Saturday, May 21, 2022

XFINITY: Ryan Vargas shows speed early before engine lets go in Texas

PHOTO: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles

Ryan Vargas picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s SRS Distribution 250 at the Texas Motor Speedway when his #6 Twin Liquors Chevrolet lost the engine after 21 of 167 laps.

The finish, which came in Vargas’ 53rd series start, was his first of the season and first since April 9, 2021 at Martinsville, 38 races ago. In the XFINITY Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 18th for the #6, the 273rd from engine issues, and the 594th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 69th for the #6, the 1,120th from engine woes, and the 1,841st for Chevrolet.

Last year marked Vargas’ first bid at running nearly a full season, ultimately starting 29 of 33 races with a best finish of 14th in the summer race at Atlanta. Using his social media presence to welcome new sponsors like Monarch Roofing and Swann Security, Vargas also led the first three laps of his XFINITY career during the spring race at Talladega. This also proved to be a transitional year for team owner Johnny Davis, whose four-car lineup was reduced to just two. Vargas has returned this year in the #6, joined by former Mike Harmon Racing driver Bayley Currey, who started running for Davis midway through last season.

Through this season’s first 11 races, both Vargas and Currey have fought to finish inside the Top 20. Vargas’ best run of the year again came at Atlanta, this time taking 12th on the reconfigured speedway. Currey’s best remains a pair of 17th-place showings in consecutive races at Martinsville and Talladega. Vargas has also run a few special paint schemes, including a “throwback” to Jeff Gordon’s Pepsi car at Darlington, and a continued effort with Craniosysnostosis outfit Cranio Care Bears to honor the life of Brentley Ehmann.

For Texas, Vargas would welcome returning sponsorship from Twin Liquors Fine Wine & Spirits along with the company’s sister company Siegel’s, which previously backed him at COTA in March. The result was a different look from a traditional JD Motorsports entry, this time running a black car with a red roof and white rims. The scheme would be run on Chassis 059, which had to be rebuilt following a three-car tangle with Jesse Iwuji and Stefan Parsons at Las Vegas. It was at this same Texas track on October 24, 2020 that Vargas – running another distinctive paint scheme for TikTok – flew to an 8th-place finish in the closing laps, which remains his career-best performance. 

This year, Vargas’ weekend began with a spin 13 minutes into the lone practice session, though he managed to keep his car out of the wall. The resulting tire change would incur him a tail-end penalty for Saturday’s race after he qualified 31st with a lap of 175.558mph (30.759 seconds). 

Vargas was far from the only driver to find trouble on Friday. Before his incident, Landon Cassill bounced off the Turn 3 wall with his #10 Voyager: Crypto for All Chevrolet, sending him to a backup car and preventing him from turning a qualifying lap. A.J. Allmendinger couldn’t turn a lap in practice when NASCAR suspected a height issue with his #16 Action Industries Chevrolet, requiring another trip though the inspection queue. In the time trials themselves, Anthony Alfredo bounced his #23 First Phase Chevrolet off the Turn 4 fence and cancelled his lap. Kyle Weatherman secured the 17th starting spot when he was swapped into the #34 Equity Prime Mortgage Chevrolet due to a military obligation. Iwuji would still start Saturday’s race at team co-owner Emmitt Smith’s home track. The lone DNQ was Brennan Poole, whose #47 Mike Harmon Racing Chevrolet carried new backing from apparel company American Scroll.

On race day, Allmendinger didn’t incur a tail-end penalty after securing 13th in qualifying with no practice. But last-place qualifier Cassill was docked for his backup car along with 37th-place Alfredo’s repaired #23 and 17th-place Iwuji’s driver change. This is not counting another five drivers sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments: 7th-place Ty Gibbs for a tire change on the #54 Monster Energy Toyota, 18th-place Stefan Parsons in the #45 Market Rebellion / Sokal Chevrolet, 22nd-place Bayley Currey in the #4 Chasco Constructors Chevrolet, 23rd-place Brandon Brown in the #68 BrandonBilt Foundations Chevrolet, and 29th-place David Starr in the #08 Ticket Smarter Ford.

