Sunday, August 13, 2023

CUP: Extraordinary last-place battle comes down to final seconds of Cup race at Indianapolis

PHOTO: Stephen Stumpf, @stephen_stumpf

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Aric Almirola picked up the 16th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at the Indianapolis Grand Prix Circuit when his #10 Ford Ford finished running, but ran out of fuel after completing 79 of 82 laps.

The finish, which occurred in Almirola’s 448th career Cup start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup race since this same event last year on July 31, 2022, 36 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 39th for the #10, the 41st while finishing under power, and the 732nd for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 54th while running, the 134th for the #10, and the 1,016th for Ford.

After deciding against his plans to retire at the end of last season, Almirola has returned with Stewart-Haas Racing in his familiar #10 Ford, still most often sponsored by Smithfield. He closed out last year 20th in points, securing a pair of top-five finishes in both the Daytona 500 and Gateway, and he led more than 30 laps in both the fall races at Bristol and Talladega before misfortune dropped him to 28th and 14th, respectively. This year’s results have been less spectacular. His best track has been Atlanta, where he led both times and won the pole for the summer race, but he crashed out of the lead in the March race and ran 18th in July. His only two top-ten finishes came on the short tracks, both a 6th at Martinsville and an 8th last month in Richmond. 

At Indianapolis, where he finished last in 2022, Almirola didn’t carry Smithfield black-and-white, but for the second time this season only ran a dark blue car with logos for Ford. His was one of 39 drivers entered for 40 spots - a field complemented by multiple international road course stars. In practice, Almirola ranked 33rd in practice, then in qualifying placed 17th in Round 1A, securing him 33rd on the starting grid with a lap of 98.064mph (89.537 seconds).

Securing 39th and last on the grid was William Byron, whose #24 Axalta Chevrolet was prohibited from qualifying after he failed pre-race inspection three times. This would also incur a pass-through penalty after Sunday’s race. Byron was the only driver to not take time in qualifying, though 38th-place Kevin Harvick flat-spotted a tire during his qualifying lap in the #4 Mobil 1 Ford, accounting for an unusually slow lap. Byron would also incur a redundant tail-end penalty before the start, joined by Australian Supercars point leader Brodie Kostecky, who was sent to a backup car for a crash in Turn 11 while qualifying 11th in Richard Childress’ #33 Mobile X Chevrolet. Kostecky went to a backup car, and during the pace laps on Sunday dropped to the inside of Row 19, behind Harvick and alongside Mike Rockenfeller in the #42 Sunseeker Resort Chevrolet.

Due to a repositioning of the Restart Zone to the short chute between Turns 13 and 14, the field began to spread out by the time they reached the yard of bricks to take the green flag. At that moment, Byron had climbed to 38th, 9.262 seconds back of the leader, dropping Kostecki to last, with a gap of 9.604. Coming around to complete Lap 1, Kostecki slipped past Byron as the #24 continued straight at Turn 13 to enter pit road for his pass-through. He reached the stripe 24.605 seconds back of the lead, 11.504 behind Rockenfeller, who took over 38th after Kostecki passed him. But no sooner had Byron returned to the track when trouble broke out.

Heading into Turn 5, Justin Haley’s #31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Chevrolet was running to the left of Joey Logano’s #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford. Haley took the corner wide, giving Logano a lane, but the #22 clipped a rumble strip, bouncing his Ford into Haley’s right-front. This immediately put Haley into the grass, sending his car sliding out of control into the waiting tire barrier. The impact grabbed the car’s left-front and spun it counter-clockwise, crushing in the nose and damaging the right-front. This pointed him the right way, and he returned to the pits under caution, the left side of his car heavily damaged. On Lap 3, Byron dropped Haley to last place, and the crew set to work. The most glaring issue was the right-front wheel, which the team struggled to remove before it was finally changed. Due to a lack of internet signal, the team had no idea how much time they had on the “Crash Clock,” so after cutting away some of the left-front fender and applying bear bond to the splitter sent him back out, one lap down. Haley cleared minimum speed on Lap 7, followed by Logano on Lap 8 following a spin of his own in Turn 1.

