|PHOTO: Sean Gardner, Getty Images|
by Brock Beard
Kyle Larson picked up the 10th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet lost the engine after 14 of 160 laps.
The finish, which came in Larson’s 285th series start, was his second of the season and first since Darlington, 14 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 23rd for the #5, the 713th from an engine, and the 828th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 37th for the #5, the 1,126th from an engine, and the 1,855th for Chevrolet.
Larson entered the Daytona weekend fresh off a weekend sweep at Watkins Glen. It was his first win since Fontana in February, where he again locked wheels with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott in the final laps. Coming off a 10-win championship season, the gap between Larson’s two wins has been surprising, as was his incident at the Indianapolis Grand Prix Circuit, where what looked like a brake failure leading to his collision with Ty Dillon was instead explained as “a big mistake.” That race saw Larson’s only DNF since the blown engine in Darlington.
Just 37 drivers arrived to contest last weekend’s race – the fewest for a Cup Series points race (excluding the qualifying races) since July 4, 1967. Persistent rain cancelled both practice and qualifying, which secured Larson the pole, per the rulebook. It was originally reported that B.J. McLeod would incur a pass-through penalty for multiple inspection failures, but ultimately no one in the field received a pre-race penalty, including McLeod’s 36th-place #78 NASCAR Rivals Ford.
Rolling off 37th and last was Noah Gragson, who reunited with Beard Motorsports for the first time since Talladega. Further up, 20th-place Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in the #47 NOS Chevrolet had an issue with the radio, requiring a change to the wiring harness. Just before NASCAR directed them to stop in their pit stall, Stenhouse fired the engine and resumed his original starting spot.
Gragson’s #62 Beard Oil / South Point Chevrolet remained last across the stripe at the green flag, 3.364 seconds back of the lead. By the end of Lap 1, the spot fell to McLeod, who was side-by-side with Landon Cassill’s #77 Voyager: Crypto for All Chevrolet just 0.054 apart at the stripe. Gragson resumed the spot on Lap 3, 0.055 back of Cassill, then Kyle Busch pulled to the high lane on the backstretch, dropping his #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota toward the rear. Busch took the spot on Lap 4, 0.166 back of Cassill. Busch re-passed Cassill on Lap 6, but the #77 drew back alongside the next time by, just 0.055 apart. Busch vaulted out of the Bottom Five by Lap 8, with Cassill now alongside new 36th-place runner Daniel Hemric in the #16 Cirkul Chevrolet.
Cassill then gained a couple spots by Lap 9, when Hemric fell to last behind 36th-place David Ragan in the #15 Select Blinds Ford. The circuit after, last place fell to Cody Ware in the #51 Nurtec ODT Ford, who was 0.145 of Cassill, who had slipped back to 36th once again. Ware’s crew was discussing a wedge adjustment, and prepared to check with their driver for more details. But on Lap 15, NASCAR officials reported “Keep an eye on the 5.”
Through the opening laps, Larson seemed to be struggling with his car’s handling, at one point banging wheels with Chris Buescher’s #17 Fifth Third Bank Ford entering Turn 3. By the 15th circuit, Larson had pulled out of line reporting a possible overheating issue. He slowed so suddenly that Austin Cindric’s #2 Menards / Maytag Ford was caught behind him, causing both to lose the draft. Larson then pulled to the apron with a small but noticeable trail of white smoke coming from the exhaust pipes. He came to pit road with a sour-sounding engine, and promptly took over last place on Lap 16. By Lap 18, crew chief Cliff Daniels told the crew to push him behind the wall, and he said “We’re done, guys” on Lap 26.
Much like Saturday’s messy XFINITY race, a series of progressively larger multi-car pileups filled the Bottom Five. Both 36th-place Christoper Bell in the #20 Rheem Toyota and 35th-place Brad Keselowski in the #6 Castrol Ford tried to clear the “Crash Clock” after they were among those involved in a stack-up near the front off Turn 2. First Bell, then Keselowski were eliminated under the “Damaged Vehicle Policy.” Both 34th-place William Byron in the #24 Axalta Chevrolet and 33rd-place Ross Chastain in the #1 Jockey Chevrolet were collected in a Lap 102 wreck entering Turn 3, leaving Chastain’s car stopped on the apron with clear suspension issues.
Underdogs dominate Daytona's Top Ten
When the dust settled, just ten drivers finished on the lead lap, including several underdogs who were among the few to keep their cars intact. Leading the brigade was the Spire Motorsports #77 of Landon Cassill, who tied his career-best 4th at Talladega on October 19, 2014, when he drove for Hillman Racing. Noah Gragson picked up a career-best 5th, scoring his first top-ten finish in only his 11th series start with the first Top Five in Beard Motorsports’ 20 Cup starts. Cody Ware was up to 3rd entering Turn 3 on the final lap before he slipped to 7th, still yielding his first Top 10 in his 81st career Cup race. One spot behind came current LASTCAR Cup Series leader B.J. McLeod, who earned his own career-best 7th at the site of both he and Live Fast Motorsports’ first Top Ten last summer. Rounding out the group was 2011 winner David Ragan, Cody Ware’s teammate in the #15 Select Blinds / Jacob Companies Ford, who followed his 8th in this year’s Daytona 500 with a 9th on Sunday.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #5 in a Cup points-paying race at Daytona. In fact, the number has only finished last in one Duel race – February 12, 1998, when Daytona 500 outside-polesitter Terry Labonte’s Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Chevrolet quit after 5 laps of Race 2.
*Although qualifying was cancelled, Larson is still the first driver to start in 1st place and finish last in a Cup race at Daytona since July 4, 1983, when Cale Yarborough’s #28 Hardee’s Chevrolet lost the engine after 5 laps.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
37) #5-Kyle Larson / 14 laps / engine
36) #20-Christopher Bell / 30 laps / crash
35) #6-Brad Keselowski / 31 laps / dvp
34) #24-William Byron / 101 laps / crash
33) #1-Ross Chastain / 101 laps / crash
2022 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Live Fast Motorsports (6)
2nd) Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Spire Motorsports (3)
3rd) Penske Racing, Trackhouse Racing (2)
4th) 23XI Racing, Kaulig Racing, NY Racing Team, Richard Childress Racing, Rick Ware Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Hezeberg (1)
2022 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet, Ford (11)
2nd) Toyota (4)
2022 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP