Saturday, September 2, 2023

XFINITY: For the first time in Darlington history, the entire field finishes under power – even Kyle Larson with a stumbling engine

PHOTO: Stephen Stumpf, @stephen_stumpf

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Kyle Larson picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Sport Clip Haircuts VFW Help a Hero 200 at the Darlington Raceway when his #17 Chevrolet finished under power, 31 laps down, completing 117 of 147 laps.

The finish, which came in Larson’s 114th series start, was his first of the season and first in a XFINITY Series race since August 5, 2017 at Watkins Glen, 203 races ago. In the XFINITY Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 6th while under power, the 14th for the #17, and the 629th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 50th for the #17, the 55th finishing under power, and the 1,912th for Chevrolet.

For Larson, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Champion, Saturday was just his sixth XFINITY Series start since his championship season, all of which coming in the last two years. Prior to that, he ran six races for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2018, winning four of them including his last time out at Bristol. He returned last year with Hendrick Motorsports at Road America, where he ran car #17. 

The blue-red-and-white #17 paint scheme currently run by Hendrick Motorsports’ XFINITY program holds special significance for resembling the entries run by the late Ricky Hendrick. Larson’s car for Saturday featured an extra tribute on the passenger side door number: a small picture of the chalkboard drawing Ricky drew at a bar the night before he and nine others were killed in a private plane crash near Martinsville. 

Larson and the #17 entry have been particularly strong at Darlington, playing a role in the outcome of the last two straight XFINITY races there. Last fall, he caught then-leader Sheldon Creed in the final laps, leading to a three-car battle where he slipped to 5th behind eventual winner Noah Gragson. This past spring, he banged doors with John Hunter Nemechek off the final corner, sending Nemechek spinning into the wall as Larson cruised to victory. Larson nearly won again his last time out at Sonoma, only to make a mistake in Turn 11 that handed the win to fellow Cup regular Aric Almirola.

Larson began his double-duty weekend running 14th in practice, then qualified 12th with a lap of 163.310mph (30.112 seconds). He also qualified 18th for Sunday’s Southern 500. The lone DNQ for Saturday was Dawson Cram, who ran one of Alpha Prime Racing’s three Petty Enterprises “throwback” schemes from 2000-2003. Cram’s #44 Titan Construction and Development Chevrolet resembled Kyle Petty’s Georgia-Pacific Dodge from 2003.

Securing Saturday’s 38th and final starting spot was Patrick Emerling, whose black #35 Chevrolet carried a logo for Sci Aps on the hood. Both Emerling and his 32nd-place teammate Matt Mills in the #53 J.F. Electric Toyota incurred tail-end penalties for unapproved adjustments. The same penalty was handed to 5th-place Sam Mayer in the #1 Accelerate Pros Talent Chevrolet and 11th-place Sammy Smith in the #18 TMC Toyota. During the pace laps, Emerling and Mills were instructed to start nose-to-tail in the same line. But while Emerling remained in 38th at the green flag, 3.702 seconds back of the leader, Mills crossed the line in 35th ahead of both Mayer and Smith. 

Just prior to the start, Emerling reported his water gauge was starting to fluctuate around 250 degrees. He remained in last at the end of Lap 1, 5.18 seconds back, then by Lap 3 closed within 0.365 of new 37th-place runner Josh Williams, who was struggling with the handling on his #92 StarTron / Alloy Chevrolet. Williams then dropped Timmy Hill to 37th in Motorsports Business Management’s #66 CRC Brakleen Ford, which qualified a solid 29th. That time by, Emerling had pulled alongside Hill, the two just 0.088 second apart at the stripe. The two remained locked side-by-side the next time by, now just 0.020 apart, where Emerling inched ahead of the now last-place Hill. Hill dropped a half-second back of Emerling on Lap 7, then cut the deficit to just over three-tenths when the first caution fell on Lap 13. 

The yellow was for Sammy Smith, who after his pre-race penalty had climbed to about 20th place when he spun off Turn 4 and made contact with the inside wall with his left-front. Smith took over last place on Lap 13 as he pitted for four fresh tires, then lost a lap when he pitted a second time for the crew to bend his splitter back straight. Smith rejoined the field for the Lap 17 restart as the only car one lap down, only for Kyle Weatherman to follow the pace car down pit road for a flat tire on his #4 KSDT CPA Chevrolet. Weatherman returned to the race one lap down, taking last from Smith on Lap 18. Soon after on Lap 21, Brandon Jones lost control of his #9 Menards / Clearvue Cabinetry Chevrolet and barely caught it after he bumped Corey Heim’s #24 Toyota Outfitters Toyota to his outside. Heim cut a tire in the incident and made his own green-flag stop the next time by, dropping him to last on Lap 26. To save tires, Heim’s crew suggested he slow for the rest of Stage 1 to take the wave-around under yellow, but they almost lost a second lap in the process. 

On Lap 33, Josh Williams was still struggling in 35th when he lost a lap to the leaders, taking the Lucky Dog from 36th-place Sammy Smith. On Lap 38, Heim dropped Weatherman back to last place and the crew thought about changing tires again. On the 41st circuit, Williams dropped to last, and soon after drew the caution. By then, the Lucky Dog fell to Blaine Perkins in the neon-hued #02 To The Point Chevrolet. Williams’ right-front tire had blown, shredding off the fender of the #92 and dropping debris on the track. Williams made it to pit road for tires and adjustments while the crew used the saws-all to cut away the fender. This ultimately became a four-tire stop, including a packer, and sent him out between three and four laps down. He made a second stop for bear-bond on the right-side door. As the field prepared for the restart, still needing to meet minimum speed, the driver was told to pit early if his car fell off the pace again as that likely meant another tire would go down. Under Williams’ caution, Larson led Lap 47, his only lap led on Saturday.

