Sunday, February 22, 2015

CUP: Landon Cassill’s Engine Explodes, Ignites Early In Daytona 500

SOURCE: NASCAR Media
Landon Cassill picked up the 6th last-place finish of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career in Sunday’s 57th Annual Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #40 Carsforsale.com Chevrolet fell out with an engine failure after he completed 18 of the race’s 203 laps.  The finish came in Cassill’s 152nd series start.

This was Cassill’s first last-place finish in the series since last fall at Texas, three races ago, when he lost the engine on his #40 Hillman Racing Chevrolet after 134 laps of the AAA Texas 500.

Cassill arrived at Daytona to begin his sixth Cup Series season and his third in a row driving for co-owners Joe Falk and Mike Hillman.  In 2014, the first full-season run for Hillman’s #40, Cassill raced his way into the Daytona 500 field and finished 12th, then soldiered through a tough three-race stretch where he failed to qualify for the next rounds at Phoenix and Las Vegas, then made the show at Bristol only to lose his primary car in a vicious practice crash.  Carrying a variety of sponsors, Cassill made it through the remainder of the season, finishing 11th and a career-best 4th in the two races at Talladega.  He also finished 12th in the XFINITY Series point standings, where he’s chosen to remain eligible for points in 2015.

With 49 cars on the Daytona 500 entry list for the second-consecutive year (following the withdrawal of Joe Nemechek’s self-prepared #87 Chevrolet), Cassill hoped to rely on his restrictor-plate successes of the year before.  He timed in 34th in the opening session, then jumped to 9th in the second as cars started to practice drafting.  Last Sunday’s controversial qualifying session left Cassill just 47th-fastest of the 49 competitors, meaning that he would have to once again race his way in through Thursday’s Budweiser Duels.

On Wednesday, Cassill improved again to 22nd-fastest in the third session and sat out the fourth, avoiding involvement in the multi-car pileup triggered by Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin.  Choosing to sit out the fourth session early Thursday, Cassill rolled out 23rd in Duel Race #1 that night.  After three cautions, Cassill found himself closing on the lead pack at exactly the right time, securing him a 9th-place finish and the 17th place on the grid for his third Daytona 500.

Cassill did not participate in the next practice session, but ranked 22nd of 25 and 21st of 35 in the final two, all the while keeping his #40 intact.

Bobby Labonte, making his first start in Frankie Stoddard’s #32 C&J Energy Services Ford previously driven by Bobby’s brother Terry, secured the 43rd starting spot in the 500 field, but the field shuffled completely to nine backup cars, two driver changes, and an engine change falling to the rear.  Joining this “to the back” group was Mike Wallace, who’d made his first 500 field since 2007 in Premium Motorsports’ #66 Crazy Vapors / X8 Energy Gum Toyota.  Wallace held the last spot at the start, passed the backup car of A.J. Allmendinger on Lap 3, then retook it by Lap 7.  By then, Wallace had fallen 3 seconds behind the rest of the field and was about to lose a lap.

Then, as the leaders exited Turn 2 on Lap 19, smoke burst from beneath Cassill’s #40.  He made it safely from the high lane to the apron, but as the caution fell, flames burst from beneath his Chevrolet.  Cassill stopped at the entrance of Turn 3 and safely got out of his ride.  Crews extinguished the flames quickly and the car was towed to the garage area, out of the race.

Besides Cassill’s blown engine, the only other on-track incident during the first 161 laps occurred on Lap 42, when Tony Stewart lost control off Turn 4 and slid into the #21 Motorcraft Ford of Ryan Blaney, making his Daytona 500 debut.  Matt Kenseth, who led much of the previous week’s Sprint Unlimited and Budweiser Duel Race #1, was rear-ended by Michael Waltrip, damaging both their Toyotas.  Stewart’s damage kept him behind the wall for so long that he only briefly returned to the track before parking for good with 61 to go.  Kenseth could only manage 35th while Blaney lost the engine late and finished 39th.

