Sunday, May 21, 2023

CUP: Chandler Smith eliminated early in physical Open race at North Wilkesboro

PHOTO: Brett Baldeck, @BrettBaldeck

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Chandler Smith finished last in Sunday’s NASCAR All-Star Open at the North Wilkesboro Speedway when his #13 Quick Tie Products, Inc. Chevrolet was involved in an accident after 49 of 100 laps.

Smith, who won his first XFINITY Series race last month at Richmond, made his Cup debut that same weekend with a strong 17th-place finish. It was only the second start of the season for Kaulig Racing’s “open” #13 team, which after a DNQ in the Daytona 500 finished next-to-last in the Bristol Dirt Race with Jonathan Davenport. During an off-weekend for the XFINITY Series, Smith would run the #13 again for the Open race at North Wilkesboro, where his would be the only non-Chartered entry attempting the race.

At North Wilkesboro, Smith ran a surprising 9th in opening practice, entering his best time in his first of 53 laps run in the session. In the pit crew competition that determined the lineup to both the Open and Saturday night’s heats, Smith briefly took 2nd with a stop of 14.004 seconds. But a loose lugnut incurred a 5-second penalty that left him 30th of the 37 entrants – though third-highest of the ten drivers penalized. This placed Smith 13th on the grid for the 16-car All-Star Open.

Rolling off 16th and last in the race was J.J. Yeley, whose #15 Ford promoted a fundraiser to help the family of Stewart-Haas Racing engineer D.J. VanderLey, who suffered a serious injury last September. Yeley was slowest of the Open drivers in the pit crew competition, incurring a 5-second penalty on his 16.066-second stop. When no drivers incurred pre-race penalties, Yeley was last across the stripe, 1.507 seconds back of the lead. On Lap 2, Yeley dropped Noah Gragson to last in the #42 Sunseeker Resort Chevrolet. Gragson dropped Yeley back to last on Lap 3, followed on Lap 5 by the #77 Nations Guard Chevrolet of Ty Dillon. “Very loose, no drive,” said Dillon as he set back after Yeley. 

During this run, Dillon’s crew discussed increasing air pressure in the right-front tire, and was told by his spotter to “try and keep your rights on that black asphalt strip if you can.” On Lap 24, Dillon’s spotter told him to catch Josh Bilicki, whose #78 Ziegler Auto Group Chevrolet was passed by Yeley and dropped to 15th. “If we get him, it will probably keep us from getting lapped,” said the #77 team. Dillon dropped Bilicki to last on Lap 25 as the #78 struggled with a significant loose condition “wrecking free on entry and exit.” Bilicki was first to be lapped on the 28th circuit through Turns 3 and 4. Dillon was lapped soon after, bumped up the track by then-leader Ty Gibbs.

The competition caution on Lap 41 gave Dillon his lap back, and allowed Bilicki to get a round-and-a-half in the right-rear. On the Lap 48 restart, Bilicki was the only driver one lap down, still in last place, and remained there when the next caution fell. Coming into Turn 1, Gragson’s #42 cut it too close at the tip of the wall at pit exit. The impact bounced Gragson directly into the path of Todd Gilliland’s #38 Boot Barn Ford, sending both into the outside wall. Smith’s #13 was just behind Gilliland, causing him to bump Gilliland, then get struck in the right-rear, sending Smith’s car spinning into the wall. Also damaged was Ryan Newman, whose #51 Biohaven Ford was trapped behind Gilliland in the high lane.

Smith made it to pit road and took last from Bilicki on Lap 52. The crew attempted repairs, but by Lap 55, the car’s rear wheels were hooked up to a tow truck, pulling it backwards into the garage entrance just past the exit of Turn 2. Gilliland’s car followed soon after while Gragson and Newman continued with significant patches of tape on the noses of their cars. Newman completed the Bottom Five. He was held on pit road after receiving repairs, then was lapped a third time in the race’s final stages. 

Completing the Bottom Five were Justin Haley and Michael McDowell, who collided off Turn 4 on the restart following the accident. While Haley’s #31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Chevrolet was done for the day, McDowell’s #34 Fr8Auctions Ford – a “throwback” scheme to Mark Martin’s Folgers Ford from 1990-1991 – twice held up Ty Gibbs, who triggered their accident. 

Gragson finished 7th and transferred into the main event with the Fan Vote. Last-place starter Yeley finished a strong 6th – his best finish in the Open since his rookie season in 2006.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #13 in the All-Star Open since May 19, 1991, when Mike Skinner’s #13 Glidden Chevrolet did not start. The number never finished last in a Cup Series points-paying race at North Wilkesboro.

16) #13-Chandler Smith / 49 laps / crash
15) #38-Todd Gilliland / 52 laps / crash
14) #31-Justin Haley / 58 laps / crash / led 1 lap
13) #34-Michael McDowell / 97 laps / running
12) #51-Ryan Newman / 97 laps / running

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