On Lap 52, Williams cleared the “Crash Clock,” keeping all 38 cars under power. Three laps later, Anthony Alfredo’s #78 Ticket Smarter Chevrolet crossed the nose of Sam Mayer’s #1 coming off Turn 4, putting Alfredo nose-first into the outside wall. As Mayer fought radio issues and Alfredo a tight condition, both returned to the track as the final two cars on the lead lap. ith Sammy Smith getting his lap back, Weatherman now held the “Lucky Dog” ahead of Emerling, Hill, and Williams. By the 70th lap, Williams had gone a fourth lap down, while Emerling fell to 37th by Lap 72. In the final laps of Stage 2, Williams’ crew asked about an issue with the rear locker, but they too had issues with the team radio, so they weren’t able to hear their driver. The Stage 2 caution put Emerling back on the lead lap. Williams continued four laps down on Lap 97 to begin the final stage, and still held the spot through the following caution, where Kyle Sieg’s #28 RSS Racing Ford and Jeremy Clements’ #51 Booze Pops Chevrolet spun off Turn 4 with only Sieg bumped the wall. This caution earned Weatherman his “Lucky Dog.”

Larson back in the field late in the race.
PHOTO: Wargiven27, @WGiven27

It was under the Sieg / Clements caution that Kyle Larson made an extended stop, the crew looking under the hood. While finishing 3rd in both Stage 1 and Stage 2, Larson radioed he had a stumble in the engine, and the crew first planned to swap out the carburetor. By Lap 107, Larson had fallen three laps down to the 36th spot, then returned to the track. The crew told Larson if the engine stumbled again to come behind the wall. On the Lap 109 restart, Larson was now on the same lap as Williams. “It fired and then it shut off,” said Larson. “It hasn’t refired.” On Lap 110, Larson took last from Williams, then pushed the #17 backwards behind the wall. The crew continued their work and provided their driver a drink. By Lap 114, they called for a replacement fuel pump and fuel filter, having examined both the fuel cell and the electrical system. On Lap 127, Larson prepared to re-fire the engine, shut it off, then on Lap 134 returned to the track under a caution for Ryan Sieg’s spin in the #39 Sci Aps Ford. At the time, Larson was 29 laps down with all 38 cars still running. With 37th-place Williams still just five laps behind, this all but assured Larson last place. Larson pitted with the lapped cars for tires and fuel, still with one additional set remaining in their stall.

On Lap 139, Larson radioed “I think I’m blowing up,” but was saved by another caution for Parker Kligerman’s spin off the nose of Mayer exiting Turn 4. Larson returned to pit road – not the garage – and the crew looked over the plug wires, losing a 30th lap in the process. “I think it’s still got the same problem,” said the driver. Larson returned to the track, now 31 laps down, and prepared to start the green-white-checkered finish from a half-lap behind the leaders. In so doing, he asked which lane then-leader Austin Hill had selected – the inside. Larson was still on track at the checkered flag, reporting at the finish “the engine ran better there.”

No one else failed to finish the race. Williams remained in 37th with Emerling 36th, Kyle Sieg 35th, and Blaine Perkins 34th. 

Heim recovers from early issues

Corey Heim, who held last place after contact from Brandon Jones forced an unscheduled stop on Lap 22, bumped his way past Jones in the middle portion of the race and finished a strong 15th. The Truck Series regular has already shown promise at Darlington, where in only his second series start this past spring, he finished 10th with the same Sam Hunt Racing team.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #17 in a XFINITY Series race at Darlington since September 3, 2015, when Ryan Ellis’ turn in Rick Ware Racing’s #17 Navy Seals vs. Zombies Ford ended with suspension issues after 1 lap of this same race.
*Larson is the first XFINITY driver to finish last after leading at least one lap since July 18, 2020, when Kyle Busch was disqualified after leading 15 laps at Texas.
*This was the first time in Darlington’s history that entire NASCAR field finished under power for a Cup, XFINITY, or Truck Series points race. The only other time the last-place finisher came home under power was on March 21, 1999, when Ken Schrader’s #33 Skoal Chevrolet finished 89 laps down in a rain-shortened race where 35th-place Kenny Irwin, Jr. and 37th-place Ricky Craven were both eliminated in a late-race crash that collected race winner Jeff Burton.

38) #17-Kyle Larson / 117 laps / running / led 1 lap
37) #92-Josh Williams / 143 laps / running
36) #35-Patrick Emerling / 145 laps / running
35) #28-Kyle Sieg / 147 laps / running
34) #02-Blaine Perkins / 147 laps / running

1st) SS-Green Light Racing (4)
2nd) Alpha Prime Racing (3)
3rd) Big Machine Racing, CHK Racing, Emerling-Gase Motorsports, JD Motorsports (2)
4th) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, DGM Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Jordan Anderson Racing, Kaulig Racing, Motorsports Business Management, Our Motorsports, Sam Hunt Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (20)
2nd) Toyota (3)
3rd) Ford (2)


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