Between Stewart and Blaney was Brad Keselowski, whose engine on his #2 Miller Lite Ford also let go on the backstretch while running near the front inside the final 50 laps.  J.J. Yeley, who went behind the wall for what may have been a mechanical issue, returned to the track after Keselowski’s exit to pass him on the track, leaving his #23 MAXIM Fantasy Sports / Dr. Pepper Toyota in 40th.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This was the first last-place finish for the #40 in a Sprint Cup Series points-paying race at Daytona since July 4, 1977 when D.K. Ulrich’s #40 Hair Shack Chevrolet lost the engine after 4 laps of the Firecracker 400.  It is the first last-place finish for both the #40 and Cassill in the Daytona 500.
*This marks the fourth time in the last five Daytona 500s that the last-place finisher fell out with an engine failure in the first 50 laps.  The lone exception is David Ragan’s involvement in a Lap 2 crash in 2012.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
43) #40-Landon Cassill / 18 laps / engine
42) #14-Tony Stewart / 72 laps / crash
41) #2-Brad Keselowski / 160 laps / engine
40) #23-J.J. Yeley / 161 laps / running / led 1 lap
39) #21-Ryan Blaney / 175 laps / engine

2015 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER’S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Landon Cassill (1)

2015 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER’S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) #40-Hillman Racing (1)

2015 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER’S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (1)

XFINITY: Dexter Bean Exits Before Daytona Chaos In NASCAR Return

SOURCE: NASCAR Media
Dexter Bean picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Alert Today Florida 300 at the Daytona International Speedway when his unsponsored #92 King Autosport Chevrolet fell out with fuel pump issues after he completed 5 of the race’s 120 laps.  The finish came in Bean’s 2nd series start.

Bean was one of several drivers at Daytona who was making a return to NASCAR after a long absence.  An ARCA driver with 9 top-five finishes in 70 ARCA starts from 2005 through 2008, Bean entered NASCAR on October 28, 2006 when the 19-year-old made his XFINITY Series debut at Memphis, coming home 32nd in Jeff Spraker’s #63 Ford.

In 2009, Bean made a push to enter the Sprint Cup Series, driving a black #51 Dodge fielded by his family.  He qualified for just one of his seven attempts - a 36th at Pocono in a car sponsored by Livewire Energy.  Qualifying was rained-out for the Pocono race, but Bean edged Derrike Cope for the 43rd starting spot based on his number of attempts that season.  Bean also made three Truck Series starts that year, earning a career-best 17th at the Milwaukee Mile.  The #12 he drove that day was owned by Canadian owner-driver Mario Gosselin, whose wife and Bean’s are sisters.

On February 16, it was announced that Gosselin and Bean had reunited for 2015 to compete in the XFINITY Series.  Gosselin, a journeyman driver with 19 wins in 7 seasons on the X-1R Pro Cup tour, had resurrected his King Autosport team last season with newcomer Martin Roy behind the wheel, earning a best finish of 30th at Phoenix.  However, when Roy was injured while skiing in the offseason, Gosselin changed his plans to run a new team car, #92, and took the helm of #90.  This left the seat in the #92 open for Gosselin’s brother-in-law.

Gosselin and Bean were among the 47 set to compete to make their way into Saturday’s 40-car field.  In practice, they were 14th and 36th, respectively, then 18th and 10th (out of 31) in Happy Hour.  When the dust settled on another crash-marred qualifying session, both drivers had made the show - Gosselin in 37th at an average speed of 183.475 mph and Bean in 30th, running 185.056.  For Bean, it was his first start in the series since his 2006 debut.  For Gosselin, it was his first as a driver in 15 years, dating back to a 42nd-place finish at Gateway on July 29, 2000.
Dexter Bean on pit road
SOURCE: Rob Dostie

Just five laps into Saturday’s race, Bean pulled his car onto pit road (as captured by LASTCAR photographer Rob Dostie), then pulled out of the race.  The remainder of the Bottom Five wasn’t finalized until a grinding crash on Lap 92 when rookie Daniel Suarez’ #18 ARRIS Toyota lost control off the fourth corner, colliding with the #7 Hellman’s / Kroger Chevrolet of Regan Smith and triggering a 12-car melee.  The collected Ryan Sieg, Scott Lagasse, Jr., and Chad Boat were ranked between Suarez and the tumbling Smith.

Lagasse, Jr.’s #10 entry was originally qualified by his teammate, three-time LASTCAR XFINITY Champion Jeff Green, who secured the 22nd spot in a flat white unsponsored Toyota.  However, when Lagasse, Jr. was unable to get his #19 Alert Today Florida / Boy Scouts of America entry into the show, Lagasse, Jr. traded rides, and the TriStar Motorsports team managed to re-skin the car just in time for the start of the race.  Unfortunately, the nose of the car was destroyed in the Suarez-Smith wreck, ending his run.

