Sunday, March 19, 2023

CUP: B.J. McLeod’s lead-lap run spoiled when leaders wreck at Atlanta

PHOTO: @teamlivefast

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

B.J. McLeod scored the 11th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Ambetter 400 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway when his #78 B’laster Chevrolet was involved in a multi-car accident after 189 of 260 laps.

The finish, which came in McLeod’s 119th series start, was his second of the season and second in a row. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 32nd for the #78, the 642nd from a crash, and the 834th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 47th for the #78, the 1,321st from a crash, and the 1,876th for Chevrolet.

Following a frustrating afternoon in Phoenix where a faltering fuel pump sent his ill-handling car behind the wall in the opening stages, McLeod looked to regain his superspeedway speed in Atlanta. He’d again be sponsored by B’laster Products, the chemical company which backed his Live Fast Motorsports entry five times last year. This included Atlanta last July race, where the car got away from him in the early laps, resulting in a crash that left him last. 

With no practice, McLeod’s first laps would be in qualifying – and he’d have to be first on track. But the surface proved so dirty that McLeod spun, ultimately preventing him from logging a time. This secured him the 36th and final starting spot. Joining McLeod in the back was Christopher Bell, who like McLeod spun in qualifying, but did so in Round 2 and suffered damage to his #20 DeWalt Toyota. The team received an unapproved adjustments penalty for repairs to the diffuser strakes and replacement of the splitter. During the pace laps, Bell dropped to the back, but McLeod let the #20 slot in front of him, second-to-last on the outside line.

When the race started, McLeod crossed the stripe in 35th, just ahead of 35th-place starter Ty Gibbs, whose #54 Monster Energy Toyota turned in the slowest completed lap in qualifying. Gibbs cleared McLeod on the first lap, but McLeod stayed in his draft and kept the #54 in his view. On Lap 4, Gibbs passed Bell, who McLeod drew alongside on Lap 7, the two just 0.071 second apart. The next time by, with the field still locked in a two-wide pack, Bell pulled away from McLeod and also passed J.J. Yeley’s #15 Barnett Southern Corporation Ford. McLeod pulled to Yeley’s inside, and for the next two circuits the two were just a few hundredths of a second apart.

On Lap 11, the first caution fell when 19th-place Bubba Wallace lost control of his #23 Door Dash Toyota down the backstretch. He slid into the inside wall and made contact with the left-front fender, then needed a push to make it back to pit road. Wallace immediately took last from the McLeod and Yeley battle, and lost a lap in the process. On Lap 13, the crew sent Wallace back on track to try and make minimum speed (35.16 seconds), telling him “crazy shit’s gonna happen” to allow them to gain some spots. Wallace cleared minimum speed on Lap 16, at which point he was two laps down. But something was still dragging on his #23, causing him to lose touch with McLeod and Yeley as they resumed their side-by-side battle on the restart, now for 34th and 35th.

By Lap 38, the tail end of the field began to lose touch with the main pack. The gap began with 33rd-place Cody Ware, whose #51 Biohaven Ford was now a second behind the 32nd-place car. Behind Ware, both McLeod and Yeley formed up into a draft with Wallace some distance behind, waiting for a caution to make further adjustments. Stranded, Wallace lost a third lap by the 44th circuit, and by Lap 52, the draft of Ware, McLeod, and Yeley had dropped 12.965 seconds back of 32nd-place Ty Dillon in the #77 Ferris Commercial Mowers Chevrolet. The caution didn’t fall until the end of Stage 1, when the crew asked what Wallace needed to improve the car’s handling. The team elected to put rounds in both the right-front and right-rear, and also work more on the splitter.

When the race restarted on Lap 68, Wallace passed a couple of cars, but by Lap 74 had dropped to the tail end of the line again. This time, he remained in touch with the trailing cars of McLeod, Yeley, and Ware, and the group began to draft. On Lap 81, Wallace pulled to McLeod’s inside off Turn 2, but McLeod charged back. McLeod defended another pass off Turn 4. Two circuits later, another driver found trouble. This was Ryan Preece, whose #41 Autodesk / Ford fell off the pace on Lap 83. “41’s gone,” said Wallace’s spotter. “He’s got some kind of issue.”

Wallace (right) passes Preece, putting the #41 in last.

