Saturday, March 11, 2023

XFINITY: CHK Racing exhausts every option to keep Dawson Cram on track at Phoenix

PHOTO: Jonathan Fjeld, @Jonathan_Fjeld

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Dawson Cram scored the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s United Rentals 200 at the Phoenix Raceway when his #74 Lerner & Rowe Injury Lawyers Chevrolet fell out with fuel pump issues after 99 of 200 laps.

The finish came in Cram’s fourth series start. In the XFINITY Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 7th from fuel pump issues, the 16th for the #74, and the 611th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 33rd for the fuel pump, the 56th for the #74, and the 1,873rd for Chevrolet.

Dawson “DK” Cram from San Diego has been racing since he was five, and after scoring 13 wins in Bandoleros began his ascent into NASCAR’s top three ranks. He’s made occasional appearances since 2018, when the now 16-year-old Cram finished 17th in his Truck Series debut at Martinsville driving for Beaver Motorsports. He improved there the next year, taking 13th for Josh Reaume. During the tumultuous 2020 campaign, he and his family would ultimately enter their own truck under Cram Racing Enterprises, and the #41 made eight starts. This included a controversial incident in the Phoenix finale, where his spin coming to the white flag forced an overtime restart. The series title then slipped from Brett Moffitt’s grasp and was picked up by Sheldon Creed.

In 2021, Cram made his XFINITY Series debut for Mike Harmon Racing, taking home a 35th-place finish in Loudon.  He then made a pair of starts last year, taking 30th for Emerling-Gase Motorsports in the fall race at Darlington, then 31st in his return to Championship Weekend in Phoenix when he drove for Motorsports Business Management (MBM). In all three races, Cram finished under power, and in two of them was within four laps of the leader. This was not forgotten this past weekend, when Cram reunited with the Harmon team, now rebranded as Clayton Harmon Keller Racing, or CHK Racing. Coming into Phoenix, CHK’s #74 had yet to make a start with Ryan Vargas, though a combination of mechanical issues and cancelled qualifying sessions meant Las Vegas was Vargas’ only attempt.

Cram was one of 40 drivers entered to close out this year’s “West Coast Swing,” a list trimmed to 39 after B.J. McLeod Motorsports withdrew their #99 entry as Garrett Smithley took Josh Bilicki’s place in DGM Racing’s #91 Chevrolet. Needing to beat just one car to make the show, Cram impressed with the 26th-best lap in practice, then picked up another tenth in qualifying to secure 29th with a lap of 125.931mph (28.587 seconds). The lone team sent home was MBM, which hired Brian Weber to make his first XFINITY start since May 18, 2003 at Nazareth. When Weber’s #66 Ford struggled for speed in practice, at one point bumped by John Hunter Nemechek, Timmy Hill took over. But the #66 was too tight in qualifying, and Hill came just short of making the show. Curiously, the car Hill drove was the very same one Cram qualified into last fall’s Phoenix race.

Starting 38th and last was Parker Kligerman, who was sent to a backup car after an incident in his #48 Big Machine Racing Spiked Coolers Chevrolet, preventing him from turning a qualifying lap. Kligerman incurred a redundant tail-end penalty along with Cup regular Kyle Busch, who for a second-straight race would run Kaulig Racing’s #10 LA Golf Chevrolet. This time around, Busch had an issue with the fuel regulator in practice, and the subsequent repairs prevented him from completing a lap in qualifying. Also docked for a pre-race penalty was 31st-place Jeffrey Earnhardt for unapproved adjustments on his #44 Gas POS / BZ Mart Chevrolet. Bayley Currey incurred no penalty for a Turn 1 incident on his qualifying lap which secured him 32nd in the #4 Mikes Weather Page / Firman Chevrolet.

After the command to fire engines on Saturday, Cram pulled his #74 into his pit stall for an issue that would soon plague the rest of his afternoon. He returned after the first pace lap, and NASCAR told him to pull into the high lane to make up the lap. Cram slotted into the final spot in line, and off Turn 2 coming to the green flag, Kyle Busch pulled to the inside line to join him. 

Cram returns to the track after his first fuel pump
cable was replaced.
PHOTO: Aaron Clay, @ABCracing54

When the race started, Busch pulled to the low line in a three-wide battle beneath Cram and Garrett Smithley’s #91. Busch bumped doors with Cram, who bounced off Smithley. Smithley dropped to last on Lap 2 with smoke coming off his car and a noticeable tire mark on the driver’s door. Smithley continued onward, and drew within one-tenth of Cram by Lap 5. On Lap 6, both Cram and Smithley passed Patrick Emerling, who for the first time took 38th in the #53 Sci Aps Chevrolet. Fighting a loose condition all around the track, Emerling quickly lost touch with the drivers ahead of him, falling 0.925 back of Smithley on Lap 8, then 1.385 on Lap 10.

On Lap 15, Cram pulled down pit road under green. “Push it to the garage,” said the CHK crew. “We can fix it.” As the crew pushed Cram behind the wall, NASCAR informed the team that Cram owed a penalty if he came back out for speeding in Section 1. After discussions about the camshaft and carburetor, the crew discovered the fuel pump cable had broken – the same issue that ultimately left Joey Gase last the previous round in Las Vegas. This led the CHK team to check with the Emerling-Gase Motorsports team for a replacement cable. The cable was found on Lap 34, and work began on Lap 37. Even though bolting on the cable required the use of a different-sized nut from an air cleaner, the crew managed to complete repairs by Lap 43, when Cram returned to the track 30 laps down. Cram remained on the apron as he came up to speed during the final two laps of Stage 1.