Gosselin finished 15th in the race, his best-career XFINITY Series finish.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This is the first last-place finish by the #92 in a XFINITY Series race since Michigan since June 15, 2013, when Dexter Stacey’s Maddie’s Place Ford crashed after 6 laps of the Alliance Truck Parts 250.  The number had never before finished last in a series race at Daytona.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #92-Dexter Bean / 5 laps / fuel pump
39) #18-Daniel Suarez / 91 laps / crash
38) #39-Ryan Sieg / 92 laps / crash
37) #10-Scott Lagasse, Jr. / 92 laps / crash
36) #84-Chad Boat / 92 laps / crash

2015 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Dexter Bean (1)

2015 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) #92-King Autosport (1)

2015 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (1)

TRUCKS: Penalty Drops Justin Marks Into Middle of Daytona Truck Crash

SOURCE: NASCAR Media
Justin Marks picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career in Friday’s NextEra Energy Resources 250 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #35 American Born Moonshine / GoPro Motorplex Toyota was involved in a ten-truck accident that ended his run after 12 of the race’s 100 laps.  The finish came in Marks’ 36th series start.

Marks arrived at Daytona looking to compete in all three of track’s major opening events.  Unfortunately, his bid to make his first Daytona 500 field ended Thursday night when his #29 Toyota fielded by RAB Racing finished 18th in Duel Race #1, narrowly missing a transfer spot for what would have been his first Cup race since his series debut at Sonoma in 2013.  On Saturday, Marks and RAB started outside-pole for the XFINITY Series opener, only this time he was collected in a grinding 12-car pileup on Lap 94 that left him 34th.  This added to the frustrations of a difficult Friday night in Trucks.

For the Truck Series event, Marks picked up a ride with Win-Tron Racing, the Kevin Cywinski-owned team which fielded ARCA driver Mason Mingus for most of 2014.  With the 2015 Truck Series fields pared down from 36 starters to 32, many the 37 competitors on the entry list would all have to race their way in through qualifying.  Marks looked to be a safe bet - he timed in 16th in the opening practice session and 12th in Happy Hour - but he still managed only the 27th starting spot with an average speed of 183.505 mph.

Regardless, Marks was set to make his first Truck Series race since Atlanta in the fall of 2011, when he finished 28th in a one-off for ThorSport.  Mingus, his predecessor, was the fastest of the five drivers to miss the field.

NASCAR’s problematic new qualifying format left two-time defending series champion Matt Crafton in the 31st spot alongside Timothy Peters, who was sent to a backup truck after tangling with Norm Benning during the session.  By Lap 3, however, Marks had taken the spot, penalized for changing lanes at the start.  Marks returned to the track by himself, several seconds behind the field, and was lapped by Lap 9.

Just three laps later, Marks was running in a second slower pack of traffic when trouble broke out in front of him.  Austin Hill, making his 3rd series start, topped the charts in the opening practice session.  Hill’s #82 A&D Welding Ford was running among the leaders when the left-rear tire came apart, sending him spinning into traffic.  As he slowed with the rest of the field, Marks was rear-ended by the #1 Eagle Convenience Stores Chevrolet of Donnie Neuenberger, triggering a second wreck that took out both competitors.

Marks, Neuenberger, and Hill were joined in the Bottom Five by Justin Boston in the #54 BitPay Toyota.  Damaged in the first wreck, Boston’s steering broke on Lap 27, sending him into the inside wall off Turn 2.  Two laps behind him was another damaged truck, the #11 Local Motors Toyota of Ben Kennedy, who slowed unexpectedly entering Turn 3 on Lap 50.  When NASCAR failed to throw the caution in time, the leaders checked-up as they passed Kennedy’s truck, triggering a wreck that collected another 11 contenders.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This is the first last-place finish for Win-Tron and its #35 since last fall at Las Vegas, six races ago, when Charles Lewandoski’s unsponsored Toyota had a vibration after 5 laps of the Rhino Linings 350.  The number had not finished last in the Daytona event since the crash-marred inaugural on February 18, 2000, when David Starr’s #35 Unified Office Network Chevrolet lost the engine after 10 laps of the Daytona 250.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
32) #35-Justin Marks / 12 laps / crash
31) #1-Donnie Neuenberger / 13 laps / crash
30) #82-Justin Hill / 13 laps / crash
29) #54-Justin Boston / 18 laps / crash
28) #11-Ben Kennedy / 20 laps / crash

2015 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Justin Marks (1)

2015 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) #35-Win-Tron Racing (1)

2015 LASTCAR TRUCK SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Toyota (1)

Friday, February 20, 2015

CUP: Casey Mears Scores Second Last-Place Finish In Five Duel Races

SOURCE: NASCAR Media
Casey Mears finished last in Thursday’s Budweiser Duel #1 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #13 GEICO Chevrolet lost the engine after 17 of 60 laps.

