Saturday, July 15, 2023

XFINITY: Alpha Prime Racing fights adversity, but Van Alst becomes first XFINITY driver to finish last in his first two series starts

PHOTO: Stephen Stumpf, @stephen_stumpf

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Greg Van Alst scored the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Ambetter Health 200 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway when his #45 CB Fabricating Chevrolet fell out with brake issues after 17 of 206 laps.

The finish, which came in Van Alst’s second career start, was his second of the season and second in a row, following last Saturday in Atlanta. In the XFINITY Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 14th for the #45, the 58th from brake issues, and the 623rd for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 46th for the #45, the 165th from the brakes, and the 1,900th for Chevrolet.

Atlanta was a disappointing NASCAR debut for Van Alst, whose car snapped loose both in qualifying and the race, the latter causing him to crash hard and finish last. Fortunately, the outspoken ARCA veteran would also be entered at Loudon. This time, he’d run Alpha Prime’s #45 as Truck Series regular Rajah Caruth would rejoin the team for the first time since Charlotte, driving the #44. 

Following the withdrawal of CHK Racing’s #74 Chevrolet for Dawson Cram, Van Alst would be guaranteed a starting spot with the remaining 37 other entrants. In practice, Van Alst was second-slowest, outpacing C.J McLaughlin in the #53 Sci-Aps Chevrolet. Van Alst then turned in the slowest completed qualifying lap with a 114.344mph (33.310 seconds), 3.151 seconds off the lap of polesitter Chandler Smith. This was still good enough for 36th on the grid of 38.

Van Alst would start ahead of two others who didn’t take time: 37th-place Ryan Sieg in the #39 Ford and 38th-place Kaz Grala in the #26 Island Coastal Lager Toyota. In practice, Sieg lost his brakes going into Turn 1, cut to the apron, then slid directly into Grala, putting both cars into the wall. According to USA’s broadcast, Sieg’s backup was his road course car, but the team and results confirmed they completed repairs. Grala went to a backup, running a black car in place of their primary white machine. 

Van Alst (center) is pushed behind the wall.
PHOTO: ezbass42, @ezbass42

Like Sieg and Grala, both Van Alst and 27th-place Caruth would also incur pre-race tail-end penalties. While Caruth’s 27th-place #44 Circle Chevrolet was docked for a tire change, Van Alst’s crew performed unapproved adjustments, the same as 7th-place Sammy Smith in the #18 TMC Toyota, 20th-place Jeb Burton in the #27 Rocky Chevrolet, and 28th-place Patrick Emerling, who after leading practice in his NASCAR Modified welcomed last-minute sponsorship from Deelio and MR & Brooks Brokerage for his #35 Chevrolet.

In the opening laps, last place fell to 34th-place starter Chad Finchum, another beneficiary of the short entry list, as he managed to qualify the #66 Wild Willies Ford that still bore its orange-and-black paint scheme as a tribute to Eric McClure. But by Lap 5, Van Alst dropped to last, showing 13.213 seconds back of the lead and 1.914 behind C.J. McLaughlin’s #53. Van Alst was already having issues with his brakes, and the team was concerned they’d be warned about maintaining minimum speed. On Lap 12, as the leaders bore down on the #45, the team called Van Alst to pit road, where they looked under the hood at the master cylinder. Not seeing any issues, and seeing the system had fluid, they sent him back out, three laps down. But the car handled no better, and Van Alst was called in a second time on Lap 22. The team now planned to remove the car’s wheels and examine the calipers. They considered doing this on pit road, but on Lap 26 pulled behind the wall. In their stall, the crew put the car on jack stands. The driver was still behind the wheel on Lap 38, when he reported it felt like there wasn’t enough front brakes and too much in the rear, though he still felt like he had enough pedal. The crew also noticed the brakes were unusually hot – even for a flat track with high brake demands like Loudon.

Back on track, there was more bad news for Team Alpha Prime. Entering Turn 3 under caution, Rajah Caruth’s car suddenly erupted in smoke and lost oil pressure. Caruth immediately shut off the engine and came down pit road, leaving a trail of fluid that took several laps to clean up. He made it to his pit stall, where the crew looked under the hood and discovered a wiggins clamp had come loose, causing the car to lose a large amount of oil. The crew called for a replacement clamp, and soon checked with the Richard Childress affiliated teams for more oil. On Lap 52, as work continued on Caruth’s car, Van Alst’s team was done. “We couldn't find anything to fix, so we're done,” said someone. “Thanks. I appreciate the heads-up,” said Van Alst. “Maybe we'll try it again someday.” “Yeah, we'll be back.”

