Saturday, July 7, 2018

XFINITY: While some underdogs impress, Josh Bilicki hands car #45 its first last-place run since 1999

PHOTO: JP Motorsports Facebook
Josh Bilicki picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Friday’s Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #45 Prevagen Toyota fell out with engine problems after 33 of 105 laps.

The finish occurred in Bilicki’s 23rd series start. In the XFINITY Series last-place rankings, it’s the 11th for car #45, the 118th for Toyota, and the 253rd by reason of engine failure. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it’s the 35th for the #45, the 297th for Toyota, and the 1,058th caused by the engine.

Five months ago, the Daytona track saw the debut of a new team in the XFINITY Series. JP Motorsports came together over the last offseason, an effort spearheaded by Phyllis and Jerry Hattaway, who had previously partnered with both Carl Long’s and Derrike Cope’s XFINITY Series teams. By January, the Hattaways had struck out on their own. Their Mooresville garage was stocked with white Toyotas acquired from TriStar Motorsports, and soon after picked up one more from Joe Gibbs Racing.

Hired to drive were a pair of competitors who had been fighting to make a name in the sport for years. Stephen Leicht was hired on January 22, the same day JP Motorsports announced its formation. Leicht began his NASCAR career in 2005 as a development driver for Yates Racing, with whom he scored a win at Kentucky two years later. He ran several part-time efforts from 2008 onward, including a 15-race stint in the Cup Series for Circle Sport. Though he ran less than half the schedule, Leicht secured Rookie of the Year during a lean season for newcomers. Leicht would drive JP’s #55 Toyota, carrying sponsorship from Jani-King.

Leicht’s most recent XFINITY Series ride had been with Obaika Racing, a deal which lasted only for the opening rounds of the 2017 season. Curiously, he’d been hired that year to replace Josh Bilicki. A go-kart racing prodigy from Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, Bilicki made his way into NASCAR through the sports car ranks, wheeling Spec Miatas when he was only 15. His first NASCAR start would come at his home track in Road America, where he wheeled Obaika’s #77 to a 38th-place finish. He made his Cup debut the following year, driving Rick Ware’s #51 Chevrolet to 36th. Bilicki’s #45 Toyota at JP would be sponsored by Prevagen, which had backed many of his past rides.

Coming into last week’s race, Bilicki had made all but two races, failing to qualify for the opening rounds at Daytona and Atlanta, and ran a season-best 24th at Texas. Meanwhile, the #55 finished a season-best 15th in the Daytona opener, but Leicht parted ways with the team after Dover, leaving the door open for former Motorsports Business Management driver Brandon Hightower. Hightower and Bilicki remained paired up for JP Motorsports as they returned to Daytona in July.

Saturday’s entry list saw 41 drivers entered for 40 spots, but by mid-week Morgan Shepherd withdrew his #89 Visone RV Chevrolet. It was Shepherd’s first withdrawal since last August at Watkins Glen. This proved timely as heavy rain washed-out qualifying on Friday afternoon, setting the field by Owner Points.

Starting last on the grid was the only new team entered in the race, a new second car from the GMS Racing stables. Behind the wheel was Justin Haley in the #24 Chevrolet, fresh off his first Truck Series win in Gateway. Fraternal Order of Eagles followed him over as sponsor. Without any Owner Points, the official reason for his starting spot was listed as “Random Draw.” As it turned out, something similar would determine his fate 105 laps later.

Prior to the start, several drivers fell to the back of the field, lifting Haley from the last spot. Among them was Bilicki, whose team changed engines, and teammate Hightower, his for unapproved adjustments. Such adjustments also sent to the back two-time Daytona winner Ryan Reed and Jeremy Clements. When J.J. Yeley was penalized for missing the driver’s meeting, his RSS Racing teammates Ryan Sieg and Jeff Green joined him at the back of the pack. By the time the green flag flew, the last three spots were now occupied by Hightower, Clements, and Reed.

Bilicki fell to last by the end of the first lap, and would remain there for most of the race. He reported early on that his engine wasn’t pulling enough power, turning only 7800rpms. His gap back from the leader showed the magnitude of his issue. Bilicki was 4.004 seconds behind after one lap, 7.259 after two, 9.805 after four, 12.900 after five, and 18.939 after seven. The crew got on the radio and told him “Let’s not hurt the car. Let’s just ride and see what happens.” Completely by himself, Bilicki could do nothing but move to the low side of the track on Lap 17 as the leaders sped past up high.

