Sunday, February 27, 2022

CUP: History repeats for Christopher Bell at Fontana; Smithley and McLeod impress

PHOTO: Brock Beard

Christopher Bell picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Wise Power 400 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California when his #20 Rheem Toyota fell out with engine issues after 94 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Bell’s 74th series start, was his first of the season and first since October 4, 2020 at Talladega, 43 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 33rd for the #20, the 174th for Toyota, and the 707th from engine issues. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 53rd for the #20, the 369th for Toyota, and the 1,113th for engine issues.

When the NASCAR Cup Series last arrived at the Auto Club Speedway, it was Bell who picked up the first last-place finish of his young career. Making just his third career start for Leavine Family Racing, Bell lost the engine after 80 laps after a piece of debris pierced his radiator. Following the season reset caused by the pandemic, Bell began to find a rhythm, and contended at both Loudon and Texas before the LFR team shut down. He landed at Joe Gibbs Racing, taking the place of Erik Jones in the #20 ride, and in his second start of the season scored a surprising victory on the Daytona Infield Road Course. This resulted in his first Chase appearance, and a 12th-place finish in the standings.

This year, tapping into his Chili Bowl experience, Bell made the main event during the Busch Light Clash and finished a solid 8th in the 23-car field. He also finished 5th in his Duel race at Daytona, only to suffer splitter damage in a tangle down the backstretch during the 500 that left him a distant 34th. The trip to California came next.

With only the 36 Chartered entries making the trip west, Bell ranked a strong 9th in Saturday’s brief practice session, then timed in 19th in the first round of qualifying with a lap of 171.887mph (41.887 seconds). Bell had tied Chris Buescher’s lap to the thousandth of the second and was credited with the tiebreaker over the #17 Fastenal Ford.

Starting 36th and last was Kurt Busch, whose #45 Monster Energy Toyota had all but secured the spot before a single car took a lap. As pre-race inspection ran into the late hours of Friday night, it was reported Busch’s car had failed inspection three times, receiving both a tail-end penalty and a pass-through to be served after taking the green flag on Sunday. 

Busch would be one of six drivers to not take a lap in qualifying, joined by five who had issues on the track during a windy Saturday morning. Kevin Harvick backed his #4 Subway Ford into the Turn 4 wall, requiring repairs that employed teammate Cole Custer’s backup car. Ross Chastain hit the same wall with the right-front of his #1 Casa Del Sol Tequila Chevrolet, and the Trackhouse crew had to prepare and wrap their backup. Bubba Wallace suffered minor damage when he spun his #23 Wheaties Toyota, and Aric Almirola slid sideways through Turn 4 in the #10 Rush / Mobil Delvac 1 Ford. Justin Haley did not take a lap in qualifying, and the team had to change the oil cooler on his #31 Leaf Filter Gutter Protection Chevrolet. Of this group, only Almirola would not incur a tail-end penalty.

On Sunday, another three drivers were sent to the back, bringing the total to nine of the 36 starters: 13th-place Kyle Larson in the #5 Chevrolet for swapping out a failed ignition switch, 7th-place Joey Logano in the #22 Shell / Pennzoil Ford, and 9th-place Brad Keselowski in the #6 Violet Defense Ford. This did not include a tenth driver – Garrett Smithley – who surrendered the 29th spot on the grid to join Kurt Busch in the final row as the field addressed the starter’s stand for the green flag.

During the pace laps, where Kurt trailed the five-wide salute by himself in the high lane - he and his crew had both sought clarification from NASCAR about when they should serve their pass-through penalty if a caution flag happened on the first lap. Despite all the incidents in practice, qualifying, and the XFINITY race, the first lap ran clean, and Busch came down pit road at the end of Lap 1. Back on the track, Smithley now trailed a three-car single-file pack that had fallen behind the rest of the leaders. Ahead of him were teammate Cody Ware in the #51 Nurtec ODT Ford and B.J. McLeod in the #78 Pala Casino Ford. 

When Busch served his penalty, he returned to the track on Lap 2 on the lead lap, 16.127 seconds back of the lead and 10.509 back of 35th-place Smithley. By the time he was back up to speed on Lap 3, the deficit to Smithley had grown to 24.091 seconds. By Lap 5, Busch had cut it down by more than three seconds to 20.711, then 10.551 on Lap 10. That time by, McLeod had lost touch with Ware and Smithley was racing the #78 for position. The pair were side-by-side across the stripe on Lap 12, just 0.046 second apart, Smithley diving under McLeod into Turn 1, with Busch 7.494 seconds from catching them both. 

On Lap 15, Kurt Busch was just 3.857 seconds back of Smithley when the caution came out for Busch’s brother. Kyle Busch’s #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota spun on the backstretch, moving up the planned competition caution set for Lap 20. As Kyle made his pit stop, Kurt passed him on the track, dropping the #18 to last on Lap 16. Cody Ware then took the spot the next lap after his own stop with Kyle Busch pitting again soon after. At the time, Ware was fighting an issue with his throttle, believing either the pedal or the throttle stop was malfunctioning. This issue manifested on the Lap 20 restart, when after starting side-by-side with Kyle Busch, Ware quickly lost touch with the field, losing a second to the pack by Lap 21.

On Lap 25, when he had dropped 6.886 seconds back of 35th place, Ware radioed the crew that “it’s not even letting me hit the gas pedal at all.” Just five circuits later, race leader Chase Elliott caught and passed Ware at the stripe, pulling to his outside as he put the #51 the first car one lap down. From there, Ware held the bottom lane to let faster traffic by, only to watch as Kyle Busch made an unscheduled stop on Lap 36. This time, the reason was an overheating engine, and the crew brought out a leaf blower to cool the radiator. The next time by, when Chase Elliott spun off Turn 2, drawing the caution, Busch shut off the motor. Ware pitted under the same yellow so the crew could attempt to repair the throttle issue, and both continued to slowly lose laps. 

