moffitt continued, the #39 pulled behind the wall under caution, done for the day.

As the race continued, Joe Graf, Jr. was having a difficult afternoon. On Lap 75, he made contact with Kyle Weatherman, steering the #92 PORAC Chevrolet head-on into the inside wall. On Lap 85, heading down the backstretch, he bounced between Weatherman’s teammate Mason Massey in the #91 and Matt Mills in the #5. The contact with Mills steered the #5 head-on into the inside wall, resulting in an impact even harder than Weatherman’s, leaving him 36th in the initial running order. The Bottom Five was then completed after an incident triggered by Jesse Iwuji, who broke loose directly in front of Ryan Vargas and Stefan Parsons. The stack-up caused the air filter cover to come off Parsons’ car and stick to the grille of – guess who – Joe Graf, Jr. By the time the checkered flag fell, Graf had crossed the line in 29rd, six laps down.

Graf’s day took a turn for the worse in post-race inspection when the #07 was disqualified. As with Zane Smith in Friday’s Truck Series race, the reason was lug nuts. Unlike Smith’s nonconforming lug nut issue, Graf was snagged for three loose or missing lug nuts. This bumped Stefan Parsons out of the Bottom Five and Jade Buford out of the Bottom Ten.

Landon Cassill finished a strong 6th in his rebuilt car, nearly picking up his first Top Five since the 2011 opener in Daytona. It was still his first Top Ten since August 16, 2019 at Bristol. Behind him, Ryan Ellis finished a career-best 13th on Saturday, his best performance since he took 15th on July 1, 2016 at Daytona.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*Graf is the second driver to be classified last in a XFINITY race at Las Vegas due to disqualification. The other occurrence was on September 14, 2019, when Ryan Sieg’s #39 Lombard Bros. Gaming Chevrolet was found to be too low in post-race inspection.
*This marked the first time two NASCAR points-paying races had the last-place finisher decided by disqualification on consecutive days. It hasn't happened on the same weekend since October 1955, when Jim Reed was disqualified from two consecutive Cup races run within four days, each time due to cylinder heads on his #7 1955 Chevrolet. On Thursday, October 6th at the Greenville-Pickens Speedway, Reed was flagged the winner before the DQ handed victory to Tim Flock. On Sunday, October 9th, Reed turned just eight laps around the Memphis-Arkansas Speedway, but still dropped two spots. Among non-points races, both races of the 2017 Gatorade Duels saw a JTG-Daugherty car classified last by disqualification.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
38) #07-Joe Graf, Jr. / 194 laps / disqualified
37) #47-Brennan Poole / 3 laps / engine
36) #39-Ryan Sieg / 25 laps / crash
35) #5-Matt Mills / 83 laps / crash
34) #34-Jesse Iwuji / 156 laps / crash

2022 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Alpha Prime Racing, Kaulig Racing, SS-Green Light Racing (1)

2022 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (2)
2nd) Ford (1)

2022 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP


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