Sunday, April 2, 2023

CUP: Race-long battle between Stenhouse and Yeley ends with Noah Gragson’s crash

PHOTO: @LegayMotorclub

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Noah Gragson picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at the Richmond Raceway when his #42 Sunseeker Resort Chevrolet was involved in a single-car accident after 303 of 400 laps.

The finish, which came in Gragson’s 25th series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup race since March 20, 2022 at Atlanta, 38 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 28th for the #42, the 644th from a crash, and the 836th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 40th for the #42, the 1,325th from a crash, and the 1,882nd for Chevrolet.

Last year marked Gragson’s final full-time campaign in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, and the aggressive young driver was in peak form. He scored a career-best eight wins and joined his JR Motorsports teammates in a three-on-one battle for the title at Phoenix, only to finish 2nd behind a dominant Ty Gibbs. The year also saw Gragson make his first 18 Cup starts, a combined schedule with Kaulig Racing’s “all-star” #16 Chevrolet and the #62 of Beard Motorsports. The Beard team gave him his best run at Daytona in August, where Gragson escaped the day’s biggest wreck to finish 5th – his first career Top Five.

This year, Gragson again races Ty Gibbs – this time for Rookie of the Year in the Cup Series. His mount is the #42 Chevrolet driven last year by Ty Dillon. Now fielded by Legacy Motor Club - the rebranding of the Petty GMS Racing team after the investment of Jimmie Johnson – Gragson is making the most of the opportunity. He played a key role in Wendy’s massive marketing push at Daytona, where he carried the sponsor’s colors to a 24th-place finish. He led his first lap of the season at Fontana, ran a season-best 12th at Atlanta, and was contending for a Top 10 at COTA before a late-race spin off Turn 1. While he finished under power each time, he still entered Richmond a distant 28th in points.

With Richmond’s practice and qualifying cancelled by rain, Gragson secured the 23rd starting spot of 37 entrants.

Chandler Smith's view from 37th before the start.

Starting 37th and last was Chandler Smith, whose #13 Quick Tie Products, Inc. Chevrolet – a third entry from Kaulig Racing – was the only “open” car in the field. Just hours after scoring his first career XFINITY Series win at the same track, Smith would make his Cup debut, bouncing back from a DNQ in the Daytona 500. Smith aimed to complete all the laps, and adjusted to the stronger brakes of the Cup car. “Only one way to go, playa,” said Smith’s crew.

With no drivers sent to the back for pre-race penalties, Smith crossed the stripe 3.391 seconds back of the lead and just behind the two occupants of Row 18. On the inside of COTA last-place finisher Ty Dillon in the #77 Nations Guard Chevrolet was Anthony Alfredo, back in a Cup field for the first time since the end of his rookie season in 2021. One day after finishing last in Richmond’s XFINITY race, Alfredo would run for Live Fast Motorsports in the #78 Dude Wipes Chevrolet. 

Entering Turn 1 for the first time, Smith was advised the high lane was faster than the low lane, and instead chose the middle. This kept Smith in last at the end of Lap 1, but he was now alongside Alfredo, just 0.016 second ahead. Alfredo inched back ahead of Smith on Lap 5, but Smith stuck to the inside lane, keeping the two side-by-side. On Lap 7, Smith finally pulled ahead of Alfredo, and by Lap 10 had climbed to 35th past J.J. Yeley in the #15 CW & Sons Infrastructure Ford. By Lap 23, Yeley dispatched with teammate Cody Ware in the #51 Biohaven Ford, and Alfredo now pulled to his inside. On Lap 25, the two were in nearly a dead heat, just 0.090 apart, until Alfredo cleared him on Lap 27. Ware remained within sight of Alfredo until just before the competition caution on Lap 30, at which point he’d fallen 1.064 seconds behind Alfredo’s #78. 

Under yellow, Ware discussed adjustments to his car’s handling as he was unable to use the brakes without upsetting the car’s balance. Alfredo took last as the field came down pit road on Lap 34, followed on Lap 35 by Justin Haley in Kaulig Racing’s #31 Leaf Filter Gutter Protection Chevrolet. But Alfredo was told by his crew to make a second stop, which would have put him in last again had another driver not found trouble. In the early laps, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. had charged into the Top 10 in his #47 Kroger / Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Chevrolet. Despite a minor brush with the wall, he still appeared to have the fastest car on the track. But on his stop, the crew discovered a leak in the brake line at the right-rear wheel caused by a stuck bleeder. Stenhouse thus took last on Lap 36 as he fell off the lead lap, then pulled behind the wall the next time by. The crew had to bleed the brake system and add more fluid, which was done in Garage Stall 19.

