Sunday, July 24, 2022

CUP: Kyle Busch’s battle for the lead at Pocono ends in double-disqualification with race winner Hamlin

PHOTO: @JoeGibbsRacing
by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Kyle Busch picked up the 9th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400 at the Pocono Raceway when his #18 M&M’s Toyota crossed the finish line in 2nd, but was then disqualified after completing all 160 laps.

The finish, which occurred in Busch’s 627th series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup race since July 18, 2021 at Loudon, 35 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 27th by disqualification, the 36th for the #18, and the 176th for Toyota. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 49th by disqualification, the 50th for the #18, and the 380th for Toyota.
Josh Bilicki picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400 at the Pocono Raceway when his #77 Zeigler Auto / Rich Mar Florist Chevrolet was involved in a crash after 35 of 160 laps.

The finish, which came in Bilicki’s 85th series start, was his first of the season and first since May 2, 2021 at Kansas, 46 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 39th for the #77, the 633rd from a crash, and the 828th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 52nd for the #77, the 1,296th from a crash, and the 1,850th for Chevrolet.

Still an occasional sight in the Truck Series – but as of this year, no longer in XFINITY, Kyle Busch’s 2022 has featured the release of his biopic “Rowdy” and a single Cup victory in the Bristol Dirt Race, where he capitalized on a last-lap spin between leaders Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe. His struggles last week at Loudon, where he spun out twice and finished 12th, have shown how much the two-time Cup Series champion has fought to adjust to NASCAR’s new NextGen car. He entered the season’s 21st race with six top-five finishes and 11 in the Top Ten, but had particularly struggled on the three road course races with a 28th in COTA, 30th in Sonoma, and 29th in Road America.

Pocono, however, promised to be a chance for his first Top Five since Gateway, and his first win since April. The now persistent rumors of where Busch will race next year were spawned by the decision by the M&M / Mars company to end their involvement with NASCAR at the end of the season. The candy company, which backed Busch since he joined Gibbs in 2008, sponsored Sunday’s race, which featured a reunion between Busch and other M&M’s sponsored drivers, including Ken Schrader, Ernie Irvan, and David Gilliland. A four-time Pocono winner who won the series’ most recent race last summer, Busch ran 7th of the 36 entrants in practice, then was just edged for the pole by teammate Denny Hamlin in the #11 FedEx Office Toyota. Busch’s lap of 169.498mph (53.098 seconds), was just 0.154 second behind Hamlin. All the while, Busch ran his familiar yellow version of the M&M's paint scheme in place of the purple used to promote the company's new "Crunchy Cookie" flavor.

In his own five previous Cup starts at Pocono, Josh Bilicki hadn’t finished better than 32nd, which came driving for Tommy Baldwin Racing in 2020. His #77 Zeigler Auto / Rich Mar Florist Chevrolet ranked 35th ahead of B.J. McLeod’s #78 Surface Sunscreen Ford. He then improved in qualifying to secure 31st on the grid with a lap of 164.718mph (54.763 seconds).

Taking the 36th and final spot was Cody Ware, Bilicki’s former teammate, who scraped the wall on his qualifying lap in Rick Ware Racing’s #51 Nurtec ODT Ford. Repairs handed Ware a redundant tail-end penalty for unapproved adjustments, one of five sent to the back for that reason. Ross Chastain, 21st in his #1 Worldwide Express Chevrolet and William Byron, 18th in the #24 Chevrolet both needed repairs after separate spins off Turn 3 in practice. Justin Haley surrendered 30th in his #31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Chevrolet for changing the steering rack. Petty GMS Racing teammates Erik Jones and Ty Dillon both incurred L1 penalties on Saturday for an infraction relating to nonconforming metal screens on the rocker box vent holes. While both Jones and Dillon lost their crew chiefs, plus 35 driver and owner points, only Jones surrendered his 34th starting spot in the #43 FocusFactor Chevrolet. Petty GMS Racing elected to not appeal either driver’s penalties.

But the biggest tail-end penalty was still to come. While both Chastain and Byron manage to avoid contact during their spins in practice, Kyle Busch’s older brother Kurt wasn’t so fortunate. His #45 McDonald’s Toyota spun and slammed the wall with the left-rear, then left-front. Busch walked away, but as the crew prepared the backup, the 23XI Racing team also had a contingency plan for their driver. Ty Gibbs, who enjoyed a competitive late-race battle with Noah Gragson for the win in Saturday’s XFINITY race at Pocono, was on standby to drive in relief. After running the simulator at 1 A.M. local time, Busch followed-up at the infield care center, where he was not cleared to race due to concussion symptoms. Gibbs was brought on board, the backup car adjusted for him, putting the 19-year-old into his first Cup start. As it happened, Noah Gragson – who prevailed in their Saturday contest – was also entered in his previously scheduled run in the #16 Gold Fish Casino Slots Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing.

