Sunday, February 5, 2023

CUP: Chain-reaction incident leaves Erik Jones last in caution-filled Clash

ALL PHOTOS: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Erik Jones finished last in Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum when his #43 Allegiant Chevrolet fell out with suspension issues after 16 of 150 laps.

The 2022 season proved pivotal in the careers of both Jones and his team. Over the offseason, Truck Series powerhouse GMS Racing decided not to start their own Cup team and instead merged with Richard Petty Motorsports, bringing the #42 made famous by Lee Petty to run alongside the iconic #43. This, Jones’ second season in the #43, saw him enjoy a strong race at Fontana, then break through with his second career Southern 500 victory. By season’s end came news that Jimmie Johnson had joined the team as investor, rebranding the Petty GMS Racing team to Legacy Motor Club. Jones would remain in the #43 with rookie Noah Gragson replacing Ty Dillon in the #42, plus Johnson himself as an “open” #84 entry for the Daytona 500.

Before the 500, there was still NASCAR’s return to the L.A. Coliseum for the Busch Clash. In this race, last year, both Legacy cars performed well at different phases. Ty Dillon was the star of the Last Chance Qualifier, where he bulldozed his way through the field to an apparent win, only to be penalized for jumping the start. Jones made the main event, and carried the #43 to a 4th-place finish.

Running slowest in practice was B.J. McLeod, whose Live Fast Motorsports team switched from Ford to Chevrolet for their #78 Celsius-sponsored entry. This would put McLeod last in the second of Sunday’s four nine-car, 25-lap heat races. In qualifying, McLeod improved to 34th of the 36 Chartered entries due to misfortunes by two other drivers. When Ryan Blaney slid his #12 Menards / Great Lakes Flooring Ford through Turns 3 and 4, he executed the now-banned maneuver of turning his car around to try the lap again. Not taking time was Ty Gibbs, who suffered Saturday’s scariest incident. During practice, flames and thick black smoke breached the driver’s compartment of Gibbs’ #54 Monster Energy Toyota. The team had to replace the charred passenger-side door foam with a replacement piece from Stewart-Haas Racing. Gibbs would roll off last in Heat Race 4 with Blaney last in Heat Race 3.

None of those heats would send any drivers to the rear for pre-race penalties, which included both Gibbs and two other drivers involved in practice incidents. Chase Briscoe’s #14 Mahindra Tractors Ford suffered minor right-front damage after a door-banging battle with A.J. Allmendinger’s #16 Action Industries Chevrolet let to Allmendinger stuffing Briscoe into the Turn 3 wall. The other was defending Clash winner Joey Logano, who received no visible damage after he spun his #22 Shell / Pennzoil Ford.

Starting last in Heat Race 1 was Ty Dillon, whose #77 NASCAR Fan Rewards Chevrolet was fourth-slowest in single-car qualifying. Dillon remained in touch with the field through the first two laps before contact from Noah Gragson’s #42 Sunseeker Resort Chevrolet spun Harrison Burton in the #21 Motorcraft / Quick Lane Ford. Though Burton slotted behind Dillon in line, only green-flag laps counted in timing and scoring, keeping Dillon in last until the restart. When the heat restarted, Burton and Dillon came around and crossed the stripe just seven-thousandths of a second apart. Burton cleared Dillon by Lap 7, and by Lap 11 Dillon had pulled alongside new 8th-place runner Chris Buescher in the #17 Fastenal Ford, which he passed on the 13th circuit. From there, Buescher continued to lose ground, falling to 1.573 seconds back of Dillon at the end of the heat.

Heat Race 2 saw McLeod in last, and his #78 stayed clear of the battles ahead of him. On Lap 3, he nearly caught Chase Elliott, whose #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet was squeezed out of a three-wide battle that nearly put him into the Turn 4 wall. But after Elliott cleared Kevin Harvick’s #4 Busch Beer Ford, the gap between Harvick and last-place McLeod steadily increased. It was 1.567 on Lap 6, 2.363 on Lap 9, 3.624 on Lap 11, and 4.892 on Lap 14. By Lap 16, NASCAR advised McLeod’s spotter to watch for the fast-closing leaders, who put him a lap down on the 20th circuit. That time by, the caution fell as Harvick spun Austin Cindric’s #2 Freightliner Ford, and McLeod reported he had issues with the rear brakes. McLeod’s crew suggested their driver make a bid in the high lane to try for the transfer spot. McLeod did pass Cindric, who was bumped by Chase Elliott, but Cindric passed McLeod back as the #78 struggled with both rear grip and the drive off. By the checkered flag, McLeod crossed the line a full 2.039 seconds back of Cindric’s Ford. 

In Heat Race 3, Ryan Blaney’s #12 rolled off 9th, but made quick work of J.J. Yeley in Rick Ware Racing’s #15 C.W. & Sons Infrastructure Ford. That first time by, Yeley was just 0.050 apart from Todd Gilliland, whose #38 gener8tor Skills Ford was alongside. Gilliland pulled away by Lap 4, when Yeley was 0.318 second behind and concerned about a possible flat right-rear tire. Yeley’s deficit quickly grew to 2.473 seconds by Lap 9, then 2.907 on Lap 13. By then, Gilliland had dropped Brad Keselowski to 8th in the #6 Kings Hawaiian Ford. When Keselowski passed Daniel Suarez’ #99 Jockey Chevrolet, Yeley closed the gap to 2.818 seconds before the yellow came out for Keselowski’s spin after contact from Suarez. Despite the caution, Keselowski still lost a lap – much to his team’s surprise – putting the #6 behind Yeley for the restart. He wouldn’t get his lap back until Lap 23, when Christopher Bell’s #20 Interstate Batteries Toyota spun in a chain-reaction incident in Turn 2. Back with the leaders, Keselowski dropped Yeley to last on the final restart, the two 0.496 apart at the finish. 

