Charlotte Motor Speedway, October 7, 2017, 11:30 pm
At 3:00 pm today the NASCAR Xfinity Series garage sat full of race cars. They were supposed to be on the track. The 36th Annual Drive for the Cure 300 presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina on hold in a rain delay. Even the Air Titan jet dryers were quiet as the rain poured down.
By late afternoon the downpour stopped and track crews started drying the surface. The green flag dropped close to 8:30 pm. Five and a half hours late. Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regulars Daniel Suarez(18) and Erik Jones(20) started first and third. The Cup Series Rookie of the Year contenders teamed up and pulled away from the field.
The two battled for the lead with Jones passing Suarez on the lap 40 of the 45 making up Stage One. Three laps later the car of Angela Runch(78) spun exiting turn two, hitting the wall. The caution flag froze the field locking up the Stage win for Jones. Runch, the only woman in the field, also wrecked on lap 30. Her second spin of the night caused enough damage to retire the car to the garage.
Exiting the pits, after the caution flag stop, Suarez resumed the lead with Ryan Blaney(22) in second. Jones a few positions back quickly joined the two leaders and passed Blaney. Suarez held on to win Stage Two.
Final Stage Racing
At the start of the 110 lap final stage, Suarez again started at the front. The green flag sent the field scrambling for track position. As the cars sorted out the running order. Blaney ran in second, Alex Bowman(42) in third, Sam Hornish Jr.(12) in fourth, and David Hemric(21) in fifth. Jones settled into the sixth spot. Hemric faded to tenth early in the final stage while Austin Dillon(2) worked his way into third.
Jones brought out the caution on lap 78 spinning down the backstretch. He bumped the inside wall and damaged the car enough to lose several laps in the pits. Blaney won the race off pit road with Suarez just behind. Hornish restarted in the third spot, Austin Dillon in fourth, and Bowman in fifth.
The race restarted on lap 126. Blaney held off a furious charge by Suarez as they came to the start/finish line to complete the circuit of the mile and a half Charlotte Motor Speedway. The 300-mile race distance requires 200 laps to complete. So plenty of time remained for Blaney and Suarez to slug it out.
With 60 laps to go, the Ford Mustang of Blaney had built a 10 car length lead on Suarez. Hornish closed up to five car lengths behind Suarez. On a day that started with Erik Jones driving the NBC show car on what was supposed to be a clear track. Only to contact the stairs leading to the catch fence crossover under the flag stand that someone missed. Add in a five-plus hour rain delay. And a caution flag flying with 59 laps to go as a piece of equipment fell off the flag stand. The electric display board, where numbers of black flagged cars are flashed, broke and fell onto the track.
At the drop of the green, with 53 laps to go, Blaney again roared to the lead with Suarez second. Austin Dillon, Bowman, and Hornish made up the rest of the top five. With a car that appeared to suddenly come to life, Hornish began stalking the cars in front of his Mustang. Moving to third before Joey Gase(52) brought out the eighth caution of the day with 41 laps to go trailing smoke out the back of his car.
Pit Stop Error Spoils Night for Suarez
Trouble on Suarez pitstop dropped him to the rear of the lead lap. The rear tire changer got the air hose for the air gun caught on the rear caliper. The air gun is used to remove and tighten lug nuts during tire changes. The heat of the caliper damaged the air hose. So the front tire changer had to use his air gun to service all four wheels.
Suarez restarted in 25th position. Several teams opted to stay out and not pit. Mixing up the running order at the front of the field. With 25 laps to go the top five sorted out with Bowman in the lead. Blaney, Hornish, Austin Dillon, and Elliott Sadler paced the front of the pack. Suarez moved up to 14th. At 15 laps to go, Suarez ran in 10th. Hornish moved to second with 13 laps to go. but, he was 3.4 seconds behind the leader Bowman.
Hornish chipped away at the lead. However, not enough laps remained for him to make a serious run at Bowman. At the checkered flag, it was Bowman by 1.390 seconds over Hornish. Capturing his first NASCAR Xfinity Series win. Bowman fills Dale Earnhardt Jr’s seat in the 88 car on the Cup circuit in 2018. As Earnhardt moves to the broadcast booth after retiring from full-time competition.
After the burnout and television interview at the finish line. Bowman gave the checkered flag to a young girl cheering from the front row below the flag stand. Hornish finished second, Blaney third, Austin Dillon in fourth, and Brennan Poole(48) in fifth. Suarez finished the night in the eighth spot.
Speaking with Hornish after the race he said the car slid almost sideways while trying to pass Blaney with 20 laps to go. If not for that bobble he felt he could have caught Bowman by the finish. Hornish, ever the gentleman, went on to say, “Of course catching him and passing him are two different things.” Well, it would have been fun to watch.
Morgan Shepard(89), the 75-year-old driver and car owner, took the green flag in the 38th position. He ran 13 laps before a handling issue sent him to the garage. Shepard finished 38th.
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