Sunday, July 31, 2022

CUP: Aric Almirola’s first DNF in more than a year sees him crash out at Indy

PHOTO: @ForRaceFansOnly

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Aric Almirola scored the 15th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at the Indianapolis Grand Prix Circuit after his #10 Mobil 1 / Gearwrench Ford fell out with crash damage after 24 of 86 laps.

The finish, which came in Almirola’s 410th series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup race since May 16, 2021 at Dover, 45 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 38th for the #10, the 633rd from a crash, and the 723rd for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 132nd for the #10, the 996th for Ford, and the 1,297th from a crash.

This past January, Almirola announced the 2022 season would be his last as a full-time driver in NASCAR’s Cup Series. After his debut during the ill-fated final weeks of Ginn Racing in 2007, he achieved full-time status with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2012, and has started nearly every race since. The only starts he missed were in 2017, resulting from his injuries suffered in a crash at Kansas. The following year – his first with Stewart-Haas Racing – yielded his career-best 5th in the standings and his second of three career wins. His most recent checkered flag came last fall at Loudon, where he took the checkered flag just before sunset.

This year, Almirola began the season with a 5th-place finish in the Daytona 500, then a strong “West Coast Swing” where he ran 6th in Fontana and Las Vegas, then a 12th in Phoenix. Ever since, he’s struggled for inconsistency with the NextGen car, claiming just two Top Tens in the last 13 races. But at the same time, he’d finished each race under power, running without a single DNF since his most recent last-place finish in Dover. 

At Indy, after running 15th in practice, Almirola qualified 14th with a lap of 98.410mph (1 minute, 29.233 seconds). However, the team had to change engines, incurring him a tail-end penalty along with the unapproved adjustments performed on 33rd-place qualifier Cody Ware in the #51 Nurtec ODT Ford. Both would take last spot from 38th-place qualifier Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., whose #47 Kroger / Go-Gurt Chevrolet was noticeably off the pace, nearly 9 seconds slower than 37th-place Josh Williams in the #78 Alloy Employer Services Ford.

When the race started, the penalized Almirola was last across the stripe, 3.835 seconds back of the lead with Ware already up to 33rd. But heading into Turn 1, Justin Haley spun his #31 Leaf Filter Gutter Protection Chevrolet from around the 17th spot, and suffered critical damage to one side of his splitter. On his way back around to pit road, Haley remained last as 21st-place starter Ross Chastain spun the #1 Worldwide Express Chevrolet. Haley pitted, crossing the stripe 86.32 seconds back of the lead and 73.944 behind new 37th-place runner Josh Williams. He rejoined the pack on Lap 3, only to be immediately mired in ill-handling lead-lap traffic. With the splitter still dragging, the lapped Haley was urged by his team to stay out of trouble so they could make repairs under the next caution. “We don’t need to get caught up racing these idiots,” he was told on Lap 6.

On Lap 8, Ross Chastain spun for a second time, locking his brakes in Turn 1 and collecting Joey Hand in the #15 Built Ford Proud Ford. Both cleared minimum speed the next time by as both made it to pit road, where Chastain endured a sluggish pit stop as the crew had issues with the left-front wheel. Chastain returned to the track in 37th, one lap down on the same circuit as Haley. 

The Haley car was still last on the 12th go-round, when his spotter said, “Oh, wow – 17.” This referred to Chris Buescher, whose #17 Violet Defense Ford suddenly caught fire as he sat on pit road. The crew removed the passenger-side window, where a ball of flame appeared on the passenger side of the dashboard. There were conflicting reports about whether the fire had come from the foam in the passenger side door. Despite the severity of the flames, the extinguisher deployed soon after, and both driver and crew remained calm on the radio. Through it all, Buescher remained behind the wheel. “I can’t see,” said the driver. “Breathe all right?” the crew asked. “We’ve gotta get it cleaned up, obviously.” The crew used a leaf blower to try and blast the white extinguisher powder out of the cockpit, then sent him back out by Lap 15, two laps down as the new last place runner. But much more of the material had collected on the right side of the floorboard, and as Buescher attempted race pace, the dust was now swirling like a swarm of bees within the turbulent air of the cockpit. Some of it trailed out the driver’s window. “Bring it to us if you have to,” said the crew. Seconds later, the caution came out to end Stage 1, at which point Buescher noted his visibility had somewhat improved. Even at low speeds, however, he still couldn’t see to his right.

Under the caution on Lap 16, Buescher called for a vacuum to clean up the extinguisher dust on the floorboard. But the crew couldn’t find a vacuum, and when he pitted again, they made more use of the blower and a high-pressure air hose. By Lap 18, the crew was also cleaning the windows and blasting the dust off the window net. Buescher reported he could see much better. The team waited until the pace car exited Turn 14 to release the #17 back onto the track, their car still in last place, but still under power. 