A year ago, in Duel Race #2, Mears was in danger of missing the 500 field for the second time in four years.  Alone and out-of-touch with the rest of the pack after a late-race miscue, Mears suddenly saw a huge wreck unfold, sending Clint Bowyer’s Toyota high into the air.  The wreck jumped Mears to the 14th position, locking him into Sunday’s show.  A 10th-place finish in the 2014 Daytona 500 was followed by a 14th at Phoenix that put him 10th in points, but even with just one DNF by season’s end, he’d slipped to 26th in the standings with just 3 Top Tens and a season-best 4th in the rain-shortened July race at Daytona.

For 2015, Mears brought his familiar white and blue #13 Chevrolet to the track, but only managed 33rd-fastest in Sunday’s qualifying session.  Through the week, he’d timed in 30th in the opening practice, improved to 17th in the second, then 8th of 44 in the third on Wednesday.  He ran just two laps in the fourth session Wednesday afternoon, ranking 22nd of 32, then passed on the next session to prepare for Duel Race #1 the next day.

At the start of Thursday’s race, the three backup cars driven by Clint Bowyer, Michael Annett, and J.J. Yeley briefly traded the last spot before conceding it to Ron Hornaday, Jr., who by Lap 6 had fallen nine seconds behind the rest of the field.

Hornaday, looking to make his first Cup start since the 2003 finale at Homestead and his first Daytona 500 start since 2001, was running his first competitive laps in the #30 Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff Chevrolet.  The car was owned by Curtis Key, who had struggled in recent years to make ends meet in his XFINITY (formerly Nationwide) Series team, often fielding a number of “start-and-park” entries to fund the primary #40.

In the Duel race, as in practice, Hornaday struggled to find speed and, by Lap 6, had completely lost touch with the rest of the field.  On Lap 18, he was in position to lose a lap to race leader Trevor Bayne when trouble broke out in Turn 1.

Mears, who was running three-wide in the high lane in 11th, lost the motor, spewing oil onto the nose of Tony Stewart’s #14.  As the caution fell, Mears managed to get to the inside safely, averting what could easily have been a multi-car pileup.  The caution, the first of the night, allowed the leaders to pit, but sent Mears to the garage area and out of the race.

The first crash of the evening began to fill the rest of the Bottom Five.  On Lap 28, Johnny Sauter, who was 13th-fastest Sunday in BK Racing’s #83 Dustless Blasting Toyota, crossed the nose of A.J. Allmendinger’s #47 Kroger / USO Chevrolet coming off Turn 4, sending Sauter’s car sliding the infield grass and ripping away the #83's front splitter.  Allmendinger, who had avoided practice for most of the week in hopes of avoiding this very scenario, found himself on the hook with the right-front torn up.

22nd-place Trevor Bayne, in his second appearance driving the #6 AdvoCare Ford for Roush-Fenway Racing, was responsible for the first lead change of the day when he passed Matt Kenseth on Lap 18.  On Lap 53, however, he also brought out the final caution when he spun in the high lane in Turn 1, collecting Kyle Larson and Ty Dillon in the process.  Bayne managed to stay on the lead lap, but still finished one spot behind Hornaday, who was the only member of the Bottom Five to miss the field for the Daytona 500.

Johnny Sauter, meanwhile, still secured the 36th spot in the 500 based on his qualifying speed, locking him into his first Daytona 500 since 2007, when he came home 16th in the #70 Yellow Transportation / HAAS Chevrolet for owner Gene Haas.  It will be Sauter’s first Cup start since last August at Pocono, when he finished last for BK Racing driving the team’s 2014 LASTCAR Cup Owner’s Champion #93 Dr. Pepper Toyota.

Joining Sauter among the night’s underdog stories was 9th-place Landon Cassill, who for the second-straight season squeaked his way into the 500 field driving the #40 Carsforsale.com Chevrolet for Mike Hillman.  Cassill, who drove an unsponsored Hillman car to a 4th-place run last fall at Talladega, earned his first top-five finish in the series that day and seeks another on Sunday from the 17th position.

