Saturday, May 14, 2022

TRUCKS: Sluggish pace and poor handling leave Jesse Iwuji last for the first time


Jesse Iwuji picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career in Saturday’s Heart of America 200 at the Kansas Speedway when his #43 Equity Prime Mortgage Chevrolet failed to meet minimum speed after 24 of 134 laps.

The finish came in Iwuji’s 10th series start. In the Truck Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 4th for the #43, the 4th from a truck running too slow, and the 421st for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 8th from running too slow, the 50th for the #43, and the 1,839th for Chevrolet.

As one of the increasing numbers of black drivers to compete in NASCAR, Iwuji has further distinguished himself as the only active member of the U.S. military to compete in NASCAR’s national series. A former college football player at the United States Naval Academy, Iwuji has since risen to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. A chance trip to the Charlotte Motor Speedway got him interested in racing – first in drag racing and road racing before transitioning to stock cars. Iwuji began in what was then the K&N Pro Series West in 2015, but didn’t complete a lap until his third career start at Irwindale, where he took 20th. His first Top Ten came thee rounds later in a 17-car field at the Orange Show Speedway. In the years since, results have been hard to come by as he’s too often struggled for pace.

By 2017, Iwuji transitioned to the Navy Reserve, and branched out to east coast NASCAR venues in Loudon, Bristol, and New Smyrna. A six-race stint in ARCA came the following year, where he earned a career-best 15th on the lead lap at Talladega, the only race where he finished under power. A Truck Series debut followed that summer in Mosport, where he finished 25th for Josh Reaume’s underfunded team. Sometimes, his dual responsibilities have created conflict, as when he had to drive to pull an all-nighter to drive from a race in Las Vegas back to base. There’s also been conflict on the track, including several incidents in qualifying, and a race at Charlotte in 2020, where he lost laps early and accidentally wrecked a pair of lead-lap trucks.

While continuing to drive for Reaume a few times a year in the years since, he’s also made a few XFINITY races for other owner-drivers including Carl Long, B.J. McLeod, and Mike Harmon. This led him to his latest venture – Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, where he and NFL legend Emmitt Smith have fielded the #34 Chevrolet this year. Now both an entrepreneur and diversity advocate, Iwuji selected the #34 purposefully to honor Hall of Fame driver Wendell Scott. Yet Iwuji has still struggled in this series with no finishes better than 23rd. The JIM team has also fought through DNQs and poor showings, buoyed lately by the hiring of Kyle Weatherman as driver. Just last week in Darlington, Weatherman took home a strong 12th-place finish.

Kansas would mark a reunion of sorts for Iwuji and Josh Reaume, who would be teammates in Saturday’s race. This would be Iwuji’s first Truck start of the year, his first in the division since a 30th-place showing at Martinsville last fall. Equity Prime Mortgage, one of JIM’s sponsors in the XFINITY Series, would back Iwuji’s Chevrolet in the race. He ran second-slowest in opening practice, 4.173 seconds off the fastest lap by Zane Smith, and turned the slowest completed lap in qualifying, taking 34th with a lap of 153.868mph (35.095 seconds), nearly five seconds off the pole. After a rough outing for both Reaume teams last week, Iwuji faced another steep challenge.

Starting 35th and last in the year’s first short field was Tate Fogleman, whose black #30 Rangeline Group Toyota was the only truck to not take a time in qualifying. Mechanical issues limited him to just four laps in practice, where he ran the slowest of the entrants, and also handed him a redundant tail-end penalty for the resulting unapproved adjustments. Matt DiBenedetto would also incur the same penalty for adjustments on his 12th-place Rackley Roofing Chevrolet. Also sent to the rear was Stewart Friesen, who after multiple flight delays could not arrive in time for practice and qualifying. Fellow Toyota driver Bubba Wallace came over from the Cup garage to take the wheel of the #52 Halmar International Toyota, ranking 19th in practice and a strong 5th in qualifying. Friesen arrived for the race, and would fall to the rear for the driver change. By the time the field reorganized for the start, Friesen and Fogleman were the last two cars on the inside with DiBenedetto and Iwuji the last on the outside.

Iwuji pulls behind the wall after he is parked.
PHOTO: @DnfRacers

When the green flag dropped, Fogleman was last across the stripe, 3.423 seconds back of the leader and just behind Iwuji, 3.277 back. By Lap 3, Iwuji had fallen to the 35th spot, and was already 1.722 seconds back of Trey Hutchens, back in action for the first time since last summer in Nashville, his #14 Quality Roof Seamers Chevrolet 1.722 seconds ahead. Just two laps later, the gap between the two trucks opened to 4.497 seconds, Iwuji’s entry 15.14 back of the lead. The spotter told him to run the bottom, remarking “they’ll wreck us if we go the middle or top.” But the deficit continued to grow as Iwuji fought to pick up his speed. Regardless, by Lap 8, Iwuji was 25.876 back of the leader and 8.280 behind new 34th-place runner Spencer Boyd in the #12 Freedom Warranty Chevrolet. NASCAR warned Iwuji to pick up his speed as on Lap 10, the #43 became the first truck to lose a lap.

On the 12th circuit, NASCAR informed Iwuji he had to pit for one opportunity to repair his truck and meet minimum speed. “You’ve gotta pit this time,” said the crew. “Pit this time.” Reporting a free condition that kept him three seconds off the leader’s speed, Iwuji only made a brief stop before returning to the track, now three laps down to the leader. But he was still way off the pace, and on Lap 18 was warned by his crew not to drift up into faster traffic. The driver also remarked he couldn’t get his truck to work in traffic, and made a second quick stop on Lap 21 that put him five laps down. “If he doesn’t pick it up, we’re through,” the crew relayed to Iwuji’s spotter on Lap 25. At that point, his best lap of the race was a mere 34.351 seconds to race leader Corey Heim’s 31.482. Iwuji reached the end of Stage 1 six laps down, then pulled behind the wall under yellow, parked for failing to meet minimum speed. The message was relayed to team owner Josh Reaume sometime later.

Finishing 34th was Matt Mills, whose #20 J.F. Electric Chevrolet pulled into the garage twice before falling out with a snapped axle. Corey Heim’s strong run in Stage 1 was undone by mechanical gremlins and contact with the outside wall, leaving his #51 JBL Toyota ten laps down. Blaine Perkins’ #9 Raceline Chevrolet was spun by Tate Fogleman entering Turn 3, but didn’t draw a caution, and lost laps with the resulting green-flag stop. Rounding out the Bottom Five was Spencer Boyd, who briefly ran 34th before climbing to 31st.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #43 in a Truck Series race at Kansas.
*Iwuji is the first Truck Series driver to finish last for being “too slow” since March 20, 2021, when Norm Benning picked up his 17th career last-place finish in Atlanta (LINK).

35) #43-Jesse Iwuji / 24 laps / too slow
34) #20-Matt Mills / 91 laps / axle
33) #51-Corey Heim / 124 laps / running / led 18 laps / won stage 1
32) #9-Blaine Perkins / 126 laps / running
31) #12-Spencer Boyd / 127 laps / running

1st) Reaume Brothers Racing, Niece Motorsports (2)
2nd) AM Racing, David Gilliland Racing Ford, Front Row Motorsports, Young’s Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (5)
2nd) Ford (2)
3rd) Toyota (1)


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