Sunday, May 2, 2021

CUP: Josh Bilicki prevails in race-long last-place battle with Matt Mills in Kansas

PHOTO: @joshbilicki

Josh Bilicki picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Buschy McBusch Race 400 at the Kansas Speedway when his #52 RBR Aviation Ford finished under power after completing 250 of 267 laps.

The finish came in Bilicki’s 46th series start. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 30th for the #52, the 39th where the driver finished running, and the 706th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 46th where the car was under power, the 60th for the #52, and the 972nd for Ford.

Just four years removed from his NASCAR debut, the Wisconsin native enjoyed a career year in 2020, when he competed in a combined 34 Cup, XFINITY, and Truck Series races. While his best XFINITY runs came on the road courses of which he’s most familiar, including a 12th at the Daytona Road Course and a 13th on the rainy Charlotte “Roval,” his best Truck run actually came at Texas. Driving for Josh Reaume at the time, Bilicki was on his way to a strong 16th-place finish when Ben Rhodes wrecked him on the final lap. Even then, Bilicki still managed to finish 19th.

The performances earned Bilicki a full-time ride in Rick Ware Racing’s #52 Ford, one of three Chartered entries fielded by the team. He began the year by qualifying for his first-ever Daytona 500, where he avoided the Lap 14 pileup to finish a career-best 24th. He then improved that run by one more spot, taking 23rd at Martinsville. Coming into Kansas, he had made every Cup race, failing to finish only two, but other than Daytona and Martinsville finished no better than 30th. He’d start 37th at Kansas, where RBR Aviation would sponsor him for the first time in 2021. When his sponsor couldn't make it to the track, Bilicki offered up the two suite passes to his fans on Twitter.

Rolling off 39th and last was Matt Mills, who made his Cup Series debut in the return of B.J. McLeod Motorsports’ Cup team. Mills, who entered the race with 79 XFINITY starts and 11 in Trucks, took the wheel of a gray #55 Siebert Electric / J.F. Electric Ford. Joining him in the back would be three drivers sent to the rear for pre-race penalties: unapproved adjustments dropped back 22nd-place starter Anthony Alfredo in the #38 Dude Wipes Ford while two inspection failures docked both 24th-place Ross Chastain in the #42 Clover Chevrolet and 27th-place Erik Jones in the #43 Black Entrepreneur Initiative Chevrolet.

When the race started, Mills took over last place, and was already 1.040 seconds back of the next car in line at the end of the first lap. The gap grew steadily as the rest of the tail end of the field came apart. By Lap 11, Bilicki had dropped to 38th, but Mils was another 3.425 seconds back of him. This meant Mills was the first to be lapped as he exited Turn 4 on the 14th circuit. The McLeod team instructed their young driver to try different lines and follow other cars. He lost a second lap to the leaders around Lap 23 as they passed by in the high lane.

When the competition caution fell on Lap 27, Mills came in to tighten up his car, and it was left up to the driver which lane he’d choose for the restart. He was three laps down by Lap 38, and one lap behind 38th-place Bilicki. On Lap 46, Mills passed Bilicki on track, but remained in last due to the one-lap gap. Soon after on Lap 51, NASCAR warned Bilicki to pick up his speed. Seven laps later, Mills lost a fourth lap as the leaders this time passed him on the inside. Two laps later, Mills was finally on the same lap as Bilicki, and dropped the #52 to last place.

Bilicki held the last spot for much of the rest of the race, reporting his car was loose. He made it to the end of Stage 1 on Lap 80, then came in to get a packer removed from the left-front. The car was now sputtering, and Bilicki’s crew had him shut off the engine and re-fire it to reboot the car’s ECU. The driver thought the car had a fuel pump or fuel line issue, but he was told by his crew that they’d replaced the fuel pump since their last start and that it had new wiring. Bilicki would later tweet that he had a fuel pressure issue which forced him to pit for fuel every 20 laps.

When the race restarted on Lap 88, Bilicki pulled ahead of Mills, dropping the #55 back to last place. Mills held the spot until Lap 114, when Bilicki pitted for four tires, fuel, and a packer put in the right-front suspension. By then, the sputtering problem returned, and there were doubts the car would make it to the finish.

