Thursday, February 17, 2022

CUP: Noah Gragson brings home fast “open” car in one piece; last-lap heartbreak for J.J. Yeley

PHOTO: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles

Noah Gragson finished last in Thursday’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel Race 1 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #62 Beard Oil Distributing / South Point Chevrolet finished under power, completing 57 of 60 laps.

In his brief career, Gragson has become one of the sport’s most excitable and outspoken personalities. Last year, he turned around a disappointing start to his season by making it his best ever, racking up three victories in the final ten races. The run was capped by a hard-fought victory at Martinsville, where he battled door-to-door with Austin Cindric, then celebrated with fans on the frontstretch. He made the Championship Four at Phoenix, where a late slide into the outside wall dropped him to 12th as Daniel Hemric took his first win – and the championship.

This year, Gragson and Hemric are teammates at Kaulig Racing’s Cup team, each sharing a partial schedule in the #16 with fellow 2021 championship contender A.J. Allmendinger. Hemric will drive the #16 this weekend, however, as Gragson’s Daytona 500 plans were one of the first to be announced. He would drive for Beard Motorsports, a single-car effort that has become a frequent sight at NASCAR’s superspeedways in Daytona and Talladega.

In the lead-up to last year’s Daytona 500, Gragson was signed by the Beard team to attempt the race, taking the place of a retired Brendan Gaughan. In the final laps, Gragson was in a tight battle for the last transfer spot with Garrett Smithley, then driving for Motorsports Business Management. Exiting the tri-oval, Brad Keselowski came up into Smithley, steering both cars into Gragson. The resulting crash took both Smithley and Gragson out of the show, a particularly sad moment for the driver of the #62. Mark Beard, Sr., the team’s founder, had died just days earlier at age 72.

This year’s 500 marks the first time Gragson has driven for the Beard team since that night. The team races on in Mark’s memory with Linda Beard as team owner. Gragson again showed speed, running 18th and 32nd in the week’s first two practice sessions, each time ranking second among the six “open” cars that would contest the final four spots in Sunday’s field. In qualifying, he drew the 22nd spot – and most importantly, last of the six “open” teams to take time. His lap clocked in at 33rd fastest – 177.553mph (50.689 seconds) – fastest of the “open” teams, three spots ahead of the next in that class, and most importantly locked-into Sunday’s Daytona 500. He’d roll off 17th in Thursday’s first Duel race.

Rolling off 21st and last in Race 1 was J.J. Yeley, who had extra incentive to qualify for Sunday’s Daytona 500. Running one of two new Fords entered by Motorsports Business Management, Yeley was promised $1 million in cryptocurrency from team sponsor if he finished 3rd or better in the Daytona 500. He’d have his work cut out for him as both he and teammate Timmy Hill were the two slowest drivers in qualifying.

Competing for Yeley’s spot was fellow “open” driver Kaz Grala in The Money Team’s #50 Pit Viper Sunglasses Chevrolet. Grala, set to roll off 19th, had been sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments, namely an issue with the digital dashboard. Looking to secure boxing champion Floyd Mayweather’s first NASCAR start, Grala would have to do so from 21st. He would pass a car just before the start as Gragson had voluntarily dropped to the rear in what was likely a defensive maneuver. Unlike many of the sport’s big teams, Beard Motorsports had no backup car, and Gragson had no incentive to put his machine in danger. What ensued appeared to be a defensive strategy. 

When the race started, Gragson was 2.053 seconds back of the lead, and 0.788 back of Grala. By the time the field crossed the stripe to end Lap 1, Gragson had dropped back even further to 3.361 back of the lead, and 1.476 back of 20th place. While a few trailing cars formed a single-file pack, Gragson wasn’t able to catch them, and the team remained quiet on the radio. By Lap 15, Gragson was 36.058 seconds back of the lead and 21.480 seconds back of 20th place. Told to hold the high line when the leaders caught him, he did so on Lap 20, pulling right in Turns 1 and 2 as the leaders rushed by on the inside line. Unable to catch the line’s draft as it passed, Gragson continued to run by himself. “Karen, are you okay with this?” someone asked nervously over the radio on Lap 23.

On Lap 32, Yeley was lapped along with his lone drafting partner B.J. McLeod in the #78 NASCAR Ignition Ford as the pair entered the tri-oval. Two laps later, Kaz Grala was lapped in Turns 1 and 2, followed by a critical mistake on Lap 35. Grala was caught speeding in Section 7 on his green-flag stop, forcing a pass-through penalty that dropped him a second lap down. It was Grala who finally took last from Gragson the next time by. “Don’t worry,” his crew said. “We’re not out of it, man.” 

Gragson retook last around Lap 44, by which point he was two laps down along with Grala. With two laps to go, Gragson was lapped for a third time as a tight race for the lead developed. On the final lap, this same group of leaders caught Yeley and McLeod, putting both a second lap down – and on the same lap as Grala. This proved critical as Grala had latched onto another pack of cars which passed first McLeod, then Yeley off Turn 2. Thus, with just over a half-lap to go, Grala snatched away Yeley’s spot in the 500 field with an 18th-place finish. 

Gragson will start 39th in Sunday’s Daytona 500, four spots behind Grala.

The #16 Heritage Pool Supply Group Chevrolet of Daniel Hemric rounded out the Bottom Five as the lowest classified driver one lap down.

*This marked just the second time the #62 finished last in either of the Duel races at Daytona. The other occurrence was on February 13, 1992, when Ben Hess’ #62 Gray Racing Ford was collected in a multi-car wreck entering the tri-oval. Hess drove for Henley Gray, who was winless in 374 Cup starts from 1964 through 1977, and claimed 13 last-place finishes of his own.
*Gragson is the seventh driver to finish a Duel race under power, and the first since February 14, 2019, when Rick Ware Racing teammates B.J. McLeod and Cody Ware both took the checkered flag within 3 laps of the leader.

21) #62-Noah Gragson / 57 laps / running
20) #78-B.J. McLeod / 58 laps / running
19) #55-J.J. Yeley / 58 laps / running
18) #50-Kaz Grala / 58 laps / running
17) #16-Daniel Hemric / 59 laps / running

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