As it turned out, Haley’s accident brought out the only caution of the day, which meant a long 77-lap run to the finish in a heavily damaged car. A lack of stage cautions led to a variety of pit road strategies, during which Haley went from one to two laps down. On Lap 33, Haley was joined by teammate A.J. Allmendinger, who after contact from Ryan Blaney in Turn 13 flat-spotted the tires on his #16 Dyna-Gro Seed Chevrolet. When Allmendinger pitted, he fell a lap down, putting both Kaulig Racing cars in 38th and 39th. On the 34th lap, Haley made his first stop since the crash, dropping him a second lap down. He got it back during the remaining stops, only to lose it again on Lap 42 as the leaders passed him on track. On Lap 47, Haley thought he had a tire going down, but the spotter cleared him, and his crew told him he didn’t need to pit. 

On Lap 60, Todd Gilliland wrecked his #38 gener8tr Skills Ford on the short chute between Turns 11 and 12, resulting in heavy damage to the right-front. Since he was close to both the run-off area on the oval track’s first corner and pit road, Gilliland made it to pit road without drawing the caution and returned to the race two laps down in 38th. As Gilliland cleared the “Crash Clock,” he nearly took last from Haley, but Haley made a stop of his own, dropping him a third lap down. Haley’s crew discovered one of his wheels had come loose during the previous run, and the driver considered whether he was feeling the same sensation again. “It fucking sucks,” said Haley on Lap 79. “Copy on the fucking sucks,” answered the crew.

Almirola (center-left) stopped on pit road as the leaders take the checkered flag.

The next time by on Lap 80, there were just two laps to go. By then, Aric Almirola had climbed to the 19th spot, climbing back up the ranks after he lost a lap during stops back on Lap 46. But heading through the final few turns, Almirola ran out of fuel and coasted slowly down pit road. His car came to a stop directly alongside the stall of then-leader Michael McDowell, and just a few feet short of the starting line. This credited Almirola with just 79 completed laps with all 38 of the remaining starters still under power, each within three laps of the leader. 

The preliminary results with only the top-ten finishers completing the distance
shows Haley in last place with Almirola in 36th.
IMAGE: NASCAR Timing and Scoring

When the white flag flew, Almirola’s car was still stopped on pit road and plummeting down the rankings. As the first 10 drivers completed the 82nd and final lap, taking the checkered flag, NASCAR first scored Almirola 36th on the same lap as the final three cars of Haley, Gilliland, and Kyle Busch, whose #8 3CHI Chevrolet had engine trouble. But when the rest of the field reached the stripe – 22 lead-lap cars in all – Almirola took last from Haley. The #10 was exactly one lap behind Haley, Gilliland, and Busch. Rounding out the Bottom Five was Erik Jones, who had transmission issues on his #43 Allegiant Chevrolet midway through the race.

By stopping directly alongside Michael McDowell's stall, Almirola's car was in the background of the team's resulting celebrations. 

Almirola's on-board as McDowell's crew celebrates.

McDowell returns to victory lane, Van Gisbergen 10th in second start

Scoring a surprising win was Playoff contender Michael McDowell, who earned his second career Cup Series victory and first since his 2021 Daytona 500. McDowell’s #34 Horizon Hobby Ford took the lead from polesitter Daniel Suarez under green and waged a race-long battle with both he and Chase Elliott, ultimately beating Elliott by nine-tenths of a second. The win places McDowell into his second Playoff field.

Leading the international road racer contingent was Shane Van Gisbergen, who finished 10th in his first Cup Series start since his breakthrough win on the streets of Chicago. Van Gisbergen’s #91 Enhance Health Chevrolet qualified 8th on the grid and battled among the Top 10 for most of the day, including several battles with the #20 Rheem / PSC Industries – Johns Manville Toyota of Christopher Bell, who finished 9th.

*Had Almirola’s reason out been listed as “out of fuel” instead of “running,” it would have been the first in the history of NASCAR’s top three series.
*This was the first Cup Series last-place finish of 2023 for Stewart-Haas Racing.

39) #10-Aric Almirola / 79 laps / running
38) #31-Justin Haley / 80 laps / running
37) #38-Todd Gilliland / 80 laps / running
36) #8-Kyle Busch / 80 laps / running
35) #43-Erik Jones / 81 laps / running

1st) Spire Motorsports (4)
2nd) Live Fast Motorsports, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing (3)
3rd) Joe Gibbs Racing, Legacy Motor Club, Rick Ware Racing (2)
4th) Hendrick Motorsports, Kaulig Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Trackhouse Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (15)
2nd) Ford (6)
3rd) Toyota (2)


No comments: