by Brock Beard
Sage Karam picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Alsco Uniforms 150 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway when his #44 Peachwood Floor Coverings Chevrolet fell out with engine issues after 23 of 163 laps.
The finish came in Karam’s 8th series start. In the XFINITY Series rankings, it as the 28th for the #44, the 274th from engine issues, and the 597th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 68th for the #44, the 1,124th from engine problems, and the 1,847th for Chevrolet.
Karam entered Saturday’s race after he was involved in a controversial accident last week in Road America. In his second part-time XFINITY season after a four-race stint for Jordan Anderson Racing last year, Karam arrived on the road course along with Josh Bilicki driving for the reincorporated Alpha Prime Racing. Karam had picked up a 16th-place finish in his most recent start with Alpha Prime at COTA, and on Lap 25 at Road America found himself battling Noah Gragson for the 8th position. Both drivers banged fenders through the first few corners, then appeared to pull straight again toward the Sargento Bridge. But at that moment, Gragson turned into Karam’s left-rear, hooking both cars into a spin. The result was a massive pileup that collected 11 more cars. One impact knocked the wind out of Brandon Brown, whose Chevrolet struck a stopped car before hitting a concrete barrier. Both Karam and team co-owner Tommy Joe Martins were less than pleased with Gragson. NASCAR subsequently penalized Gragson 30 driver and owner points, plus a $35,000 fine.
The accident at Road America could fairly be considered a battle between two equally aggressive drivers. Karam’s aggression has most often been seen in his IndyCar Series career, where he’s made 25 starts, most often on the superspeedways. Despite his speed, he’s not quite been able to claim his first victory. His 2015 campaign for Chip Ganassi Racing ended under tragic circumstances. While leading at Pocono with just 20 laps to go, his Chevrolet spun in Turn 1 and slammed the outside wall. It was debris from his car which struck the helmet of Justin Wilson, inflicting his fatal injury. Karam has continued to show speed in all seven Indianapolis 500 races he’s run since – most often for Dreyer & Reinbold – but has only once finished in the Top Ten in the Memorial Day classic, taking 7th last year.
Karam ran Saturday’s race after making his season debut at the newly reconfigured Atlanta track back in March. There, he showed speed early and finished 5th in Stage 2 behind Tommy Joe Martins, but once again didn’t have a strong finish to show for it. He was involved in a wreck in the final laps, leaving him a disappointing 32nd. This time, Karam would run the team’s flagship #44 entry alongside Caesar Bacarella with the #45 team with which Karam drove in Road America. Rain washed out practice and qualifying, putting Karam in the 25th spot ahead of Bacarella in 34th.
Only 38 teams arrived to contest the 38-car field, which allowed Mike Harmon Racing to make its first start since Ryan Vargas’ one-off in Portland. Rejoining the team was Brennan Poole in MHR’s #47 Chevrolet. Prior to the start, two teams had radio issues – both 5th-place Austin Hill in the #21 Bennett Transportation and Logistics Chevrolet, requiring a helmet change, and 23rd-place Brett Moffitt in the #02 RED / Half Off Wholesale Chevrolet. Neither dropped to the rear of the field before the start, though two did voluntarily. When the green flag dropped, Poole was to the outside of Jesse Iwuji, set to start 27th in his #34 Equity Prime Mortgage Chevrolet, and Josh Williams, the 20th-place starter in the #78 COOLRAY Chevrolet. Not far ahead was Matt Mills, Williams’ teammate at B.J. McLeod Motorsports, who dropped from 33rd to 35th in his #5 J.F. Electric Chevrolet.
Williams retained the 38th spot through the first lap, when he was 4.916 seconds back of the lead and just 0.267 back of Iwuji. But the next time by, while running the bottom lane through Turns 3 and 4, Iwuji chose the high line and broke loose, clipping the wall with the right-rear of his car before he spun down the track. Under the ensuing caution, Iwuji lost a lap and promptly took over last place as he made it to pit road. Iwuji’s crew got him rolling again on Lap 5, by which point he was two laps down, and he ultimately cleared the “Crash Clock” on the ensuing restart.
Soon after, Karam entered last-place contention. During the caution for Sheldon Creed’s spin off Turn 2, Karam made a pit stop for a fuel pressure issue, saying his car was shutting off. The crew looked udder the hood and sent him back on the track in 37th place. But Karam didn’t catch up to the tail end of the field before the restart, and on Lap 19, he was already 10.136 seconds back of the lead and 2.485 back of 36th-place Natalie Decker in the #13 Nerd Focus Ford for Motorsports Business Management. Karam’s deficit to Decker increased to 5.637 seconds the next time by, 7.484 on Lap 20, 8.975 on Lap 21, then 10.241 on Lap 22. By then, Decker had caught and passed David Starr in the #08 Special Report with Brett Baier Ford.
On Lap 24, coming off Turns 3 and 4, Karam dropped to the apron for an unscheduled green-flag stop. Again, the crew looked under the hood for an issue with the car shutting off. This time, they went behind the wall after Iwuji dropped the #44 to last on Lap 26. Some time later, around midway through the race, Alpha Prime’s twitter confirmed Karam was done for the day.
Matt Mills finished 37th with engine issues of his own on the #5, followed seven laps later by a faulty fuel pump on J.J. Yeley’s #66 Wild Willes Toyota. Both were among the lapped traffic the leaders caught during the closing laps of Stage 1, leading to a few close calls. Taking 35th was Ty Gibbs, whose tangle with Riley Herbst while running near the front on a restart put his #54 Monster Energy Toyota into the wall and out of the race. Rounding out the group was Sam Mayer, who during a charge into Turn 3 lost control of his #1 Accelerate Pros Talent Chevrolet and was spun into the fence by Jeffrey Earnhardt.
Further up the running order, Kyle Sieg tied his career-best 16th-place finish from earlier this year in Las Vegas, his #38 Cedar Ridge Landscaping Ford taking the checkers just one spot behind teammate and hometown hero Ryan Sieg.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #44 in a XFINITY race at Atlanta.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
38) #44-Sage Karam / 23 laps / engine
37) #5-Matt Mills / 64 laps / engine
36) #66-J.J. Yeley / 71 laps / fuel pump
35) #54-Ty Gibbs / 93 laps / crash
34) #1-Sam Mayer / 106 laps / crash
2022 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Alpha Prime Racing (3)
2nd) JD Motorsports, Mike Harmon Racing, Motorsports Business Management (2)
3rd) Big Machine Racing, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, JR Motorsports, Kaulig Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Sam Hunt Racing, SS-Green Light Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)
2022 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (12)
2nd) Toyota (3)
3rd) Ford (2)
2022 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP