Monday, May 2, 2022

CUP: Austin Cindric’s first last-place finish comes when “Crash Clock” expires at Dover

PHOTO: @FordPerformance

Austin Cindric picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday and Monday’s Duramax Drydene 400 at the Dover Motor Speedway when his #2 Freightliner Ford was eliminated under the Damaged Vehicle Policy (DVP) after 91 of 400 laps.

The finish occurred in Cindric’s 18th series start. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 2nd under the DVP, the 28th for the #2, and the 717th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 5th for the DVP, the 33rd for the #2, the 989th for Ford.

When Cindric was last featured on this site in 2018, he had been involved in an early crash at Darlington while driving for Roush-Fenway Racing’s struggling #60 team which he shared with other up-and-coming drivers. His fortunes improved quickly when he became the full-time driver of Penske Racing’s #22 – so much so that he scored back-to-back road course wins at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio. The next year, he broke through on the ovals, starting with a double-header sweep at Kentucky. This propelled him to a championship winning season where he bested heavily favored Chase Briscoe in the season finale. He nearly defended his title last year, coming within one corner and one bump from Daniel Hemric of the checkered flag.

The 2021 season also saw Cindric make his first few Cup starts, where he continued to turn heads. In his first Daytona 500, he missed the Lap 14 pileup and ran in and around the Top Five for most of the night, only to be collected in the last-lap wreck. He led four laps in the rain-soaked COTA inaugural despite running slick tires before finishing 25th, and looked primed for his first win at Road America before the rear gear failed. All those close calls paid off in this year’s 500, where he prevailed in a last-lap dogfight for his first career win in only his eighth series start. While the 500 remained Cindric’s only Top Five of the season heading into Dover, he was again fast in COTA, finishing 8th and leading 11 laps.

Running the distinctive Freightliner paint scheme he campaigned in this year’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, Cindric turned the fastest lap in practice, then qualified 12th with a lap of 159.348mph (22.592 seconds).

Starting 36th and last was Josh Bilicki, whose #77 Zeigler Auto Group Chevrolet was destroyed after a hard hit to the inside wall down the backstretch less than five minutes into practice. His was one of two backup cars, joined by 33rd-place starter William Byron, whose #24 Raptor Chevrolet slammed the Turn 3 barrier with the right-front. While Bilicki’s car looked the same as its counterpart, Byron’s retained the grey undercoat on all but its two sides, providing a third variant of the paint scheme this season.

Unapproved adjustment penalties were also handed to 34th-place Todd Gilliland in the #38 The Pete Store Ford, 35th-place Harrison Burton in the #21 Dex Imaging Ford, and Kurt Busch in the #45 Monster Energy Toyota. While Gilliland and Burton’s cars were repaired after separate practice incidents, keeping them from qualifying along with Bilicki and Byron, Busch managed to time in 16th. 

Based on intervals when the green flag dropped, Kurt Busch crossed the stripe in 28th, 2.741 seconds back of the lead. Busch was ahead of the four other penalized drivers, plus Aric Almirola (2.813), Michael McDowell (2.946), Ty Dillon (3.107), and B.J. McLeod (3.525). McLeod, originally lined up 32nd in his #78 Superior Logistics Services Ford, had dropped back further – he crossed the line next-to-last ahead of Burton, whose #21 was 3.577 back of the lead. 

On the first lap of the race, Burton climbed to 33rd, dropping Bilicki back to last, 5.16 seconds back of the lead with Gilliland now 35th. Over the next several laps, Bilicki lost ground to Gilliland, the interval growing from 0.491 second on Lap 3 to 1.902 on Lap 7. As a storm approached, debris fluttered across the track, and Bilicki’s car picked up a piece. On Lap 10, now 3.966 back of 35th place, Bilicki reported water temperature at 200 degrees. He fell another second back of Gilliland by Lap 12, when the #77 was first to be lapped. He held the high lane – noticeably off the pace – as the leaders rushed by to his inside.

During this run, Bilicki’s engine sounded sour, and on Lap 29, the team expressed concern he was down a cylinder. With a Lap 40 competition caution on its way, driver and team decided to stick it out, and lost two more laps by the time that yellow came. Under the yellow, Bilicki reported the car “has no rear stability,” saying also “I have no confidence in the car.” The car also felt tight in the center. The team’s data also indicated he was using the brake heavily, perhaps in response to the hard hit in practice. On the Lap 45 restart, Bilicki remained in last, and once again was running by himself. NASCAR’s spotters were now watching for rain while Bilicki had a close call with teammate Corey LaJoie in the #7 DuraMax / Drydene Chevrolet. 