Stenhouse's team adds more brake fluid.
Back on the track on Lap 45, the second caution of the day fell when Denny Hamlin bumped J.J. Yeley’s #15 into Turn 1, sending Yeley sliding rear-first into the outside wall. In the first true test of the NextGen car’s improved “crushability” of its rear clip, Yeley’s bumper was pushed in, but the driver managed to make it back to pit road. Curiously, Yeley’s pit stall was just in front of Hamlin’s, to which the team said “Stop it short. Fuck the 11.” As Yeley’s crew set to work, losing laps as they watched the “Crash Clock” tick down, Stenhouse re-fired his engine on Lap 48, then returned to the rack on Lap 49, 14 laps down. This put Stenhouse back on track for the Lap 51 restart while Yeley’s crew continued their repairs. On Lap 57, Yeley was told to re-fire the engine and returned to the track 10 laps down, four ahead of Stenhouse. Yeley cleared the “Crash Clock” the next time by, though the crew expressed concern about refueling the car with so much damage near the fuel inlet.

When Stage 1 ended on Lap 71, Yeley got one of his laps back, putting him nine down in the 36th spot. Under this yellow, Stenhouse’s crew called for more tape on the brake ducts to heat up his brakes. On Lap 83, shortly after the restart, Stenhouse said his brake pedal was going to the floor again, and NASCAR watched for smoke coming off his car on Lap 90 from possible wall contact. Stenhouse remained on track, though he still reported too much “play” in his pedal under the Lap 95 caution for Josh Berry’s spin. Stenhouse stayed out under the caution, which saw Austin Cindric’s crew raise the hood of the #2 Discount Tire Ford for an oil leak. “Oil pressure at full throttle is 75,” said Cindric, who returned without further incident.

On Lap 128, Stenhouse moved to the high lane off Turn 2 to led then-leader Kyle Larson pass him down low, putting him another lap down. By then, Stenhouse reported he had “so much brake shake.” The 36th-place Yeley remained the first car one lap down until Lap 133, when Larson caught and lapped Cody Ware’s #51. Green-flag stops ensued with Stenhouse’s coming on Lap 160, and he returned to the track with a seven-lap deficit to Yeley. This deficit all but disappeared on Lap 173, when Yeley pitted and the crew had to make further repairs to the rear decklid of his car to allow it to take fuel. After the crew took the saws-all to the bodywork, Yeley returned to the track on Lap 180 just one circuit ahead of Stenhouse. “I don’t think our car is that bad,” said Yeley’s crew. “We just never hand a chance.” 

Gragson's car in the garage after his wreck.

Though Stenhouse had closed on Yeley, he continued to struggle. When Stage 2 ended on Lap 231, Stenhouse reported the steering was shaking badly, compounding the persistent brake shake. The team estimated there was still air in the brake lines, but Stenhouse said the pedal was pushing back against his foot, an issue the team also had in Phoenix. Informed that he was just one lap behind Yeley, Stenhouse said, “We’ll try not to finish last.” This led to Lap 241, where Stenhouse raced past Yeley on the track, though their running positions remained unchanged. By then, NASCAR’s leaderboard occasionally showed the two drivers on the same lap. Stenhouse’s next green-flag stop came on Lap 293 followed by Yeley’s on Lap 296. For a time, the gap remained the same, but Stenhouse began to close when the next caution fell.

Through all this, Noah Gragson had not been a factor, and was running off the lead lap. On Lap 306, something broke on his Chevrolet entering Turn 1, and he slapped the outside wall hard with the passenger side. Gragson made it to pit road with smoke pouring from his right-front wheel, but the crew soon discovered both the upper and lower control arms on the right-front were too damaged to continue. The team told Gragson to pull behind the wall at the nearest entrance, taking care to run slowly. He couldn’t make the entrance at pit exit, so he ran on the apron for another lap, then pulled in between two stalls past the exit of Turn 4. Eliminated under the ”Damaged Vehicle Policy,” Gragson was checked and released from the infield care center as crews prepared to load his car. On Lap 312, Stenhouse had finally climbed past Yeley into 36th spot, and on Lap 321, Gragson took last place from Yeley. NASCAR declared Gragson out on Lap 322.

Gragson was the race’s only retiree. Yeley finished the race one lap back of Stenhouse with Ware and Alfredo completing the Bottom Five. 

Two impressive runs made headlines, both stemming from incidents earlier in the race. After spinning in front of Stenhouse after contact from Ryan Blaney, Josh Berry finished a career-best 2nd to Kyle Larson – a relief driver with a substitute crew chief. Chandler Smith, who started the race in last, jumped into the Top 20 in the final laps, then clawed his way to 17th at the checkered flag, completing his memorable Richmond weekend with a sterling Cup debut.

*This marked the first Cup Series last-place finish for the #42 since October 18, 2020, when Matt Kenseth crashed out after 144 laps around Kansas. The number hadn’t finished last in a Cup race at Richmond since April 13, 2019, when Kyle Larson crashed after 125 laps. Both were with Chip Ganassi Racing, which fielded the #42 from 2003 through 2021.

37) #42-Noah Gragson / 303 laps / crash
36) #15-J.J. Yeley / 383 laps / running
35) #47-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 384 laps / running
34) #51-Cody Ware / 395 laps / running
33) #78-Anthony Alfredo / 396 laps / running

1st) Live Fast Motorsports, Spire Motorsports (2)
2nd) Kaulig Racing, Legacy Motor Club, Penske Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (6)
2nd) Ford (1)


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