On Lap 57, Caruth reported he now had just under 60 pounds of oil pressure, and he returned to the track 13 laps down. But almost immediately, he had fluid on the windshield and was again trailing smoke, forcing him to pit after just one more lap turned. He was still on pit road on Lap 66, when the caution fell for Chad Finchum’s #66 stalling on pit road. While Finchum was towed behind the wall, Caruth had to go behind the wall at Turn 2, which made it difficult for the team to navigate him to the garage itself. 

The wreck that led to Caruth nearly re-entering the race.
PHOTO: NASCARuary, @Dm_00514

Caruth was still being brought to the garage when a botched restart on Lap 71 resulted in a massive pileup on the frontstretch, damaging at least 12 cars including the one remaining Alpha Prime entry of Ryan Ellis in the #43 Costa Oil Chevrolet. Immediately, team co-owner Tommy Joe Martins came on the radio telling the team to keep trying to get Caruth back on track, knowing they would pick up spots if they did. By then, Ryan Sieg’s backup car went behind the wall along with Anthony Alfredo’s #78 Steele Group Chevrolet and Parker Kligerman’s #48 Spiked Light Coolers Chevrolet. In addition to the retired Finchum, 13 laps ahead, there was also Stefan Parsons, who in 36th was just one spot and one lap ahead of Caruth after he went to the garage for a sway bar issue. 

On Lap 76, Caruth’s crew was again refilling the oil reservoir and tracking the oil pressure. But on the 88th lap, Caruth climbed out, and on Lap 93, the team confirmed they were done for the day. Caruth remained 37th at the finish between Van Alst and Parsons with Finchum and Alfredo completing the Bottom Five.

Emerling, Massey, and Williams earn strong finishes

A last-lap tangle between Sheldon Creed and Cole Custer caused the race to finish under caution, jumbling the final running order. Patrick Emerling was originally scored 10th, which would have been his first career Top Ten, but was ultimately scored 14th – still a career-best, improving on his 16th there a year earlier. 

Bumped from 11th into his first career Top Ten was Mason Massey, a big shot in the arm for SS-Green Light Racing, as Massey’s #08 Brunt Ford took the 10th spot. It was Massey who finished last in this race just two years ago. 

Also impressive was Josh Williams, who earned back-to-back top-ten finishes for the first time since 2020 after taking 8th in his #92 Sleep Well / Alloy Chevrolet. Before Sunday, Williams had never finished better than 19th in his three previous Loudon starts.

Winning the race was John Hunter Nemechek – his first-ever win at the track where his father Joe Nemechek scored his second Busch Series win in 1992, made his first Cup start in 1993, and won his first Cup Series race in 1999.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #45 in a XFINITY Series race since February 19, 2022, when Caesar Bacarella had engine trouble in the season opener at Daytona. The number had never before finished last in a XFINITY race at New Hampshire.
*Van Alst is the first driver to score consecutive last-place finishes – and the first to score his first two in consecutive races – since April 2-8, 2022 at Richmond and Martinsville, when Brennan Poole did the same with Mike Harmon Racing in the #47. Van Alst is the first driver to scored back-to-back last-place finishes in his first two career XFINITY starts, which dates back to the series’ reincorporation in 1982.

38) #45-Greg Van Alst / 17 laps / brakes
37) #44-Rajah Caruth / 47 laps / oil line
36) #07-Stefan Parsons / 48 laps / suspension
35) #66-Chad Finchum / 60 laps / suspension
34) #78-Anthony Alfredo / 70 laps / crash

1st) SS-Green Light Racing (3)
2nd) Alpha Prime Racing, Big Machine Racing, CHK Racing, JD Motorsports (2)
3rd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Emerling-Gase Motorsports, Jordan Anderson Racing, Kaulig Racing, Motorsports Business Management, Sam Hunt Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (14)
2nd) Ford, Toyota (2)


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