Friday, July 21, 2017

OPINION: The Brickyard 400’s Identity Crisis

PHOTO: Matt Kryger, IndyStar
The Brickyard 400 is in trouble.  It’s not just a matter of empty grandstands or single-file racing, but an identity crisis.  In less than a quarter of a century, NASCAR’s trip to Indianapolis has slipped into the background as just another race, sometimes to the point of being utterly forgettable.  Even in 2008, when I was assembling a video montage for the 15th running, I found it difficult to select enough clips of famous moments to make it exciting.  Hours later, the exploding Goodyears that turned the race into a game of “red light, green light” made future projects even harder.

These aren’t merely opinions – the statistics tell the same tale.  In 23 previous runnings, the race has never seen a last-lap pass for the win.  Four of the last five had a margin of victory of two seconds or more.  Fights in NASCAR are nothing new, particularly when the stakes are high in the sport’s “crown jewel” races, but in the Brickyard 400, they’re unheard-of.  The closest thing to an on-track scuffle in the event came in 2002, when the ongoing feud between Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer saw Busch gesture at Spencer following an early crash.  Drivers have instead had to fight with today’s ever-changing array of “spaghetti against the wall” aerodynamic changes.

This year, Kyle Busch comes to Indianapolis looking for not only his third-consecutive Brickyard 400 win, but his third-straight year of sweeping the XFINITY and Cup races.  Last summer, he led 149 of 170 laps in a race with only four lead changes.  Even the last-place battle, which was competitive in 2013 and 2015, was sewn-up after just four laps.  Though winless so far in 2017, Busch is almost certainly the favorite to win it again, particularly after his near-miss at the other 2.5-mile flat track in Pocono.  And, given his 10-second victory last Saturday in Loudon, awaiting the winner of this Saturday’s XFINITY race is practically a formality.

And that’s one of the big problems– the predictability of it all.  In 1994, no one knew for sure how the heavy and unsteady stock cars would handle the sprawling oval.  Tests conducted in 1992 raised questions about whether cars could draft or race side-by-side through the corners.  There were surprises in qualifying, from H.B. Bailey putting in the first timed lap, to Rick Mast’s pole position, to open-wheel veterans like Danny Sullivan and A.J. Foyt bumping several Cup regulars from the field, including Loy Allen, Jr., that year’s Daytona 500 polesitter.  It was a special event not only because of the history, but the unpredictability.

What’s ironic is, for every year the Brickyard 400 has stagnated, the Indianapolis 500 has seen a return to greatness.  The point of departure seemed to come in 2011, when Dan Wheldon’s stunning triumph after J.R. Hildebrand’s wreck was followed in July by Paul Menard taking his first Cup win, holding off the legend Jeff Gordon.  Since then, the 500 has consistently seen spectacular race-long battles every single year, capped by Takuma Sato’s victory in May.  Arguably, the best moment in the 400 in that span had nothing to do with the racing itself, but rather Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon’s final lap last year after they finished 11th and 13th.

It also doesn’t help that, since 2013, Indianapolis has now been big-footed by Wednesday’s Truck Series dirt race in Eldora, which has consistently put on a much better show.  Combined with the late-summer heat and the ludicrous decision to move the XFINITY Series away from Indianapolis Raceway Park, the Brickyard 400 lost its final significance – its exclusivity in the world of stock car racing.  Simply put, the race isn’t special anymore.

Many proposals have been brought forward, ranging from running the infield road course to simply taking the event off the schedule.  Personally, I’d like to see the return of something closer to “The Winston Million” or the “No Bull Five,” where the XFINITY Series is sent back to IRP and the Brickyard regains its title as a crown jewel race alongside Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, and Darlington.  While I don’t believe the fallacy that drivers will race harder just because a race is worth more money, I think it would be a nice way to pay homage to the speedway and acknowledge that it isn’t just the 20th event on a 36-race schedule.

At the end of the day, I want the Brickyard 400 to succeed.  I still think a win in the event is meaningful, and traditions like “kissing the bricks” have brought something new to the speedway’s history.  But more than that, I want to be excited by the event again, to see it as an equal to a Daytona 500 or Southern 500.  But for that to happen, NASCAR and the speedway need to be honest about the problems facing the event, and have the courage to undo past mistakes.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

8/5/95: Elton Sawyer’s long-awaited Cup debut followed by Indianapolis last-place finish

On August 5, 1995, Elton Sawyer picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when his #27 Hooters Ford dropped a valve after he completed 17 of 160 laps.  The finish came in Sawyer’s ninth series start.

Born in Chesapeake, Virginia, the same hometown as NASCAR legend Ricky Rudd, Sawyer was for much of his career a fixture in what is now the NASCAR XFINITY Series.  He made his series debut on October 30, 1983 in the season finale at Martinsville.  Driving for veteran owner-driver Emanuel Zervakis, Sawyer qualified his Pontiac 18th in the field of 42, then finished 30th after a crash.