10th-place Cole Whitt, making his debut with Front Row Motorsports, threatened to finish in the Top Five during the Duel’s second half, indicating he would hardly need the owner points afforded him in a trade with teammate and past Daytona winner David Ragan.  Whitt, who endured a difficult rookie season in 2014 following the collapse of Swan Racing and move to BK Racing, will make his second 500 start on Sunday.  Ragan, who needed to race his way into the 500, did so by the narrowest of margins, recovering from a mid-race crash in Duel #2.  Ragan will roll out 28th, Whitt in 19th.

Finishing 12th was Michael McDowell, who after narrowly missing the 2014 field raced his way into the 500, giving the #95 Leavine Family Racing team its first 500 start since 2013.  It was during that same 2013 race that McDowell, then driving the same Phil Parsons entry driven Thursday by Wise, earned his first career top-ten finish, finishing 9th.  Sunday will be McDowell’s fourth start in the 500, following up a surprising 7th in the rain-shortened July race last year.  He will start 23rd.

One spot behind McDowell - both in the 2013 Daytona 500 and in the Duel race on Thursday - was J.J. Yeley, who locked-in a backup car from BK Racing.  Yeley’s #23 MAXIM Fantasy App / Dr. Pepper Toyota showed speed in Sunday’s qualifying session, briefly running as high as 3rd, but suffered right-side damage in the controversial crash between Clint Bowyer and Reed Sorenson, forcing him to a backup as well.  Yeley will now make his first 500 start since the 2013 running and take the green in 25th.

Following Yeley to the finish line in 14th was Michael Annett, who will also make his first start of the season in a backup car.  Making the move from a rookie season with Tommy Baldwin Racing to a sophomore at HScott Motorsports’ new second team, Annett faced a setback Wednesday when his #46 Pilot / Flying J Chevrolet wrecked after Danica Patrick tangled with Denny Hamlin entering Turn 4.  Annett will now make his second-straight start in the 500, and the first for the #46 since 2011, rolling out 27th.

And, when the dust settled on the two races, Mears secured the 41st starting spot for Sunday’s Daytona 500.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This was Mears’ second last-place finish in the Budweiser Duel, making him the only two-time last-place finisher of the event among active drivers.  His other finish came in 2011, when he also lost the engine on what was then Germain Racing’s #13 GEICO Toyota after only 2 laps.  Unlike Thursday’s race, that last-place finish cost Mears a start in the Daytona 500.
*This is the first last-place finish by a Chevrolet in either of the Budweiser Duel races since 2009, when Mike Skinner’s #23 Mahindra Tractors Chevrolet fielded by R3 Motorsports lost oil pressure after he completed 23 laps of Duel Race #1.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
25) #13-Casey Mears / 17 laps / engine
24) #83-Johnny Sauter / 27 laps / crash
23) #47-A.J. Allmendinger / 27 laps / crash
22) #6-Trevor Bayne / 60 laps / running
21) #30-Ron Hornaday, Jr. / 60 laps / running

CUP: Josh Wise Unable To Start His Duel - Or The 500

SOURCE: NASCAR Media
Josh Wise finished last in Thursday’s Budweiser Duel #2 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #98 Phoenix Construction / Curb Records Ford suffered electrical problems which allowed him to complete just 1 of the race’s 64 laps.

Wise and the Phil Parsons Racing team took a big step forward in 2014.  After three consecutive seasons as the LASTCAR Cup Series Champions with Michael McDowell, a manufacturer change to Chevrolet and a driver change with Josh Wise behind the wheel saw the team go without a last-place finish all season long.  Thanks to a crowd-funded Reddit effort, Wise not only ran competitively at both Talladega races, but earned the Fan Vote for the All-Star Race.

Heading into 2015, the Parsons team changed their car’s color from black to white, a scheme that debuted last November at Homestead.  For Daytona, the car would carry sponsorship from both co-owner Mike Curb’s record company as well as Phoenix Construction, the company owned by former #51 team owner James Finch.  The simple throwback scheme would debut at SpeedWeeks, where in 2014 Wise finished a strong 5th in Duel #1, earning him the 11th starting spot.

In qualifying, however, Wise put up just the 46th-fastest time overall out of 49 entrants, meaning that he would have to race his way into the 500 field.  He’d run 46th-fastest in last Saturday’s opening practice, 36th of 42 in the second session, then improved to 18th of 44 on Wednesday running in the draft before staying in the garage for the next two sessions.  All seemed ready for Wise to make his move on Thursday night.

