Sunday, June 23, 2019

CUP: Fuel pump issues hand J.J. Yeley first last-place finish in nearly four years

PHOTO: Brock Beard
J.J. Yeley picked up the 16th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350 at the Sonoma Raceway when his #51 Jacob Companies Chevrolet fell out with a fuel pump issue after 53 of 90 laps.

The finish, which came in Yeley’s 278th series start, was his Cup Series last-place finish of the
season, and first in the series since New Hampshire on July 19, 2015, 141 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 26th for the #51, the 16th for fuel pump issues, and the 764th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 38th for the #51, the 27th from fuel pump issues, and the 1,666th for Chevrolet.

Back in 2015, the last time Yeley finished last in Cup, he was a full-time driver in the XFINITY Series for the now-closed JGL Racing. He finished 12th in points that year, his best showing since 2006. He then joined TriStar Motorsports the following season, taking 14th in the series standings the next two years, then ran all but two races in 2018 for RSS Racing. Several of those starts were unsponsored, however, accounting for many of the 20 DNFs Yeley earned that season. He would later part ways with RSS Racing, where Josh Bilicki now runs a similar schedule in the #38.

On the Cup side of 2015, Yeley was driving for BK Racing, a team he’d continue to drive for through its eventual sale to Front Row Motorsports and single-car team owner Johnathan Cohen. Both Front Row and Cohen joined forces with Yeley last fall, fielding a #23 Toyota with sponsorship from the She Beverage Company. Yeley had previously driven for Cohen under the Xxtreme Racing Team in 2014, and also Cohen’s return to the series, starting with a Steakhouse Elite-sponsored #7 Chevrolet in the 2018 Coca-Cola 600. The partnership was to continue this season, where Steakhouse Elite remained as sponsor of Cohen’s Ford Mustang in Daytona. But while Yeley appeared at media day in his #7 uniform, the team has yet to make a start. Yeley commented on that team’s status:

“Nothing new for New York Racing right now. It’s been more of a matter of sitting around waiting for sponsorship to develop. We got to a situation where it was some opportunities to fill in with Rick (Ware) and we actually talked last year about doing something, so we got a couple more races planned, should be at Chicagoland next week, then Daytona after that.”

Yeley was a surprising addition to the Sonoma entry list, having not run a Cup race at the track since 2015. It would also be the seventh different team he’d drive for in eight Cup starts there. Although he was entered with both Jacob Companies and Steakhouse Elite as primary sponsors of his #51, only the Jacob branding was on his blue #51 with red roof, and the scheme did not change all weekend. The scheme was similar to the car Rick Ware fielded last year for Josh Bilicki at Watkins Glen and Stanton Barrett on the Charlotte Roval, though unlike both times was a Chevrolet instead of a Ford. Yeley would be teamed with Cody Ware, who returned to the #52 SBC Contractors Chevrolet he ran at Sonoma last year in the second Ware team’s Cup debut. Incidentally, Yeley’s team radio would be on Ware’s frequency, and vice-versa.

Yeley began the weekend 35th of the 38 entrants in opening practice, then 35th and last in Happy Hour after three drivers didn’t turn a lap. He then qualified 36th with the second-slowest lap of the session at 91.488mph (1 minute, 39.161 seconds).

Starting last was Reed Sorenson, who like Yeley, was making a return to Sonoma after a long absence. His would be a first since 2014, and his fifth in a Cup race on the road course. Sorenson was entered in the Jay Robinson-prepared #27 Chevrolet, a car he’d run in all but one of his eight previous starts in 2019. But the weekend didn’t get off to the best start when, after pulling to the end of pit road for qualifying, his car wouldn’t fire. The reason was a dead battery, and other cars had to swerve around him on their way onto the track. The Premium Motorsports crew retrieved him and pushed him back at the end of Round 1, bringing the #27 more than halfway back the long pit road.

“I didn’t run many laps,” said Sorenson after qualifying. “The tires we used yesterday (in practice) we need to use in the race.” He looked ahead to the race, and his strategy. “I don’t have too many laps out there, but we’ll have plenty of them tomorrow. . .Just use attrition, try to stay out of trouble and keep it on the track and be there at the end.” Sorenson also commented on the challenges of driving for an underfunded effort. “It’s all a challenge, I mean, it’s a very competitive sport, especially at this level. You just gotta make use of what you got and make the best of it and have fun with the guys you’re working with.”

