Thursday, February 13, 2020

CUP: Tight battle for final transfer spot wrecks J.J. Yeley out of 500 field

PHOTO: Getty Images, MRN Radio
J.J. Yeley finished last in Thursday’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel Race 2 at the Daytona International Speedway when his unsponsored #54 Rick Ware Racing Ford was collected in a multi-car accident after 41 of 60 laps.

At this time last year, Yeley arrived in media day wearing a Steakhouse Elite driver’s uniform for a planned 2019 Cup Series campaign with the NY Racing team owned by Johnathan Cohen. The deal fell through, however, and the veteran from Phoenix remained a journeyman for the rest of the year. When Jeff Green had surgery over the summer, Yeley stepped into his XFINITY ride as a “start-and-park,” claiming the 2019 LASTCAR XFINITY Series title. And on the Cup side, he made fifteen starts for Rick Ware Racing with a best finish of 12th under the lights at Daytona. He also made a lone Truck Series start at Bristol, though his ride with the Reaume Brothers ended early with transmission trouble.

This year, Yeley continues on in both the XFINITY and Cup Series. While RSS Racing has scaled back their “start-and-park” entry beyond the superspeedways, Yeley was tabbed to drive for Jimmy Means Racing in place of David Starr, who took his Whataburger sponsorship to JD Motorsports. Yeley will run the first three races, including Daytona, before Kody Vanderwal will complete the schedule. He also continues on with Ware’s Cup team, which now has four entries and three Charters. Unfortunately for Yeley, he landed the one “open” car, the #54, a Ford with no guaranteed starting spot, no sponsor, but some brilliant red-chrome painted rims.

In opening Cup practice, Yeley ran 22nd, second-best of the Ware group behind David Ragan, whose #36 Select Blinds Ford was a one-off using the Charter from Ware’s #53 team. He then slipped in the second session, turning the slowest completed lap of 41 drivers (the only one ranked beneath him was Brad Keselowski, who didn’t turn a lap due to damage caused by hitting a pit road barrier on his way out of the garage). Yeley drew an early spot in qualifying, coming out eighth on the track, but his lap of 183.292mph (49.102 seconds) was just 39th overall and second-slowest to Chad Finchum among “open” teams. Like Finchum, Yeley would have to race his way in. He would start 19th in the 21-car field for Race 2.

Starting 21st and last on Thursday was one of Yeley’s teammates, B.J. McLeod, the only driver to not turn a lap in qualifying. Though McLeod, like Yeley, ran the previous week without a sponsor, it was revealed on race day that Christensen Arms had come on board to sponsor McLeod’s locked-in car for the Daytona 500. McLeod held the last spot when the green flag fell, 1.783 seconds back of the lead, but Brendan Gaughan then took the spot by the end of Lap 1 in his #62 Beard Oil / South Point Casino Chevrolet.

Gaughan, along with Justin Haley from Race 1, had locked himself into the Daytona 500 field as one of the two fastest open cars in last Sunday’s qualifying. By dropping to the tail end of the line, the focus shifted to Yeley and Timmy Hill, who after the drama of Race 1 now battled for the final spot in the Daytona 500 field. Since Hill had the faster speed of the two, his #66 / VSI Racing Ford had the advantage over Yeley, but both cars looked evenly matched. As early as Lap 4, the two ran side-by-side, and that time by Kyle Larson made it three-wide on the inside. McLeod linked up with Yeley up high to try and move him past. Yeley and Hill would remain in each other’s sights for much of the night.

Yeley limps onto pit road after his late-race crash.
PHOTO: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles
Meanwhile, Gaughan remained in last place, but didn’t lose as much ground as Gase in Race 1. He linked up with Brennan Poole, secured his first Daytona 500 start in Premium Motorsports’ Chartered #15 Spartan Go Chevrolet. Gaughan sized up Poole on Lap 7 and made it by the next lap, dropping the #15 to last place. Poole then started to lose touch with the field, but found a new drafting partner in McLeod. Poole passed McLeod on Lap 11, then dropped back behind him again on Lap 14. Both then worked their way past Gaughan on Lap 16, but Poole re-took the spot on Lap 20 due to an unscheduled stop for a right-front tire that was coming apart. Poole returned to action two laps down and gained one back during green-flag pit stops.

On Lap 41, Yeley and Hill were still battling for the final transfer spot. While Hill’s Ford was able to switch lanes and weave through traffic, Yeley was content to stay in the outside lane, benefitting from the drafting help of his teammates Ragan and McLeod. But, heading down the backstretch, Yeley was leading Corey LaJoie’s #32 Ford with Hill behind LaJoie. Hill and LaJoie made contact, which steered Yeley’s right-front into the outside wall. Yeley managed to limp to pit road, but the a-frame was bent, and the car also had serious damage to the right-rear. Done for the night, Yeley dropped to last on Lap 44. Hill finished 16th to qualify for his first-ever Daytona 500.

As in Race 1, the last-place finisher was the race’s only retiree, and was knocked out of the Daytona 500 because of a mid-race crash. The rest of the Bottom Five was likewise filled with lapped cars still running under power. McLeod took 20th, two laps down to the leaders. One lap down were both 19th-place LaJoie, who had to make a number of repairs after the Yeley incident, and will have to go to a backup car, followed by 18th-place Poole after his unscheduled stop. Gaughan rounded out the group in 17th, the last car on the lead lap.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #54 in the history of the Duels.
*This marked the first time since 2010 the last-place finishers of both Duel races qualified in the same starting spot (19th). In 2010, both Jeff Fuller and Boris Said started in 23rd.

21) #54-J.J. Yeley / 41 laps / crash
20) #52-B.J. McLeod / 58 laps / running
19) #32-Corey LaJoie / 59 laps / running
18) #15-Brennan Poole / 59 laps / running
17) #62-Brendan Gaughan / 60 laps / running

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