Sunday, March 12, 2023

CUP: Handling issues and a faulty fuel pump shorten B.J. McLeod’s race at Phoenix

PHOTO: Jonathan Fjeld, @Jonathan_Fjeld

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

B.J. McLeod picked up the 10th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway when his #78 Superior Logistics Services Chevrolet fell out with fuel pump issues after 50 of 317 laps.

The finish, which came in McLeod’s 118th series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup Series points race since July 17, 2022 at Loudon, 20 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 20th for the fuel pump, the 31st for the #78, and the 833rd for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 34th for the fuel pump, the 46th for the #78, and the 1,874th for Chevrolet.

After a difficult 2022 campaign where McLeod secured the LASTCAR Cup Series Championship, his Live Fast Motorsports team has made the manufacturer change from Ford to Chevrolet and continue to seek improvement. As discussed in our interview at Fontana, after fighting a suspension issue in the Clash at the Coliseum, his Daytona 500 entry showed impressive speed. In qualifying, his lone entry ranked ahead of both rivals at Rick Ware Racing and the duo at Spire Motorsports. But in the race, a fuel pump failure sent him behind the wall for several laps, limiting him to a 30th-place finish. He improved at Fontana, running on the lead lap until the final moments to take 24th, then ran 32nd last week in Las Vegas. All three times he finished under power.

McLeod's car being pushed to the garage.

For Phoenix, McLeod welcomed back sponsorship from Superior Logistics Services, marking the third time since 2021 the company had backed his #78. The race also marked the debut of NASCAR’s new short track and road course aero package, featuring fewer flanges on the rear diffuser and a two-inch rear spoiler. With this package, McLeod began the race weekend with the slowest lap of the 36 entrants in practice, though the field was so close that he was just 0.052 off the next-slowest car of Cody Ware in the #51 Biohaven / Jacob Companies Ford. McLeod and Ware were also slowest in their respective qualifying groups with McLeod timing in at 127.687mph (28.194 seconds) during Group B. This ranked McLeod 33rd and Ware last, the two split by Zane Smith in the #38 Wellcare Ford and Ty Dillon in the #77 Mutoh Chevrolet. 

On race day, Smith’s #38 was the only car to incur a pre-race penalty, his for unapproved adjustments. As the field approached the line, Smith was behind Ty Dillon on the inside line with Ware holding the last spot in the high lane. As the green flag dropped, Ware got a massive run up high, passing Dillon and pulling to McLeod’s high side through Turns 1 and 2, forming a three-wide battle with Dillon in the low lane. Smith couldn’t find his way through, and took over last spot at the stripe, 3.92 seconds back of the lead. But by then, Smith had pulled alongside Dillon, the pair 0.080 apart at the stripe, and Smith reached 34th by Lap 4. By then, both Smith and Dillon had caught and passed McLeod, who was 6.148 back of the lead and 0.135 back of Dillon.

By Lap 6, Dillon had dropped Ware to 35th place, and McLeod locked onto his rear bumper through Turns 1 and 2. During this run, McLeod stayed in touch with Ware, but McLeod wasn’t happy with his car, saying on Lap 12 it was both free in and off the corner. On Lap 16, he said “Just so you know it’s doing that weird hopping shit it did at the Coliseum,” referencing the strange suspension issue diagnosed at the shop. Three circuits later, both Ware and McLeod had dropped 1.412 seconds back of 34th place, then held by Todd Gilliland in the second Rick Ware Racing entry, the #15 OTR Mobile Ford. The two were around three seconds back of the pack on Lap 29, when the leaders put both McLeod and Ware a lap down. 

McLeod's car stopped in the garage area.

On Lap 39, McLeod pulled to Ware’s inside at the stripe, but Ware got another fast run up high to defend the 35th spot. The next time by, McLeod’s crew discussed making adjustments on their next stop, but the driver said “It’ll take more than one fucking stop” to fix it. By then, he’d nearly wrecked three times, and felt like something was wrong with the car’s balance. Then on Lap 53, McLeod lost fuel pressure. After letting several cars pull by, McLeod pulled to the apron and made it to pit road. He tried recycling the onboard computer, but the car wouldn’t re-fire. “Push it behind the wall,” he said. “No fuel pressure.” As the crew pushed the car backward to the nearest opening, the fuel pressure returned to 90 pounds, but the car still wouldn’t fire. Behind the wall on Lap 57, McLeod said he wouldn’t return to the track until the issue was resolved.

The Live Fast crew stopped McLeod’s car just behind pit wall in the XFINITY garage near Turn 3 and looked under the hood. “At this point, it’s probably just better to park it,” he said, “I just have no interest riding around 15 laps down.” He also said this appeared to be the same fuel pump issue he had from Daytona where it “works when it feels like it.” Unlike the fuel pump cable issues from the last two XFINITY races, the crew diagnosed this as an issue with the relay, and looked to get a replacement. But there remained the issue of the car’s handling, which the crew described as “evil” as it bounced on the rear shocks. On Lap 70, the crew replaced the fuel pump relay, but it still wouldn’t fire. “We’re done – we can’t get it to start,” said the team on Lap 75. McLeod climbed out, and on Lap 81, the car was pushed through the Cup garage to the hauler. The car arrived at the hauler on Lap 87, NASCAR declared him out on Lap 91, and the on-board camera was shut off by Lap 101.

McLeod's car arrives at the team's hauler.

McLeod was the race’s only retiree, and even 35th-place wasn’t settled until the race’s final laps. With just ten laps to go, Harrison Burton’s #21 DEX Imaging Ford broke loose on the frontstretch and spun, either caused by or resulting in a shredded right-front tire. The race-altering caution ultimately pushed the finish toward a “green-white-checkered” finish, during which Burton slipped to 35th, one lap back of Ware. Aric Almirola took 33rd, his #10 Go Bowling Ford clearing the “Crash Clock” after a Lap 138 incident where the right-front rim failed and separated from the tire. Gilliland rounded out the Bottom Five, one lap ahead of Almirola.

Finishing a surprising 10th was Josh Berry, who was making just his second Cup start of the season as Chase Ellott’s relief driver. Just days after it was confirmed he would run the remaining oval races until Elliott’s return, Berry joined his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates in the Top Ten. Berry’s previous series-best was just 26th, which came with Spire Motorsports at Michigan in 2021.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #78 in a Cup race at Phoenix since November 13, 2016, when Martin Truex, Jr.’s #78 Furniture Row / Denver Mattress Toyota crashed after 258 laps. It was Truex’s third-straight election year where he’d finished last in that event.
*McLeod is the first last-place finisher of a Cup race at Phoenix to finish last due to the fuel pump.

36) #78-B.J. McLeod / 50 laps / fuel pump
35) #21-Harrison Burton / 310 laps / running
34) #51-Cody Ware / 311 laps / running
33) #10-Aric Almirola / 313 laps / running
32) #15-Todd Gilliland / 314 laps / running

1st) Kaulig Racing, Live Fast Motorsports, Penske Racing, Spire Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (3)
2nd) Ford (1)


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