Yeley was one of four drivers who joined Sorenson at the back of the pack due to tail-end penalties, his due to unapproved adjustments. Daniel Suarez qualified 5th in his #41 Ruckus Ford, but had to change engines after Happy Hour. Erik Jones could only take 32nd after damage from a flat left-rear tire in qualifying that resulted in unapproved adjustments to the #20 Craftsman Toyota. And Ross Chastain focused on Saturday’s Truck Series race in Gateway, so Kyle Weatherman practiced and qualified his #15 Low T Centers Chevrolet. Chastain successfully avenged his disqualification in Iowa with a win that night, and arrived back at Sonoma at 3 A.M. on race day. When asked how he’d approach running a track where he’d never turned a lap, he said, “Take the first two stages and learn the track - I've never been here - and just see what we can do.”

During the first pace lap, Sorenson had at least two spotters communicating with one another about which spots they could see the #27. This was critical as Sonoma returned to its original 2.52-mile configuration for this race for the first time since 1997. On the second pace lap, Chastain fell behind Sorenson in the Carousel, followed by Jones in Turn 7. Chastain and Sorenson then pulled behind Jones, who joined Suarez ahead of both cars. Also falling behind Suarez and Jones was Landon Cassill, whose #00 Share Chevrolet was slated to start 35th. Thus, Sorenson and Chastain remained in the last row exactly where they had qualified.

When the race went green, Chastain and Sorenson worked their way past Yeley in Turns 1 and 2. Yeley tried to close on the pair in Turn 2, but fell back, and was trailing by two seconds of open track after the first lap. According to the Ware team, Yeley had an issue with a defective tire, forcing him to make an unscheduled stop after just two laps. Yeley managed to stay on the lead lap, but was now one minute, seven seconds back of the lead. After six laps, Yeley was just under 21 seconds ahead of race leader William Byron, and Byron’s #24 Hertz Chevrolet knocked that down to 12 seconds just three circuits later. By then, Sorenson had also lost touch with the field in 37th, and the final two cars were running practically by themselves.

Byron was within sight of Yeley after 11 laps, and the driver of #51 reported his car was too tight, especially in the right-hand turns. This allowed Byron to make up the deficit on Lap 13, when Byron put the #51 the first car one lap down. He remained in last place when the first stage ended eight laps later, and reported his water temperature was between 215 and 220 degrees. Sorenson was also lapped by Byron, and edged Yeley for the Lucky Dog.

When Stage 2 began, Yeley reported issues with his fuel pressure fluctuating. By Lap 38, the crew became increasingly concerned as it was reading just six pounds of pressure even though the car couldn’t even run with less than 20. Still, Yeley managed to stay out without losing another lap and earned the Lucky Dog, putting him back on the lead lap.

With Yeley back on the lead lap, last place briefly changed hands after a series of pit stops. First was rookie Matt Tifft, making his Sonoma debut in the #36 Acquire Investments Ford, one of many drivers to suffer damage to the nose of his car.

“It was tough,” said Tifft after the race. “It was really challenging. We didn’t have the best-turning cars. We struggled being tight, but got a little nose damage, that didn’t help our situation, made a little mistake there and unfortunately never had the great speed we needed. We were probably okay maybe to get a Top 25 and we just kind of played our strategy for pitting probably just a little bit off, just got a little too far behind. But some good notes from running the Carousel for coming back.”

After 42 laps, Ryan Preece took the spot with damage on the right-rear of his #47 Kroger Chevrolet. Tifft re-took the spot the next time by after another stop, followed soon by Yeley after he, too, came down pit road. As Tifft drove by entering Turn 1, Yeley joined the field. Two stages were complete, and all 38 drivers were still running on the lead lap.

When the race restarted, Yeley didn’t accelerate as fast as the cars in front of him and again trailed by open track. His team continued to try and diagnose the fuel pressure issue, believing it to be a bad sensor. On Lap 48, however, the exhaust note on Yeley’s car sounded off, and he continued to lose ground to the pack. The team decided to bring him in and reset the car’s electronic system, which required Yeley shut off the car on pit road. The team did this quickly, again getting Yeley out on the lead lap, but now with just six seconds to work with on new leader Martin Truex, Jr. Truex caught and lapped Yeley just two laps later in Turn 2.