By Lap 85, Preece had fallen to 35th, 7.61 seconds back of the lead and 2.216 seconds back of 34th-place McLeod, who still racing the lapped Wallace. Like Wallace, Preece waited for another caution to fall, but also didn’t get it. By Lap 89 – just four laps later – he had fallen a full 11.972 seconds back of McLeod and was completely by himself on track. Reading off the data from his digital dash, Preece was soon told the leaders were catching him. On Lap 93, Preece held the low lane as the leaders rushed past up high in single-file formation. Preece said his issue felt like what Briscoe experienced in Fontana last month – the engine running low on power. He estimated this was an injector issue, perhaps an injector not clogged or stuck open. 

Behind Preece, Ware now led the trailing pack of Wallace, McLeod, and Yeley as the leaders bore down to put them a lap down. As they did, the group attempted to merge into the lead draft. This caused the quartet to rush past the stranded Preece down the backstretch. And with Preece now on the same lap as Wallace, the #23 moved Preece to last off Turn 2. Green-flag pit stops ensued, and Wallace briefly retook last place on Lap 132, but Preece ran out of fuel and then incurred a pass-though penalty when he had to steer around Harrison Burton at the new pit entrance on the apron of Turn 3. This put Preece back to last on Lap 136, and the crew elected to look under the hood. The stop meant he still had to serve the pass-through, after which he was told the number two cylinder on the right side was dead, and he was now nine laps down to the leader, three behind 35th-place Wallace.

Stage 2 ended on Lap 162 with Preece still in last and all 36 cars under power. Preece’s crew brought him back in to change the spark plug for the dead cylinder, then changed the tires after. With Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. now leading the race on the restart, Preece anticipated the aggressive driver would draw a caution, but again, yellows were far from guaranteed. On Lap 181, Preece was now a full 13 laps down. He was still stranded, running by himself well off the pace, and on Lap 188 saw teammate Chase Briscoe pit his #14 High Point Ford for a bent toe link after contact with the wall. No sooner had Briscoe made it to pit road when the spotter broke in, saying, “Big wreck, big wreck. Whole field’s wrecked behind you.”

Trouble had broken out up front, but Stenhouse wasn’t to blame. The leaders were Kevin Harvick, who had a hard charging Ross Chastain filling his rear-view mirror. Coming off Turn 2, with Chastain a few inches behind Harvick’s rear bumper, Harvick’s #4 Busch Light Ford broke loose and was collected by Chris Buescher’s #17 Violet Defense Ford, triggering a multi-car pileup. Further back, coming off Turn 2, McLeod’s #78 spun sideways in a second wreck that also included Kyle Busch’s #8 Lenovo Chevrolet. Of those involved, both Buescher and McLeod’s cars failed to complete another lap, and were both towed to the garage, done for the day. McLeod was classified lower, and was first to close the gap on the lapped machines of Wallace and Preece. At the time of the wreck, McLeod was still running on the lead lap.

On Lap 204, Preece finally passed McLeod, putting the #78 in last place. That same time by, NASCAR confirmed McLeod was out due to the accident along with Buescher, Harvick, Burton, and the #24 Liberty University Chevrolet of William Byron. Burton had attempted to clear the “Crash Clock,” but was told on track that his time had expired, meaning NASCAR would no longer score his laps. This filled the Bottom Five, and ultimately lifted Wallace and Preece to 27th and 28th in the final running order.

LaJoie and the rookies survive Atlanta with great finishes

Finishing 4th was the #7 Celsius Chevrolet of Corey LaJoie, who for a third-straight Atlanta superspeedway race was a factor in the battle for the win. This time, it netted LaJoie his career-best Cup finish, improving on his first career Top Five in the 2022 running of this race. 

Both top Rookie of the Year contenders also enjoyed strong runs. After his poor performance in qualifying, Ty Gibbs rallied to a career-best 9th in his #54, besting his previous mark of 10th last summer in Michigan. Three spots behind came Noah Gragson, who turned around a frustrating start to 2023 with a 12th-place finish – his best run with Legacy Motor Club and third-best in a Cup race behind his 5th for Beard Motorsports in a crash-marred Daytona race and 11th last fall in Las Vegas substituting for Alex Bowman.

*This marked the second-straight last-place run for McLeod and the #78 in a Cup race at Atlanta.

36) #78-B.J. McLeod / 189 laps / crash
35) #17-Chris Buescher / 189 laps / crash
34) #21-Harrison Burton / 190 laps / crash
33) #4-Kevin Harvick / 190 laps / crash
32) #24-William Byron / 192 laps / crash

1st) Live Fast Motorsports (2)
2nd) Kaulig Racing, Penske Racing, Spire Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (4)
2nd) Ford (1)


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