Race Weekend Central

JJ Yeley, BJ McLeod Suffer Heartbreaking Last-Lap Daytona Defeats

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The 2024 Bluegreen Vacations Duels were the most intense in years. There were two last lap passes and a combined 28 lead changes over 120 laps of action, and the battle for the final transfer spots came down to the final circuit each time.

Jimmie Johnson and Kaz Grala were the lucky two to claim starting spots 39 and 40 for Sunday’s (Feb. 18) Daytona 500, but it was heartbreak for JJ Yeley and BJ McLeod, as they both saw their Daytona 500 dreams quickly evaporate in the final set of corners.

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It was a battle between Johnson and Yeley in Duel 1, and Yeley was facing longshot odds before the race even began. Greg Biffle was a late scratch for NY Racing’s No. 44 car, and Yeley was announced as the driver less than 24 hours before the start of Wednesday’s (Feb. 14) qualifying session.

It was the team’s first Cup Series attempt in nearly two years, and Yeley put up the slowest time of the 41 cars that took the track on Wednesday.

But none of that mattered on Thursday (Feb. 15), as Yeley had a car fast enough to stay in the draft. Johnson was running top five for much of the night, but a crash with just over 10 laps to go put Johnson and Yeley at the back of the lead draft in the closing laps.

The two raced, drafted, blocked and almost traded paint with each other. Yeley was ahead on the final lap, but Johnson squeaked by in turn 4 as Yeley moved up a lane and lost all his draft momentum when the car in front of him checked up.

“Very good horsepower, didn’t have good speed on the bottom,” Yeley said. “I had to stay on the top the whole time and obviously caught a break with that caution, Jimmie getting stuck with what he was in there.

“I was just trying to protect the best I could. Once I went into [turn] 3, I thought, ‘man, I’m in good shape’. Had blocked Jimmie for about a lap and a half and kind of screwed up his momentum.

“There was some contact [in the final turns], someone slowed down in the middle, looked like the No. 7 car (Corey LaJoie). I had to make a split-second decision, I tried to carry my momentum and go around him and hopefully clear him.”

In the split-second reactions to the draft, Yeley didn’t see checking up as an option.

“I knew would have lost [momentum], so we went forward, which I thought was the quickest logical move,” Yeley said. “[Johnson] went to the middle, the No. 19 (Martin Truex Jr.) pushed him, [and] I just didn’t have enough friends coming to the checkers.”

NY Racing’s Daytona 500 bid wasn’t a success, but it was a valiant effort for how close the entry was put together in the days leading up to Speedweeks.

“It’s definitely [tough], especially for these [NY Racing] guys,” Yeley said. “I mean I got the call Monday night to come drive a race car. Obviously disappointed, 100 Coconuts on this car, guys at Patriot Mobile continue to support me, and like I said, I was worried about being able to keep up in the draft, let alone be in position to the checkered to lock in.

“This one hurts just as much as it did two years ago to be within a lap and get knocked out.”

See also
Christopher Bell Scores Daytona Duel 2 Victory, Kaz Grala Earns Final Daytona 500 Spot

Duel 2 matched up McLeod in a blank, now part-time car, and Grala in a third entry for Front Row Motorsports. McLeod had second-slowest qualifying time, while Grala wasn’t able to post a time at all after a mechanical problem on the warmup lap.

McLeod ran as high as third by halfway, but he eventually got spit out of the line and sent to the back, where Grala had been most of the race. McLeod picked up slight damage during the race’s big one, and just like the Duel before, it came down to the final lap with Grala and McLeod in the back. The ebb and flow of the draft helped the line that Grala was in, and he barely claimed the final spot over the No. 78.

“I feel like, ‘yeah, we missed this race,'” McLeod said. “But we learned so much moving towards the future for the Cup team, being an open team and trying to come out of our little bitty shop with no help whatsoever.

“My guy literally set this car up with just them. There’s no manufacturer help, there’s no nothing. We’re here on our own, and to come that close, for real, it felt good.”

He continued to be upbeat about the performance despite missing out.

“Honestly I don’t feel at a loss, I feel happy,” McLeod said. “We got here and we raced and just had a fun night, right? I’ve struggled, I’m so thankful for the opportunities I’ve had in Cup, but very few of them have I been able to drive 100% to my ability, and this one I drove everything I had. Wasn’t enough, but I did it, and that’s what feels good.

“So, just looking forward to everybody knowing that when the No. 78 is here, now we’re racing. […] Looking forward to what we can do in the future in these races.”

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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