Monday, July 17, 2023

CUP: Ill-handling Chevrolet hands Kyle Busch third Loudon last-place finish; Spire team gets LaJoie back on track


by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Kyle Busch picked up the 11th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Monday’s Crayon 301 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway when his #8 Lenovo Chevrolet fell out with crash damage after 71 of 301 laps.

The finish, which occurred in Busch’s 662nd series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup points race since September 25, 2022 at Texas, 26 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 32nd for the #8, the 653rd from a crash, and the 843rd for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 51st for the #8, the 1,342nd from a crash, and the 1,901st for Chevrolet.

When Kyle Busch made the move to Richard Childress Racing, it concluded 15 successful seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing, during which he scored 56 of his 63 career wins and both championships, prevailing in 2015 and 2019. That same stretch saw him score eight of his ten last-place finishes, including two consecutive last-place runs at Loudon in 2020 and 2021. The 2021 finish was particularly frustrating as NASCAR’s delayed caution for rain caused he and then-teammate Martin Truex, Jr. to skate into the outside wall after only eight laps. With three wins so far this season at Fontana, Talladega, and Gateway, Busch arrived at in Loudon a solid second in the Playoff standings behind William Byron with six races to go in the regular season.

But from the outset, Busch’s weekend was a struggle. He ranked 7th of the 36 entrants in opening practice, but also slapped the wall off Turn 2, causing minor damage to the fender. He easily made the second round of qualifying, securing the 5th-best lap in Group 1A, but in his Round 2 lap lost control between Turns 1 and 2, sending his car into the outside wall. While assured the 10th spot on the grid, Busch’s team had to make repairs to the left-rear, incurring a tail-end penalty for unapproved adjustments.

After yet another rainstorm this time pushed the race to Monday, the 36th spot fell to Ty Gibbs, who slipped in qualifying, handing his #54 He Gets Us Toyota the slowest overall lap, though just 0.189 slower than 35th-place qualifier Ty Dillon in the #77 Ferris Commercial Mowers Chevrolet. Gibbs had ranked 20th in practice, and looked to bounce back in the race itself. Busch then dropped to the tail end of the field, and took the green flag to the outside of Ty Dillon.

Busch limps off pit road after repairs.

When the green flag dropped, Busch was last across the stripe, 3.731 seconds back of the lead and 0.032 back of Ty Dillon. Busch cleared Dillon into Turn 1 and was already working over Ryan Newman, who rejoined Rick Ware Racing in the #15 Parts Plus Ford. It was Newman was last at the end of Lap 1, showing 4.612 seconds back of the lead. Dropping to 35th on Lap 4 was Noah Gragson, who appeared to have handling issues on his #42 Sunseeker Resort Chevrolet. The gap between Newman and Gragson ranged from between one and three-tenths of a second until Lap 10, when both passed B.J. McLeod in the #78 Circle B Diecast Chevrolet.

McLeod radioed that he was “having to really baby it” as the car was so loose, forcing him to take it easy on the brakes. After watching Newman’s battle for 34th with Gragson, the gap increased from a few tenths to 1.853 seconds on Lap 18. “If I hit the brake, it spins out,” said the driver. On Lap 25, when the gap from McLeod to Gragson increased to three seconds, race leader Martin Truex, Jr. got under McLeod into Turn 1, putting the #78 the first car one lap down. McLeod remained in last on Lap 29, when the first caution fell for 11th-place A.J. Allmendinger spinning his #16 Nutrien Ag Solutions Chevrolet off Turn 2. Allmendinger only dropped to 15th, and the caution took the place of a scheduled Lap 30 competition yellow due to the rain. Since Gragson lost a lap just before the yellow, Gragson earned the “Lucky Dog” while McLeod remained the only car one lap down.

