Sunday, April 23, 2023

CUP: RCR brackets Talladega field as Austin Dillon takes last place from struggling McDowell

PHOTO: @RCRracing

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Austin Dillon scored the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s GEICO 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway when his #3 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet was involved in a multi-car accident after 141 of 196 laps.

The finish, which occurred in Dillon’s 346th series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup points race since June 2, 2019 at Pocono, 140 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 18th for the #3, the 646th from a crash, and the 837th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 30th for the #3, the 1,328th from a crash, and the 1,885th for Chevrolet.

Since he was last featured on this site, Austin Dillon has continued to seek consistency, and on occasion picked up surprising wins in the iconic #3 for Richard Childress Racing. In 2020, he scored his third career win in a close contest with then-teammate Tyler Reddick at Texas. And just last year, he escaped a massive rain-inflicted pileup at Daytona, then endured a lengthy red flag, before defending the win – again over Reddick. 

This year, Dillon is now teamed with Kyle Busch, and the partnership has seemed to help the #3 team. In the Clash, the duo joined Martin Truex, Jr. on the podium with finishes of 2nd and 3rd. Busch then nearly won the Daytona 500 before breaking through the next week in Fontana, where Dillon ran double-duty. Dillon took 3rd on the Bristol Dirt Race and ran 12th last week at Martinsville, but a costly 60-point penalty relating to the underwing dropped him to just 29th in points, putting Justin Alexander in as crew chief.

In qualifying, Dillon narrowly missed Round 2 by securing the 14th starting spot with a lap of 179.001mph (53.497 seconds), three spots ahead of teammate Kyle Busch in the #8 McLaren Custom Grills Chevrolet.

Securing the 38th and final starting spot was J.J. Yeley, who after finishing last at Martinsville after his throttle stuck at 75% going into Turn 3 moved to the #51 Jacob Companies / Biohaven Ford. Yeley’s previous ride, the #15, went to the Monster Energy / Mechanix Wear Ford of Riley Herbst, who lined up 36th in his first start since his 10th-place showing in the Daytona 500. Joining Yeley in the rear were three drivers penalized for unapproved adjustments: 15th-place Austin Cindric, whose #2 Menards / Duracell Ford had issues in inspection, plus 19th-place A.J. Allmendinger in the #16 Farmsmart Chevrolet and 28th-place Todd Gilliland in the #36 gener8tor Skills Ford.

When the green flag dropped, Gilliland had taken over last place, 2.982 seconds back of the lead on the inside line behind Allmendinger, Cindric, and Yeley. By the end of Lap 1, the spot fell to Ryan Preece in the #41 Hunt Brothers Pizza Ford. A few spots ahead, Yeley heard his spotter tell him to go high for trouble in Turn 3. This was Michael McDowell, who after feeling his car bottom out cut down a right-rear tire and slapped the Turn 4 wall with both the right-rear and right-front of his #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford. Under the ensuing caution, where McDowell took over last on Lap 3, Preece wondered if there was oil on the track, then was told of the flat tire.

McDowell’s crew set to work on the right-rear, and someone radioed that the wheel was at “four o’clock,” indicating “almost a full rotation to the right.” They sent him back out to stay on the lead lap, but the driver could only manage a slow speed and came back in. By Lap 5, the crew got the wheel to “three o’clock,” then sent him back out inside the final three minutes on his “Crash Clock.” According to FOX reporter Josh Sims, there was no issue with the car’s toe link. The crew also noted “a big gash” in the right-rear tire they removed on the first stop. This was relayed on Lap 7, one lap before McDowell cleared minimum speed. But despite keeping his foot flat on the throttle, McDowell still lost touch with the pack. He was the only car one lap down, and while he ran by himself, the driver relayed additional information. He said the car didn’t have a vibration, and the crew couldn’t see any damage to the bodywork.

On Lap 27, the leaders in two-by-two formation caught McDowell through Turns 1 and 2. The #34 pulled to the high lane, where his teammates Gilliland in the #38 and Zane Smith in the #38 Wellcare Ford pulled out of the high line to draft with him. While this kept McDowell’s car at the tail end of the pack, he now picked up a loose condition on corner entry, and remarked his car felt “darty.” 

McDowell sizing up Briscoe for the Lucky Dog.

For the next few laps, drivers found trouble on pit road instead of on track. On Lap 36, Tyler Reddick’s #45 Money Lion Toyota broke loose slowing for pit entrance and slapped the wall with the passenger side. He lost a lap, dropping to 37th, and promptly took the Lucky Dog spot from McDowell. While Reddick’s incident didn’t draw the caution, Chase Briscoe’s similar spin on Lap 43 soon did as the #14 Mahindra Tractors “YOG” Ford spun, then appeared to beach itself on a pair of flat tires. Losing multiple laps in the process, Briscoe took last from McDowell on Lap 44, but McDowell took it back on Lap 45, when Reddick earned the Lucky Dog.

On the Lap 48 restart, McDowell was still last and by Lap 53 had Briscoe in front of him on the inside line. Since both were two laps down, this became the battle for the Lucky Dog. The car appeared to draft much better this time, and on the charge to the end of Stage 1 on Lap 62, McDowell began to pass cars by running the middle lane. “Hell yeah, baby,” said his spotter on Lap 59. “Show ‘em who the damn man is.” Briscoe stayed ahead of McDowell at the end of the stage, giving him one of his two laps back. But McDowell took the wave-around under the ensuing yellow, which put both back on the same lap once more.

