Friday, September 16, 2022

XFINITY: Brandon Brown qualifies strong but wrecks out early at Bristol; Parsons and Currey impress

PHOTO: @TeamBJMcLeod

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Brandon Brown picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Friday’s Food City 300 at the Bristol Motor Speedway when his unsponsored #5 B.J. McLeod Motorsports Chevrolet was involved in an accident after 45 of 300 laps.

The finish, which came in Brown’s 145th series start, was his first of the season and first in a XFINITY race since August 21, 2021 at Michigan, 37 races ago. In the XFINITY Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 13th for the #5, the 370th from a crash, and the 605th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 39th for the #5, the 1,305th from a crash, and the 1,861st for Chevrolet.

It's been an emotional rollercoaster for Brandon Brown, who not long after his only XFINITY last-place finish scored a thrilling first career victory at Talladega. After climbing from the car, an unrelated chant from fans overheard expressing their displeasure with President Biden gave the win added media coverage – but the attention ended up doing Brown more harm than good. He lost sponsor Larry’s Lemonade and was unable to capitalize on the Talladega phenomenon through a cryptocurrency NASCAR may or may not have approved, only to rescind that approval. Despite several solid finishes in 2022, Brown then found himself in exactly the same desperate situation where he’d found himself last year before the win – without a sponsor.

By August, Brown could no longer run for his own family’s Brandonbilt Motorsports effort full-time as the team needed to bring on funded driver Kris Wright to take his place. One of the few races Brown would run in the #68 was last month at Daytona, where he reunited with Larry’s as sponsor and found himself in position to take the win from Jeremy Clements – only for the caution to freeze him in a disappointing 4th. Otherwise, since Wright’s arrival from the Truck Series in August, Brown has pieced together his remaining schedule with Mike Harmon Racing, Our Motorsports, and at Bristol, B.J. McLeod Motorsports. As at Watkins Glen, Brown would run McLeod’s #5 with no primary sponsorship – this time in a plain white Chevrolet. He'd be teamed with McLeod himself, who stood in as relief driver for Matt Mills, whose flu-like symptoms kept him out of the #78 J.F. Electric Chevrolet for a second-straight race.

Brown was one of 41 drivers entered for 38 spots. Of that group, he climbed from just 30th in practice to an impressive 13th in qualifying, securing the inside of the seventh row with a lap of 120.195mph (15.964 seconds). The fastest of the three cars sent home belonged to Brennan Poole, who in the return of Jimmy Means Racing drew within just 0.023 second of getting the #52 team into its first race since October 30, 2021 at Martinsville. Instead, Poole’s #52 Chevrolet failed to qualify along with Dawson Cram in the #47 Michael Waltrip Brewing Co. Chevrolet and Chad Finchum in the #13 Finishing Touch / Food City Toyota.

Starting 38th and last in Friday’s field was Bobby McCarty, who after his DNQ with Mike Harmon Racing at Loudon made his XFINITY Series debut in JD Motorsports’ #6 Solid Rock Carriers Chevrolet. Joining McCarty in the rear of the field were two drivers docked for unapproved adjustments: 14th-place starter Stefan Parsons in the #45 Pursuit Church / Sokal Chevrolet and 37th-place Joe Graf, Jr. in the #07 Bucked Up LFG BURN Ford.

When the race started, Graf held down 38th place, about five seconds back of the leader. By Lap 4, the spot fell to C.J. McLaughlin in the #38 Sci Aps Ford. McLaughlin dropped Graf back to last on Lap 5, when the first caution fell. Nick Sanchez, making just his third career start, climbed aboard Big Machine Racing’s #48 Big Machine Racing Spiked Coolers Chevrolet, only to lose a right-front tire and nearly hit the Turn 2 wall. Sanchez came back to pit road without serious damage, returned on the lead lap, then came in for a second stop on Lap 9 for a wheel spacer. The team expressed concern that one of their tires was rubbing against the sway bar. Sanchez returned to the track, just barely catching the tail end of the field for the Lap 10 restart, and quickly dropped Graf back to last. 

Brown's wrecked car (center) in the
garage at Bristol.
PHOTO: Austin Stombres

On Lap 13, Sheldon Creed made contact with the #98 Resorts World Ford of Riley Herbst, and while Herbst avoided a spin, the caution came out for a second time. Here, too, Sanchez came down pit road for his third stop. “Put another eighth on it, inspect the inside of the tire, please,” said the crew. “No wedge or nothing.” The crew also cautioned Sanchez to not run so hard on the restarts. “You’re not gonna pass ‘em all in one corner,” they told him. As the caution period continued on Lap 15, the spot fell back to last-place qualifier Bobby McCarty, followed by Graf on Lap 16, when Sanchez made his fourth stop. “We’ll have to glue up this right-rear probably,” said the crew. Sanchez retook last on Lap 17 and remained in the spot through the Lap 19 restart, only dropping McCarty back to 38th on Lap 21.