When the caution fell for rain on Lap 66, B.J. McLeod had pulled down pit road, where the crew noticed a fire behind the left-front wheel.  McLeod took last from Bilicki under the ensuing caution as both were now five laps back of the leaders. The #78 team also reported McLeod’s car was “wrecking loose” according to the tire pressure reports. McLeod returned to the track, but said he believed the left-front brake line was leaking as the brake had been locking up, forcing him to pump it back up. Still under caution on Lap 72, McLeod told his crew to lift the hood and remove the left-front wheel to take a closer look. This was done three laps later, and they sent McLeod back on the track. The crew reported no brake fluid on the inside of the wheel and that all brake parts appeared secure. NASCAR’s timing and scoring briefly showed Bilicki behind McLeod on Lap 78 before McLeod took it again on Lap 79, just before the race was red flagged – then postponed – again due to rain. 

The race resumed Monday morning with Bilicki making a pit stop, dropping him to last place on Lap 80 as he lost a sixth lap. McLeod also stopped on Lap 82, and was on the same lap as Bilicki for the restart. When the green came back out, Bilicki passed McLeod, who reported issues with either the track bar or a shock. But on Lap 86, the caution came out again – this time for a pair of incidents. Running 19th, Austin Cindric spun and slammed the wall with the right side of his car. At the same moment, teammate Ryan Blaney spun the #38 of Todd Gilliland, who made it down pit road. McLeod joined Gilliland and Cindric on pit road for a new set of tires. Gilliland had hardly any visible damage and returned to the track, but Cindric’s crew continued with extensive repairs on the right side of the car. Bilicki re-took last from McLeod after serving his penalty for pitting too soon.

Back under green on Lap 91, all runners had met minimum speed except Cindric, whose “Crash Clock” was quickly running out. By Lap 96, he had just 90 seconds left on the clock, the 40 seconds on Lap 98, when he took last from Bilicki. The count went down to 20 seconds, then 15, and it wasn’t until Lap 100 that the #2 was rolling again. The moment he left his stall, NASCAR said his clock had expired, and he was done for the day under the Damaged Vehicle Policy. The message didn’t get relayed to Cindric, who was running 10 laps down in last place. NASCAR relayed the message a second time on Lap 104, and then stopped scoring. “Yup, we’re done,” said someone on the radio as he pulled down pit road, then into the garage. The crew instructed him to pull up to the hauler, and NASCAR confirmed him out on Lap 130. While the garage official reported the listed reason as “accident,” the results reflected “DVP.”

B.J. McLeod’s brake issues never improved, and he pulled behind the wall on Lap 177 with the left-front locked-up and smoking. The driver reported he still had full brake pedal, but that it also felt spongy when he pressed it. He made the call to end their race, and NASCAR confirmed he was out on Lap 200. With his fourth bottom-five finish and fifth bottom-ten finish of the season, McLeod takes the LASTCAR Cup Series championship lead from Greg Biffle with 25 races to go.

The 34th spot fell to Cody Ware, whose #51 Nurtec ODT Ford broke loose off Turn 4 in front of Denny Hamlin, whose #11 FedEx Toyota was running 4th after coming back from a costly loose wheel on an early pit stop. The two made contact, ultimately knocking Ware out of the race after attempted repairs and setting Hamlin on another rally. Hamlin only climbed to 21st. A.J. Allmendinger also had a wheel come loose from his #16 Action Industries Chevrolet, and subsequently fell out with brake issues. Bilicki rounded out the Bottom Five, 19 laps down to race winner Chase Elliott.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marks the first last-place finish for the #2 in a Cup Series points race since August 9, 2020, when Brad Keselowski’s #2 Discount Tire Ford crashed after 95 laps of the Consumers Energy 400. That run was Keselowski’s first in 399 Cup Series starts. The #2 had never before finished last in a Cup race at Dover.
*The only other Cup driver to be classified last in a points race specifically under the DVP was Ryan Newman last September in Bristol.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
36) #2-Austin Cindric / 91 laps / dvp
35) #78-B.J. McLeod / 167 laps / brakes
34) #51-Cody Ware / 238 laps / dvp
33) #16-A.J. Allmendinger / 321 laps / brakes
32) #77-Josh Bilicki / 381 laps / running

2022 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Live Fast Motorsports, Spire Motorsports, Trackhouse Racing (2)
2nd) Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, NY Racing Team, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing (1)

2022 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (7)
2nd) Ford (3)
3rd) Toyota (1)

2022 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP


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