Sunday, August 20, 2023

CUP: One week after breakthrough victory, Michael McDowell adds to last-place record


by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Michael McDowell picked up the 36th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Go Bowling at the Glen at Watkins Glen International when his #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford fell out with electrical issues after 74 of 90 laps.

The finish, which came in McDowell’s 454th series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup race since September 5, 2021 at Darlington, 70 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 37th for the #34, the 43rd from electrical issues, and the 733rd for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 57th for the #34, the 138th from electrical issues, and the 1,017th for Ford.

When McDowell was last featured here, he’d just qualified for his first-ever Playoff appearance earned from his first career victory in the Daytona 500, the third win for Front Row Motorsports. The crash that left McDowell last that night at Darlington ultimately led to his early elimination from the Round of 16. But in 2022, with the introduction of NASCAR’s new NextGen car, McDowell put together an even better season. While winless, he earned a career-best 12 top-ten finishes and finished 3rd at Sonoma. The key difference seemed to be the NextGen’s inspiration from road racing series, though McDowell also impressed on the ovals. This year, he built on this success, pointing his way into the Playoff field before last week scoring a dominant victory on the Indianapolis Grand Prix Circuit.

McDowell arrived at The Glen with a more than realistic chance of going two-for-two. He ran 9th-fastest of the 36 entrants in opening practice, ranked 2nd in Qualifying Round 1A behind only eventual race winner William Byron, then in Round 2 secured 3rd on the grid with a lap of 124.944mph (70.859 seconds).

Securing the 36th and final starting spot for Sunday was Ty Dillon, whose #77 Ferris Commercial Mowers Chevrolet was the only car clocking in over 72 seconds on his lap. He’d be joined by five drivers for unapproved adjustments. Corey LaJoie, Dillon’s teammate at Spire Motorsports, qualified an impressive 10th in the #7 Gainbridge Chevrolet, only to require repairs on a leaky left-front shock. Justin Haley gave up 20th for a spring adjustment made on his #31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Chevrolet during qualifying. Brad Keselowski surrendered 24th for an ECU issue on his #6 Ford. Also docked were 27th-place Aric Almirola in the #10 Go Bowling Ford and Cole Custer in the 34th-place #51 Biohaven / Jacob Companies Ford.

After Bubba Wallace fired his engine after a starter issue on his 12th-place #23 McDonald’s Toyota, the penalized drivers dropped to the back. Due to most of them starting in even-numbered starting spots, last-place qualifier Ty Dillon now had four drivers behind him with LaJoie, Haley, Keselowski, and Custer completing the left lane. Josh Bilicki, who originally started 35th in the #78 Zeigler Auto Group Chevrolet, moved up just one row with Almirola behind him in the right lane. On the break, this put Ty Dillon up to 28th with Custer now in last place, 3.579 seconds back of the leader and about one-tenth behind both Almirola and Keselowski. Almirola cleared Keselowski for 34th, and at the end of Lap 1, the final two cars were 0.328 second apart. The gap from Custer to Keselowski remained around four-tenths of a second until Lap 5, when Daniel Suarez lost control exiting the Inner Loop and nearly wrecked his #99 Freeway Insurance Chevrolet. As Suarez got back up to speed in 24th, Custer closed to within 0.395 second of Keselowski. 

Once again, the gap stayed the same until Lap 8, when contact from Erik Jones’ #43 Allegiant Chevrolet into Andy Lally’s #15 Camping World Ford spun Harrison Burton’s #21 Dex Imaging Ford at Turn 5. Like Suarez, Burton avoided hitting the wall, but did drop to last place on Lap 9 as he came down pit road for fresh tires. Burton returned to the track the only car one lap down. Surrounded by the leaders, Burton was encouraged by his team to learn from them the best way around the track. The leaders then began to pit soon after, putting Burton back on the lead lap on the 24th circuit, but the driver radioed that he was “falling off pretty hard – free.” On Lap 29, Burton’s crew told him he’d have to run another 13 laps before his next stop unless the caution fell. But on Lap 31, just after the leaders put him a lap down again, Burton felt his car struggle to turn and radioed he had a tire going down in Turn 6. He made it to pit road, where the crew took half-rounds out of both rear tires. Burton returned to the race, saying something was wrong in the front of the car and that it still struggled to make left-hand turns. Burton believed it to be a shock, not the steering box, though it was later revealed to be a faulty control arm. 

