Sunday, June 25, 2023

CUP: Ryan Blaney suffers hardest hit of career into Nashville’s concrete barrier

PHOTO: Jared Haas, @RealJaredHaas

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Ryan Blaney picked up the 5th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Ally 400 at the Nashville Superspeedway when his #12 Menards / Pennzoil Ford crashed after 146 of 300 laps.

The finish, which came in Blaney’s 287th series start, was his first of the year and first in a Cup Series points race since May 31, 2020 at Bristol, 116 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 31st for the #12, the 652nd from a crash, and the 731st for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 49th for the #12, the 1,014th for Ford, and the 1,340th from a crash.

Blaney’s most recent last-place finish came just weeks before his fourth career victory at Talladega, where a series of aggressive blocks in the final seconds led to him breaking away from a gathering pileup. This was followed by his first multi-win season in 2021, where he took the checkers in Atlanta, then Michigan and Daytona heading into the Playoffs. A crash in Kansas ended his title run, which also continued a frustrating losing streak through the first year of NASCAR’s NextGen car. While teammate Joey Logano won the 2022 title, Blaney could only run 2nd in the Phoenix finale, closing out his first winless season since 2016.

It was then surprising that after a hot-and-cold start to the 2023 campaign that Blaney broke through in dramatic fashion, leading 163 laps of the Coca-Cola 600 for his first-ever victory in the event. The run lifted him to second in the overall point standings, then took the regular season point lead the next week at Gateway, 13 points over William Byron. But Martin Truex, Jr.’s dominant afternoon in Sonoma two weeks ago also saw Blaney take a distant 31st after late-race contact from Michael McDowell sent him into a spin.

At Nashville, Blaney began the weekend with the 13th-best lap of the 36 Chartered entries in practice, then qualified in the same 13th spot with a lap of 159.786mph (29.965 seconds).

Securing the 36th and final starting spot was Corey LaJoie, whose #7 Garner Trucking Chevrolet didn’t complete a lap in qualifying after he spun off Turn 4 in the first round. Unapproved adjustments handed him a redundant tail-end penalty along with 10th-place Daniel Suarez, whose fast #99 Tootsies Orchid Lounge Chevrolet crashed coming to the green in Round 2, forcing him to a backup car.

Coming to the green flag, LaJoie rolled off in last place on the outside of Josh Bilicki in a guitar-themed variant of his #78 Zeigler Auto Group Chevrolet. Across the stripe, Bilicki pulled ahead of LaJoie, who slotted in behind the #78 and got to the inside of Suarez’ backup #99. Coming down the backstretch, the outside line gained momentum with Ty Dillon in the #77 Raze Tea Chevrolet forcing a three-wide battle up high. This helped LaJoie past Bilicki, who was last at the end of Lap 1, 4.121 seconds back of the leader. Bilicki now fought against Suarez, and at Lap 4, the two were side-by-side, just 0.080 apart at the stripe. Suarez held off Bilicki’s charge, and the two remained about two-tenths apart until the #78 developed a tight condition center-off, gradually opening the deficit to a half-second.

Bilicki held the spot until Lap 17, when Kyle Busch came off pit road following an unscheduled stop for what he believed was a flat right-front tire on his #8 Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen Chevrolet. The crew instead discovered it was the right-rear, which had just nine pounds in it when it was changed. Stretching his fuel to the end of Stage 1, Busch remained on track as others pitted. This started with Ryan Preece, who on Lap 41 took the last spot in his #41 Morton Buildings Ford. 

It was during this same sequence that Michael McDowell’s #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford crossed the commitment box coming in for his stop, incurring a pass-through penalty. McDowell pleaded his case, saying Noah Gragson’s #42 was too fast behind him for a proper entry. But by Lap 45, NASCAR threatened to stop scoring by waving the black flag with the white cross, and McDowell served the pass-through. This dropped McDowell to last Lap 46, at which point he was two laps down. “About to get run over by the 42 and I get a penalty for it,” McDowell said of Gragson. “I hear you, its unfortunate.” 

