Saturday, March 19, 2022

XFINITY: Jade Buford's strong Atlanta run spoiled by late-race crash

PHOTO: Mark J. Rebilas, @rebilasphoto

Jade Buford picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Nalley Cars 250 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway when his #48 Big Machine Spiked Coolers Chevrolet was collected in a multi-car accident after 105 of 172 laps.

The finish occurred in Buford’s 41st series start. In the XFINITY Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 7th for the #48, the 362nd from a crash, and the 588th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 30th for the #48, the 1,285th from a crash, and the 1,825th for Chevrolet.

The Tennessee-born Buford’s was one of the most surprising stories of the 2020 NASCAR XFINITY Series season. He arrived in the series without much fanfare, taking the wheel of SS-Green Light Racing’s #07 Chevrolet for the inaugural race on the Indianapolis Grand Prix Circuit. The result was a sterling 14th-place finish, which he followed up with a 19th in Road America, a 16th on the Daytona Infield Road Course, and in just his fourth series start, an 8th at the Charlotte “Roval.”

As it turned out, those four races matched Buford’s background in sports car racing, having competed in various series since he was a teenager. In fact, Austin Cindric, this year’s Daytona 500 champion, was his co-driver when the pair claimed a victory in Mosport. Similar to Matt Jaskol, Buford is also a bit of an adrenaline junkie, having parlayed his interest in rock climbing to an appearance on American Ninja Warrior.

After his strong 2020 debut, Buford signed with start-up XFINITY program Big Machine Racing Team, whose founder Scott Borchetta owned the same Big Machine Records company that sponsored Buford’s runs in 2020. Breaking out on their own with equipment from the Reaume Brothers and RSS Racing, it was unclear how Buford would perform on the series’ many ovals. After Danny Bohn drove in his place for the Daytona opener, Buford finished 20th in his oval debut at Homestead, contended for a Top Ten in the spring Phoenix event, and amid more strong road course performances, earned his season-best 9th at Michigan – just one spot shy of his career-best from a year earlier. He closed out the year 23rd in points.

Coming into Saturday’s race, the 2022 season has proved more of a challenge. While he qualified a stunning 3rd for his first start in the Daytona opener, the first of two back-to-back crashes left him 23rd at the finish. He then ran just 28th in the previous two rounds at Las Vegas and Phoenix, closing out a frustrating “West Coast Swing.” While he finished 26th and 17th in his first two Atlanta starts last year, the complete reconfiguration of the speedway would stand as still another challenge for the newcomer.

With qualifying rained out, Buford secured the 30th spot in the 38-car field. Five teams were sent home without turning a lap: David Starr in the #08 Ticket Smarter Ford, Brennan Poole in the #47 Mike Harmon Racing Chevrolet, Chad Finchum in the #13 Garrison Homes / Units Storage Toyota, and a returning Dillon Bassett in the #77 Honest Amish / Jerry Hunt Supercenter Chevrolet with Harrison Rhodes in the #52 Jimmy Means Racing Chevrolet. Buford then ranked 21st in Saturday’s postponed practice session, where he turned 23 laps.

Rolling off 38th and last on Saturday was Jesse Iwuji, who returned to the driver’s seat of his rainbow-painted #34 Equity Prime Mortgage Chevrolet. Prior to the start, five drivers were sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments: 9th-place Ryan Sieg in the #39 CMRroofing.com / A-Game Ford, 19th-place Jeffrey Earnhardt in the #26 ForeverLawn Toyota, 25th-place Stefan Parsons in the #99 Sokal Chevrolet, 33rd-place Matt Mills in the #5 J.F. Electric Chevrolet, and 34th-place Loris Hezemans in the #38 Hezeberg Systems Toyota. 

During the pace laps, Riley Herbst made an unscheduled four-tire stop for a tire issue, surrendering the 24th spot for his #98 Monster Energy Ford. He slotted in at the tail end of the line behind Jeffrey Earnhardt, but both crossed the stripe ahead of Hezemans, who was last at the green flag, 4.306 seconds back of the lead. Hezemans was entered in the same Reaume Brothers Racing Toyota that had yet to qualify for a race this season, this time with the numbers of RSS Racing’s locked-in #38 entry. The change got Hezemans into the race, but the car itself struggled badly. By Lap 5, he was 7.348 seconds back of the lead, but most critically already 0.937 back of 37th, which at the time belonged to Josh Williams in the #78 Coolray Chevrolet. By Lap 10, he was 3.109 back of the next car - now Jesse Iwuji’s - and 10.027 behind when the competition caution fell on Lap 21.

Under the competition yellow, Iwuji took over last on Lap 23, followed the next time by with Shane Lee in the #35 Kitty Kat Coin Ford. Matt Mills took over the spot on Lap 25 after a late pit road speeding call by NASCAR, one which did not say in which section he was caught. Mills was warned that Hezemans was slow as he raced him to the Lap 27 restart, dropping the #38 to last once more the next time by. Mills may have bounced off the wall after this as his 37th-place car now lost touch with the pack, dropping 2.388 seconds back of Lee on Lap 30 with Hezemans now just a couple tenths back of Mills. The two remained in touch with each other on Lap 39 when Mills was 5.037 seconds back of 36th-place Myatt Snider in the #31 Tax Slayer Chevrolet, and Hezemans was just 0.247 back of Mills’ #5. Still, all 38 drivers remained under power and on the lead lap when Stage 1 ended on Lap 41.