The following February, Sawyer fielded his own car, a #02 Pontiac, and in his second career start finished a strong 7th.  Though he’d make just five of 29 races that year, he finished 9th or better in all five, including a runner-up in his return to the Martinsville finale.  Driving for Bill Lewis, who like Rick Hendrick went from car dealer to car owner, Sawyer came just two carlengths from beating Cup newcomer Morgan Shepherd.

Sawyer and Lewis steadily developed their program into a full-time effort in 1987, when they ranked 14th in the season standings.  That June, the duo seemed primed for their first victory at the Indianapolis Raceway Park.  With 18 laps to go, Sawyer took the lead from Don Kreitz, Jr. and was out front on the final lap when a lapped car got in his way, handing the victory to Larry Pearson.  Driver and owner would come no closer through the 1989 season, when the two parted ways.

In 1990, Sawyer signed with Alan Dillard, Jr., who would go on to field Ward Burton’s first Cup Series ride four seasons later.  This time, Sawyer acquired sponsorship from Chisholm Boots and Gwaltney Foods, and would also be teamed with another rising star – fellow Virginian short tracker Rick Mast.  Mast had scored two wins a season for the previous three years, and would rack up another three in 1990, yielding 10th in the season standings.  Sawyer remained just 13th in the standings with another pair of runner-up finishes, both to Tommy Houston.

On November 24 of that year, Sawyer married fellow racer Patty Moise, who would run a few races for Dillard the following season.  The Jacksonville, Florida driver had by then raced in Busch since 1986 and had also made five Cup starts at Daytona, Talladega, and Watkins Glen with a best finish of 26th in the 1988 Firecracker 400.  Sawyer, however, had yet to make the move to the elite division, and would lose his ride with Dillard midway through the 1991 season.  By the end of that season, Sawyer had made 164 starts without a win.  He’d have to make another 16 before it finally happened.

That day came on June 11, 1994, during the Carolina Pride / Budweiser 200 at the Myrtle Beach Speedway.  Sawyer was now driving for Sutton Racing (later Akins-Sutton Motorsports, then Akins Motorsports), a team co-owned by Bob Sutton and Brad Akins.  After a two-race schedule in ’93 were now attempting the full ’94 season with sponsorship from Ford Motor Credit.  After a hot-and-cold start to the season, including a DNQ at Atlanta where the team had to buy a ride from car owner Ron Zock, Sawyer qualified 4th at Myrtle Beach, took the lead from Kenny Wallace with 20 laps to go, and cruised to victory by more than two seconds.  Not long after, his opportunity finally came.

Since 1953, Junior Johnson had fielded some of the fastest cars in the Cup Series garage.  On top of his own legendary driving career, he’d fielded rides for the likes of Fred Lorenzen, A.J. Foyt, and Curtis Turner.  He’d won championships with Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip, and nearly scored the ’92 crown with Bill Elliott.  The last three of his 132 Cup wins had come the year before - two with Jimmy Spencer and a ninth Darlington victory with Elliott.  But in 1995, Elliott and Spencer were gone, and so were their sponsors.  In Elliott’s place came Brett Bodine, who a year later would buy the team and become an owner-driver for the next eight seasons.  Spencer’s #27 went to Loy Allen, Jr.

Allen, the previous year’s Daytona 500 polesitter, brought with him sponsorship from Hooters Restaurants, which had backed his efforts since his days in ARCA.  Unfortunately, Allen’s three poles that season turned out to be the only highlights of a forgettable season.  He made just 19 of 31 races, failing to qualify 12 times, including the inaugural Brickyard 400.  At season’s end, Allen and Hooters took their business to Junior Johnson’s team.  In early 1995, the results weren’t much better.  Without the Hoosier tires that aided his pole runs, Allen started 37th in the Daytona 500, finished no better than 17th, and failed to make the fields at Atlanta and Bristol.  By late April, it was clear a change had to be made.  It was the perfect opportunity for Sawyer.

Through these first months of the ’95 season, the plan had been for Sutton and Akins to move their program from Busch to Cup, giving Sawyer a chance at Rookie of the Year in 1996.  But when the opportunity to drive for Junior Johnson arrived, he took it, forsaking a ROTY run by competing in 20 of the remaining 23 races.  His first Cup start would come at the very scene of his Busch debut a whole 12 years earlier – the Martinsville Speedway.  Sawyer put up the 9th-fastest lap in qualifying – more than enough to bump seven drivers from the field – and finished 20th in the rain-shortened event.  After one-offs at Pocono where the #27 was driven by Jimmy Horton, Greg Sacks, and Jeff Purvis, then a DNQ at Sonoma, Sawyer responded with a season-best 14th at Talladega.  Next up was Indianapolis, not far from the scene of his near-victory in 1987.

The second annual Brickyard 400 had far fewer entrants than the inaugural – just 50 drivers for 41 spots.  While Sawyer managed to secure a spot in the field, he struggled to find speed, putting up a speed of just 167.592mph, nearly two seconds off the pole speed set by Jeff Gordon.  The lap required Sawyer to use a provisional to make the field, placing him in the final starting spot.  Things looked better on the Busch side as Sawyer won the pole at Indianapolis Raceway Park for Friday’s Kroger 200, led 51 laps, and finished just under 1.5 seconds behind race winner Jason Keller.  The run jumped Sawyer from 12th to 9th in the series standings.