On the ensuing green-flag run, Alex Bowman cut down a left-front tire on his #48 Ally Chevrolet and had to tip-toe around nearly half the track’s length, eventually returning to pit road with the tire pulled from its rim and the nose of his car damaged. He returned to the track on Lap 23 in 35th and cleared minimum speed. As he did, his teammate Kyle Larson in the #5 Chevrolet collided with Aric Almirola’s Ford in Turn 1. Almirola made it to pit road with a flat left-front tire and a clear toe link issue on the same wheel. Larson’s crew had the hood up on their car. Both fought to clear the “Crash Clock,” but neither were the first to enter the garage area.

That driver was Loris Hezemans, back on the Cup Series tour for the first time since his last-place finish at Road America. On Lap 24, Hezemans’ #27 Sherfick Companies Ford pulled into the garage citing a loss of fuel pressure and a transmission stuck in fifth gear. By Lap 26, Hezemans dropped to 37th and on the same lap as Buescher, who was still logging laps. It was then that Almirola backed up on pit road, and was pushed behind the wall, ending his day under the “Damaged Vehicle Policy.” The next time by, Almirola dropped to 36th behind Buescher, while Hezemans’ crew ruled out the transaxle as a problem. Larson returned to the track on Lap 28, three down to the leaders, and dropped Almirola to 37th the next time by.

On Lap 29, trouble found Hezemans’ new teammate, Formula One driver Daniil Kvyat, who became the first driver from Russia to start a NASCAR Cup Series race. Kvyat’s #26 Hezeberg Systems Toyota with a Dutch-built APP Racing engine under the hood suddenly lost power. The crew walked their driver through restarting the car, telling him to make sure he didn’t climb out. He soon came to a stop on an unused part of the Indianapolis oval, where NASCAR told him to stay until he could be pushed to the garage at the end of Stage 2. Kvyat put the car in neutral, and on Lap 36 was pushed back to his stall, where a crewman climbed through the passenger side window. By then, he was nine laps down in 36th ahead of Almirola and Hezemans.

On Lap 41, after completing radio checks, Hezemans re-fired his engine and was instructed to follow officials’ directions back onto the track. He returned on Lap 42, 18 laps down to the leader in last place. That same time by, NASCAR officials declared Almirola was out of the race due to crash damage while Kvyat’s car was pushed to the garage. “Be respectful to the guys still racing to stay out of their way,” said Hezemans’ team. On Lap 43, as Kvyat’s crew brought a fan to keep their driver cool in the garage, Hezemans dropped Almirola to last place. Before Hezemans could catch him, Kvyat rejoined his teammate on the track on Lap 45, 16 laps down in 36th. Unfortunately, both Hezemans and Kvyat only turned a few more laps before they fell out with a drivetrain and suspension issue, respectively.

The Bottom Five was completed by the hardest wreck of the day. After his tangle with Almirola, Kyle Larson suffered what appeared to be a catastrophic brake failure entering the same Turn 1, where on Lap 58 he collided with Ty Dillon’s #42 Ferris Chevrolet. Both drivers climbed from their cars uninjured, but done for the day.

The race remained chaotic through the final lap, ultimately leading to Tyler Reddick’s second career victory and second in a row on a road course. Not far behind were rookies Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland, who each earned career-best finishes with their first Top Fives. Burton’s #21 DEX Imaging Ford overcame a spin to take home 3rd, improving his previous best mark of 10th earlier this month in Atlanta. Gilliland’s #38 Ruedebusch Dev. & Construction Ford challenged for a Top Ten in the final stages, then took home 4th – well ahead of his career-best 15th at Darlington. 

Completing the Top Five were Austin Cindric and Bubba Wallace – 1-2 in Daytona – who each continued late-season rallies. Wallace’s 5th-place showing in the #23 Embrace Home Loans Toyota was his third-straight finish of 8th or better. Cindric drove his #2 Discount Tire Ford to his fifth top-ten finish in the last seven races.

Chris Buescher got back on the lead lap after his cockpit fire and finished a strong 10th.

*This was Almirola’s first last-place finish in a Cup race on a road course.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #10 in a Cup Series race at Indianapolis – both the oval and the infield road course.

38) #10-Aric Almirola / 24 laps / crash
37) #27-Loris Hezemans / 34 laps / drivetrain
36) #26-Daniil Kvyat / 43 laps / suspension
35) #5-Kyle Larson / 57 laps / crash
34) #42-Ty Dillon / 57 laps / crash

1st) Live Fast Motorsports (5)
2nd) Spire Motorsports (3)
3rd) Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Trackhouse Racing (2)
4th) 23XI Racing, Kaulig Racing, NY Racing Team, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Rick Ware Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Hezeberg (1)

1st) Chevrolet (10)
2nd) Ford (9)
3rd) Toyota (3)


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