Chase Briscoe and his stuck left-rear wheel.
PHOTO: Zach Leffler, @Zeffler9

The race remained green, and by Lap 41, the leaders put other cars a lap down, taking the “Lucky Dog” away from the trailing Burton. First to be lapped was Ty Dillon, the last-place qualifier, who had run his tires longer than other cars around him after his last stop on Lap 17. He pitted on Lap 43. Also struggling was Chase Briscoe, whose crew discovered around this time that the left-rear wheel couldn’t be removed during a tire change. Forced to run his left-rear tire much longer, Briscoe tumbled to 35th after his stop on Lap 46, then to last on Lap 47. “I know it’s not fun with that left-rear tire on there, just hang on,” said Briscoe’s crew on Lap 51. 

Briscoe was still in last place when the day’s only caution fell on Lap 54. A catastrophic miscalculation led to Chase Elliott running out of fuel on the backstretch, ending a top-ten run for the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet. Elliott lost a lap waiting for a push truck to com to his aid, dropping him to 33rd on Lap 56, then 35th on Lap 57. He returned to the track under the yellow, during which time Briscoe’s crew struggled and failed to remove their stuck left-rear wheel during the first of two yellow-flag stops. “It’s welded on there,” the crew told him, estimating they wouldn’t have time to fix it without falling out of the race. At the time, all 36 cars were running with their own car still within one lost lap of the leader.

The race restarted on Lap 61, and by the next lap, Briscoe still managed pass Ty Dillon, dropping the #77 to last place. That same lap saw Elliott take 33rd, putting him in the Lucky Dog spot should another caution fall. Ty Dillon’s crew told their spotter to keep encouraging their driver, which helped by Lap 74 as Dillon caught and passed Briscoe, putting the #14 back in last place. The next time by, McDowell entered the last-place battle.

McDowell's car is pushed back to the garage.

After running a flawless race in Indianapolis, the Watkins Glen round for McDowell was anything but. After taking the lead from polesitter Denny Hamlin and leading 17 laps, claiming Stage 1 in the process, McDowell drove through one too many pit boxes on his approach to his first stop, earning him a pass-through, then another penalty for a crewman over the wall too soon. He still climbed to within 6.267 seconds of the leader on Lap 75 when his car suddenly slowed on the approach to Turn 5, the exhaust note sounding flat. He made it to pit road, where the crew retrieved a replacement battery, but McDowell couldn’t re-fire the engine. The crew looked under the hood, their car quickly taking last from Briscoe on Lap 77, but time was running out. On Lap 78, with no other cars out of the race, the crew chief said “Yeah, we’re gonna be done here. Don’t worry about it.” The crew pushed #34 backwards into the first garage opening, looked under the hood again, then by Lap 83 pushed it into a garage stall. The issue occurred so close to the finish of the race that NASCAR’s official couldn’t relay the reason out.

In the final few laps, Briscoe pulled his #14 onto pit road, where the crew spent several laps trying to remove the left-rear wheel but to no avail. He ended up 35th, seen laps down. Ty Dillon, Harrison Burton, and Chase Elliott completed the Bottom Five as the only other cars off the lead lap, Elliott stranded in the Lucky Dog spot.

*McDowell completed the second-most laps of a Cup Series last-place finisher at Watkins Glen. The record remains with Max Papis, who turned 81 laps before a crash in 2008.
*It was McDowell’s first Cup Series last-place finish at Watkins Glen, and the first at the track for the #34.
*McDowell is the first driver to both lead a lap and finish last in the same Cup race at Watkins Glen. Only 19 other Cup races have seen the last-place finisher lead more laps than he did on Sunday.
*McDowell is the first race winner to finish last the following race since August 27, 2022, when Watkins Glen winner Kyle Larson lost an engine after 14 laps around Daytona.

36) #34-Michael McDowell / 74 laps / electrical / led 17 laps / won stage 1
35) #14-Chase Briscoe / 83 laps / running
34) #77-Ty Dillon / 89 laps / running
33) #21-Harrison Burton / 89 laps / running
32) #9-Chase Elliott / 89 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) Front Row Motorsports, Hendrick Motorsports, Kaulig Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Trackhouse Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (15)
2nd) Ford (7)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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