Saturday, July 22, 2023

XFINITY: Sage Karam stuck in third gear at Pocono’s tricky triangle

PHOTO: Matt Miller, @MGMiller17

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Sage Karam picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Serie career in Saturday’s Explore the Pocono Mountains 225 at the Pocono Raceway when his #44 CRC Brakleen Chevrolet had transmission issues after 7 of 92 laps.

The finish, which came in Karam’s 19th series start, was his first of the season and first in a XFINITY Series race since July 9, 2022 at Atlanta, 36 races ago (LINK). In the XFINITY Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 31st for the #44, the 53rd from transmission issues, and the 624th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 71st for the #44, the 176th for a transmission, and the 1,902nd for Chevrolet.

Since he was last featured here, Karam has continued to earn some respectable finishes in his part-time efforts with various Chevrolet teams in XFINITY. In his three starts following the last-place run in Atlanta, he finished 20th at Pocono, 13th on the Indianapolis Grand Prix Circuit, then a career-best 5th in Daytona. He also made a pair of races for Our Motorsports, finishing 18th at Bristol and qualifying 9th on the Charlotte “Roval.” 

Karam looked to keep this momentum going this year, but both driver and team have struggled. His most recent start yielded his best results of the year – an 11th-place start and 22nd-place finish – but each were in the Chicago Street Course race, which was stopped short of halfway. He finished no better than 31st in the other four - three from DNFs - and the Alpha Prime team entered the race off back-to-back last-place runs with Greg Van Alst. 

For Pocono, Karam would take the place of Rajah Caruth, whose loss of a wiggins clamp in Loudon caused a catastrophic loss of oil, putting him out of the race soon after Van Alst. The team’s sponsor was CRC Brakleen, title sponsor of Saturday morning’s Truck Series race. In this car, Karam ran 35th of 41 entrants in practice, then improved to 29th in qualifying with a lap of 162.605mph (55.349 seconds).

The three teams that missed the race included Timmy Hill, whose #66 Coble Commercial Properties Toyota was slowest in practice after a flat tire set them back, plus Stefan Parsons in SS-Green Light Racing’s #07 Ollie’s / Rich Mar Florist Chevrolet. Also sent home was a frustrated Dawson Cram, who ran a solid 29th in practice in CHK Racing’s #74 Trooper United Foundation Chevrolet, but ended up the fastest of the three to miss the show.

Securing the 38th and final starting spot was Blaine Perkins in Our Motorsports’ #02 Chevrolet, who was one of three drivers incurring tail-end penalties for unapproved adjustments. Also docked were Chad Chastain, who after his failing to qualify for the Truck Series race the previous day was lined up 33rd in DGM Racing’s #91 MAR-DELicious Watermelons Chevrolet, plus 34th-place starter Garrett Smithley in JD Motorsports’ #4 Graze Craze Charcuterie Boards Chevrolet.

When the race started, Chastain was last across the stripe, already 4.133 seconds back of the lead and more than a half-second back of 37th-place Smithley, who showed an interval of 3.567. On a lap that saw Kyle Sieg lose positions after contact from Parker Kligerman, then Sam Mayer bounce off the Turn 3 wall, Chastain remained last at the end of the lap, 7.603 back of the lead and now 0.299 back of Smithley. Encouraged to keep up with the draft, Chastain closed to within 0.105 the next time by, but the gap increased to 0.327 on Lap 5. 