By the end of Lap 1, Iwuji had taken last from 37th-place Cassill, and the gap was already 1.961 seconds between the two. The gap continued to grow in the early laps as Iwuji turned his first laps of the weekend, growing to 2.791 seconds on Lap 4, 3.549 on Lap 7, and 4.152 on Lap 11. By Lap 13, Iwuji began to find his footing, and for the next two laps closed the deficit on new 37th-place runner Timmy Hill in the #13 TX Remodeling / Toyota. Hill was struggling with a vibration, and had himself started to lose ground with new 36th-place runner Matt Mills in the #5 J.F. Electric Chevrolet. Hill’s deficit to 36th place grew to 4.157 seconds on Lap 15, then 5.4 on Lap 18. In between, Iwuji became the first driver lapped on the 16th circuit followed by Hill, who was caught in Turns 1 and 2.

On Lap 22, just moments after Emmitt Smith was interviewed about Iwuji by the FS1 crew, Ryan Vargas had clawed his way to 31st on the track. Earlier in the run, he’d fought Ty Gibbs’ high powered Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota off Turn 4, running the high line as he defended the position. He’d climbed to 23rd in just five laps, the biggest mover in the early stages. But this time off the fourth corner, the engine suddenly and violently let go, resulting in a massive plume of white smoke from the pipes and underneath the car. Vargas coasted to a stop on the apron of Turn 1 as the first caution came out. The broadcast estimated that the engine may have let go because of his spin in practice. NASCAR officially declared Vargas out on Lap 48.

Taking 37th was Mills, whose #5 was collected in a multi-car pileup off Turn 2 seconds after the Lap 88 restart. Noah Gragson was likewise involved in his #9 Bass Pro Shops / TrueTimber / BRCC Chevrolet, but continued on, only to wreck a second time four laps later, shoving in the rear clip of his car. Ryan Sieg’s day went a similar trajectory, suffering early damage to the right-rear of his #39 / A-Game Ford before he was involved in two more accidents in consecutive cautions, ultimately ending his day. Iwuji also didn’t escape the Bottom Five when he became the last car involved in the day’s biggest accident off Turn 4, sliding into a pair of stopped cars in the infield grass.

Among those involved in the same wreck as Iwuji was J.J. Yeley. Yeley came into Saturday’s race with one of his best cars. According to Bob Pockrass, his #66 Workpro Ford was a former Penske Racing car the team sold to Motorsports Business Management after CarlLong helped Penske with backup parts during the West Coast Swing. The car showed tremendous speed, ranking 4th-fastest in opening practice behind Ryan Truex, Justin Allgaier, and Tyler Reddick, then qualified in 14th. After 10 cautions, most of them for multiple wrecks, Yeley was battling between 11th and 13th in the final stage. But with just 30 laps to go, Alex Labbe broke loose by himself off Turn 4. Yeley cut low, only for Labbe to clip him in the right-rear, sending him head-on into the outside wall and triggering a massive pileup. Yeley climbed out uninjured, but was left a disappointing 31st with his car in shambles.

Taking the checkered flag for the first time was Scott Borchetta’s second-year team Big Machine Racing, which over the last four races has re-evaluated their program by benching Jade Buford in favor of Kaz Grala, then Richard Childress Racing teammates Tyler Reddick and soon, Austin Dillon. In his second start for Big Machine, Reddick in the #48 Big Machine Racing / JAG Metals Chevrolet started outside-pole, led 31 laps, and took the checkered flag over the JR Motorsports entry of William Byron. For now, Buford’s future remains up in the air beyond  planned start in the upcoming road race in Portland. Reddick and Dillon will share the car in the remaining races leading into the Playoffs, with the driver from the Playoffs moving forward to be determined at a later date.

Damon Lusk wrecks after the first lap of the Busch Series race at Texas.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #6 in a XFINITY race at Texas since March 29, 2003, when Damon Lusk’s #6 Sta-Rite Pumps Dodge, entered by Tommy Baldwin Racing, crashed in Turn 2 after completing just the opening lap of the O’Reilly 300. The other occurrence was on April 4, 1998, when Joe Bessey’s #6 Power Team Chevrolet tangle with Doug Reid III in Turn 3 after 2 laps of the Coca Cola 300.

38) #6-Ryan Vargas / 21 laps / engine
37) #5-Matt Mills / 87 laps / crash
36) #9-Noah Gragson / 95 laps / crash / led 32 laps / won stage 1
35) #39-Ryan Sieg / 129 laps / crash
34) #34-Jesse Iwuji / 137 laps / crash

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

1st) Chevrolet (9)
2nd) Ford (2)
3rd) Toyota (1)


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