NASCAR Cup Series
Chris Buescher, No. 17 RFK Racing Team Break Through at Richmond
Jul 30, 2023
Chris Buescher has moved into the Round of 8 of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, and part of the reason why was the resolve shown by rear tire changer Dalton Leonard during a pit road fire in the Playoff opener at Darlington.
Chris Buescher and the No. 17 RFK Racing team have had a Cinderella season in 2023. As we enter the Round of 8 in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, Buescher is still very much in the hunt for the championship, and Buescher, as drivers typically do, has gotten a massive portion of the credit.
However, it's been a total team effort to get the driver this far, and part of that team effort has been rear tire changer Dalton Leonard.
Leonard, who kept his cool in a very hot situation at Darlington Raceway, very well kept Buescher in a position to soldier on through the Round of 16 and the Round of 12 to now have a chance at advancement into the Championship 4.
Leonard, a 23-year-old pit crew member from Lexington, North Carolina, who has been changing tires for three and a half years, began what he thought was going to be a routine pit stop in the closing portion of the Playoff opener at Darlington Raceway. However, as it turned out, it was anything but routine.
"So, I come around the car, our gas man unplugs. You know, any time the gas man unplugs for any car on pit road, fuel is gonna get put on the ground. It's just part of the process," Leonard explained in an exclusive interview with Racing America. "I go down to hit the [lugnut on the] left rear and the hubs that NASCAR has, they have little wheel lockers to keep the lug up from coming back off. Sometimes they can get stuck or interfere with your pit gun engaging with the lug nut.
"I don't think I was fully engaged because when I pulled the trigger it sparked up and that's a common thing with those wheel locks, it sparks."
When the sparks flew from Leonard's lug wrench, the entire rear of the No. 17 Ford Mustang engulfed in flames, and a spectacular fire swarmed around Leonard, who still had to complete the task of changing the left rear tire.
Leonard was at a fork in the road. He had a decision to make and he needed to make it quickly. Would he continue fighting through the heat, and potential burns to get Buescher back on track, or would he back away from the pit stop, and risk throwing away a top-five run for his team?
It was an easy decision for Leonard.
"So, when [the fire] happened, like, obviously I noticed it, like, how couldn't you? But, at that point, you're just like, I can't quit. You just can't quit."
In a video of the pit stop, which was shared by RFK Racing, it doesn't even look like Leonard flinches when the fire erupts. He hangs in there and completes the pit stop. After the pit stop, Buescher would go on to score a third-place finish to kick off the Round of 16.
It's the stuff of legends.
Leonard says he never even considered bailing from the pit stop, because he knew what was at stake.
"If I were to back out right there and we lose all of our track position, we're halfway to three-quarters of the way through the race at Darlington," Leonard recalled. "The consequences from that would be far worse than me dealing with [the fire] for three seconds."
Leonard continued, "It was very hot for sure. I could feel the heat and the warmth coming off the fire, but, it honestly didn't even cross my mind to leave and not finish the stop. It never crossed my mind because like your first instinct is to finish and just stay there. And that's what I did."
As soon as the left rear wheel was fastened, and Buescher began to pull away from the pit stall, Leonard instinctively launched backward.
"Once I got that left rear tight, I planted my feet in the concrete and I just lunged backward towards my Jackman. I think there might still be a hole in that pit box or that pits off from where I did that," Leonard joked. "But that's how much force I was driving with to get out of there, I just launched back to get out [of there]."
For Leonard, this was the first time he had ever experienced a fire during a pit stop, but fortunately, he was prepared for the scenario and had all of his safety equipment on, and it all worked as intended.
"I was sitting in there for 3 seconds max. It's three seconds of a little heat, get out, and just, I'm fine," Leonard said. "The fire suit from OMP did a great job. I didn't, I don't have any burns anywhere. I was wearing my Nomex shirt and pants and had my head sock on. I had my safety glasses on. The only place I really felt any heat was on my right cheek, on my face. That was the side of me that was exposed to the fire. Some people roll their fire suit sleeves up, but I don't on the rear just for that reason right there. You never know when it's gonna happen and I would have hated for my forearms to be exposed right there."
While Leonard was the hero for the No. 17 team at Darlington, the tire changer says that every facet of the RFK Racing team has pulled its weight this season, which has put the organization in a position to do something that it hasn't done since the 2004 season -- win a championship.
"Brad [Keselowski] has really done a great job of, leading us and pointing us in the right direction. He's a big, a big part of this, but, that doesn't take away from the fact that everybody else is doing their part as well, regardless of the department they're in," Leonard explains. "Everybody is, stepping their game up and it's showing. Everybody is putting in max effort all the time to do the best that they can to give, to give Chris and Brad the best product that we have, anywhere, everywhere. From the engineers to our mechanics, pit stop guys, everybody. The whole building."
Leonard says the team just has built a great wave of momentum, and he's never seen the mood around the RFK Racing campus as electric as it has been this season.
"It's really great. The momentum is really good. You can tell there's a lot of hard work going on there right now, but it's paying off and people know that it's paying off. We have two cars that are running really well and it's only a matter of time before the No. 6 gets in victory lane as well. I mean, you see how good they're doing. The momentum and the energy is at an all-time high since I've been there, and I've been there for a little over three years now," Leonard said.
While Leonard, Buescher, and the entire No. 17 RFK Racing team hope there are no more pit road fires in their pit box for the remainder of the year, Leonard showcased that he is willing to do whatever it takes to give his driver and his team a chance at the championship.
Buescher will begin the Round of 8 of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs just three points below the cutline. While he was a long shot at the beginning of the season, it would be foolish to count Buescher out at this point.
The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Round of 8 begins with the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, October 15th. NBC will provide television coverage of the event beginning at 2:30 PM ET. The Performance Racing Network (PRN), and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will provide the radio call of the race.
Photo Credit: RFK Racing