Saturday, August 28, 2021

CUP: Late-night disqualification wipes out strong runner-up finish for Chris Buescher; McLeod, Bilicki enjoy career-best runs


Chris Buescher picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #17 Fifth Third Bank Ford finished 2nd, but was disqualified after completing all 165 laps.

The finish, which came in Buescher’s 212th series start, was his first of the season and first in Cup since April 24, 2017 at Bristol, 162 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 32nd for the #17, the 26th from disqualification, and the 711th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 45th by disqualification, the 48th for the #17, and the 979th for Ford.

Michael McDowell picked up the 35th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #34 Ford lost the engine after 23 of 165 laps.

The finish, which came in McDowell’s 383rd series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup points race since June 28, 2020 at Pocono, 47 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 36th for the #34, the 707th from engine trouble, and the 711th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 50th for the #34, the 979th for Ford, and the 1,108th for an engine.

Since he was last featured on here more than four years ago, Buescher has become one of the sport’s most consistent – if unspectacular – mid-pack competitors in the Cup Series. Each year since his upset win at Pocono, he’s finished between 20th and 25th in points with only infrequent DNFs. The 2017 season was his first of three straight years running JTG-Daugherty Racing’s then-new second team, the #37 Chevrolet. His best runs in the car came during the two Daytona races in 2018, when he finished 5th both times.

The 2015 XFINITY Series Champion with Roush-Fenway Racing, the Ford team had kept Buescher in reserve until 2020, when he basically switched rides with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Stenhouse ultimately ran JTG’s primary #47 while Buescher got the #17 Ford. The results have been much the same with his best runs coming on the Florida superspeedway – a 3rd in the 2020 Daytona 500, and even a 5th later that year on the Daytona Road Course.

This year, Buescher enjoyed one of his best runs at Homestead, where he led 57 laps and took the green-and-white checkers in Stage 1, ultimately taking home an 11th-place finish. This came in what has since become a season of change for the Roush-Fenway organization as Brad Keselowski has since been announced as both team partner and driver of the flagship #6 in 2022. Buescher’s team, meanwhile, had just this week announced a contract extension with sponsor Fifth Third Bank, which would adorn his car on Saturday. The car would start 13th.

Michael McDowell pulled 18th through metric qualifying in his #34 Ford, but on Saturday both he and teammate Anthony Alfredo in the #38 Speedy Cash Ford failed pre-race inspection due to the rear decklid assembly. Both had their crew chiefs ejected on race day. Alfredo’s penalty was made worse by a reported illegal body modification on pit road, which incurred him a pass-through penalty after taking the green flag. Also dropping to the rear for multiple inspection failures were polesitter Kyle Larson in the #5 Valvoline Instant Oil Change Chevrolet, 33rd-place Corey LaJoie in the #7 Built Bar Chevrolet, 37th-place Joey Gase in the #15 Pro Master Chevrolet, and 38th-place Kaz Grala in the #16 Goettl Air Conditioning Chevrolet.

Originally set to start 40th and last on Saturday was David Starr, who made his first Daytona start on the Cup Series side in Motorsports Business Management’s #66 Midwest Mobile Tech Toyota. The run would come just hours after Starr finished 13th in MBM’s #61 car during the rain-postponed XFINITY race. Based on the intervals listed below, Starr ended up taking the green in 35th behind the docked Larson and LaJoie, but ahead of Grala, Gase, McDowell, and Alfredo. Landon Cassill, set to start 39th in his 500th career NASCAR start, drew off 36th in Gaunt Brothers Racing’s #96 Carnomaly Toyota.

33) #7-Corey LaJoie 3.037
34) #5-Kyle Larson (unknown interval, spot confirmed by video)
35) #66-David Starr 3.326
36) #96-Landon Cassill 3.436
37) #16-Kaz Grala 3.712
38) #15-Joey Gase 3.724
39) #34-Michael McDowell 4.126
40) #38-Anthony Alfredo 4.228

The race’s opening minutes saw the last-place battle intensify. Cody Ware’s #51 Nurtec ODT Chevrolet stalled as the field rolled off pit road, but was able to get rolling before the completion of the first pace lap. Alfredo’s team reminded him to take the green flag, then serve his pass-through penalty on Lap 2. After taking the green in last place, Alfredo pulled to the apron in preparations to serve his pass-through. Much to his surprise, another driver followed him in there, moving the #38 out of last place. 

Cale Yarborough loses the engine at Daytona,
July 1983

This was the #00 UNITS Chevrolet of Quin Houff, who on the opening lap heard his car “make a loud noise.” Something had failed in Houff’s roof hatch, forcing extensive repairs on pit road. The team confirmed they were not on the “Crash Clock” on Lap 5, then pulled behind the wall on the 11th circuit. There, the crew needed a pry bar to re-open the hatch, and pieced together the brackets to hold it in place. By Lap 22, Houff was wondering if they could just use a bungee cord to hold the hatch in place.

