|PHOTO: Jonathan Ferrey, Getty Images|
Ware’s entry into the Daytona 500 came after his Cup Series plate debut last fall at Talladega, where he finished under power in a Cup event for the first time in his brief career. It was the third of four starts that year for the 22-year-old from Greensboro, North Carolina. His best run of the year came in the penultimate round at the ISM Raceway, where driver and crew overcame a wreck that destroyed their only car in practice and long hours preparing a borrowed Chevrolet from Premium Motorsports to ultimately finish a season-best 28th.
Ware would drive the #52 Chevrolet, a team he debuted last summer at the Sonoma Raceway. To guarantee a starting spot for the car, Rick Ware Racing acquired the Charter from TriStar Motorsports’ #72 Chevrolet. One year after barely making it to the Daytona 500 in time to sign in, the #72 was not among the entrants for this year’s running. TriStar’s co-drivers Corey LaJoie and Cole Whitt have since gone on to different things with Whitt retiring at Phoenix and LaJoie moving to Go FAS Racing’s #32. In fact, the Winn-Dixie sponsored car that Ware was to drive bore a striking resemblance to the #72 that LaJoie ran last fall at Talladega.
Ware began the weekend 40th on the speed charts in opening practice and remained in the same spot in Sunday’s qualifying session with a speed of 183.737mph. This would put Ware 21st and last on the grid for Duel Race 1.
When the Duel race started, Ware slotted in behind Landon Cassill’s #00 Permatex Chevrolet, who started on the outside of the row in front of him. While he made the move quickly, Ware was already losing touch with the pack off Turn 2, and was two seconds back of the lead at the end of the lap. During that lap, Ware’s car was bottoming out nearly all the way around the track, sparks spitting from under the car as he continued to lose ground.
By Lap 9, Ware was a half-lap behind the pack, so far back that when Martin Truex, Jr. unexpectedly pitted by himself three circuits later, his #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota was able to rejoin the pack without falling behind Ware. It was on that same Lap 12, as the field exited Turn 4, that Ware pulled down pit road for a fuel-only stop. This made Ware and not Truex the first driver to lose a lap.
As the rest of the field pitted for fuel, Brad Keselowski incurred a controversial penalty for pitting outside the box, then his #2 Discount Tire Ford was docked a second lap after he sped down pit road. This dropped Keselowski back to 20th by Lap 17, when Matt Tifft’s own speeding penalty dropped his #36 Speedco Ford back to last. When Keselowski finally pulled off pit road on Lap 19, he took the spot from Tifft as he lost a second lap to the leaders.
For the rest of the race, Keselowski grasped onto whoever he could catch on the track. He soon caught Daniel Hemric in the #8 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet. The duo then caught a slowing Ryan Newman in the #6 Oscar Meyer Ford, and the three slipped past Cassill’s #00, who tried, but was unable, to keep up with the trio. Multiple laps down with other drivers only one circuit behind, Keselowski was unable to make up any ground when Kyle Busch spun on the backstretch for the race’s only caution on Lap 27.
On the restart, Keselowski made quick work of Ware, but was still one lap behind the #52. He once again drafted with Newman, then caught polesitter William Byron, who pulled out of line and ultimately finished just outside the Bottom Five. Slowly, the group closed the gap on Ware, who was again running by himself some distance ahead. With six laps to go, Keselowski’s group was in Turn 4 when Ware was at the stripe. Then, with three to go, Keselowski’s group caught and passed Ware off Turn 2, dropping the #52 to last. Ware ran there the rest of the night. As he did, he watched his water temperatures, noticing that the car was running cold.
No drivers fell out of the race. Keselowski remained in 20th with Tifft 19th and the damaged Kyle Busch in 18th. Daniel Hemric rounded out the Bottom Five.
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #52 in the Duels since February 11, 1993, when during Race 2, Jimmy Hensley’s turn relieving Jimmy Means in the #52 NAPA Ford ended with an early backstretch wreck with Indy 500 champion Al Unser, Jr. as the pair raced down the backstretch after 10 laps.