As Stage 2 wore on, Bilicki and Mills were 8 and 7 laps down, respectively, putting them some distance behind other struggling backmarkers. On Lap 123, Cody Ware spun his #51 Nurtec ODT Chevrolet at the entrance to pit road, but didn’t draw a caution. Even with the commitment line penalty, Ware dropped no lower than 38th between Mills and Bilicki, then climbed past Mills soon after. Quin Houff in the #00 8 Ball Chocolate Whiskey Chevrolet incurred a penalty of his own soon after for a wrench left in his rear glass, which dropped him to the same lap as both Bilicki and Mills – each nine laps down. Houff didn’t take the spot. Instead, Mills took last on Lap 130, then Bilicki on Lap 134 as he fought a tight condition.

Bilicki’s pit stop on Lap 142 opened up a lap on Mills, and two laps later he was shown 10 down with Mills down 9. They remained in the same spots at the end of Stage 2 on Lap 160, during which time Bilicki made an extra stop to top off his fuel cell. With still no one out of the race, minor incidents involving Bubba Wallace and Alex Bowman saw both drivers drop no worse than 28th. By then, Bilicki was well on his way toward setting a new record for most laps complete by a last-place finisher at Kansas. The previous record was 247 laps, set by Ty Dillon on May 12, 2018. If the race ended at its scheduled distance, Bilicki could beat the record simply by losing no more than 19 total laps.

With 56 laps to go, all 39 starters were still on the track, and Bilicki was 15 laps down, three full circuits back of Mills. Bilicki made his final stop on Lap 223, the crew changing their call for two rounds on the track bar to three, looking for more drive off the center of the corners. NASCAR’s delayed caution for Tyler Reddick’s loose wheel on pit road finally fell on Lap 231, with Bilicki shown 17 laps back. No one fell out of the race until Lap 258 – just nine laps to go – when Christopher Bell collected JTG-Daugherty Racing teammates Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in the #47 Kroger / Energizer Chevrolet and Ryan Preece in the #37 Nature Valley Chevrolet. Both would ultimately fall no further than 34th and 32nd, respectively. They were the day’s only retirees.

On Lap 265, when the one lap to green signal was given for the final restart, Bilicki completed his 248th lap, besting Ty Dillon’s record. He finished the final two laps for a total of 250, five laps back of Mills. Houff, Ware, and the #15 Explore Branson Chevrolet of Joey Gase rounded out the Bottom Five.

ERIC MCCLURE (1978-2021)
On behalf of, I would like to extend my condolences to the family, friends, and fans of Eric McClure, who passed away earlier today at the age of 42. While McClure never found his way to victory lane, he was far from a regular LASTCAR feature. He finished last in only three of his 288 XFINITY Series races, and only his last – at Las Vegas in 2013 – was featured here. He was also instrumental in helping build Front Row Motorsports, and with his steady backing from Hefty, funded some of the team’s early efforts in the Cup Series.

At a time where Cup drivers stole most of the victories and championships from series regulars like himself, McClure and his determination helped rebuild the XFINITY Series into what it is today, where similar underdogs continue to fight the good fight against the high-powered Cup teams. He will be missed, and will live on in the cherished moments where the little guy breaks through.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #52 in a Cup race at Kansas, and the first for the number in a Cup points race since October 13, 2019, when Spencer Boyd’s turn in the Rick Ware Racing entry at Talladega ended with a blown engine after 53 laps.
*Bilicki became the 38th driver to complete the LASTCAR Triple Crown, and the second driver to accomplish this feat in the last three races:

39) #52-Josh Bilicki / 250 laps / running 
38) #55-Matt Mills / 255 laps / running
37) #00-Quin Houff / 256 laps / running
36) #51-Cody Ware / 257 laps / running
35) #15-Joey Gase / 258 laps / running

1st) Motorsports Business Management, Rick Ware Racing, Spire Motorsports (2)
2nd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Hendrick Motorsports, StarCom Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (6)
2nd) Ford (3)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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