By Lap 47, the CHK crew confirmed Cram’s cable broke in exactly the same place as Gase’s in Las Vegas, which had been photographed by the team after the race. In the meantime, the crew kept their driver in the race.  “It's not over yet,” they said to Cram on Lap 51. “It's gonna get crazy. Now what, so what? We've got a lot of racing left to do.” Multiple cautions throughout the race meant Cram couldn’t serve his pass-through penalty for speeding in Section 1 back on Lap 15, so on Lap 53, he instead went to the tail end of the longest line. 

On the ensuing run, Cram showed consistent speed, running laps better than others in the Bottom Five. “We're better than the couple cars in front of us,” the team told Cram on Lap 70, “Just no sense in passing them.” That same lap saw Connor Mosack spin his #24 Toyota Racing Development Toyota during a tight battle with Riley Herbst, sending Mosack driver’s side first into the outside wall. Mosack’s crew managed to clear both fenders, keeping him on the lead lap, and soon cleared the “Crash Clock.” Also clearing the clock was Josh Williams, whose #92 Call 811 / Alloy Employer Chevrolet skid into the wall trying to avoid Mosack’s wreck.

Low attrition and frequent cautions allowed Cram to earn back a few of his laps with the Lucky Dog, bringing him from 30 laps down to only 27 on Lap 85. By then, Cram was suffering brake pedal fade, and reported he “lacked all right-side grip” and that it wouldn’t turn. This same caution – the second for a spin by Josh Berry – also saved new 37th-place runner John Hunter Nemechek in the #20 Safeway / Albertson’s Toyota. Following another similar incident from Las Vegas, Nemechek pulled to the apron just before the starting line, forcing a pass-through penalty that dropped him to 37th, still on the lead lap, but six seconds back of the car in 36th. The caution allowed Nemechek to make up that gap, and he’d ultimately climb as high as 2nd before another he settled back in 6th at the finish.

By Lap 96, Cram had made up four laps from the Lucky Dog and was now 26 laps behind the leaders. During a stop that time by, here was some delay in getting the lug nuts tight on one of his tires, though he managed not to go another lap down. “Doin’ a great job, bud, a very smart race,” said Cram’s crew on Lap 118. But on Lap 125, Cram reported he was losing fuel pressure once more, and the crew told him to go back to the garage for a second time. Again, Cram incurred a penalty in the process, an was told on Lap 129 that he’d owe a pass-through if he came back out. By Lap 134, the CHK crew discovered their backup fuel pump cable had also failed, and they would need a second to return to the track. By then, Cram was 40 laps down with around 60 to go, and no one else was out of the race.

That is, until Lap 139, when Gray Gaulding’s #08 Panini NFT Ford apparently lost a right-front tire going into Turn 1 and slapped the outside wall. Gaulding climbed from the car a few moments later, and his car was towed to the garage, done for the day. “I’m signing off,” said someone on his SS-Green Light Racing crew. “Sorry about the bad luck.” With that, Cram’s crew sought out the SS-Green Light hauler for a second replacement cable, saying this was their last shot at returning to the track. At the time, they were just 38 laps back of Gaulding, but time was running out. On Lap 144, the answer came: “Boys, we’re out of fuel cables to borrow.” With that, Cram climbed from his car in the garage, done for the day. “Good job out there, nothing you could do about it.” NASCAR confirmed Cram was out on Lap 161.

Behind 37th-place Gaulding, Justin Allgaier took 36th after his #7 Hello Water Chevrolet was damaged in a Turn 4 stack-up triggered by his JR Motorsports teammate Brandon Jones. Blaine Perkins took 35th after late-race suspension issues on his #07 Swift Chevrolet while Kaz Grala’s #26 Fire Department Coffee Toyota rounded out the Bottom Five.

Alfredo impresses with late-race charge in McLeod #78

Turning in an impressive run on Saturday was Anthony Alfredo in B.J. McLeod Motorsports’ #78 Ticket Smarter Chevrolet. After starting 25th on the grid, Alfredo worked strategy to restart 2nd in the final laps of Stage 2. He managed to hang on to finish 6th in the stage, then after a spin spent much of Stage 3 climbing back into the Top 20. With just nine laps to go, he moved from 20th to 17th, then 15th with four laps remaining. He then did battle with Parker Kligerman for 14th, the pair trading the position until the final lap, where Alfredo inched ahead by just 0.015 second at the stripe. This marks Alfredo’s season-best run – his third Top 20 in a row – and comes one year after he missed the start of this very race with mechanical issues. It also came just days after news that Alfredo will make a few Cup starts in McLeod’s #78 – Alfredo’s first in the series since his Cup rookie run for Front Row Motorsports in 2021.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #74 in a XFINITY Series race at Phoenix.
*The 99 laps completed by Cram are third-most among Phoenix XFINITY Series last-place finishers, trailing only the 139 completed by Phil Parsons on November 6, 1999, and the track record 152 by Dillon Bassett just last November.

38) #74-Dawson Cram / 99 laps / fuel pump
37) #08-Gray Gaulding / 137 laps / crash
36) #7-Justin Allgaier / 178 laps / crash / led 20 laps
35) #07-Blaine Perkins / 192 laps / suspension
34) #26-Kaz Grala / 199 laps / running

1st) CHK Racing, Emerling-Gase Motorsports, JD Motorsports, SS-Green Light Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (2)
2nd) Ford, Toyota (1)


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