On Lap 26, McCarty was encouraged by the team to track down new 37th-place runner Ronnie Bassett, Jr. in the #77 Jerry Hunt Supercenter Chevrolet. He was also told to hug the bottom lane as the leaders were fast approaching, ultimately putting the #6 the first car one lap down on the 31st go-round. Four laps later on Lap 35, trouble again found Nick Sanchez, who spun off Turn 2 but once again avoided contact. The driver reported he was free coming off the corner, and came in for four tires with the right-front flat-spotted. He took over last on Lap 36. Despite a lack of visible damage, one of these incidents had knocked a crush panel loose. The team considered taping it back in place, then called for a saws-all to cut it out. Now lapped as a result of both the spin and stop, Sanchez once again took his time climbing through the pack, passing McCarty for 37th on Lap 42.

On Lap 45, Brandon Brown had only lost five spots since the start, holding down the 18th spot when he apparently broke loose off Turn 2 and slammed into the inside wall with both the front and rear of his car, knocking the rear decklid loose so it dangled from its tethers. Brown made it to pit road, where the crew set to work, not knowing exactly how much time they had on the “Crash Clock.” They held off changing tires to jack up both sides of the car and drop the bent splitter on a lead block. They ultimately put right-side tires on during Lap 50, when they estimated they had 90 seconds remaining. He returned to the track on Lap 53, and while the team feared time had expired, NASCAR instead reportedly advised them to pick up their speed. But the crew wasn’t satisfied with their car, believing something else was broken. On Lap 56, Brown pulled behind the wall, one of the pace cars pulling out of the way to allow him to pass. “I don’t know,” said someone on the crew on Lap 75, “I don’t see anything obvious that would’ve caused it. Too late now.”

Attrition remained low, which played a direct role in determining the final few spots in the XFINITY Playoffs. Around the 100-lap mark, Landon Cassill’s #10 Voyager Chevrolet was running 10th when he suddenly slowed with what looked like a flat tire. But soon, his right-front hub caught fire, and he went behind the wall for lengthy repairs. The crew worked on the brake system, then the hub, then ultimately replaced the entire right-front spindle. Back on track, a bump from Noah Gragson sent Ty Gibbs’ #54 Monster Energy Toyota crashing into Sheldon Creed’s #2 Whelen Chevrolet, taking both out of the race. Cassill returned to the track on Lap 219, needing to pass both Gibbs and Creed to stay within striking distance of Ryan Sieg for the final Playoff spot. While three more drivers fell out in the final 100 laps, Cassill was 112 laps behind – too far back to catch any of them and settled for 35th. Cassill ultimately fell just five points short of taking a Playoff spot from Sieg. B.J. McLeod rounded out the Bottom Five after brake issues, still 42 laps ahead of Cassill at the checkered flag.

Stefan Parsons and Bayley Currey impress with strong performances

In a race dominated by Playoff storylines, a couple drivers outside the hunt earned surprising runs. One month after earning a career-best 12th at Watkins Glen, Stefan Parsons went one step further with his first career Top Ten. He bounced back from his pre-race penalty to charge to 8th at the finish, driving what was reportedly an old chassis the Alpha Prime team acquired from TriStar Motorsports. 

Not far behind in 11th came Bayley Currey, whose #4 Alka-Seltzer Chevrolet led for four laps on old tires, then held fast to 3rd for much of the run before he gradually slid back. The result is the best for JD Motorsports since Ryan Vargas’ 6th-place showing at Daytona last month and Currey’s best since his 10th in Loudon – all while coming in Currey’s 100th XFINITY start.

*This marks the first last-place finish for the #5 in a XFINITY Series race at Bristol.

38) #5-Brandon Brown / 45 laps / crash
37) #2-Sheldon Creed / 128 laps / crash / led 34 laps
36) #54-Ty Gibbs / 129 laps / crash / led 89 laps / won stage 1
35) #10-Landon Cassill / 188 laps / running
34) #78-B.J. McLeod / 220 laps / brakes

1st) Alpha Prime Racing (4)
2nd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, JR Motorsports (3)
3rd) JD Motorsports, Mike Harmon Racing, Motorsports Business Management, Our Motorsports (2)
4th) Big Machine Racing, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Sam Hunt Racing, SS-Green Light Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (20)
2nd) Toyota (4)
3rd) Ford (2)


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