Sunday, June 12, 2022

CUP: Bubba Wallace out early at Sonoma with blown engine; Suarez scores first career win ahead of surprising Buescher and McDowell

ALL PHOTOS: Brock Beard

by Brock Beard Editor-In-Chief

Bubba Wallace picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350 at the Sonoma Raceway when his #23 Door Dash Toyota lost the engine after 9 of 110 laps.

The finish, which came in Wallace’s 164th series start, was his first of the season and first since last fall’s Phoenix finale, 16 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 38th for the #23, the 175th for Toyota, and the 711th from engine woes. Across NASCARs top three series, it was the 70th for the #23, the 375th for Toyota, and the 1,122nd from an engine.

Wallace began his second season with 23XI Racing in impressive style, overcoming late-race damage to the side of his Toyota to finish a close 2nd to rookie Austin Cindric. However, even with another 15 laps led at Talladega, the results since have been less impressive with just one other top-ten finish in that span. But that 10th-place run at Kansas is widely credited as perhaps the best race of Wallace’s career, where he overcame multiple mistakes by his pit crew to grind out a solid finish. That day, his new veteran teammate Kurt Busch earned the 23XI team’s second entry, the #45, its first win.

Wallace showed similar resolve in last year’s Sonoma race, where team co-owner Michael Jordan was in attendance. There, he overcame a flat left-rear tire and finished 14th – a vast improvement over his 29th and 26th-place runs at the track driving for Richard Petty Motorsports. 

On a weekend where his sponsor Door Dash was also the title sponsor of the Camping World Truck Series’ return to the track since 1998, Wallace began this year’s Sonoma weekend a solid 14th of 35 drivers, then slipped down the ranks in qualifying to take 27th with a lap of 1 minute, 19.337 seconds (90.298mph).

Taking the 36th and final starting spot was Cody Ware, whose #51 Nurtec ODT Ford was prohibited from turning a lap in both practice and qualifying due to multiple failures in pre-qualifying inspection. As the cars lined up on pit road for time trials, Ware’s car wasn’t brought out, leaving an open space between teammate Joey Hand in the #15 Built Ford Proud Ford and Scott Heckert, taking a turn in Live Fast Motorsports’ #78 Pala Casino Ford. Ware would also have to serve a pass-through after taking the green flag on Sunday.

Ware incurred a redundant tail-end penalty, one of four drivers sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments. The others were 16th-place A.J. Allmendinger for an exhaust issue on his #16 Gold Fish Casino Slots Chevrolet, and steering issues for 31st-place Christopher Bell’s #20 DEWALT Toyota and Erik Jones’ #43 FOCUSfactor Chevrolet, set to start 33rd. As Saturday’s Truck race was about to start, Jones’ crew was working on the #43 in their garage stall, the car hooked up to the team’s laptop.

Bubba interviewed after the incident.

Under overcast skies, the pace laps included a couple added trips to pit road. On the second pace lap, NASCAR called 32nd-place Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. to pit his #47 Kroger / Cottonelle Chevrolet for an issue with the transponder. This delayed the full-field pit road speed test an additional lap. About two pace laps later, Ware came down pit road for a stop unrelated to his pass-through. Coming to the green flag, Ware remained in the 36th spot behind Jones and Heckert. As the field ran through Turn 11 at speed for the first time, Ware pulled onto pit road and served his pass-through penalty. He re-entered the track around 20 seconds behind 35th-place Heckert, who was gradually losing touch with Jones and the rest of the field. By Lap 5, Heckert as losing touch with Josh Bilicki, whose #77 Pacific Coast Termite Chevrolet had by then slipped to 34th. The gap between Heckert and Ware stayed about the same, but favoring the #51 – 21.55 seconds on Lap 6, then 20.86 on Lap 7. On Lap 9, the gap grew again to 21.35 seconds when the caution came out for “possible fluid” entering Turn 4.

