|PHOTO: William Soquet|
by William Soquet
LASTCAR.info Staff Writer
and Brock Beard
Will Rodgers picked up the 1st last-pace finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Henry 180 at Road America when his #13 Kelly Benefits Toyota fell out with suspension issues after 9 of 48 laps.
The finish came in Rodgers’ ninth series start. In the XFINITY Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 11th for the #13, the 23rd from suspension issues, and the 155th for Toyota. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 37th for the #13, the 50th from the suspension, and the 377th for Toyota.
It was on another road course on June 24, 2017 that many fans became acquainted with Rodgers. At Sonoma, Rodgers won the pole for the K&N Pro Series West race and finished a close 2nd to Cup regular Kevin Harvick. Harvick, who went on to sweep the weekend, applauded Rodgers for the performance. At the time, Rodgers was competing in his first full West season, where he ranked 5th in the standings for team owner Jeff Jefferson. His last race of the season, an 8th at Kern County, saw him debut new sponsorship from Kelly Benefit Strategies.
In 2018, Rodgers and his Kelly-sponsored Chevrolet returned to Sonoma and won. At the same time, he was making six ARCA Menards Series starts for Ken Schrader achieving a season-best 6th at Michigan. The year after saw his XFINITY Series debut at Iowa, where he ran 28th for Brandonbilt Motorsports, then just two rounds later continued to show his road course expertise at Mid-Ohio, taking home 12th. He showed similar improvement in his first three Truck Series starts last year, bouncing back from early transmission issues at Watkins Glen to finishing 22nd in the Phoenix championship race.
This year, Rodgers remains an infrequent competitor in NASCAR’s national competition, and is also splitting time between multiple teams. After he failed to qualify the Reaume Brothers’ XFINITY car at Fontana, he finished 21st in the team’s truck at COTA, then 37th in the XFINITY race. For Road America, Rodgers would team up with Carl Long’s effort Motorsports Business Management, which moved J.J. Yeley from the #13 back to his more familiar #66. Last week in Nashville, Yeley’s own #13 ran 5th-fastest in opening practice, but his strong run was undone by electrical issues on the first lap of the race. Kelly Benefits, which backed Rodgers’ previous runs with Reaume Brothers Racing and RSS Racing earlier this year, would again be the sponsor of his Toyota.
For Road America, Rodgers teamed up with Carl Long’s team Motorsports Business Management, which moved J.J. Yeley from the #13 back to his more familiar #66. Last week in Nashville, Yeley’s own #13 ran 5th-fastest in opening practice, but his strong run was undone by electrical issues on the first lap of the race. Kelly Benefits, which backed Rodgers’ previous runs with Reaume Brothers Racing and RSS Racing earlier this year, would again be the sponsor of his Toyota.
Rodgers ran 29th of the 41 entrants in opening practice and qualified 28th for the race with a lap of 2 minutes, 18.011 seconds (105.592mph). Meanwhile, Yeley ended up one of the three teams sent home, his #66 Coble Enterprises Toyota sent home along with Dexter Bean in the #92 Badger / IUOE Local 139 Chevrolet for DGM Racing, and the Mike Harmon Racing #47 Chevrolet run this week by Ryan Vargas.
No fewer than 10 drivers were sent to the tail end of the field before the start. Nine were for unapproved adjustments, including A.J. Allmendinger, whose strong #16 Nutrien Ag Solutions Chevrolet had a brake issue in practice that kept him from qualifying, leaving him 38th and last on the grid. Also docked were Bayley Currey, Justin Allgaier, Josh Berry, Landon Cassill, John Hunter Nemechek, Jeb Burton, Myatt Snider, and Patrick Gallagher. The tenth driver sent to the rear was Jesse Iwuji, who took the controls of the #34 Sports and Service Chevrolet after Kyle Weatherman qualified the car 24th on the grid.
|Ty Dillon's car loads up after header issues.|
PHOTO: William Soquet
When the race started, Allmendinger was quick to move through the pack, leaving Iwuji in last place. At the end of Lap 1, Iwuji was on the rear bumper of Patrick Gallagher’s #38 Belle Haven Ford, but the gap widened considerably over the next two circuits. On Lap 4, he was 54.594 seconds back of the lead and nearly 19 seconds behind new 37th-place runner Joe Graf, Jr. in the #5 Bucked Up Energy Ford. By Lap 6, when Landon Cassill spun after he was run off the track in Turn 6, Iwuji was already a minute behind the leader and a full 10 seconds behind Cassill as the #10 Voyager Chevrolet came back up to speed.
Green-flag stops began on Lap 7, after which John Hunter Nemechek briefly took over the 38th spot in his #26 Stillhouse Toyota – though was still within two seconds of the 37th-place Iwuji. But on Lap 9, the first caution fell as Brett Moffitt – running around mid-pack at the time – ran off-course in Turn 5, putting his unsponsored #02 Chevrolet into the tire barriers. Moffitt managed to drive back onto the track under his own power, though he promptly took last from Nemechek after extended repairs.