As the field warmed up during the parade and pace laps, concerns arose around Carl Edwards’ new #19 ARRIS Toyota out of Joe Gibbs Racing, which had developed a soft brake pedal after a mistake while bleeding the brakes earlier that day.  While Edwards was rolling in the 3rd spot, Wise’s Ford stalled at pit entrance, complaining of an electrical issue with the fuel pick up.  The Parsons team faced a similar problem during last June’s race at Sonoma, where the team lost several laps trying to make repairs.  Though Wise’s car fired up when the race went green, the team soon pushed the car behind the wall.  He returned to the track 12 laps down, but after one circuit, went to the garage for good, knocking him from the 500 field.

Wise was the only retiree until Lap 36, when three drivers in new rides tangled in the tri-oval.  Rookie Jeb Burton in BK Racing’s #26 LiveDeal.com Toyota broke loose off Turn 4, then swerved into the right-rear of Sam Hornish, Jr.’s #9 Twisted Tea Ford out of the RPM stables, collecting Alex Bowman and his #7 Toy State / NIKKO Chevrolet fielded by Tommy Baldwin.  All three fell out of the race with two missing the 500 field: Burton, who would have made his Cup debut, and Bowman, who ended up with Baldwin’s first DNQ in the 500 since the team’s formation in 2009.

Rounding out the Bottom Five was Bobby Labonte, whose first start in the car his brother Terry drove in his final start last fall, the #32 C&J Energy Services Ford from Frank Stoddard’s Go FAS Racing, took a detour when he collided with the wrecking Danica Patrick on Lap 58.  With the right-front tire shredding away bodywork, Labonte made it back to the pits, only to drop more debris on the track when he returned, ultimately taking him out of contention for the final green-white-checkered finish.

However, as in Race 1, underdogs stole the show as several made the 500 field.  Positions 6 through 8 all went to feel-good stories:

6th-place Ryan Blaney became the second rookie in five years to qualify for the Daytona 500 driving the Wood Brothers’ iconic #21 Motorcraft Ford, and he’ll attempt to equal Trevor Bayne’s upset win in 2011 in what will be his 3rd series start.

7th-place Reed Sorenson suffered heartbreak on Sunday when he blocked Clint Bowyer to try and get Johnathan Cohen’s underfunded #44 Team XTREME Racing into its first 500 field.  Contact between the two cars sent both hard into the outside wall in Turn 1, and both cars were the most destroyed in the ensuing wreck.  While Sorenson was himself unsure if the team had a backup ready, Team XTREME finished their backup in less than a day, got it race-ready, and locked themselves into the show with a late-race rally.  It is Team XTREME’s first Cup start since last October at Martinsville and their first-ever start at a restrictor-plate track.  Sunday, the team looks to improve on their team-best 34th-place finish with J.J. Yeley last June at Sonoma.

8th went to Mike Wallace, the 55-year-old NASCAR veteran who’s biggest successes have historically come at the restrictor-plate tracks.  Last fall at New Hampshire, Wallace made his first Cup start since 2009 driving for Identity Ventures Racing (now Premium Motorsports), the former NEMCO-JRR Motorsports team that owner-driver Joe Nemechek had started years before.  Though other drivers complained about the #66 team maintaining minimum race speed, Wallace and team looked to make a statement at Daytona with sponsorship from a Crazy Vapors, a small business out of Georgia.  Wallace did just that, remaining inside the Top 10 for most of the race’s second half, and avenging back-to-back DNQs in 2010 and 2012 with his first 500 start since a stunning 4th-place finish in the 2007 running.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This is the first last-place finish in the Budweiser Duel for Wise, Phil Parsons Racing, and the #98.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
24) #98-Josh Wise / 1 lap / electrical
23) #7-Alex Bowman / 36 laps / crash
22) #26-Jeb Burton / 36 laps / crash
21) #9-Sam Hornish, Jr. / 36 laps / crash
20) #32-Bobby Labonte / 60 laps / crash

Sunday, February 15, 2015

CUP: Brad Keselowski Earns Penske’s First Sprint Unlimited Last-Place Finish

SOURCE: FOX Sports
Brad Keselowski finished last in Saturday’s running of the Sprint Unlimited at the Daytona International Speedway when his #2 Miller Lite Ford was involved in a single-car crash that ended his night after 22 of the race’s 75 laps.