On Lap 41, Ware re-fired his engine and passed Busch on pit road, dropping the #18 to last place. The #18 crew locked down the hood soon after and then completed a four-tire stop. By then, he’d been joined a few stalls back by Daniel Hemric. Hemric had qualified a strong 7th in Kaulig Racing’s #16 Poppy Bank Chevrolet, but had broken the shifting linkage in the early laps. He, too, lost laps on pit road, rejoining the race 5 laps down in 35th on Lap 46. At that point, Hemric was running behind Busch but ahead of Ware. 

During this exchange, Ware had become the first driver to go to the garage, the crew unable to fix the throttle on pit road. Ware roared back onto the track on Lap 53, just as track employees pushing the rolling pedestal with the race winner’s trophy nearly walked into his path. Ware took four tires and fuel the next time by and reported his car was neutral. Now 15 laps down, the focus for Ware was testing a setup for next week’s race in Las Vegas.

By Lap 68, all 36 drivers were still running with 31 of them still on the lead lap. For Kyle Busch, Ware, and Hemric, their early issues persisted. Ware reported his steering was starting to feel heavy, and reported “we’ve got a bigger problem here” on Lap 79. Hemric pitted from 35th place on Lap 83, and returned to the track as Kyle Busch slowed with a flat left-rear tire on the backstretch. By then, Busch had made at least one other stop for the overheating issue, again calling for the leafblower.

Kyle Busch’s overheating problem, which by now had taken him out of contention, was fought by nearly all of his Toyota teammates, except Bubba Wallace. This included Bell, who cited an airflow problem on Lap 41 that required an extended stop. Bell managed to stay on the lead lap, though he ran by himself the next time by. On Lap 91, as Denny Hamlin hit pit road in his #11 FedEx Toyota, Bell spun from Turn 4 and made contact with the wall with the left-rear corner of his rear bumper. Stranded on the apron with at least one flat tire, Bell was one of the beneficiaries of a late rule change by NASCAR, allowing cars to be towed back to the garage without retiring from the race. Bell made it to pit road, though he lost six laps in the process. He returned to the track on Lap 97, and two circuits later cleared the six-minute “Crash Clock” by reaching minimum speed. The message had hardly been relayed by NASCAR when Bell’s engine cut off entering Turn 1. He passed his pit stall on Lap 101, and pulled directly behind the wall.

Bell had parked his car in the first of the track’s three garage buildings, which was unexpected because his hauler was parked on the opposite side of Garage 2. The crew put the car on jack stands, and Bell climbed out. By Lap 109, when Bell took last place from Ware, some of his crew filtered back to the hauler in Garage 2. Bell headed to the motorcoach lot on Lap 112, just after he was interviewed by MRN radio. The reason for Bell’s exit at first appeared to be the initial accident, though there was nothing more than a swatch of blue paint on the left corner of the rear bumper. It wasn’t until Lap 122, when NASCAR confirmed “20 out, engine,” that the cause was clarified.

Also declared out that time by was Chris Buescher, who spun and slapped the Turn 1 wall with the driver’s side of his #17 Ford on Lap 112. Four laps later, Buescher rolled behind the wall through the same entrance used by Bell, his car listed out due to accident. Cody Ware, meanwhile, climbed to 34th by the checkered flag, finishing under power 13 laps behind winner Kyle Larson. The two cars he passed were William Byron in the #24 Axalta Chevrolet and Harrison Burton in the #21 Dex Imaging Ford, which were both involved in incidents off Turn 2. It was Byron who made contact with a slowing Tyler Reddick, whose #8 Lenovo Chevrolet swept the stage wins and led 90 laps before a flat left-rear tire entering Turn 1 dropped him to 24th.

Just five laps in front of Ware at the checkered flag was Michael McDowell, whose #34 Stage Front Ford was running in the Top Ten during the late stages before the engine began to sour on Lap 189. An electrical issue was the listed reason why he pulled off the track just seven laps short of the finish. Meanwhile, Daniel Hemric, who lost seven laps following his shifter issue, gained all of them back with only one Lucky Dog and multiple wave-arounds, managing to finish 9th. Kyle Busch got the last of his laps back under the final caution and finished 14th.

Garrett Smithley and B.J. McLeod, who were running near the very back of the pack in the race’s early laps, came home in 21st and 22nd, respectively, each passing Justin Haley, who crashed into the inside wall entering Turn 1 on the final lap. For Smithley, it was a new career-best finish, improving on his 24th-place run in the Brickyard 400 two years ago. For McLeod, it was tied for his best Cup finish on a non-superspeedway, matched by 22nd-place runs in the same Indianapolis race as Smithley and last fall’s Texas race. The FOX telecast mentioned McLeod specifically, and that he had stayed on the lead lap since receiving the Lucky Dog on Lap 39.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #20 in a Cup race at Fontana since February 26, 2006, when Tony Stewart’s #20 Home Depot Chevrolet lost the engine after 214 of 250 laps of the Auto Club 500. To date, Stewart remains the only last-place finisher at Fontana to have led laps in that race (28).
*Along with Landon Cassill, who finished last in the Saturday race at this same track, the last-place finishers of the 2022 NASCAR races at Auto Club are exactly the same as those from the last races here in 2020.

38) #20-Christopher Bell / 94 laps / engine
37) #17-Chris Buescher / 111 laps / crash
36) #24-William Byron / 151 laps / crash
35) #21-Harrison Burton / 157 laps / crash
34) #51-Cody Ware / 187 laps / running

1st) Joe Gibbs Racing, Trackhouse Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet, Toyota (1)


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