Saturday, April 23, 2022

XFINITY: Chandler Smith's series debut ends with multi-car pileup on Talladega bakstretch


Chandler Smith picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Ag-Pro 300 at the Talladega Superspeedway when his #26 Charge Me / Vital Toyota was eliminated in a multi-car crash after 47 of 124 laps.

The finish came in Smith’s series debut. In the XFINITY Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 15th for the #26, the 153rd for Toyota, and the 363rd from a crash. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 46th for the #26, the 370th for Toyota, and the 1,287th from a crash.

Saturday marked Smith’s first career XFINITY start, coinciding with his fourth Truck Series season with Kyle Busch Motorsports. Smith scored his third and most recent Truck victory earlier this year in Las Vegas, and just last week on the Bristol dirt debuted new sponsor Charge Me and Vital Card, which would follow him to Saturday’s race. As to Talladega, Smith had never made an ARCA start at the track, though his first Truck start there in 2020 resulted in a 3rd-place finish behind Raphael Lessard and Trevor Bayne. He looked forward to his XFINITY debut with the Sam Hunt Racing team, taking the place of Derek Griffith in the #26 Toyota.

With no practice, Smith qualified 30th with a lap of 178.900mph (53.527 seconds). Missing the show were Natalie Decker in the #13 Nerd Focus Ford, Jesse Iwuji in the #34 SELE Foundation Chevrolet, and C.J. McLaughlin in the #28 Sci Aps Ford.

The 38th and final starting spot belonged to Ryan Ellis, whose #44 Heartbeat Hot Sauce Chevrolet earned a redundant tail-end penalty for unapproved adjustments. Also docked for the same reason were 15th-place Brandon Jones in the #19 Menards / Atlas Toyota, 20th-place Riley Herbst in the #98 Monster Energy Ford, 27th-place Matt Mills in the #5 J.F. Electric Chevrolet, 32nd-place Shane Lee in the #53 Kitty Kat Coin Ford, 35th-place David Starr in the #08 Ford, and Ellis’ teammate at Alpha Prime Racing, 23rd-place Caesar Bacarella in the #45 Lilly Finance Chevrolet.

When the green flag dropped, Josh Williams had dropped back from 26th on the grid in his #78 Alloy Employer Services Chevrolet to join teammate Matt Mills in the back of the pack. Williams thus crossed the line in 36th ahead of both Ellis and last-place Mills, who were two-thousandths of a second apart. Mills and Williams linked up during the first lap, taking the final two spots at the end of Lap 1 with Mills 5.24 seconds back of the lead. In front of them, Ellis and Bacarella formed a two-car draft of their own. 

On Lap 4, Williams passed the Alpha Prime duo with Mills still behind them in last place, the four drivers part of a six-car trailing pack more than two seconds back of the rest of the field. Bacarella ran behind Ellis, so Mills caught him on Lap 5, the pair just 0.042 apart at the stripe. Mills completed the pass next time by, followed by Ellis, and on Lap 8, Bacarella and Ellis swapped places with the #44 resuming his hold on last place. From there, spotters tried to get Bacarella to attempt a pass on the three cars in front, now trailed by Shane Lee. But Bacarella and Ellis remained in the final two spots.

On Lap 11, while still running in Bacarella’s tire tracks, Ellis’ left-rear tire went down in Turns 1 and 2, leaving a tire carcass on the banking. Ellis spun, later describing it as “just a passenger in a shopping cart,” and the right-rear went flat as he skidded to the stop without hitting either wall. While he believed there was a driveline issue with his car, Ellis made it to pit road for a tire change and was sent back on track, the only car one lap down. Sensing the rear end was “inconsistent,” along with a persistent vibration that “felt like friction,” according to the driver, the crew left Ellis on the track and prepared to make a repair when Stage 1 ended. “We’ve got a car that can fucking win this thing,” said Ellis on Lap 19. “I just wanna be there at the end.” Another problem arose during this run, as Ellis’ flat tire knocked out a crush panel, making the seat of his car uncomfortably hot. He managed to make it to the end of the stage on Lap 26, earning the Lucky Dog as the only lapped car.