Things weren’t going much better for Todd Gilliland, McDowell’s teammate in the #38 Serial 1 E-Bikes Ford had also fallen two laps down, allowing McDowell to pass him for 35th on Lap 59. By Lap 70, the leaders had caught the stranded Gilliland, putting him a third lap down. “We have to find a way to make fucking lap times,” said someone on Gilliland’s radio channel. “I don't want to keep giving away half-second clips.” Gilliland remained last when Stage 1 ended on Lap 91 and reported, “It's so on top of the race track, I have no grip anywhere . . .on ice, it's horrible across the center.”

During the Stage 1 caution, Bilicki re-took last from Gilliland. When the race resumed, both team co-owner B.J. McLeod and the team’s spotter remarked that Bilicki was learning how to use the air to make his way through traffic. This put him in position to climb back to 35th on Lap 115, which was just after McDowell made his next pit stop. At the time, Bilicki’s crew estimated McDowell would be a couple laps short of making it to the end of Stage 2. Gilliland’s own stop dropped the #38 to last on Lap 124, where he was still running when the next caution fell.

Blaney's car towed to the garage after the crash.

By Lap 138, Tyler Reddick had been enjoying a solid night in his #45 The Big 615 / MoneyLion Toyota. After starting outside-pole, he’d led for 33 laps and won Stage 1. But after a green-flag stop, he came back to pit entrance with a loose right-rear wheel. He then spun at the commitment line, where his right-rear wheel came off and bounced against the pit wall, drawing the yellow. Reddick returned to his pit stall under the ensuing caution, where he lost two laps in the process. After some deliberation as to where the wheel fell from the car, NASCAR handed Reddick a tail-end penalty, which further dropped the #45 down the lineup. By Lap 140, Reddick fell to 30th, then 35th on Lap 141, still ahead of Gilliland. He finally took last from Gilliland on Lap 143 as the field came to the choose cone. Having to start at the tail end of the line, Reddick was prohibited from choosing his lane.

This led to the Lap 147 restart, where this time trouble broke out near the front. Coming to the green, contact caused Brad Keselowski’s #6 Solomon Plumbing Ford to come out of gear, and the two trailing lanes unzipped to let him plummet down the new middle lane. During these maneuvers, Alex Bowman bumped Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney, hooking both drivers into the infield grass. While Busch managed to get control of his car, Blaney’s pointed straight at pit exit, where it slammed into a solid concrete barrier. This was among at least two stretches of the pit exit which were not protected by the SAFER barrier, resulting in a hit that left Blaney with the hardest hit he’d yet suffered. Blaney still climbed from the car under his own power and was checked and released from the infield care center. His #12 took last from Reddick on Lap 150, and was declared out by NASCAR on Lap 157.

The rest of the field finished the race under power, the remaining 35 cars all within four laps of race winner Ross Chastain. Gilliland, Bilicki, Poole, and Ty Dillon completed the Bottom Five.

Jones and Allmendinger get much-needed runs for Legacy, Kaulig

Surprising runs are becoming increasingly rare in the Cup Series, but Sunday saw two clear standouts. Finishing 8th was Erik Jones in the #43 Allegiant Chevrolet, his third top-ten finish of the year and first on a non-superspeedway. One month removed from a disastrous Coca-Cola 600 where Jones joined both his Legacy Motor Club teammates in the garage, Jones earned his best showing in seven races on the night teammate Noah Gragson returned from his concussion suffered in Gateway.

The other standout was A.J. Allmendinger, who after winning Saturday’s XFINITY race piloted his #16 Celsius Chevrolet. This was his second-straight top-ten finish following a season-tying 6th at Sonoma and likewise just the third top-ten finish he’s earned in Cup all year. While his Kaulig teammate Justin Haley only managed a 23rd-place finish, he did so after a sterling 3rd-place qualifying run, capping a solid weekend for the team.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #12 in a Cup race at Nashville.

36) #12-Ryan Blaney / 146 laps / crash
35) #38-Todd Gilliland / 296 laps / running
34) #78-Josh Bilicki / 297 laps / running
33) #15-Brennan Poole / 297 laps / running
32) #77-Ty Dillon / 297 laps / running

1st) Spire Motorsports (4)
2nd) Penske Racing (3)
3rd) Joe Gibbs Racing, Legacy Motor Club, Live Fast Motorsports, Rick Ware Racing (2)
4th) Kaulig Racing, Richard Childress Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (10)
2nd) Ford (5)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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