Sunday, May 21, 2023

CUP: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. spins early, finishes last in North Wilkesboro endurance race

PHOTO: Steven Taranto, @STaranto92

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. finished last in Sunday’s NASCAR All-Star Race at the North Wilkesboro Speedway when his #47 Kroger / Coca-Cola Chevrolet finished under power after completing 196 of 200 laps.

Coming into the 2023 season, Stenhouse had started the All-Star Race four times, transferring in from the All-Star Open in both 2013 and 2022. His win in this year’s Daytona 500 secured him a guaranteed spot in the field for the first time since 2018, placing him into the landmark race at North Wilkesboro. Stenhouse arrived at the track fresh off six straight finishes of 15th or better since Richmond, where he had the fastest car in the early laps before a mechanical issue left him 35th.

At North Wilkesboro, Stenhouse ran 20th of the 37 entrants in opening practice, then retained his 20th spot in the pit crew competition with a stop of 15.063 seconds, incurring no penalties in the process. This placed Stenhouse 6th on the grid for the first of two 60-lap heats on Saturday night. Due to a damp track, the 11-car field of Heat Race 1 ran on wet weather tires. Starting last was Erik Jones, slowest in the pit crew competition, whose #43 STP Chevrolet was decorated to resemble Richard Petty’s Pontiac from his 1992 “Fan Appreciation Tour.” Jones started last, 1.478 seconds back of the leader, then on Lap 8 dropped Kevin Harvick to last in the #29 Busch Light Ford, a tribute scheme to the car with which Harvick scored his first Cup win in 2001. Harvick dropped Jones back to last on Lap 9 as the #43 fought a brutal tight condition. A caution on Lap 37 dropped Christopher Bell to last in the #20 Interstate Batteries Toyota on Lap 39, followed by Jones on Lap 40, Harvick on Lap 42, then Jones again on Lap 43. The pair were just 0.017 second apart at the stripe, but Jones lost ground in the final laps with Stenhouse slipping back to 10th, securing him 19th on the grid for Sunday’s main event.

Heat Race 2, run under dry conditions, saw Tyler Reddick roll off 10th and last in his #45 The Beast Unleashed Toyota. The group remained tighter together at the start, separated just 0.901 second from first to last. Lap 4 saw Brad Keselowski fall to last after his #6 Nexlizet Ford was stuck in the high lane as traffic passed by down low. On Lap 5, Keselowski dropped Kyle Busch to last in the #8 Thorntons Chevrolet, and Busch fell 1.006 seconds back of Busch by Lap 17. Busch closed on Keselowski by the time the caution fell for rain, looking to fix a loose condition as the field performed noncompetitive stops for wet tires. Busch remained last until 13 laps to go in the event, when he dropped Ross Chastain to 10th in his #1 Worldwide Express Chevrolet through Turns 3 and 4. Chastain then passed Reddick on Lap 57, and opened a 3.028-second gap on the #45 by the end of the 60-lap event. This placed Reddick 20th on the grid for Sunday ahead of 21st-place Jones, last in Heat Race 1.

Completing Sunday’s field were Josh Berry in the #48 Ally Chevrolet and Ty Gibbs in the #54 Monster Energy Toyota, the top two finishers of the All-Star Open, plus Fan Vote winner Noah Gragson in the #42 Sunseeker Resorts Chevrolet. The now last-place Gragson incurred significant damage after striking the pit wall in the All-Star Open, forcing the team to tape up much of the bodywork. On a strip of silver tape across the nose, the words “Thanks Fans” was written in felt pen. No other cars incurred pre-race penalties for Sunday’s 200-lap race, so Gragson’s repaired car would line up outside of Gibbs’ #54 in the final row of the 24-car field.

At the start, Gragson remained in last, and by Lap 4 was 0.142 back of Berry’s #48. On Lap 7, Gragson dropped Reddick to last and opened an advantage of 0.503 second, 7.303 back of the leader. On Lap 17, Jones’ #43 bumped Stenhouse into a spin off Turn 4, drawing the first caution of the night and immediately dropping Stenhouse to last as he recovered without damage. Still under caution on Lap 19, Bubba Wallace took over last in his #23 Columbia Sportswear Company Toyota. This was during pit stops, during which Kyle Larson incurred a speeding penalty in his #5 Chevrolet. This dropped Larson to last on Lap 20.

Larson restarted in last for the Lap 21 restart, and immediately found himself in the middle of a three-wide battle for position. This dropped Stenhouse to last the next time by while Larson jumped to 18th, setting the stage for Larson to retake the lead on Lap 55 and pace all but one of the remaining laps on his way to a dominant victory. Meanwhile, Stenhouse dropped Chastain to last on Lap 25, followed by Gibbs on Lap 27, and Gibbs edged Stenhouse by 0.025 apart at the end of Lap 32. By Lap 35, Gibbs had shaken off Stenhouse, opening an advantage of 1.035 seconds. On Lap 46, Stenhouse was told he was the only driver reaching 100% throttle, and his lap times were improving. 

On Lap 62, William Byron’s #24 Liberty University Chevrolet took over last place as he pitted early for tires, Stenhouse passing him on the track at the exit of Turn 4. Kyle Busch pitted soon after, dropping him off the lead lap with Byron as he took last on Lap 65. Busch aimed to get one of his laps back on the 69th circuit, by which point Stenhouse was lapped on track. Both Busch and Byron dropped Stenhouse to last on Lap 89, where the #47 remained at the race’s halfway point. Stenhouse was still fighting a loose condition, and by now was showing two laps down. “Pray for a bunch of cautions,” Stenhouse’s crew said before the Lap 111 restart.

The rest of the race finished under green, during which point Stenhouse lost another two laps, the last of these in Turn 3 with just three laps to go. During the stretch run, Stenhouse’s crew remarked that the racing appeared “boring, the spotter saying, “Yeah, it's just follow the leader. Only time anybody passes is when someone screws up.” Then on Lap 134 came the transmission, “Those cars that ran the second heat race are sure running good, aren't they?” referring to the differing rain tire use between Saturday’s two heat races.

Gragson, Busch, and Byron remained in the Bottom Five along with Austin Cindric, whose #2 Keystone Light Ford slipped to 21st in the final laps.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #47 in both a Cup Series race at North Wilkesboro and in the All-Star Race itself.
*This is the third time in the last four years the last-place finisher of the All-Star Race finished under power – all at different tracks.

24) #47-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 196 laps / running
23) #42-Noah Gragson / 197 laps / running
22) #8-Kyle Busch / 198 laps / running
21) #2-Austin Cindric / 198 laps / running
20) #24-William Byron / 198 laps / running

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