The reason was Wallace, who while running 26th on the downhill run into Turn 4 suddenly erupted in a large plume of white smoke from both pipes. Wallace moved to driver’s left and stopped in the run-off area in Turn 4, minimizing the needed clean-up required under the ensuing caution. In an interview with Frontstretch’s Bryan Nolen, Wallace said he had issues shifting the car from third to fourth gear before the engine let go.

After high attrition in both the Truck Series and ARCA West events, the remainder of the Cup race was run without any other major incident. Wallace was the only DNF, and 31 of the remaining 35 drivers came home on the lead lap. The only other lapped drivers completed the Bottom Five. Around Lap 68, Tyler Reddick had an issue on the left-rear of his #8 Lenovo Chevrolet and had to back his car slowly from his pit stall to the entrance of the garage area. He returned to action on Lap 78. In between, Corey LaJoie had an extended stay on pit road for a mechanical issue on his #7 GNARLY Premium Cut Jerky Chevrolet, and completed four more laps than Reddick. Heckert and Ware rounded out the group, each one lap down after trading the spot multiple times.

Suarez scores first victory ahead of surprising contenders

With so few cars out of the race, it was even more surprising that most regular contenders on the California road course had trouble and fell from contention. Kyle Busch never recovered from a spin, and all three of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates pitted in the final ten laps, leaving the four drivers 26th or worse. Defending race winner Kyle Larson lost a right-front wheel in Turn 7, which could result in a dreaded four-race suspension of multiple pit crew members. 

Instead, taking his first career Cup Series victory was Daniel Suarez, whose #99 Onx Homes / Renu Chevrolet led 47 of the 110 laps. The win came in Suarez’ 195th series start following several career challenges where he switched between Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, and Gaunt Brothers Racing before becoming the founding driver at Trackhouse Racing. The 2022 season has since seen Suarez’ new teammate Ross Chastain steal headlines with his own first two wins. Undaunted, Suarez became the first Mexico-born driver to win a Cup Series points race. This puts both Trackhouse entries into immediate Playoff contention.

One of Suarez’ most dogged challengers was a surprising Chris Buescher, who earned his first Cup Series runner-up finish with his best performance since last October. In fact, his last three consecutive top-five finishes have all come on road courses and in consecutive years, following the 2020 Daytona Infield Course, where he was 5th, and the 2021 Charlotte “Roval,” where he took 3rd. In five previous Cup finishes at Sonoma, Buescher had never finished better than 12th, but interestingly had also completed every lap attempted with just one run worse than 19th. Buescher’s teammate and team co-owner Brad Keselowski finished 10th – his first top-ten run since the Daytona 500.

Michael McDowell, last year’s Daytona 500 winner and current Cup Series last-place record holder, has long been regarded as one of the top road racing talents among the current full-time racers in the Cup Series. But in nine previous Sonoma starts with four different teams, he’d just once finished better than 21st – a 14th for Leavine Family Racing in 2017. Now in his fourth year driving for Front Row Motorsports – the same team and car number previously driven by Buescher – McDowell was among the leaders all day and finished in the 3rd spot. It’s only the sixth top-five finish of McDowell’s Cup career, and his first that didn’t occur at Daytona nor Talladega.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #23 in a Cup race at Sonoma.
*The 9 laps that Wallace completed are the fewest by a last-place finisher of the Cup race at Sonoma since June 26, 2016, when Clint Bowyer had an electrical fire in his #15 5-hour Energy Chevrolet after 5 laps.

36) #23-Bubba Wallace / 9 laps / engine
35) #8-Tyler Reddick / 97 laps / running
34) #7-Corey LaJoie / 101 laps / running
33) #78-Scott Heckert / 109 laps / running
32) #51-Cody Ware / 109 laps / running

1st) Live Fast Motorsports, Spire Motorsports (3)
2nd) Trackhouse Racing (2)
3rd) 23XI Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, NY Racing Team, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Rick Ware Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (9)
2nd) Ford (5)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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