Rodgers entered the last-place battle the next time by, when his #13, running 24th the previous lap, went behind the wall on Lap 10 following an extended stay on pit road. On Lap 12, with Stage 1 ending under caution from the Moffitt wreck, Rodgers returned to the track nearly two laps down. He then pulled back behind the wall a second time as the race restarted on Lap 13, and two circuits later was not only in last place, but a full five laps behind the leader.
Our William Soquet, covering the race from pit road, caught up with Rodgers after he climbed from his car:
Q: What happened? What was wrong with the car?
A: “We had a little early problem with our brake switch, I think something was shorting out and it was turning the brake fans off. So I wasn’t getting much cooling to the front. So that kinda started to make it a little harder to get down in the corner, made the rear end hop a little bit because the rear brakes were cooler, actually, than the front ones. Kinda created some unbalance there, lost a few positions, and right before that first caution came out, something had to have happened with the track bar, because it broke. As soon as the caution came out, I turned left and right and the rear end just swung out from underneath me, pretty much. I told the boys, ‘something’s broke in the back end’, and sure enough the track bar broke. Brought it in, they brought the welder out and tried to fix it and went back out. Within one corner, it broke again. At that point, we were done. Glad I at least had the chance to run here a little bit, I’ve got a total of maybe fourteen laps in my life now at Road America. It hasn’t treated me well, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to come back if I get the chance to in the future.”
Q: How was it adapting to Road America in a XFINITY car? Some of your XFINITY starts have come at tracks where you had K&N experience, but this one didn’t.
A: “It was very similar to how I did at Mid-Ohio, which was my second ever XFINITY start back in 2019. I had never seen Mid-Ohio before, just showed up, jumped in the XFINITY car, and we wound up finishing 12th that day with okay equipment, and that was okay for me. Luckily, I have a lot of experience with these cars, so when I do get to a track that I’m super green, it’s not like I’m a fish out of water, but there is a little bit of that margin that I have to figure out, the little tricks of the trade for each track. How I can maximize myself, and how I can tune on the car to make it better. It was challenging, but I think we made it work.”
Q: How was your race going before the track bar broke?
A: “Early on before the brakes started failing, I think we were okay. Gained one or two spots, lost a few spots, there were some faster guys that started behind us due to adjustments and stuff. So we let them go, honestly we were just trying to ride. Just trying to set our own pace, get through the first two stages and then see what we had in stage three. I think we would’ve had a top-twenty run if all this wouldn’t have happened, but I think we might be able to prove that again in the future.”
The MBM crew was still working under Rodgers’ car until near the end of Stage 2 on Lap 22, though by then Rodgers was already in plain clothes. The garage had also become busier. On Lap 14, Ty Dillon in a one-off driving for JD Motorsports in the #6 Black Hole Ammunitions Chevrolet pulled behind the wall with mechanical issues. At the time, the crew wasn’t sure of the particular issue, though he’d ultimately fall out of the race with a cracked header. Joe Graf, Jr. rolled into the garage on Lap 19, citing brake problems on his #5 after he’d been held a lap for cutting the course. Moffitt’s day in the #02 took another difficult turn on Lap 25, when he was one of 13 drivers collected in a massive pileup in Turn 4. Brandon Brown, the 34th-place finisher, took perhaps the hardest hit after his #68 Trade The Chain Chevrolet struck Tyler Reddick in the #48. Brown climbed from his car with difficulty and sat against the wall, where Myatt Snider was first on the scene. Brown was ultimately checked and released from the infield care center.
|Brett Moffitt's car after the big Lap 25 wreck.|
On the other side of the big wreck, a few underdogs enjoyed strong finishes. Taking 11th was Preston Pardus in the #91 Danus / Chinchor Electric Chevrolet, his best finish since his career-best 7th last fall on the Charlotte “Roval.” Taking 13th was Josh Bilicki in Alpha Prime Racing’s #44 Gravely Chevrolet. It was Bilicki’s third finish of 17th or better at his home track, and just one spot short of his track-best 12th in 2017 when he drove for B.J. McLeod. Andy Lally’s 14th-place showing in SS-Green Light Racing’s #08 Special Report with Brett Baier Ford, overcoming two spins, was his sixth consecutive top-twenty finish on a road course, and fourth-best in that span. Patrick Gallagher’s 19th-place finish is his new career-best in three series starts. And for Jesse Iwuji, who held last for the opening laps after his driver change, he crossed the stripe in 22nd, a new career-best in his 12th series start.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #13 in a XFINITY Series race at Road America.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
38) #13-Will Rodgers / 9 laps / suspension
37) #6-Ty Dillon / 13 laps / header
36) #5-Joe Graf, Jr. / 17 laps / brakes
35) #02-Brett Moffitt / 24 laps / crash
34) #68-Brandon Brown / 24 laps / crash
2022 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Alpha Prime Racing, JD Motorsports, Mike Harmon Racing, Motorsports Business Management (2)
2nd) 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 (11)
2nd) Toyota (3)
3rd) Ford (2)
2022 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP