Sunday, July 10, 2022

CUP: B.J. McLeod’s 100th start leaves him last in Atlanta; LaJoie and Smithley enjoy impressive runs before late-race misfortunes

ALL PHOTOS: @teamlivefast

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

B.J. McLeod picked up the 8th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart at the Atlanta Motor Speedway when his #78 Blaster Ford was involved in a multi-car accident after 77 of 260 laps.

The finish, which occurred in McLeod’s 100th series start, was his third of the season and first since Kansas, six races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 28th for the #78, the 631st from a crash, and the 721st for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 42nd for the 378, the 994th for Ford, and the 1,292nd from a crash.

One week after he was last featured here, McLeod earned a 19th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600, surviving a wild race to tie his season-best run in March, when the series first raced on the reimagined Atlanta track. McLeod was likely looking forward to returning to Atlanta this past week. In the four races since Charlotte, his #78 had not finished any better than 30th, including a pair of one-offs by road course ringers Scott Heckert at Sonoma and Kyle Tilley last week in Road America.

The Cup Series garage was again filled with just the 36 Chartered entries. Along with Garrett Smithley in Rick Ware Racing’s #15 True Brands Ford, McLeod’s Ford did fail inspection twice, costing both teams a crew member and pit selection. With practice and qualifying cancelled due to rain, McLeod took the 35th starting spot just ahead of Landon Cassill in Spire Motorsports’ #77 Voyager: Crypto For All Chevrolet. Despite distracting news this week that Voyager is filing for bankruptcy, Cassill earned an 8th-place finish in Saturday’s XFINITY race for Kaulig Racing.

While no teams were sent to the back of the field for pre-race penalties on Sunday, 24th-place Justin Haley had some delay getting ready on the grid in his #31 Leaf Filter Gutter Protection Chevrolet while 25th-place starter Erik Jones needed an unscheduled stop to adjust the rear camera on his #43 Focus Factor Chevrolet. Prior to the stop, Jones’ camera was set to a mirrored setting, meaning objects to his right appeared on the left, and vice-versa. Jones was able to reclaim his original starting spot.

When the green flag dropped, Cassill remained in 36th place, 3.852 seconds back of the lead with McLeod just 0.129 ahead of him. By Lap 4, Ty Dillon had dropped to 35th in the #42 Allegiant Chevrolet with Cassill still last, but by just 0.356 second. Dillon then set to work racing Cody Ware side-by-side in his #51 Nurtec ODT Ford, and by Lap 8, Cassill was within 0.209 of catching them both. The next time by, the pair worked past Garrett Smithley’s #15 with Cassill now drawing alongside at the stripe by 0.030 second. Cassill dropped Smithley to last on Lap 11, and the Rick Ware Racing crew told Smithley to follow Cassill’s tire tracks. So frequent were these messages that Smithley lost patience on Lap 15 as he drew up on Cassill’s Chevrolet.

On Lap 17, Austin Cindric suddenly plummeted to the 35th spot in his Penske powered #2 Menards Quaker State Ford. That time by, Smithley had drawn alongside the Cindric car, the two just 0.011 apart before Smithley made it past the next time by. By then, Smithley had again lost touch with the now 34th-place Cassill with a gap of 1.120 seconds. Cindric remained in last until the competition caution flew on Lap 26, his car 0.637 behind 35th-place Smithley and 17.298 back of the leader.

On Lap 28, pit stops briefly handed the 36th spot to Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in the #47 Kroger / Ball Park Chevrolet. Stenhouse restarted the race on Lap 31 3.881 seconds back of the leader and 0.223 behind new 35th-place runner Martin Truex, Jr. in the #19 Auto Owners Insurance Toyota. The next time by, Stenhouse and Truex were locked side-by-side 0.084 apart. But two laps later, both Stenhouse and Truex had made work of Smithley, who reassumed the 36th spot behind teammate Ware in 35th. 

Reporting his car was “two numbers worse on the adjustments” after some radio issues, Smithley steadily lost touch with the pack. He was 1.5 seconds behind 35th place Ware on Lap 40, 2.625 on Lap 42, and 3.221 on Lap 44. Smithley’s crew asked if he was running wide-open all the way around the track, which the driver confirmed. By Lap 46, the gap was 5.014 seconds, then 6.330 on Lap 48 and 7.851 on Lap 50. With ten laps until the end of Stage 1, Smithley was told to “Keep hustling, bud,” but the gap continued to grow as he’d been completely left behind by the draft. On Lap 54, he was 11.844 seconds behind Ware, which was larger than Ware’s deficit of 11.549 to the race leader. On Lap 58, the leaders caught him at the stripe, and he pulled low in Turn 1 as the field rushed past. The caution fell to end Stage 1 on Lap 61, at which point Smithley earned the Lucky Dog as the only lapped driver.

Smithley in the garage after his spin.