At the end of Stage 1, Bilicki was still in last place, and now reporting a vibration. The crew brought him in for a scheduled stop, and had a crew member take off the passenger-side window and remove a piece of the dash, allowing him to examine the pedals. The crew hot him back on the track soon after, but the driver now reported the “motor might be blowing up,” saying it was “sputtering” despite the oil and fuel pressure reading normally. The crew brought him in a second time, then soon after went to the garage area. Bilicki climbed out, and despite the efforts of the crew to fix the issue, their night was done. Spencer Boyd briefly held last place during this exchange, but scoring was corrected soon after to show the #45 in 40th. Boyd finished 17th, a new career-best and the first top-twenty finish of his XFINITY Series career.

Finishing 39th was polesitter Ryan Preece, who had also reported his car was down on power. The culprit was reported to be a piece of debris which pierced his radiator, causing his #18 Rheem Toyota to overheat.

In 37th and 38th were two of the three entered B.J. McLeod Motorsports cars, the #78 Tennessee XXX Moonshine Toyota of Blake Jones and the #8 Maxim / Alpha Prime Chevrolet of Caesar Bacarella. The pair tangled in the tri-oval in the aftermath of Ryan Reed’s spin coming off Turn 4 with Bacarella suffering heavy damage to the right side of his Camaro. For Bacarella, Jones, and Preece, Daytona marked their first bottom-five finish of the season.

McLeod himself finished 36th in JD Motorsports’ #15 Chevrolet. Both McLeod and 35th-place David Starr in the #52 Starr Mechanical, Inc. Chevrolet were reportedly disqualified for not obeying the red flag following their involvement in a pileup on Lap 82. Starr tweeted that he was parked for pulling down pit road under the red. While disqualifications typically rank a driver last, Starr and McLeod were still listed 35th and 36th, out with crash damage as the officially-listed reason.

Over all the evening’s misfortunes, several underdogs enjoyed fine runs under the lights.

Fury Race Cars LLC didn’t have a restrictor-plate car on hand, but entered Kaz Grala in the #61 Ford for the race. They acquired a retired show car from Stewart-Haas Racing, a car built on an old Evernham Motorsports chassis a full decade old. Carrying sponsorship from Kiklos, which backed his first Truck Series victory at the track, Grala started 38th due to the team’s newness, escaped the day’s biggest wreck with a drive through the grass, and finished 5th, the team’s best run in its less than two-month existence.

Timmy Hill started two spots in front of Grala in 36th, driving Motorsports Business Management’s patriotic-schemed #66 VSI Racing / Toyota. He finished the race in 7th, tying his career-best in the series during the 2012 season opener. Hill’s teammate Chad Finchum also broke through for the first time this year, steering clear of trouble in a white Toyota that finished 14th. It was not only Finchum’s career-best finish in the series, but his first XFINITY run of better than 25th.

Ross Chastain has continued to so outperform his equipment in all three of NASCAR’s series this season that he can almost not be considered an underdog anymore. Nevertheless, he challenged for the lead late in the race and steered Johnny Davis’ #4 Georgia Watermelon Association Chevrolet to a 10th-place finish. It’s Chastain’s fourth top-ten finish of the season, his fifth-straight of 19th or better, and his second-best all season behind a pair of 9th-place runs at Bristol and Daytona in February.

Alex Labbe’s 15th-place run was his second-best of the season behind his 11th-place showing at Bristol. He has failed to finish only three races all season, and despite right-front damage to his #36 Can-Am / Wholey / Cyclops Gear Chevrolet managed to get the car across the finish line ahead of several others.

Mike Harmon welcomed new sponsorship from Charlie Daniels’ The Journey Home Project, and had several members of the armed forces on hand to watch the action. They bore witness to Harmon finishing 21st, his season-best and first finish better than 31st all season. In 255 career starts, only three times – most recently the 2013 opener at Daytona, where he finished a series-best 17th – has Harmon finished better in an XFINITY race.

PHOTO: Spokeo
*This marked the first time the #45 finished last in an XFINITY Series race since June 12, 1999. That day, the late Adam Petty wrecked after 5 laps of the Texilease Medique 300 presented by Advance Auto Parts at the South Boston Speedway. Petty wrecked on the same lap as Dale Shaw, but Shaw was able to keep rolling under the caution while Petty was not. It was Petty’s second and final last-place finish in the series, following an accident two weeks earlier in Charlotte. The number had never before finished last in an XFINITY Series race at Daytona.
*This was the first XFINITY last-place finish for Toyota since Matt Tifft crashed at Darlington last September, 25 races ago.

40) #45-Josh Bilicki / 33 laps / engine
39) #18-Ryan Preece / 51 laps / overheating
38) #8-Caesar Bacarella / 70 laps / crash
37) #78-Blake Jones / 75 laps / crash
36) #15-B.J. McLeod / 81 laps / crash

1st) RSS Racing (8)
2nd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Fury Race Cars LLC, Jeremy Clements Racing, JGL Racing, JP Motorsports, Mike Harmon Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing, SS-Green Light Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (12)
2nd) Ford (3)
3rd) Toyota (1)


No comments: