Sunday, May 8, 2022

CUP: Kyle Larson’s “throwback” weekend results in first Darlington last-place run for the #5 since 1986


Kyle Larson picked up the 9th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Goodyear 400 at the Darlington Raceway when his #5 Chevrolet fell out with engine issues after 112 of 293 laps.

The finish, which came in Larson’s 271st series start, was his first of the season and first since April 25, 2021 at Talladega, 38 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 22nd for the #5, the 709th from engine issues, and the 825th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it’s the 36th for the #5, the 1,119th for engine problems, and the 1,838th for Chevrolet.

After claiming his first Cup Series championship in the swan song season for the “Gen 6” car last season, Larson transitioned smoothly into the “NextGen” era by pulling off a dramatic late-race pass to win at the Auto Club Speedway. At the same time, however, Larson has been involved in more than his share of controversial incidents, including both that same Auto Club event, where he tangled with teammate Chase Elliott, and the season opening Busch Clash, where he turned Justin Haley into the barriers. His latest incident in Talladega led to Denny Hamlin remarking about the trend with a meme – one which, in a bizarre twist, led to Hamlin having to complete sensitivity training. Nevertheless, he arrived in Darlington on an upswing, having finished no worse than 6th in the previous three races.

The entire Hendrick Motorsports fleet each debuted a special “throwback” paint scheme for this year’s renewal, including Larson. The #5 would honor the late Tim Richmond to resemble the Hendrick Honda Pontiac that Richmond campaigned at Charlotte in 1984. In practice, Larson ranked 9th of the 36 entrants. He then stepped it up in qualifying to take the outside pole alongside Joey Logano, clocking in at 170.236mph (28.887 seconds). After finishing 2nd in both Darlington races last year, Larson certainly hoped this would be enough to break through.

Rolling off 36th and last would be B.J. McLeod, who decorated his #78 Ford (and his XFINITY entry for Josh Williams) in the same white-and-yellow flame design from his late model. Unapproved adjustments would incur McLeod a redundant tail-end penalty, but he was far from the only driver docked. Chase Elliott’s #9 NAPA Chevrolet, decorated like Jimmy Means’ NAPA Ford from 1993 and 1994, cut a left-rear tire and slammed the wall. The team unloaded a backup car, and like William Byron last week in Dover were only able to apply half of the wrap before the race. Like Elliott and McLeod, Kevin Harvick likewise didn’t turn a lap in qualifying as his #4 Rheem – Chasing a Cure Ford stopped on track in practice with a flat left-rear tire. Also docked for unapproved adjustments was Denny Hamlin, who qualified 22nd in his #11 FedEx Express Toyota decorated in its 2016 scheme, but the team had to change the rear diffuser. 

When the green flag dropped, Hamlin was 31st across the stripe followed by Cody Ware, whose #51 Nurtec ODT Ford honored Mike Stefanik. Elliott’s car crossed the line 33rd ahead of Landon Cassill in the #77 Voyager: Crypto for All Chevrolet, followed by Harvick and McLeod in the final two spots, McLeod 3.633 seconds back of the leader. By Lap 3, McLeod was still in last, now 6.857 seconds back of the leader, when trouble broke out off Turn 2. Brad Keselowski, his #6 Ford decorated like Mark Martin’s Viagra Ford from 2004, spun down the backstretch and ultimately came to pit road with four flat tires. He took last from McLeod on Lap 4, and rejoined the race one lap down for the Lap 8 restart.

Keselowski remained in last place for the following run, looking to secure the Lucky Dog. McLeod, now 35th, remained on the bumper of Landon Cassill’s #77 until around Lap 22, when he slipped to seven-tenths back of Cassill’s Chevrolet. By Lap 31, when McLeod had dropped two seconds back of 34th place, he was lapped by the leaders, snatching away the Lucky Dog from Keselowski when the competition caution fell the next time by. Keselowski remained in 36th, one lap down for the Lap 36 restart and again McLeod lost touch with the rest of the cars on the lead lap. By the 44th circuit, McLeod was 1.021 seconds back of Cody Ware, who had slipped to 34th. Three circuits later, J.J. Yeley, his #15 Ollie’s Bargain Outlet Ford decorated like Clint Bowyer’s 5-hour Energy Toyota from 2012, slapped the wall off Turn 2. No caution came out, and Yeley lost two laps on pit road. Yeley took last from Keselowski on Lap 51, and cleared minimum speed the next time by. During this run, Austin Dillon also fell off the lead lap in the #3 Huk Chevrolet, and Keselowski now had yet another car to catch for the Lucky Dog. Keselowski just managed to do so by Lap 56, when Kyle Larson spun in Turn 4 while battling among the Top Five. Larson, who led 30 laps up to that point, continued on with what appeared to be no clear damage.