After Smithley returned to the lead lap, Cindric retook the last spot on Lap 64, followed the next time by with Brad Keselowski in the #6 Solomon Plumbing Ford. After passing the Choose Cone, Keselowski slotted into 35th on Lap 66 with Smithley back to last. The race restarted, and Smithley seemed to perform much better. On Lap 69, he was 0.356 behind Cassill, who was 35th once more, then closed to 0.149 by Lap 71. By Lap 73, he passed Cassill for position, and the #77 now trailed by 0.157 second. Cassill roared back, however, and pulled side-by-side on Lap 75, the two 0.037 apart. Smithley couldn’t shake Cassill for the next lap, at which point they were 0.007 apart. When Cassill finally cleared Smithley for 35th on Lap 78, the #15 crew wasn’t happy with how hard Cassill had raced him. Messages relayed between the team’s spotters indicated Cassill’s team wasn’t concerned with Smithley’s, while Smithley’s hoped the two would work together, perhaps in a tandem draft.

But on Lap 78, the caution fell for the third time following a wreck down the backstretch. Running near the back of the pack, McLeod came together with Chris Buescher’s #17 Fastenal Ford and Ty Dillon’s #42, sending both spinning off the second corner. While only Dillon made contact with the inside wall, only McLeod wasn’t able to resume, and was towed back to pit road. The crew discovered a broken toe link, and unlike Joey Logano, who suffered the same damage a few laps later, the crew wasn’t able to repair the damage. McLeod took last from Smithley on Lap 80. “I'm sure it's broke,” said McLeod, per Dustin Albino. “Sorry guys, I think that's the first time I've ever lost it on my own in NASCAR.” NASCAR’s garage official was about to report McLeod was done for the race on Lap 90, when another wreck broke out in Turn 2. The report wouldn’t come until Lap 117.

Three other drivers were declared out along with McLeod. The first was Austin Dillon, who on Lap 90 clobbered the Turn 2 wall with his #3 Bass Pro Shops / Tracker Off Road Chevrolet in Turn 2. Under the ensuing caution on Lap 93, Noah Gragson pulled behind the wall for an unrelated suspension issue, and his #16 Gold Fish Casino Slots Chevrolet was declared out with Dillon. Completing the trio was Chris Buescher, who after his involvement in the McLeod wreck later cut down a right-front tire and hit the wall in Turns 3 and 4. The Bottom Five was then completed by Alex Bowman, whose #48 Ally Milestone Chevrolet blew a tire, then during subsequent repairs on pit road ran out of time on the “Crash Clock.”

After running in last for most of the race’s first 80 laps, Garrett Smithley received a second Lucky Dog on Lap 138, and with less than 100 laps to go was climbing up to the 11th spot in the high lane. Having taken no tires on his previous stop, however, a possible flat tire caused Smithley to break loose in front of a line of traffic, triggering a multi-car pileup in Turn 3. While Smithley’s car was towed to the garage, apparently out of the race, he was on track again with 80 laps to go, running a reduced speed with other lapped cars, including Cassill’s. He finished under power in 27th.

Also working his way toward the front in the final stage was Corey LaJoie. One week after missing the start at Road America in a season where his last-place finishes at Phoenix and Gateway put him a firm ahead of McLeod in the 2022 LASTCAR Cup Series Championship heading into Sunday's race, LaJoie’s #7 Raze Energy Chevrolet worked its way to 3rd, then ran up front for 19 laps – not only his most laps led in a single race, but nearly doubling his career laps led total. LaJoie remained out front as late as two laps to go, when Chase Elliott made the winning pass. A charge into Turn 1 led to a block by Elliott, and LaJoie running the high lane made contact, losing control and triggering a crash. Elliott took the win while LaJoie had to settle for 21st.

Other drivers of note were fellow Ford rookies Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland, who briefly occupied the top two spots during LaJoie’s ascent through the field. Burton’s #21 Freightliner Ford led nine laps – his most in a single race, and most since his three-lap stint in the Daytona 500. Both drivers came home on the lead lap with Burton in 10th – his first Cup top-ten finish in his 20th start – and Gilliland’s #38 YANMAR Ford in 17th, tied for his third-best in 19 starts.

*This marked the Cup Series last-place finish at Atlanta for both B.J. McLeod and the #78. The prior occasion was June 7, 2020, one of McLeod’s first Cup starts as team owner, where his #78 Circle Track Warehouse Chevrolet, a superspeedway car, had clutch issues after 3 laps of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

36) #78-B.J. McLeod / 77 laps / crash
35) #3-Austin Dillon / 90 laps / crash
34) #16-Noah Gragson / 91 laps / suspension
33) #17-Chris Buescher / 107 laps / crash
32) #48-Alex Bowman / 160 laps / crash

1st) Live Fast Motorsports (4)
2nd) Spire Motorsports (3)
3rd) Hendrick Motorsports, Trackhouse Racing (2)
4th) 23XI Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, NY Racing Team, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Rick Ware Racing, Team Hezeberg (1)

1st) Chevrolet (10)
2nd) Ford (7)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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