Cindric (center) after his early spin off Turn 3.
PHOTO: No Tires Just Gas on YouTube
Without any practice laps in a completely different car from that run in XFINITY, Ty Gibbs went through a quick crash course before the green flag. Knowing Gibbs would be sent to the back anyway for the driver change and the backup car, the team had him make an additional pass down pit road. He’d also be told to take the green about 4-5 seconds behind the field so he could get a feel for the car and the sequential shifter. But when the green flag dropped, Gibbs was in 36th spot, 5.003 seconds behind the leader and eight-tenths back of B.J. McLeod’s #78. Cody Ware, the last-place qualifier, was now 34th, another four-tenths ahead of McLeod.

On the first lap, Gibbs began to reel in McLeod and pulled alongside at the stripe, the two just 0.013 apart to complete Lap 1. The next time by, Gibbs cleared the #78 and moved to 35th, McLeod still hanging with him just 0.296 second behind. Gibbs then dispensed with J.J. Yeley in the second Rick Ware entry, the #15 Ollie’s Bargain Outlet Ford, and at the start of Lap 4, McLeod now drew alongside Yeley just 0.023 apart at the stripe. But this time, Yeley held off McLeod and opened an advantage of 0.423 on Lap 5. McLeod wasn’t finished, and over the next lap cut the deficit in half.

On Lap 7, Austin Cindric was running in the 18th spot when his #2 Keystone Light Ford broke loose off Turn 3 and made what appeared to be minor contact with the inside wall. At the moment of caution, Cindric only fell to 34th as he was ahead of both Yeley and McLeod, but the #2 then slipped to last by Lap 8 as he stopped on track. Since he was past pit entrance, Cindric was towed back to his pit stall, causing the bodywork under the car to drag on the track. The crew had to wait until the car was unhooked to begin their work. The team changed tires and sent Cindric back out three laps down, only for the car to suffer a toe link failure in the left-rear, causing the car to drive diagonally through the Tunnel Turn. He returned for a second stop on Lap 11, and by the 12th circuit was down to the final two-and-a-half minutes on the “Crash Clock.” The crew successfully replaced the toe link and Cindric returned to the track just after the restart. This time, the driver said while the rear of the car was better, the front was still toed out, requiring him to steer past the two o’clock position on the wheel. Now six laps down, Cindric still managed to clear the “Crash Clock” on Lap 15 and ran conservatively to get to the end of Stage 1.

Also looking to reach the end of Stage 1 was Aric Almirola, who was fighting a loose condition on his #10 Haas Automation Ford. But on Lap 28, two circuits short of the green-checkered flag, Almirola spun off Turn 3. He managed to avoid hitting the wall, but now had both right-side tires flat. Almirola also elected to not wait for the tow truck, and instead drove to the exit of pit road, entered the wrong way, and stopped in his nearby stall with his car pointing backward. The crew changed tires and sent him back out, where NASCAR handed a commitment line violation to the #10 team. Under the ensuing yellow, Almirola made a second stop on Lap 32 to change one of his tires and to also examine damage to the diffuser. Cindric also made an extended stop to fix the toe issue in the front of the car. Cindric remained six laps down with Almirola in 35th, one down.
Bilicki before the accident in Turn 1.
PHOTO: Dante Ricci / TheRacingExperts

Bilicki didn’t enter last-place contention until after the following restart on Lap 34. One lap later entering Turn 1, Bilicki was running to the outside of Brad Keselowski in the 30th spot when a puff of smoke came off Bilicki’s right-rear wheel. Instantly, the #77 spun backwards and slammed the outside wall with the left-rear corner. Bilicki dropped the window net and climbed out moments later, his day done. He took last from Cindric on Lap 43, and NASCAR declared him out on Lap 65.