With Keselowski back on the lead lap and Dillon taking the wave-around, Yeley remained the only driver off the lead lap in 36th. McLeod reassumed the 35th spot the next time by, and once again started to lose touch with the pack. By Lap 69, he’d now fallen 3.179 back of Cody Ware, again in the 34th spot, and lost a lap on Lap 80. FOX Sports caught the moment McLeod was lapped as he pulled to the inside of Joey Logano and Kyle Busch. This pass allowed Logano to set up Busch for a pass soon after. Yeley couldn’t catch McLeod by the time Stage 1 ended on Lap 91, and in fact lost a second lap in the process. Thus, McLeod received the Lucky Dog for the second time in the race.

Back under green on Lap 97, and once more, McLeod struggled to maintain pace. On Lap 104, he had slipped to 1.287 seconds back of 34th-place Cassill, and 13.624 back of the leaders. He was still running in last when Kyle Larson’s car, still among the leaders, unexpectedly slowed around Lap 113. Larson came to pit road, saying he thought he had an exhaust leak, but now believed his engine was blowing up. The crew looked under the hood, and by Lap 115, Larson had taken last from Yeley. On Lap 120, Larson went behind the wall, crew chief Cliff Daniels still trying to diagnose the issue, but the car wouldn’t refire. On Lap 130, Daniels said, “We’re done, Kyle,” and on Lap 142 NASCAR confirmed him out of the race. Reports indicated that, much like Akinori Ogata’s eventful Truck race on Friday, the spin may have caused damage to the engine, which manifested later in the event.

From there, the race intensified, and several other big names found themselves in the Bottom Five. Taking 35th was Corey LaJoie, whose Marty Robbins themed #7(77) Stacking Pennies Chevrolet clobbered the wall off Turn 2, the car hopping off the ground in the process. Keselowski’s day took a turn for the worse when his #6 also found the Turn 2 wall, this time collecting a closing Kyle Busch in the #18 M&M’s Toyota, designed after Ernie Irvan’s MB2 Motorsports scheme from 1998. Busch’s left-front suspension was destroyed by what seemed like a minor impact, and he climbed from the car when it wouldn’t complete the turn into the garage. B.J. McLeod rounded out the Bottom Five when something failed under the hood, resulting in a frightening fire beneath the right-front of the car. Though appearing to be an engine issue, McLeod was listed out by brake problems.

Taking a strong 3rd-place finish was the #31 Leafe Filter Gutter Protection Chevrolet of Justin Haley, his first Top Five since his upset win at Daytona for Spire Motorsports in 2019, and his first Top Ten of the season. The penalized Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott also recovered nicely to take 4th and 5th, respectively. Among the underdog contingent, Ty Dillon ran 12th in his Lee Petty 1959-themed #42 Chevrolet, his third-best finish of the year for Petty-GMS. Cody Ware also clawed his way from the back off the pack to 19th, tied for his second-best Cup finish in his 67-race career, trailing only his 17th-place showing in this year’s Daytona 500.

Geoffrey Bodine's first-lap exit at Darlington, 1986.
SCREENSHOT: ESPN, video on YouTube courtesy SMIFF TV

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #5 in a Cup race at Darlington since April 13, 1986, when polesitter Geoffrey Bodine’s #5 Levi Garrett Chevrolet broke the camshaft on the initial start of the TranSouth 500, holding up the inside line and triggering a wreck in the back between Davey Allison and Ron Bouchard. 
*Only ten Cup points races at Darlington have seen the last-place finisher complete more laps. The record remains with Greg Biffle, who on May 10, 2008 completed 234 of 367 laps. Larson’s mark is also just under the 400-mile (293 lap) record, which was set by Wally Dallenbach, Jr. on March 27, 1994, completing 131 laps in the #43 STP Pontiac before engine issues.

36) #5-Kyle Larson / 112 laps / engine
35) #7-Corey LaJoie / 152 laps / crash
34) #6-Brad Keselowski / 166 laps / crash
33) #18-Kyle Busch / 167 laps / crash
32) #78-B.J. McLeod / 184 laps / brakes

1st) Live Fast Motorsports, Spire Motorsports, Trackhouse Racing (2)
2nd) Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, NY Racing Team, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (8)
2nd) Ford (3)
3rd) Toyota (1)


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