Thursday, February 11, 2021

CUP: B.J. McLeod spins out of danger, pulls out early in Duel Race 2

PHOTO: David PeQueen, @CarSDS2078

B.J. McLeod finished last in Thursday’s (and Friday’s) Bluegreen Vacations Duel 2 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #78 NASCAR Heat 5 Ford fell out with crash damage after 35 of 63 laps.

The 2020 season saw B.J. McLeod bring his growing XFINITY Series team, B.J. McLeod Motorsports, into the Cup Series for the first time. Leasing cars from Rick Ware Racing, who he drove for in many of his first series starts, McLeod debuted his #78 Christensen Arms Chevrolet in the series return at Darlington. One of his best runs came just four rounds later at Bristol, where he was challenging for a Top 25 when he was collected in a wreck between leaders Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin. Further sponsorship came from, which came as Vic Keller eyed starting a Cup team of his own.

Over the offseason, McLeod announced that he would once again run his #78 in Cup for 2021, but this time under a new banner – Live Fast Motorsports. He also had a new business partner in Matt Tifft, the former Front Row Motorsports driver whose racing career had been on hiatus since a seizure suffered at Martinsville in 2019. The team would run Fords instead of the Chevrolets from a year earlier, and had welcomed the video game NASCAR Heat 5 as one of their inaugural sponsors for the Daytona 500. Also unlike in 2020, the team would have a guaranteed starting spot as they acquired Go FAS Racing’s Charter from the #32 team. The Archie St. Hilaire owned program has scaled back to a part-time operation for 2021.

In opening practice, McLeod ran 41st of the 44 entrants, then ran 38th in qualifying with a lap of 180.054mph. This put him 19th on the grid for Race 2 of the Duels.

The final two starters in Race 2 each failed to complete a lap in qualifying. Taking 21st was Derrike Cope, competing in the Duels for the first time since 2011, driving a second StarCom Racing entry with one of Rick Ware Racing’s Charters. Cope’s #15 Jacob Companies Chevrolet had electrical issues, and pulled out of line to replace the battery. As for 22nd-place Noah Gragson, the #62 Beard Oil Distributing Chevrolet didn’t make it to the grid, having failed pre-qualifying inspection three times. On the night of the race, they’d be joined by 20th-place Joey Gase, who dropped to the rear for unapproved adjustments on the #53 Page Construction / FOX Nation Ford.

When engines fired following a lengthy rain delay, Kaz Grala was late rolling off pit road in his #16 Hyper Ice Chevrolet due to radio issues, requiring the team switch helmets. Cope, meanwhile, was dealing with fog on the inside of his windshield, which cleared up on the first pace lap. By the time the field addressed the starter’s stand, Cope was alongside McLeod. Cope ran the high lane with McLeod down low, and remained side-by-side through Turns 1 and 2. Cope pulled ahead down the backstretch, but McLeod caught and passed him the next time by.

On Lap 3, Cope moved to the high lane while McLeod hitched a draft on the inside line. At that point, Cope said “We’re off the ground a bit,” and like Bilicki in Race 1 gradually lost touch with the pack. By Lap 6, he was 1.839 seconds back of McLeod, and by Lap 15 was completely by himself, in danger of losing a lap. The spotter advised Cope to stay low, letting the field race by two-wide to his outside down the backstretch. He was two down by Lap 33, when he pitted by himself, then incurred a pass-through penalty for speeding in Sections 11 and 12. He was now three laps down when an accident changed the last-place battle.

McLeod had pitted around the same time as Cope, and had just been overtaken by the leaders. Coming off Turn 2 on Lap 37, Chase Briscoe’s #14 High Point Ford broke loose off Turn 2, triggering a multi-car pileup that collected fellow rookies Kaz Grala and the #38 Speedy Cash Ford of Anthony Alfredo. McLeod, some distance behind the wreck, spun out off the exit of Turn 2. While his car appeared to avoid serious damage, the driver reported he was worried about the engine temperature, so the team pushed the #78 behind the wall on Lap 39. McLeod took last from Cope on Lap 40, and was declared out along with Alfredo with 17 laps to go. Cope climbed to 17th by the finish, and slowed on the apron of the backstretch on the final lap, dropping him a fourth lap down.

The rest of the Bottom Five was filled by the night’s second wreck on Lap 57, when Brad Keselowski’s #2 Discount Tire Ford made contact with Garrett Smithley’s #13 Trophy Tractor Ford. The two collided near the entrance of Turn 1, collecting Gragson’s #62, plus Ross Chastain in the #42 Clover Chevrolet and outside-polesitter William Byron in the #24 Axalta Chevrolet. Byron, Chastain, and Gragson rounded out the Bottom Five. Gragson and Smithley joined Timmy Hill and Ty Dillon from Race 1 as the four drivers who won't be in the Daytona 500 field. 

Two teams particularly surprised in this second qualifying race. Bubba Wallace came within a few seconds of scoring the win in the new 23XI Racing entry, his #23 Doordash Toyota passed in the tri-oval by Austin Dillon. Like Wallace, Corey LaJoie was in and among the leaders for much of the race, giving a fine showing for Spire Motorsports’ new second entry, the #7 Youtheory Chevrolet. LaJoie crossed the line in 7th – his first finish better than 16th in the Duels.

*This was McLeod’s second last-place finish in the Duels. He finished last in Race 2 on February 14, 2019 while driving Rick Ware Racing’s #51 Jacob Companies Chevrolet, three laps down at the finish.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #78 in the Duel races.

22) #78-B.J. McLeod / 35 laps / crash
21) #38-Anthony Alfredo / 35 laps / crash
20) #42-Ross Chastain / 56 laps / crash
19) #24-William Byron / 56 laps / crash
18) #62-Noah Gragson / 56 laps / crash

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