|PHOTO: David Marrero, @DavidMarrr|
All-Star Weekend marked the debut of Rick Ware Racing’s third team, the #53 that had been withdrawn without a driver at Dover. Driving the car would be B.J. McLeod, whose last-place run at Dover was his latest of six Cup points races in 2019. It also marked the first time car #53 had been entered in the Open since May 16, 1992, when Johnny McFadden entered a second car for Jimmy “Smut” Means, only to end up 28th of 29 drivers as one of four cars that didn’t start the race.
On Thursday, it was revealed that McLeod’s car would carry one of the most distinctive paint schemes of the weekend. Sponsored by the Enlisted Nine Fight Company branding at Nine Line Apparel, the scheme would honor the Tuskegee Airmen. The grey car with red nose and rear resembled the “Red Tails” fighter planes the African-American pilots flew during World War II. This scheme - along with the #32 Freedom Hard Ford of Corey LaJoie – was designed by combat veteran and Go FAS Racing team artist David Marrero. Marrero admitted he got goosebumps when he saw the finished product for the first time.
At Charlotte, McLeod was one of four drivers who didn’t participate in opening practice, but was fastest of the three Ware cars in qualifying with the 19th-best time of 175.319mph (30.801 seconds). Joining him were teammates Bayley Currey, 20th in an unsponsored #52 Chevrolet, and Cody Ware, 21st in the #51 Jacob Companies Chevrolet.
Starting 24th and last was Joey Gase, the only driver who didn’t turn a lap in qualifying. Gase ran the same #46 Toyota he ran in second Motorsports Business Management team’s debut at Kasnas, but this time with added decals resembling the #66 that Gase drove in Las Vegas and Fontana. Over the radio during the pace laps, the MBM team told Gase “Alright, Joey, thanks for having patience . . .let's go have some fun out there, man,” then said they would be easily able to make it all 50 laps of the race on fuel.
With one lap to the green flag, two Jay Robinson-prepared cars voluntarily fell behind Gase. One was 18th-place qualifier Ross Chastain in Premium Motorsports’ #15 VIPRacingExperience.com Chevrolet. The other was 23rd-place starter Quin Houff in Spire Motorsports’ unsponsored #77 Chevrolet. Houff lined up on the inside of Chastain, who radioed to his crew that “Water temperature's already at 190. Aero duct has it climbing higher than usual."
On the break, Chastain’s overheating car took last from the outside lane and started to lose touch with the pack. Coming off Turns 1 and 2, the #15 was already 3.2 seconds back of the lead with open track in front. On Lap 4, Chastain caught Gase and made the pass on the inside of Turn 4, dropping the #46 back to last. Chastain then made quick work of Houff, who Gase started tracking from about one corner back. By Lap 14, Gase reported his car was shoving the nose bad, and the crew alerted him to the fast-closing leaders. On Lap 15, leader Daniel Hemric got under Gase in Turns 1 and 2, putting the #46 the first car one lap down.
Two circuits later on Lap 17, Gase reported he was fuel pressure, the gauge reading it was down to 30 pounds. He said they had the same issue the day before with the pressure fluctuating, which may have accounted for their lack of a qualifying attempt. But before Gase could come down pit road, trouble broke out in Turn 2. McLeod was running a few cars ahead when the engine let go in a tremendous plume of smoke. He managed to steer the #53 to the apron and stop halfway down the backstretch before climbing out, done for the day. Nine laps of caution were needed to clean up fluid on the track as the #53 was pushed behind the wall near the Roval chicane and into the garage area.
Under the same yellow, 8th-place starter Chris Buescher saw his strong run come undone when the rear track bar came apart, forcing his #37 Kroger – Your Personal Pit Stop Chevrolet out of the race. Gase’s radio broke in with “We’ve got something big going on – let’s bring it in.” Like Buescher, Gase pulled down pit road before it was open, but the penalty was negated when he went into the garage. The team tried for several laps to figure out the issue and run some more laps, bringing out their computer to look over the readings. But on Lap 31, the #46 team called it a day and had the pit box broken down. The team continued to look over the car for several laps after, wanting to make sure the same issue didn’t bite them in the 600. Carl Long and team paid special attention to both the ECU and the fuel cell, and also believed it could be a collapsed line since the pressure fluctuations grew worse the longer the car was running.
William Byron was credited with 21st when he nudged past Bubba Wallace and Kyle Larson at the end of Stage 1 to transfer his #24 Hendrick Autoguard Chevrolet into the All-Star Race. Chastain finished 20th, citing engine issues perhaps stemming from his overheating issue at the start.
Next week, McLeod’s #53 will be among the entrants for the Coca-Cola 600. The entry is the first for the car number in a Cup race since April 30, 1995, when Ritchie Petty missed the field for the Winston Select 500 at Talladega. If the car starts, it will be the number’s first green flag in a points race since Petty’s 41st-place finish in the Pepsi 400 on July 2, 1994.
*This marked the first last-place finish for car No. 53 in the Open race.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
24) #53-B.J. McLeod / 15 laps / engine
23) #37-Chris Buescher / 16 laps / suspension
22) #46-Joey Gase / 21 laps / engine
21) #24-William Byron / 27 laps / won stage 1
20) #15-Ross Chastain / 35 laps / engine