By Dustin Albino

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway has been stress-free for BJ McLeod. One would think it would be quite the opposite.

“I‘m just excited to go race because I‘ve got 14 years in NASCAR as an owner; nine years in the Cup Series as an owner and driver,” McLeod said. “This is the first race that I can come to and just drive and have a good time.”

McLeod must race his way into the Daytona 500 for the first time during Thursday evening‘s Bluegreen Vacations Duel events. He made two starts in the Great American Race for Rick Ware Racing in 2019 and 2020 before acquiring one of the 36 coveted charters in the Cup Series field ahead of the 2021 season in a partnership with industry veteran Joe Falk and business partner Matt Tifft.

Live Fast Motorsports sold its charter to Spire Motorsports last fall for approximately $40 million — the highest charter transaction to date. Tifft departed the team over the offseason, leaving McLeod solely in charge.

McLeod plans on entering a handful of races throughout the 2024 Cup Series season. He still believes the No. 78 team has its best chance of succeeding on superspeedways, as both of his top 10 finishes have come at Daytona.

“I‘m over finishing 30th or maybe we finish 20th because of attrition somewhere,” McLeod said. “At Texas [last fall], we were fast and finished 22nd, but eight cars wrecked. Legitimately, we were a 31st-place car and that was a great day for us. I‘m over that. What races we show up with the Cup car, I want to go there and be on the lead lap and be able to be in the mix when I want to be in it.”

Not having to enter a car weekly has freed McLeod‘s mind. All he is worried about is showing up and competing.

“I‘m still a part owner because Jessica owns the other half, but it‘s not taking care of as many families as I was, and it‘s not all of the added pressure that I had over the years that goes silent,” McLeod added. “I‘m learning this every hour that I‘m here this week with how much different it is for me being a part-time team with the budget that we need for a part-time team to run correctly because I‘ve never had that in any aspect.”

As for racing into the Great American Race this year, McLeod hopes to get in. He entered NASCAR‘s most prestigious event without any partners, sparring a black No. 78 Chevrolet. If he doesn‘t qualify, he will watch the race from afar and it will have little effect on him. There‘s no pressure.

“It’s funny because, I thought, ‘Yeah, I will probably be nervous that week or whatever‘ but I don‘t have one ounce of nerves in me right now,” McLeod said. “I still own the car — technically, Jessica owns the car — but our people are taken care of whether I make the 500 or I go home. They are taken care of whether I wreck or I don‘t. It‘s not the level of having so many people to take care of that if I didn‘t do the right thing as a driver and do things the right way, I might cost somebody a job. Now, I don‘t have to look at that anymore.

“We can enjoy and know that I can drive however I want, and if I tear up a $400,000 racecar, it‘s not going to change how somebody has a job. I‘m looking forward to just being here and enjoy driving for the first time in 14 years.”

At a speed of 177.343 mph, McLeod slotted in 40th of 42 cars on the speed chart in qualifying on Wednesday evening. He placed ahead of two open cars, JJ Yeley for NY Racing and Front Row Motorsports‘ Kaz Grala, who had a mechanical issue and never turned a timed lap.

Theoretically, McLeod could make the show if both Anthony Alfredo and David Ragan — who locked into the Daytona 500 during qualifying — are the top two finishing open drivers in their respective duel races. McLeod, though, just wants to race.

“I don‘t get worried because if we fail [on Thursday night], I will make it better and I will make the race — it will just be next year,” McLeod said. “I know what I‘m capable of, how I can work with people and put things together — and I have time. I think it‘s solidifying with the charter sale and all of the work that we put in to build the business over a decade and a half to get to where it‘s at. Solidifying that business is successful after the charter sale, it‘s taken more pressure off of me than I realized I had when I‘m trying to drive.”

McLeod has a best finish of 19th in five starts in the Great American Race. His goal, regardless, is to just have fun.

“I think a lot of people can look at our Cup team as the fun team, doing what we want to do and enjoying not having a full-time schedule and a full-time infrastructure to keep up,” McLeod stated. “When we‘re there, we are trying to run better than we ever have because our average finish is somewhere around 30th for our three full-time years; my average finish as a driver is around 30th and our average speed last year was around 35th or 36th, depending on the race. We‘re looking to change that when we are at the track.”

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