*This was only the fifth time a driver finished last while still under power in a Duel race. The last time it happened was on February 20, 2014, when Brad Keselowski’s #2 Miller Lite Ford led 34 laps, then finished three circuits behind in Duel Race 2. A driver hadn’t finished under power in Duel Race 1 since February 17, 2000, when Bobby Gerhart ran three laps down in his #89 Kewadin Casinos Chevrolet.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
21) #52-Cody Ware / 58 laps / running
20) #2-Brad Keselowski / 58 laps / running
19) #36-Matt Tifft / 59 laps / running
18) #18-Kyle Busch / 59 laps / running
17) #8-Daniel Hemric / 59 laps / running
|PHOTO: Jonathan Ferrey, Getty Images|
McLeod campaigned the Ware team’s flagship #51, which had already leased a Charter from Richard Petty Motorsports just last season. While also balancing the demands of his multi-car XFINITY Series team and driving other races in that series for JD Motorsports, McLeod started 14 of the 36 Cup races run last fall and earned a season-best 28th in the fall race at Las Vegas. By Loudon in July, the team acquired sponsorship from construction firm Jacob Companies, which would later become a brand partner with NASCAR itself. That sponsorship would carry over to SpeedWeeks.
Like his teammate Cody Ware in the #52, McLeod also struggled to find speed in practice and qualifying, running just under Ware’s times in 41st overall both sessions. His qualifying lap of 182.682mph was faster only than Joey Gase, whose run in Motorsports Business Management’s #66 Medic Air Systems, Inc. / Fan Memories Toyota was another half-second off the pace. The speed put McLeod 20th of the 21 cars in Duel Race 2.
Gase’s #66 sat last on the grid, but would soon after be joined by Ross Chastain. Driving Premium Motorsports’ #15 Chevrolet in addition to efforts with Kaulig Racing in XFINITY and Al Niece in Trucks, Chastain had missed the driver’s meeting for the Duels and was penalized as a result. Coming to the start, two more cars dropped to the rear – the “open” rides of Casey Mears, who just picked up sponsorship from skateboard accessory company Rim Ryderz on his unsponsored #27 Germain Racing Chevrolet, and Brendan Gaughan, who needed to race his way in driving Mark Beard’s #62 South Point Casino / Beard Oil Distributing Chevrolet.
On the break, Chastain remained in last, but unlike Ware in Race 1, managed to hang on to Mears running in front of him. On Lap 2, Mears and Chastain pulled past McLeod, who in turn caught back up to the pair and nearly cleared Mears once more on Lap 3. Further ahead, Gaughan and Gase raced side-by-side for the final transfer spot into the Daytona 500 field. Gaughan ultimately prevailed, and by Lap 8 Gase slid back between Mears and Chastain as the group lost touch with the lead pack. According to the team’s PR, Gase was struggling with the car bottoming out much worse than it had in qualifying.
Around Lap 15, Erik Jones entered the last-place battle. Just days after finishing last in the Clash, Jones’ #20 Sport Clips Toyota was tagged with a pit road speeding penalty and dropped back in the pack. That pack caught him by Lap 25, and he slotted into the faster group of machines as they continued on in single-file formation. This allowed Jones to join the rest of the leaders in lapping both Chastain and McLeod as they were lapped under the long green-flag run. Chastain briefly held the spot during this exchange before it fell back to McLeod.
By Lap 33, McLeod was a half-straightaway behind Gase, who had tumbled even further back to the 20th spot. Positions changed five circuits later, however, when Chastain slowed on the back straightaway as he lost a second circuit to the leaders. Completely by himself, Chastain lost a third lap just eight circuits later on Lap 46. Despite Chastain’s struggles, the cars in front of him lost laps at the same rate, allowing him to pass McLeod for 20th one last time on Lap 52, as the leaders took eight laps to go.
As in Race 1, no drivers failed to finish. Gase and Chastain remained on the same lap as McLeod to finish 20th and 19th. Gase failed to qualify along with Ryan Truex, who had been passed by Parker Kligerman late in Duel Race 1. The 18th spot fell to Michael McDowell, who pitted off-sequence in his #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford late in the Duel, costing him two laps. Mears rounded out the group, the last car one lap down.
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #51 in a Duel race.
*This was also the second time in three years that teammates swept the last-place runs. In 2017, JTG-Daugherty Racing teammates A.J. Allmendinger and Chris Buescher were disqualified, taking away the last-place runs by Reed Sorenson and Timmy Hill.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
21) #51-B.J. McLeod / 57 laps / running
20) #66-Joey Gase / 57 laps / running
19) #15-Ross Chastain / 57 laps / running
18) #34-Michael McDowell / 58 laps / running
17) #27-Casey Mears / 59 laps / running
Despite the issues, both McLeod and Ware are locked-in to Sunday’s Daytona 500, the first for either driver, and the first for Ware’s second team. Rick Ware will also be partnered with Spraker Racing as they look to secure Chris Cockrum a spot in Saturday’s XFINITY Series race. McLeod is entered in JD Motorsports’ #15 BT Global Logistics / Run The Race Chevrolet while his own team boasts Matt Mills (#5), Vinnie Miller (#78), and D.J. Kennington (#99).