Ellis earned his lap back on the 29th circuit, and his crew prepared to examine his car for a possible tire rub. The crew ended up removing a 3/16th wheel spacer from the left-rear and turned eight rounds in the track bar as a temporary fix. The car did seem to improve, and after the Lap 31 restart, finally climbed out of last, handing the spot back to Josh Williams. The next time by, Jeremy Clements slipped to 37th in the #51 One Stop / ASE Chevrolet, and Williams drew alongside, just 0.043 second apart at the stripe. By the start of the following lap, both had passed Bacarella, putting the #45 back to 38th. Bacarella struggled to stay within a half-second of 37th place until Lap 40, when he dropped Williams to last once again. 

Williams had apparently come down pit roa for an unscheduled pit stop as on Lap 43, he was barely on the lead lap, 47.686 seconds back of the lead and 41.580 back of Bacarella. Stranded without a drafting partner, Williams was promptly caught by the leaders on Lap 44, when he moved to the high lane in Turns 1 and 2 and remained there down the backstretch. Like Ellis, Williams now found himself as the only lapped driver at the perfect time – a wreck on Lap 48.

Coming off Turn 2, Chandler Smith was running around the 20th spot, holding the outside lane by himself. Not far ahead, Mason Massey’s #91 Anderson Power Services Chevrolet slid into Josh Berry’s #8 PUBG Mobile Chevrolet to his outside. Massey slid down the banking and clipped the rear of J.J. Yeley’s #66 RHS USA / Coble Enterprises Chevrolet. With a stout Hendrick engine under the hood, Yeley had led two laps in the early stages, only to wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yeley’s car cut to the right – directly into Smith’s path. Smith cut left, only to be trapped between both Yeley and Berry. Smith bounced off the outside wall, and moments after Massey hit the inside wall, Smith did the same further up the track. 

Both Massey and Smith climbed from their cars, done for the day. Yeley’s team attempted repairs to both ends of the #66, ultimately turning four more laps, only to be eliminated when their “Crash Clock” expired. Another multi-car wreck on the backstretch completed the Bottom Five with Ty Gibbs’ #54 Monster Energy Toyota slamming the inside wall after Daniel Hemric’s #11 Cirkul – Water Your Way Chevrolet crossed his nose trying to get to the high lane. Contact from Ryan Sieg turned Gibbs’ car a moment later. Like Yeley, Hemric was eliminated under the DVP after unsuccessful repairs.

Earnhardt and Graf earn career-best finishes

Jeffrey Earnhardt received intensive coverage for driving Richard Childress’ #3 Forever Lawn Chevrolet, decorated in a black paint scheme with a crew led by a returning Larry McReynolds. Earnhardt earned the pole on Friday, and in the final laps charged to a runner-up finish behind Noah Gragson. This was Earnhardt’s career-best XFINITY finish, improving on his 3rd-place showing for Joe Gibbs Racing at Charlotte in 2019. Also impressive was Joe Graf, Jr., who earned a career-best 8th in the #07 Bucked Up Energy Drink Ford – an improvement on his previous mark of 10th at the same track last fall.

*Smith’s was Toyota’s first last-place finish in a XFINITY race since October 2, 2021 with David Starr driving for Motorsports Business Management.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #26 in a XFINITY race at Talladega since July 27, 1996, when Derrike Cope’s #26 Badcock Home Furnishings Ford lost the engine after 13 laps of the Humminbird Fishfinder 500K. The number’s most recent last-place run in XFINITY was last year in Charlotte, where Grant Enfinger’s own series debut ended early.

38) #26-Chandler Smith / 47 laps / crash
37) #91-Mason Massey / 47 laps / crash
36) #66-J.J. Yeley / 51 laps / dvp / led 2 laps
35) #54-Ty Gibbs / 76 laps / crash
34) #11-Daniel Hemric / 79 laps / dvp

1st) Mike Harmon Racing (2)
2nd) Alpha Prime Racing, Big Machine Racing, JD Motorsports, Kaulig Racing, Sam Hunt Racing, SS-Green Light Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (6)
2nd) Ford (2)
3rd) Toyota (1)


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