Karam during his extended stay on pit road.
PHOTO: Zach Leffler, @Zeffler9

The next time by, Chastain’s spotter told him, “This guy’s in trouble, there you go – clear.” The car he cleared was Karam’s, which was suddenly off the pace. By Lap 7, Karam had dropped to last place 24.11 seconds back of the lead, and 4.334 behind Chastain’s #91. Karam radioed he had a transmission issue, saying he was stuck in third gear and couldn’t get to fourth. The next time by, he was 31.903 back of the leader and 10.154 behind Chastain, putting him in Turn 3 as the leaders came off Turn 2. Within seconds of losing a lap, Karam was called by his team to pit road. The crew raised the hood and put him on jack stands. By now, Karam further clarified the issue. He could move the gearshift into fourth gear, but felt only a click as the transmission wouldn’t engage. Shifting to a lower gear wasn’t possible at all – the shifter seemed to hit a wall. “You’re probably gonna have to push me,” said Karam as work continued on pit road on Lap 13.

On Lap 21, when the caution fell to end Stage 1, NASCAR called for a tow truck to get Karam’s car off pit road before the leaders pitted. This was done on Lap 22, though the car wasn’t pushed and was instead towed backward by its rear wheels. As the team discussed where the car was being dropped off, they also noticed the splitter was dragging, causing damage to the aerodynamics. Work on Karam’s car continued for nearly the entire race distance. By Lap 53, Karam was 46 laps down with just 37 to go and no one else out of the race. Still, it wasn’t until Lap 62 – 28 to go in regulation – that NASCAR declared Karam out with the transmission issue.

As the Alpha Prime crew worked on Karam’s car, the 37th spot changed hands several times. On Lap 13, Chad Chastain dropped Garrett Smithley to the spot, then on Lap 17 both passed Cole Custer, who pitted his #00 HAAS Automation Ford just before the end of Stage 1. On Lap 26, Alex Labbe took over 37th in a #08 Ford that was formerly Gray Gaulding’s Panini entry, though without the sponsor logos. Another Alpha Prime car had trouble on Lap 28 as Jeffrey Earnhardt ran the access roads with a flat left-front tire on his #45 Erie Sports Center / ForeverLawn Chevrolet. Earnhardt lost two laps, then earned both back on consecutive cautions. Earnhardt would recover nicely to take home 19th, one spot behind the other Alpha Prime entry, 18th-place Ryan Ellis in the #43 Rich Mar / Laughlin Family Foundation Chevrolet.

One of these cautions was for a Lap 47 restart wreck between Custer and the #20 Yahoo Toyota of John Hunter Nemechek, putting both into the outside wall. First Nemechek, then Custer took 37th as each lost laps, ultimately going to Custer as both cleared the “Crash Clock.” Next was Josh Williams, who on Lap 67 went behind the wall after brake issues on his #92 Alloy Employer Services / StarTron Chevrolet, but he too returned to the track on Lap 75 - just enough time to hand 37th to Corey Heim, who fell out with suspension ssues on his #24 Lehigh Valley Phantoms Toyota. Williams took 36th while the Bottom Five was filled after late-race issues by 35th-place Parker Retzlaff who lost laps after damage on the #31 Funkaway Chevrolet and 34th-place Connor Mosack, crashed out in his #19 Irwin Trade Strong Toyota.

Finally, luck goes Alfredo’s way

Earning a season-best 13th-place finish was hard luck Anthony Alfredo, who donned a chef’s cap and outfit for sponsor Botticelli during lunchtime. Still searching for his first top-ten finish of 2023, Alfredo came into this race with no finish better than 21st in the last seven straight races dating back to his 15th in Darlington. Alfredo’s previous best of 14th came in consecutive races back in the spring at Phoenix and Atlanta.

*This marked the second-straight last-place finish for Alpha Prime Racing’s #44 entry in the XFINITY race at Pocono. Last year, Rajah Caruth was involved in a Lap 2 wreck with Alex Labbe.

38) #44-Sage Karam / 7 laps / transmission
37) #24-Corey Heim / 81 laps / suspension
36) #92-Josh Williams / 82 laps / running
35) #31-Parker Retzlaff / 84 laps / running
34) #19-Connor Mosack / 85 laps / crash

1st) Alpha Prime Racing, SS-Green Light Racing (3)
2nd) 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 (15)
2nd) Ford, Toyota (2)


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