Meanwhile, Kyle Busch threatened to take his fifth Pocono win, leading 63 laps until Lap 123, when a lengthy stop for fuel handed the lead to Ross Chastain in the #1 Worldwide Express Chevrolet. Denny Hamlin then passed Busch, dropping him to 3rd before Ryan Blaney’s crash on Lap 136 put the #12 Menards Duracell Ford in 35th. On the Lap 143 restart, this put Hamlin and Chastain on the front row, where both battled side-by-side into Turn 1. Continuing their rivalry from their tangle in Gateway, the two remained locked together until Chastain hit the wall and dropped back, eventually collecting Kevin Harvick’s #4 Busch Apple Ford. From there, Hamlin and Busch remained 1-2 with Hamlin beating his teammate to the checkered flag by 0.927 second. Despite the loss, it was a good points day for Busch, who won Stage 2 in the process.

But post-race inspection revealed a problem in the front facia of both Hamlin and Busch’s cars, one that was discovered after looking under the wraps of both cars. With that, both Hamlin and Busch were disqualified, handing the victory to 3rd-place finisher Chase Elliott in the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet. As the lower-classified of the two at the checkered flag, Busch took last with Hamlin 35th, lifting Bilicki to 34th, Blaney to 33rd, and Chastain to round out the Bottom Five in 32nd. As of this writing, it is yet unknown whether the Joe Gibbs Racing team will appeal their penalty. 

A rare double-disqualification

Just over a week after both Landon Cassill and Noah Gragson were disqualified from taking 3rd and 4th in the XFINITY Series race at Loudon, Sunday marked the first disqualification of more than one Cup car since the inaugural World 600 at Charlotte on June 19, 1960, when six drivers were docked for improperly entering pit road. 

But none of the six drivers disqualified from the 1960 World 600 took the checkered flag in 1st and 2nd. That distinction goes to December 11, 1955, when race winner Joe Weatherly and 2nd-place Jim Reed were disqualified in a 100-miler at West Palm Beach, Florida, handing the victory to 3rd-place runner Herb Thomas (SOURCE: NASCARMAN History). Both Weatherly and Reed were docked for their engines – Weatherly for cams “which did not meet specifications, and grinding and polishing of the intake manifold was also discovered,” while Reed’s had “magnesium valves, not of production type.” Due to encroaching darkness on Sunday’s race day, these inspections weren’t completed until Monday (SOURCE: The Palm Beach Post, December 13, 1955).

For Hamlin, the last time the race winner was disqualified at all happened a little more recently – April 17, 1960 at the Wilson (North Carolina) Speedway, where winner Emanuel Zervakis took the checkered flag, but a disqualification put him last, handing the win to runner-up Joe Weatherly.

For Busch, the last time the 2nd-place finisher was disqualified from a Cup race and classified last was just last summer at Daytona, where on August 28, 2021, Chris Buescher’s #17 Fifth Third Bank Ford was found with an illegal track bar mounting assembly.

Ty Gibbs an impressive 16th in debut

The day’s most surprising run belonged to the driver who took the green in last – Ty Gibbs. Gibbs climbed through the field without incident and reached as high as 15th in the final laps before he crossed the line in 18th. The disqualifications of Hamlin and Busch then lifted him to 16th – a remarkable performance for his first-ever laps in a NextGen car, and on a weekend where so many top drivers were involved in spins.

*This marked the first Cup Series last-place finish at Pocono for the #18 since June 8, 2008, when Kyle Busch’s M&M’s Toyota crashed out after 95 laps. Incidentally, this was Busch’s first last-place finish in the #18 for Joe Gibbs Racing, and his first with sponsorship from M&M’s, a partnership which began that season. Sunday was also only the fourth time the #18 has finished last in a Cup race at Pocono.
*This the first last-place finish by disqualification for a Cup race at Pocono.
*Busch’s disqualification sets a new record for most laps complete by the Cup Series last-place finisher at Pocono, besting the 142 by Dave Blaney on June 8, 2014, when his Amy R. Fochler / Ford finished under power, 18 laps down, in the Pocono 400.

36) #18-Kyle Busch / 160 laps / disqualified / led 63 laps
35) #11-Denny Hamlin / 160 laps / disqualified / led 21 laps
34) #77-Josh Bilicki / 35 laps / crash
33) #12-Ryan Blaney / 135 laps / crash / led 7 laps
32) #1-Ross Chastain / 142 laps / crash / led 16 laps / won stage 2 (by Busch’s DQ)

1st) Live Fast Motorsports (5)
2nd) Spire Motorsports (3)
3rd) Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Trackhouse Racing (2)
4th) 23XI Racing, Kaulig Racing, NY Racing Team, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Rick Ware Racing, Team Hezeberg (1)

1st) Chevrolet (10)
2nd) Ford (8)
3rd) Toyota (3)


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