Sunday, April 10, 2022

CUP: Handling woes leave B.J. McLeod the lone retiree of placid Martinsville race

ALL PHOTOS: Live Fast Motorsports, @teamlivefast

B.J. McLeod picked up the 6th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Saturday’s Blue Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 at the Martinsville Speedway when his #78 Epilepsy Foundation Ford fell out with handling issues after 132 of 403 laps.

The finish, which came in McLeod’s 92nd series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup Series points race since June 7, 2020 at Atlanta, 70 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 26th for the #78, the 56th for handling issues, and the 716th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 40th for the #78, the 127th from handling woes, and the 988th for Ford.

Entering his seventh season as a XFINITY Series team owner and his second as a Cup Series co-owner, B.J. McLeod remains one of the busiest individuals in the NASCAR garage. Last year, after joining forces with Matt Tifft to form Live Fast Motorsports, McLeod drove the team’s #78 Ford for the majority of the season, earning their first top-ten finish with a 9th in the Playoff cutoff race in Daytona. Most other times, the team struggled to finish better than 30th, competing with other lower-ranked Chartered teams. 

This year, the Live Fast team has sought to close the gap as the field works out the kinks in NASCAR’s NextGen car. McLeod earned screen time during the broadcast at Fontana, where he finished a solid 22nd. He then improved further in Atlanta, taking 19th on the newly reconfigured track.

At Martinsville, McLeod finished 29th in both his previous Cup starts during the 2021 season. His Ford for Saturday debuted a new multi-hued paint scheme to represent the Epilepsy Foundation. The sponsorship had particular significance to team co-owner Matt Tifft, who three years ago suffered a seizure at Martinsville, ultimately cutting short his own racing career. McLeod started his weekend as the slowest of the 36 Chartered entrants in practice, running just over a second off Chase Elliott’s fastest time. He improved in qualifying, securing the 33rd spot with a lap of 92.168mph (20.545 seconds).

Rolling off 36th and last was the only driver to not turn a qualifying lap: A.J. Allmendinger in the #16 Action Industries Chevrolet. For the third time in 2022, a Kaulig Racing entries had failed inspection three times, keeping them from timing in and mandating a pass-through after the green flag. The team’s other infractions came at Daytona (Daniel Hemric) and last week at Richmond (Justin Haley). Since no other drivers incurred pre-race penalties, Allmendinger retained the last spot at the start, running alongside Cody Ware in the #51 Nurtec ODT Ford.

McLeod (left) discussing the issue with his car.

When the race started, Allmendinger slowed to serve his penalty, and on Lap 1 pulled onto pit road. When he crossed the stripe for the first time, he was 15.738 seconds back of the leader, and 10.303 back of 35th-place Ware. The #16 returned to the track on Lap 3, a lap down to the leaders and hoping for an early caution. Ware, meanwhile, was within three-tenths of a second of catching McLeod, running 34th. By Lap 16, Allmendinger had been told he could switch on his brake rotor fans, and Ware had dropped McLeod to 35th. Two circuits later, McLeod had fallen 1.059 seconds back of Ware, and the deficit grew to 1.231 before he was lapped on the 20th circuit.

Allmendinger tracked down McLeod and finally passed him on Lap 30. By Lap 41, both had dropped a second lap down to the leader, and the #78 lost a third on Lap 55, pushing high in Turns 3 and 4. As the race remained under green, McLeod said very little on the radio as the spotter counted him down to the end of Stage 1. That caution fell on Lap 80, when McLeod was just short of four laps down. McLeod made a pit stop on Lap 86 for an air pressure adjustment and tires, and remained in last for the Lap 92 restart. He then lost a fourth lap on Lap 104, and a fifth on Lap 127.

On Lap 130, McLeod radioed that he had a flat left-front tire, which reportedly was from contact with Brad Keselowski. Curiously, it was contact with Keselowski that led to the team’s previous last-place run in Austin, when Andy Lally was driving. McLeod returned to the track on Lap 135, showing eight laps down, but pitted again three circuits later when he reported something was broken in the left-front. The issue now was the steering, saying his “wheel was in a completely different spot” from earlier. On Lap 143, McLeod went behind the wall. The driver first believed the issue was the toe link, but the crew then examined the brakes, the steering rack, and the suspension. By Lap 172, the crew put the car’s wheels back on to check the suspension. On Lap 180, McLeod remarked the issue was “Something that I can't drive. I'm not going back out there if we can't find it.”

Then on Lap 183, McLeod and crew said they felt a little click in the steering, and believed it was an issue with the torsion bar. With their car now more than 50 laps down, the team decided to call it a night rather than spending extra time on the steering rack. “10-4. It’s all good, everyone. . .see you in Bristol,” the message concluded. On Lap 192, NASCAR confirmed McLeod was out of the race, citing “handling” as the reason.

McLeod was the only driver to retire from the race. Josh Bilicki finished 35th, his #77 Zeigler Auto Group Chevrolet came home 12 laps down to race winner William Byron. Rick Ware Racing teammates J.J. Yeley, this time in an unsponsored #15 Ford, and Cody Ware occupied the next two spots, two laps apart. Corey LaJoie, the last-place finisher in Phoenix, rounded out the group in his #7 Built Bar Chevrolet.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #78 in a Cup Series race at Martinsville since October 19, 2008, when Joe Nemechek’s #78 Furniture Row / Chevrolet fell out after a crash with Matt Kenseth in Turn 3 after 115 laps completed in the Tums QuikPak 500.
*McLeod is the first driver to finish last in a Cup race at Martinsville due to handling woes since April 18, 1999, when Ricky Craven’s #58 Hollywood Video Ford fell out after 401 of the 500 laps in the Goody’s Body Pain 500. That same run secured Craven the record for most laps complete by a Cup Series last-place finisher at Martinsville.

36) #78-B.J. McLeod / 132 laps / handling
35) #77-Josh Bilicki / 391 laps / running
34) #15-J.J. Yeley / 392 laps / running
33) #51-Cody Ware / 394 laps / running
32) #7-Corey LaJoie / 397 laps / running

1st) Live Fast Motorsports, Trackhouse Racing (2)
2nd) Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, NY Racing Team, Spire Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (5)
2nd) Ford (2)
3rd) Toyota (1)


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