Keselowski earned his spot in the season-opening exhibition event due to his 5 pole positions in 2014, a season where he and teammate Joey Logano quickly adapted to NASCAR’s new group qualifying procedure.

After a lackluster 2013, Keselowski rebounded to become the top seed in the 2014 Chase, winning the opening round at Chicagoland and squeezing into the penultimate Eliminator Round before he was eliminated at Phoenix.  Keselowski enjoyed the most victories of any of his previous seasons with 6 wins in total, good enough for 5th in points, but a pair of on-track altercations at Charlotte and Texas became far bigger stories.

At Daytona, the outspoken Keselowski looked to make a statement in an event where he’d finished no worse than 4th in two previous starts.  His white Ford was the last car on the track during Friday’s opening session, and his single-car runs left him the slowest of 25 entrants - the event’s biggest field since 2012.  Only 14 competitors ran in the evening’s Happy Hour, of which Keselowski put up the 9th-best time.  The rankings were academic, however, as he’d drawn the 4th starting spot for Saturday’s race.

The early laps of Saturday’s Unlimited were frantic, but clean, with several changes for last place.  As the first 25-lap segment segment unfolded, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. held the spot most often, though he briefly traded it with Clint Bowyer.  On Lap 8, Kyle Busch drifted to the back of the field along with Austin Dillon before Dillon took it on Lap 13.  On Lap 22, Busch and Dillon had just started to lose touch with the field when trouble broke out in the tri-oval.

Heading into the corner, Kyle Larson, making his Unlimited debut, attempted to slide into the 12th spot ahead of Keselowski in he outside line, but wasn’t clear.  Larson’s Chevrolet made contact with Keselowski’s left-front, causing Keselowski to check-up in front of a closing Clint Bowyer.  The two made contact, and Keselowski slid into the grass, tearing the front valence off his car before he slid up the track into the outside wall.  Fortunately, no other cars were involved - though the trailing Busch and Dillon had to drive through the grass to miss him - and Keselowski walked away unharmed.  His night, however, was over.

The remainder of the Bottom Five filled in 23 laps later when the biggest crash of the night took place just a few hundred yards up the track.  Bumped by Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray’s top-five car turned sideways in front of the pack, collecting 13 other cars, 6 of which failed to make it back around.  McMurray joined Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, and polesitter Paul Menard in the final five spots.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This was the first Sprint Unlimited last-place finish for Keselowski, team owner Roger Penske, and the #2 car.  It is also the third in a row for Ford, following the back-to-back early exits by all-time event leader Terry Labonte, who retired from Cup competition last October.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
25) #2-Brad Keselowski / 22 laps / crash / led 2 laps
24) #1-Jamie McMurray / 45 laps / crash / led 1 lap
23) #5-Kasey Kahne / 45 laps / crash
22) #48-Jimmie Johnson / 45 laps / crash
21) #27-Paul Menard / 45 laps / crash / led 7 laps

Sunday, November 23, 2014

LASTCAR EXTRA: One year later, Erik Davis and Always Evolving Racing drive in memory of team co-founders Paul Walker and Roger Rodas

Erik Davis and his Always Evolving Racing
Ford Mustang at Sonoma, 2014
SOURCE: Brock Beard
This past August at the Sonoma Raceway, I had the opportunity to cover the Pirelli World Challenge Series, a multi-divisional sports car series which runs 50-minute sprint races on road courses all across the country.  Parked in the series paddock near the entrance to Turn 7 were an eclectic collection of factory teams and independents who drove everything from the Ferrari 458 GT3 to the Kia Optima.

At the far end of all this, a single teal-and-white Mustang sat beneath a tent.  In front of the car was a blue fuel container with the name “Vin Diesel” scrawled on a strip of orange tape.  It was a peculiar sight, but not after noticing the logo on the reflective surface of the team’s hauler: Always Evolving Racing.

Predominately a tuner shop, Always Evolving began in the 1990s as Autobahn Exotics, established by Rich Taylor and his good friend, actor and producer Paul Walker.  Financial difficulties with the shop led Walker to Roger Rodas, a financial advisor and aspiring racer.  The two became close friends, and the team’s name was changed.

As part of Always Evolving’s reorganization, Rodas introduced Walker to Erik Davis, an SCCA racer, and in late 2012, the three planned to enter the World Challenge Series.  Walker’s film contracts prohibited him from competing, so Rodas and Davis would drive the team’s two cars in 2013.  They would run Mustangs as both had collected several older models over the years.