Jones spins after contact early in the main event.

Ty Gibbs rolled off last in Heat Race 4, and at the end of Lap 1 was in a side-by-side battle with Cody Ware in the #51 Biohaven Ford, the two just one-thousandth of a second apart at the stripe. Gibbs opened an advantage by Lap 4 as Ware struggled with a car that had no forward drive. By Lap 12, Ware fell 3.615 seconds back of new 8th-place runner Corey LaJoie in the #7 Animal Control Chevrolet. As Ware called for timing and scoring from his team, he gained a couple tenths on LaJoie, then fell back again with a loose-handling car. By the finish, he was 5.106 seconds back of LaJoie.

Back in the garage, work was underway. McLeod talked about a possible issue with the transaxle, and discussed adjustments to the rear springs and sway bar. Yeley said his car was running too hot at 240 degrees. Ware said he couldn’t steer without losing the rear of the car, which cost him on the drive-off. All three would be among the 16 drivers to start one of the two eight-car, 50-lap Last Chance Qualifiers, of which only seven would transfer into the 27-car main event.

The first Last Chance Qualifier saw Yeley roll off last. The car still proved a handful, and by Lap 4 had dropped a full second behind the next car of Chris Buescher. Yeley mounted a charge by Lap 6, drawing within 0.733, but fell back again by Lap 10. On Lap 12, he was 1.707 seconds behind, then 3.593 on Lap 19. The race stayed under green through Lap 32, when Yeley was lapped by race leader Michael McDowell in the #34 Ford. Yeley was in some danger of losing a second lap when the race ended on Lap 50, leaving his the only car off the same lap as the leaders.

In the second Last Chance Qualifier, McLeod and Ware rolled off in the final row. McLeod remained in the spot as Ware charged up to 5th, only to fall back to 7th by Lap 11. By then, the gap between the final two cars was 2.128 seconds. McLeod shaved the gap back to 1.909 two circuits later, but Ware pulled away again by Lap 22, opening it to 2.912 seconds. On Lap 23, race leader Chase Elliott swung under McLeod through Turns 3 and 4, putting the #78 the first car one lap down. Ware, too, lost a lap by the 36th circuit, and McLeod lost a second lap by the checkered flag. McLeod and Ware would join the list of DNQs with Buescher, Ty Dillon, LaJoie, Keselowski, Burton, and the #47 Velveeta Chevrolet of Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.

As for Erik Jones, he qualified for the main event with a 5th-place finish in Heat Race 4, securing him 20th on the grid for the 150-lap main event.

Jones in the infield for repairs after his spin.

Starting 27th and last was Austin Cindric, who recovered from multiple spins in his #2 Freightliner Ford to secure his place. No drivers were sent to the back for pre-race penalties, so when the race started, Cindric found himself 0.508 second behind 26th-place runner Todd Gilliland. As Gilliland raced Bell for 25th, the gap back to last-place Cindric increased to 0.364 on Lap 4, then shrank to 0.212 on Lap 8. Cindric then got alongside Gilliland on Lap 12, and by just three-hundredths of a second, Gilliland took over last place. Just two laps later, race leader Aric Almirola in the #10 Smithfield Ford caught the #38, then worked under him off Turn 2 on Lap 16. Just as Gilliland was being passed, the first caution fell.

Jones’ #43 was racing just ahead of Michael McDowell when McDowell’s #34 got into the back of him, spinning Jones into the back of Kevin Harvick’s #4. Jones’ right-rear wheel made contact with Harvick’s rear bumper, causing Jones’ wheel to point the wrong way. Under the ensuing caution, Jones lost a lap, and on Lap 17 took the spot from Gilliland after his “Lucky Dog.” Jones said the tire was up, but the contact “definitely bent the lower or the upper” toe link. When the race restarted, Jones said simply, “Broke.” Rick Carelli, Jones’ spotter, helped him enter the infield with a wide arc into Turn 2. Jones stopped in his stall, but the team realized they couldn’t complete repairs. “We’re done here, Carelli,” said the crew on Lap 22. Jones thanked his crew and climbed out, expressing his frustration with the contact from McDowell. Jones’ car was pushed to one end of the infield to a designated spot between a forklift and the grand marshal’s car. NASCAR declared Jones out on Lap 43, during a caution for A.J. Allmendinger’s spin.

Ty Gibbs took 26th due to a broken spindle suffered in a frontstretch incident just after the halfway break. Austin Cindric’s night ended with a blown engine. Rounding out the Bottom Five were Front Row Motorsports teammates McDowell and Gilliland, who each ran out of fuel between the race’s 16 cautions.

*This was Jones’ second last-place finish in the Clash. On February 11, 2019, when driving for Joe Gibbs Racing at Daytona, he was involved in a crash during the closing stages. This began a streak of four consecutive last-place runs in the Clash by the JGR team which Jones ended on Sunday. 
*This marked the first time the #43 finished last on track in the Busch Clash. In 1998, 2000, and 2004 at Daytona, the #43 entry was classified last, but each time didn’t take the green flag. The Petty family had made a longstanding commitment to not run alcohol sponsorship on their cars, and thus never carried the pole award sticker due to the Anheuser-Busch sponsorship. In those three editions of the Clash, the #43 would have otherwise been eligible to run the race.

27) #43-Erik Jones / 16 laps / suspension
26) #54-Ty Gibbs / 81 laps / suspension
25) #2-Austin Cindric / 106 laps / engine
24) #34-Michael McDowell / 137 laps / fuel
23) #38-Todd Gilliland / 137 laps / fuel

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