Under the caution, Austin Dillon in the #3 Bass Pro Shops Club Chevrolet was caught speeding in Section 6 and Corey LaJoie was too fast in Section 9 in his #7 Schluter Systems Chevrolet. While Dillon dropped to the back, LaJoie didn’t until teams addressed the Choose Cone. This earned an admonishment from NASCAR that was relayed to other teams. While LaJoie dropped to the tail end, McLeod was still trying to catch up to the field when the race restarted on Lap 34, which frustrated the driver. It wasn’t until Lap 42 that McLeod caught Gragson. By Lap 54, Gragson climbed past Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., whose #47 Kroger / Drumstick Chevrolet dropped to 35th on old tires, and nearly got the wall in Turns 3 and 4. McLeod worked Stenhouse in both lanes, the team telling him to “find his weakness.” Stenhouse, too, lost a lap, taking the Lucky Dog from McLeod, and banged doors with Truex as he moved past entering Turn 1.

Stage 1 ended on Lap 71, just moments after trouble broke out in Turn 1. By this point, Busch had barely gained any spots after his pre-race penalty and was still well back in the order. He reported handling issues, saying he “couldn’t feel the right rear in the track,” which caused the car to snap out from under him. Similar to his incident in qualifying, Busch lost control in the corner while trying a different line, and this time slammed the wall much harder with the right-rear corner, pulling the right-front into the wall. A few seconds later, Corey LaJoie also slipped up the track and slammed the wall flush. Both cars made it to pit road with Busch’s car riding with the nose off the ground, trailing smoke from the right side. “Look at the right-rear toe link,” said the crew.

On Lap 72, the now 34th-place Busch was told by his team to shut off the engine. “The right front lower (control arm)’s fucked,” said the crew. “You want to go back to the hauler, or---” The decision was to send Busch out for another lap to decide what to do next. But the car continued to trail smoke, and NASCAR told him to stay on the bottom. As Busch took last on Lap 74, the crew said, “I think we’re done.” Busch returned to pit road and drove behind the wall, stopping in Garage Stall 3. NASCAR was about to hand Busch a penalty for pitting too soon, but corrected themselves in reporting he was in the garage. The call of “8 to the garage, DVP” came a lap later, ending his day.

LaJoie pits after returning to the track from his crash.

After hard work from the Spire Motorsports crew, LaJoie, who struck the wall right after Busch, managed to not only stay on the lead lap, but cleared the “Crash Clock” on Lap 80. While 32nd and four seconds back of the next car in line, LaJoie pushed through Turns 3 and 4 and made light contact with the outside wall. NASCAR did not restart the “Crash Clock,” and when LaJoie pulled into the garage declared “7 to the garage, mechanical,” meaning the crew could perform repairs. This was not immediately apparent to the booth of the USA broadcast, who declared this to be LaJoie’s first DNF of the season. It also wasn’t apparent to the team, which on Lap 116 tweeted he was out, then deleted the tweet. The USA crew then corrected themselves, and work continued in the garage. That work was completed. LaJoie rejoined the race on Lap 203, 124 laps down to the leaders. “Lots of fight, guys, thank you,” said the driver. He was told if he didn’t lose eight more laps, he’d gain some spots, including Cole Custer, whose solid run in the #51 Biohaven Ford ended with a hit to the Turn 3 wall. On Lap 257, LaJoie passed Custer, then with eight laps to go climbed past Aric Almirola to finish 33rd. Almirola had taken the lead for a Lap 170 restart, only to discover his right-rear wheel hadn’t been secured on his pit stop, putting him in the wall. Noah Gragson completed the Bottom Five after he wrecked in Turn 1 with a possible loose right-front wheel.

*This marked Kyle Busch’s third last-place finish in the last four Cup races at New Hampshire.
*This is the first last-place run for the #8 in a Cup race since April 24, 2022, when Tyler Reddick fell out at Talladega. The number’s most recent last-place run at Loudon was July 21, 2019, when Daniel Hemric crashed after 110 laps. Each were the driver’s first career last-place runs in Cup. And like Busch, they were their first last-place runs driving for RCR’s Cup team.

38) #8-Kyle Busch / 71 laps / crash
37) #51-Cole Custer / 130 laps / crash
36) #10-Aric Almirola / 168 laps / crash / led 4 laps
35) #7-Corey LaJoie / 176 laps / running
34) #42-Noah Gragson / 268 laps / crash

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

1st) Chevrolet (12)
2nd) Ford (5)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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