Then, on Lap 24, Houff’s team reported “something broke on the 34.” Moments later, still under caution, Michael McDowell’s car was seen smoking on the apron of Turns 3 and 4. Prior to the issue, McDowell had climbed his way to around the 26th spot, 8.96 seconds back of the lead. On Lap 25, NASCAR reported McDowell had pulled behind the wall with mechanical issues. Houff returned to action on Lap 29, 27 laps down and 22 behind McDowell. Houff dropped McDowell to last on Lap 52, and NASCAR confirmed the #34 was out on Lap 60. With that, McDowell was set to become the first Daytona 500 winner to finish last in the summer race since 1983, when polesitter Cale Yarborough lost an engine 5 laps into the 400-mmiler.

The middle stages of the race remained competitive, but clean, and Houff climbed no further than 39th. That is, until post-race inspection was completed.

Up until the early morning hours, Buescher had been celebrating a much-needed runner-up finish. After running back in the order, he moved into the lead pack at the right time, and led twice in the final 11 laps, pacing the field for seven of them. It was Buescher on who Ryan Blaney had to make the winning pass on Lap 164. It was the 45th lead change that night, the most the event had seen since 2011. Buescher also joined Blaney and third-place Bubba Wallace as among the few who cleared the last-lap, last-corner pileup in Turn 4. But that came undone when Buescher’s car failed post-race inspection for an illegal track bar mounting assembly. The penalty dropped Buescher to last, moving McDowell to 39th and Houff to 38th.

Rounding out the Bottom Five were two teams collected in a backstretch pileup on Lap 147. William Byron, the defending winner of the race, suffered damage to his #24 Liberty University Chevrolet that sent him behind the wall under caution. And Landon Cassill overcame his pre-race penalty to charge into the Top 20, where he was swept up in the same wreck, leaving him 36th.

For all the frustrating the night created, there were two exceptional underdog performances that were improved even more following Buescher’s disqualification. B.J. McLeod had already earned he and Matt Tifft’s team Live Fast Motorsports its first top-ten by claiming 10th in the #78 Boggy Creek Airboat Adventures Ford. This run was then improved to 9th, a new career-best for both driver and team. McLeod’s previous career-best Cup finish in 75 previous starts was 19th in the 2019 Daytona 500, and his team’s best was 23rd in this year’s 500.

Sliding into 10th was Josh Bilicki, who narrowly avoided a Lap 141 wreck that collected all three of his Rick Ware Racing teammates. Bilicki’s first top-ten finish came in his 61st series start, and was also a team-best for the RWR #52 entry. Bilicki’s previous best in Cup was 18th just two rounds ago in Indianapolis.

*This marked Buescher’s second last-place finish in the summer race at Daytona. The other occurred July 2, 2016, when he was ironically running McDowell’s current ride in the #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford, and crashed out after 89 laps of the Coke Zero 400.
*This was the first last-place run for the #17 in a Cup Series race since November 3, 2019, when Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. wrecked out after 52 laps at Texas. The number had never before finished last in a Cup points race at Daytona.
*Four out of the five occurrences where the last-place finisher of a points race at Daytona led at least one lap were all in this summer 400-mile race. The only time it happened in the 500 was on February 18, 2007, where Tony Stewart led a last-place record 35 laps. Buescher joins Cale Yarborough (July 1980 and July 1983) and Denny Hamlin (July 2007) among the remaining four.

40) #17-Chris Buescher / 165 laps / disqualified / led 8 laps
39) #34-Michael McDowell / 23 laps / engine
38) #00-Quin Houff / 136 laps / running
37) #24-William Byron / 146 laps / crash / led 12 laps
36) #96-Landon Cassill / 146 laps / crash

1st) Rick Ware Racing (5)
2nd) JTG-Daugherty Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (4)
3rd) Spire Motorsports (3)
4th) Chip Ganassi Racing, Motorsports Business Management (2)
5th) Front Row Motorsports, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing, StarCom Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (15)
2nd) Ford (8)
3rd) Toyota (3)



dawg said...

I have to take exception to one thing. Chris Buescher didn't earn a last place finish. He went out & did his job in masterful fashion. His fabricators earned the finish, & let Chris & the team down. I wonder why this wasn't caught in prerace inspection? Which would have earned a last place starting position. But should have allowed the problem to be corrected. Even though it was taken away, To have had both cars finish top 5 should still feel good.

Brock Beard said...

@dawg - I absolutely agree. The finish was not any kind of failing on Buescher's part, and he drove an excellent race. Unfortunately, with the current rules, disqualification results in a driver being classified last, and I have to reflect the official results. NASCAR's first-ever race in 1949 saw last place decided in much the same way.