The fuel pressure issue continued, and after 53 laps, Yeley pulled down pit road once more to reset the system a second time. The driver expressed concerns that he’d blow the engine, but headed back out there one lap down. On Lap 56, the crew said “Let’s take it to the garage,” and the #51 pulled behind the wall at the garage entrance in Turn 11. Yeley pulled into the team’s stall, the very last in the building, and the crew hooked the car up to the computer. As Yeley sat next to his car, rehydrating and picking up more ice packs, he spoke briefly about his run.

“We ran 10, 20 laps in practice, had no issues, felt pretty good with the car. Just a little bit too tight today. It’s just been one of those days – got a flat tire before the green, had to come in and change tires, lost a lap, got back, got the Lucky Dog, then just started running bad and put us in the garage. . .It can do more harm than good running the engine running it at 5 or 7 pounds, so just come in and see if they can find something, but it’s gonna be something like a sensor or something, unfortunately.”

Soon after, the Ware team discovered a fuel line had come loose and was dumping fuel on the back of the engine. Though the issue was found, the team decided against returning to the track. “I'd rather just put the car away,” said the crewman, explaining that he didn’t want their car to be in the way. He was then asked if this was official, and confirmed that it was.

Finishing 37th was Chase Elliott, whose #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet qualified a strong 4th and took the lead early from teammate William Byron, only to lose the engine under green. Yeley’s team had officially declared themselves out of the race over the radio just moments before Elliott’s crew pushed the #9 behind the wall. The last radio transmission from the #51 said that Elliott had fallen out, and that they could gain a spot if they decided to return and make eight more laps. There was no response, and the #51 did not complete another lap.

The 36th spot fell to Cody Ware, who pulled behind the wall shortly after Elliott with symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. Ware was conscious as he was helped from the #52 SBC Contractors Chevrolet, and then assisted by track medical staff. The team later reported he had recovered and was in good health. The officially listed reason for the retirement was “fatigue.”

With no accidents or other mechanical failures, the remaining 35 starters finished under power. Rounding out the Bottom Five were Sorenson’s #27 and the #77 Formula One Imports Chevrolet of Justin Haley, back in Cup for the first time since his breakout run at Talladega. Like Sorenson, Haley finished two laps down, having come down pit road with three laps to go.

The race’s final 46 laps were run under green, which played directly into the hands of 19th-place qualifier Matt DiBenedetto. Just three years ago, DiBenedetto took the 2014 LASTCAR XFINITY Series Championship, finishing last in 14 XFINITY races as a “start-and-park” driver for TriStar Motorsports. His previous best Cup finish was a 6th at Bristol two years later, when he was driving for the now-closed BK Racing.

DiBenedetto voluntarily became a free agent last season, and the gamble paid off with a ride for the Leavine Family Racing team and a new Joe Gibbs Racing alliance. In his first race out, he led the most laps in the Daytona 500 only to be collected in a crash, and had finished no better than 12th since. That changed on Sunday, as he earned a career-best 4th behind Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Busch, and Ryan Blaney. The run was even more significant as it came in one of three throwback paint schemes honoring Darrell Waltrip’s final broadcast for FOX Sports.

“It’s been a tough journey,” said DiBenedetto as he headed back to the garage. “It’s taught me everything and made me appreciate it for sure.”

*This marked the first time car #51 finished last in a Cup Series race at Sonoma, and the first time a fuel pump was the listed cause in a Cup race there. In fact, it was the first time a fuel pump resulted in a Cup Series last-place finish since March 24, 2013, when Mike Bliss fell out after 44 laps at Fontana.
*Yeley is now tied with Kevin Lepage for the ninth-most last-place finishes across NASCAR’s top three series, each with a career total of 27.

38) #51-J.J. Yeley / 53 laps / fuel pump
37) #9-Chase Elliott / 60 laps / engine
36) #52-Cody Ware / 64 laps / fatigue
35) #27-Reed Sorenson / 88 laps / running
34) #77-Justin Haley / 88 laps / running

1st) Rick Ware Racing (5)
2nd) Front Row Motorsports (3)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (2)
4th) Germain Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Motorsports Business Management, Richard Childress Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (8)
2nd) Ford (6)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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