The two enjoyed a successful first season.  In a field of 45 entrants in the GTS division, Rodas came home 13th in points with Davis in 16th.  Rodas earned the team’s best finish - a 5th at Toronto.  All of this was accomplished without factory support.

“It’s definitely not a factory team,” said Davis during our interview.  “We’re effectively Ford customers.  We do enjoy some on-track support.  Ford comes here, as you know, there’s a lot of Mustang teams in the World Challenge, and so there’s factory representatives that are here.  But, you know, Ford’s here to sell cars and sell parts, so ultimately we’re a customer of Ford’s.  They do provide us some crash damage parts and stuff like that on a sponsorship basis, but not a factory effort by any means.”

On Saturday, November 30, 2013, Always Evolving was gearing up for an even better 2014 campaign.  That day, Rodas' #52 Mustang was on display at the shop as part of the their monthly car meet and charity drive.  Tragically, less than a mile away, Rodas and Walker would lose their lives in a single-car accident.  With so much said of Walker, I asked Davis about how he remembered Rodas:

“What I can tell you is Roger was one of my best friends on the earth.  He was a caring individual.  There’s probably a lot of people that would’ve said he was one of their best friends, which is a pretty interesting fact that very few people can actually say about another person.  He had a significant impact on a lot of people’s lives in a very positive way.  He was a loving father and a great husband and a tremendous businessman, and very astute, and I miss him a lot.”

In the media frenzy that followed, Davis stayed out of the public eye.  As Always Evolving’s last surviving co-founder, the responsibility was his to determine the team’s future.  He chose to keep the team going, moving out of Rodas’ shop in Valencia to his in Burbank, and again prepared to enter two cars in the World Challenge Series.  Belgian driver David Sterckx was tabbed to drive Rodas’ #52 while Davis remained in the #75, both in the same teal-and-white colors.  To honor both men, the team also continued its charitable relationships with the Mustard Seed Ranch and Dream Rides 4 Kids.

“For me personally,” said Davis, “it was important that we pay tribute, you know, to both Paul and Roger, and we did that in different ways for both of them.  In Roger's case, it's very visual and you can see it, and in Paul's case it's in more of an insider manner in which we did it.  We didn't ever want to appear like we're exploiting Paul or his name or anything along those lines, and ultimately, we wanted to respect his family's wishes.”

Sonoma was the next-to-last round of the 2014 World Challenge season.  When talking with Davis about how his season went, I was reminded of the struggles I’ve seen other teams face in my coverage of NASCAR.  In 1993, Alan Kulwicki lost his life in a plane crash less than five months after winning the series championship.  As an owner-driver, Kulwicki had made preparations for Jimmy Hensley to drive if such were to ever happen.  But the team still faced serious challenges as the rest of the staff tried to reorganize.

“We started out the season later than we would’ve liked based on, you know, the circumstances that occurred in November, so we started the season a little behind the 8-ball when you look at purely the racing effort.  Went into St. Pete, which is the first race of the season, and my car was totaled. . .We had David (Sterckx) and a spare that wouldn’t have been ready by Long Beach.  We elected to buy another car and engineer that for ourselves going to Long Beach.  And then we went into Long Beach two weeks later and David’s car was totaled in the first lap of Long Beach.  So, you know, tough way to start the season obviously.  We were forced to take a race off and ultimately got two cars ready.  So we own four cars currently, four Mustangs.  Three are race-ready, one is close to race-ready, although it will probably be kept inside the stable as a personal car for me, and once the season’s over, it’ll be retired.”

But, like Kulwicki’s team, Always Evolving has found a way to keep going, thanks in no small part to Davis’ efforts and the work of a close-knit crew.  On the Friday I spoke with him, Davis was called away for several meetings, and he is currently preparing for 2015.

“So, you know, as far as this season goes, we definitely didn’t achieve all of the things we wanted to achieve in the sense that we’re not gonna win a championship - that’s what every race team wants - but we did come out here and I feel represented the brand well.  We kept the brand alive.  We paid tribute to our two fallen friends, and ultimately created what I see as an opportunity to move forward with the brand in a much bigger way going into 2015 and into the future.  You’re gonna start to see some very interesting news coming out and we’re pretty proud of what we’ve been able to put together this year.”

In the second race at Sonoma, Davis finished 9th in the GTS division, his best finish of 2014.