On Lap 43, Snider took his turn in last during pit stops, and Jeffrey Earnhardt took it on Lap 44 after the first of at least two stops for extensive adjustments. Earnhardt re-passed Snider on Lap 47, and the #31 remained last when the race restarted on Lap 48. Snider then caught Iwuji, dropping the #34 back to last on Lap 49, and Hezemans reassumed the spot on Lap 50. Once again, the #38 was struggling for speed, and after the Lap 50 pass was already 0.725 back of Iwuji. He’d lost another three-quarters of a second by Lap 53, when Noah Gragson made an unscheduled green-flag stop for hitting the Turn 2 wall with his #9 Bass Pro Shops / True Timber / BRCC Chevrolet. The next time by, Riley Herbst, who had recovered from his tire change on the pace laps, had the hood up, his #98 overheating. First Gragson, then Herbst returned to the track with Herbst shown three laps down in last place to 37th-place Gragson’s two laps down. By Lap 59, scoring reset to show Gragson just one lap down with Herbst down two.

Both Herbst and Gragson hoped for another caution, but the now 36th-place Hezemans was finally lapped on the 72nd circuit, followed by Bayley Currey in the #4 KSDT CPA Chevrolet. This gave Currey his lap back when the caution fell to end Stage 2 on Lap 80, and now put Hezemans in the next Lucky Dog spot on the same lap as 37th-place Gragson. As both Gragson and Herbst took the wave-around, Jeffrey Earnhardt lost a lap under yellow for more adjustments, incurring a tail-end penalty for pitting too soon. This placed Earnhardt back in 37th behind 36th-place Hezemans with 35th-place Gragson now on the lead lap and Herbst still one down in last place. With Herbst now on the same lap as Hezemans, the #98 made quick work of the #38 on the Lap 89 restart, dropping the #38 to last with all 38 drivers still running within a lap of the leader. But by Lap 104, both Hezemans and Earnhardt were about to fall two laps down.

It was not until this moment that Buford joined the last-place battle. By this point, Buford had run a strong race, finishing 3rd in Stage 2, and was still around the 10th spot on Lap 106. But moments after Sam Mayer came to pit road with a flat left-rear tire on his #1 Accelerate Pros Talent Chevrolet, Jeb Burton’s #27 International Championship Boxing Chevrolet made contact with Buford’s left-rear, sending him spinning into the path of a closing Jeremy Clements in the #51 Fly & Form Structures Chevrolet. Clements and Buford collided, destroying the rear track bar of Buford’s car and much of the left-front of Clements’ car. Buford drove to the garage on Lap 107, out under the “Damaged Vehicle Policy.” On Lap 108, Buford took last from Mayer, who briefly held the spot after his flat tire. Clements joined Buford in the garage on Lap 110, also eliminated under the DVP. 

Hezemans was eliminated soon after, his #38 destroyed in an off-camera accident through the quad-oval grass that ripped off his entire splitter and oil pan assembly. The 35th spot fell to Daniel Hemric, whose #11 AG1 – Athletic Greens Chevrolet came up into Joe Graf, Jr.’s #07 Gteching Ford, spoiling a solid run for Graf’s team. Justin Allgaier rounded out the Bottom Five after his #7 Axalta / Nalley Clicklane Chevrolet was destroyed in a late-race pileup down the backstretch.

Massey leads strong underdog contingent in Atlanta

After a long and challenging race, several underdogs earned solid runs. Topping the list was Mason Massey, who earned a career-best 6th-place finish in his #91 Anderson Power Services Chevrolet, turning around a year where he failed to qualify in Daytona and finished no better than 23rd in the three races since. His previous best finish was just 17th, which came last fall at Richmond.

Kyle Weatherman, one of Massey’s teammates at Mario Gosselin’s DGM Racing, earned some screentime during the race’s late stages as he held fast to a spot in the Top Ten. He crossed the line in 8th in the #92 LS Tractor Chevrolet, matching his career-best run two years ago in Kentucky, when he gave Mike Harmon Racing its first-ever Top Ten.

J.J. Yeley finished a season-best 11th in Carl Long’s #66 Work Pro Tools Ford, improving on his previous mark of 13th in this year’s Daytona opener. It stands as Yeley’s best XFINITY finish at Atlanta since 2006, when he finished 5th driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Ryan Vargas put up a season-best 12th in the #6 KSDT CPA Chevrolet, improving his own previous mark from Daytona when he took home 18th. His teammate Bayley Currey very nearly joined him in the Top Ten before he was felled by a loss of fuel pressure in the final laps.

After competing for last place earlier in the event, Jeffrey Earnhardt finished 13th, finally securing the strong finish he nearly scored in Fontana before alternator issues. Earnhardt, too, had his own previous best finish of the young season in Daytona, taking 15th.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*Buford is the first first-time XFINITY Series last-place finisher in 16 races, dating back to Brandon Brown’s crash at Michigan on August 21, 2021.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #48 in a XFINITY race since October 14, 2005, when Jimmie Johnson picked up his first - and only - XFINITY last-place run after his #48 Lowe’s / Kobalt Chevrolet crashed after 29 laps of the Dollar General 300 at Charlotte. The number had never before finished last in a XFINITY race at Atlanta.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
38) #48-Jade Buford / 105 laps / crash
37) #51-Jeremy Clements / 106 laps / crash
36) #38-Loris Hezemans / 112 laps / crash
35) #11-Daniel Hemric / 113 laps / crash
34) #7-Justin Allgaier / 152 laps / crash

2022 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Alpha Prime Racing, Big Machine Racing, Kaulig Racing, SS-Green Light Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

2022 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (3)
2nd) Ford (2)

2022 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP


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