When Stage 2 began, the Lucky Dog battle continued. “Doing everything you can,” McDowell’s crew told him on Lap 73. “You’ll get him.” By this point, Gilliland was directly behind McDowell as drafting help, but Zane Smith was starting to lose touch of the pack. The team considered forming a new line in the middle to get past Briscoe, but on Lap 86, McDowell said, “There’s nowhere to go. It’s not worth the risk where we’re running.” On Lap 92, McDowell again lost touch with the pack, but moments later, Briscoe was also shaken out of line on the inside of a three-wide formation, putting him back into McDowell’s view. But another round of green-flag stops awaited, and McDowell came in on Lap 95. 

Stranded once more, McDowell was caught by the leaders through Turns 3 and 4 on Lap 99. This time, he held the low lane as he went down a second lap, then latched onto the tail end of the pack. The crew told him to run as fast as he could while the rest of the field made their stops, which lifted him back to one lap down. He caught Allmendinger’s #16 on Lap 104, but on Lap 108 said something felt like it was dragging on his car. The team had him check for engine diagnostic codes on his digital dash, but found nothing. The crew did point out the right-rear wheel was towed-out, which was likely accounting for the drag.

Zane Smith's car being towed after wreck.

Having lost the pack again, McDowell was then told to save fuel to reach the end of Stage 2 on Lap 120. On Lap 113, the leaders rushed by him down the backstretch to put him two laps down once more. By this point, about six cars had fallen back of the main pack, and McDowell tried to link up with them. Another car had fallen further back in B.J. McLeod, whose #78 B’laster Products Chevrolet was lapped by the leaders entering the tri-oval on Lap 117. McLeod thus took 37th from Briscoe, who would lose his Lucky Dog. Joey Logano had incurred a pit road speeding penalty in his #22 Shell Pennzoil Autotrader Ford, and controversially chose the middle lane as the leaders closed. This caused the field to swing apart, allowing Logano to be caught by teammate Ryan Blaney, who kept Logano ahead of Briscoe for the Lucky Dog. When Stage 2 soon ended, handing Logano his lap back, McDowell was coasting to the stripe, practically out of fuel.

Both driver and crew continued to try and diagnose the issue with the #34, starting by taking on fuel under the Stage 2 caution. They then planned to look under the hood, but instead spent more time working under the right-rear wheel well. On the Lap 127 restart, McDowell’s issues continued as he said, “Yeah, there’s something wrong – it will not go.” He also felt like the engine was going to let go as he remained underpowered despite keeping the throttle wide open. Now three laps down, McDowell was told to stay out and hope for attrition to bring him up the rankings. With 50 to go, he ran the high lane down the backstretch as the leaders rushed by, putting him a fourth circuit in arrears. Just five laps later, that attrition finally occurred.

With 45 laps to go, Harrison Burton was having a strong run in the #21 Motocraft / Quick Lane Ford, looking to sweep the weekend for the Burton family after cousin Jeb’s win in Saturday’s XFINITY Series race. Out front for 11 laps, Burton was leading the inside line going into Turn 3 when his car apparently broke loose running over the hump created by the tunnel built under the track. Contact from 3rd-place running Noah Gragson’s #42 Wendy’s Chevrolet sent Burton spinning and the tail end of the field scrambling. In the chaos, the unlapped Joey Logano bumped a slowing Zane Smith, whose car hooked right – directly into the path of Austin Dillon. The resulting collision destroyed the front of Smith’s car and sent Dillon to pit road with damage along with Austin Hill, whose #62 Realtree Chevrolet was also collected.

Austin Dillon's car pulls up to the hauler.

On Lap 144, Smith’s car was being towed to the garage while Dillon’s crew looked under the hood, not far from where McDowell’s crew now spent more time repairing their own car. By Lap 145, Dillon’s crew realized there was nothing more they could do. “Sorry about it, man,” they said. “Thanks, Austin.” Dillon drove his car to the garage before Smith’s car could be towed there, but through the entire incident, he was already classified behind Smith in the running order. Thus, on Lap 146, it was Dillon who took last from McDowell with Smith taking 37th, lifting McDowell to 36th. The #34 would ultimately pass one more car – Burton’s – after the #21 was destroyed in a later pileup. Completing the Bottom Five was Ryan Preece, whose #41 t-boned a spinning Kyle Larson in the final moments. The impact, which bent the rollcage of Larson’s car, threw Preece forward in his car so hard that it flung open his visor.

After yet another chaotic series of restarts and wrecks, Kyle Busch – Dillon’s teammate – had just enough fuel to take the victory. This not only bracketed the field by the two RCR entries, but gave the #8 team a victory one year after Tyler Reddick finished last in the same race with the same team.

Following the misfortunes suffered by both his Front Row Motorsports teammates, Todd Gilliland finished the race in 10th place, one spot ahead of last-place starter J.J. Yeley, whose 11th-place showing was his best Cup finish since he took 10th in the 2013 Daytona 500 for Tommy Baldwin Racing. Ty Dillon ran as high as 3rd, at one point leading the outside line, and came home 14th in the #77 Nations Guard Chevrolet for by far his best Cup finish of the season. And B.J. McLeod survived to take 18th – the first finish better than 24th for the Live Fast Motorsports team all season.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #3 in a Cup race at Talladega since July 26, 1992, when Dale Earnhardt scored the fourth of his five career last-place runs after his #3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet lost the engine after 52 laps of the DieHard 500.
*The 141 laps Dillon completed is tied for the third-most by a Cup Series last-place finisher at Talladega. The same number was completed by Ryan Newman, who on April 21, 2002 lost the engine on his #12 Alltel Ford during the Aaron’s 499.

38) #3-Austin Dillon / 141 laps / crash
37) #38-Zane Smith / 141 laps / crash
36) #21-Harrison Burton / 183 laps / crash / led 11 laps
35) #34-Michael McDowell / 189 laps / running
34) #41-Ryan Preece / 189 laps / crash / led 2 laps

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

1st) Chevrolet (7)
2nd) Ford (3)


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