With the start delayed several hours because of rain, the 41 engines were fired from Gasoline Alley for a mid-afternoon start.  At the start, Sawyer tried to make a move to the inside, then was gapped by the field as the leaders headed into Turn 1.  By the end of Lap 10, he had completely lost the pack and was being caught by Jeff Gordon down the front straightaway, the flagman signaling him with the “move over” flag.  Sawyer moved aside in Turn 3, then was drafted by the pursuing pack down the frontstretch, his engine sounding flat.  Seconds later, Rick Mast nearly collided with him into Turn 3 as Mast tried to pass Joe Nemechek.  On Lap 15, Sawyer came off pit road, the crew believing the issue to be an ignition problem, but the engine stayed sour.  He was four laps down on the 20th circuit as he slowed down the frontstretch.  Soon after, he pulled behind the wall.  Sawyer said the team hoped to come back out, but when it was diagnosed as a dropped valve, he was done for the day.

It was Junior Johnson’s second-straight last-place finish in the Brickyard 400, following Jimmy Spencer’s hard crash in the #27 during the ’94 inaugural.

With darkness fast approaching, the race ran at a torrid pace with just one caution slowing the action, preventing a race shortened by darkness.  The only other two DNFs that afternoon were both due to engine failures in the second half of the race.  40th went to Derrike Cope, whose #12 Straight Arrow Ford blew on Lap 104, and Bobby Hillin, Jr. in the #77 Jasper / USAir Ford.

Rounding out the Bottom Five were two drivers who played a significant role in the race’s outcome.  The lone caution that slowed the day’s action came out on Lap 133 when 38th-place finisher Jeff Burton crashed his #8 Raybestos Brakes Ford the backstretch, nearly collecting Rusty Wallace.  Wallace, who was trying to catch race leader Dale Earnhardt, had moments before been crowded at the exit of pit road by 37th-place finisher Rich Bickle in the #40 Kendall Pontiac, causing him to lose even more ground during the green-flag stop.  The late restart gave Wallace another chance at Earnhardt, but he ended up with his first of three runner-up finishes in the event.

Indianapolis began a difficult stretch for driver and team as Sawyer failed to finish six of his 11 remaining starts, and he missed the cut again at Bristol.  In 1996, when the #27 team was sold to David Blair, Hooters Restaurants left to sponsor Rick Mast’s #1 Pontiac for car owner Richard Jackson.  Despite once again facing a lack of sponsorship, Sawyer managed to earn the outside-pole for the final spring race at North Wilkesboro, but finished no better than 19th.  Sawyer lost his ride at midseason, then drove one final race in the Atlanta finale, driving a car Harry Ranier had originally prepared for Tony Stewart.  In just 29 Cup starts, he finished last four times.

The Sutton-Akins-Sawyer Cup Series effort never came to pass (though Sutton would field Boris Said’s Cup entry in 2005), and Sawyer picked up where he left off in the Busch Series in 1997.  With new sponsorship from Barbasol Shaving Cream, Sawyer secured 8th in the season standings, a new career-best.  The effort was buoyed by a gutsy performance at Las Vegas, where he suffered first and second-degree burns in an early crash, climbed back in the car, and salvaged a 31st-place finish.  He then ranked 5th in the standings for the next two years, during which time he earned his second and final series win at Loudon on May 8, 1999.

Sawyer made his 392nd and final Busch Series start on November 16, 2002 at Homestead, where he ran 22nd for Brewco Motorsports.  He then turned his attention to officiating, first as the Director of Team Operations for Action Express Racing in the Tudor United SportsCar Championship, then in NASCAR as its Managing Director of the Camping World Truck Series.  He was last year promoted to NASCAR’s Vice President of Officiating and Technical Inspection, where one of his first cases was Derrike Cope’s bizarre explosion at Watkins Glen.

*As of this writing, Sawyer remains the only driver to earn his first career Cup Series last-place finish in the Brickyard 400.  The #27 has not finished last at the track since, and would in 2011 go to victory lane with Paul Menard and Richard Childress Racing.

41) #27-Elton Sawyer / 17 laps / valve
40) #12-Derrike Cope / 104 laps / engine
39) #77-Bobby Hillin, Jr. / 106 laps / engine / led 1 lap
38) #8-Jeff Burton / 141 laps / running
37) #40-Rich Bickle / 152 laps / running

*Albert, Zack. “Cope on Car Issues: I’ve never ‘seen that transpire before,’”, August 7, 2016.
*“Elton Sawyer is a BAMF,” clip from ESPN2, YouTube, Posted by friskynixon2
*FOX Sports. “NASCAR moves Chad Little to inspection role; Elton Sawyer to lead Truck Series,” FOX Sports, February 2, 2015.
*nascarman, “Historical Motorsports Stories: Tony Stewart’s Planned Cup Debut,” November 17, 2016.
*Staff report. “NASCAR Enhances Competition Executive Team,”, July 12, 2016.
*Pearce, Al. “Drive to Do Double Duty: Sawyer To Run Cup, Grand National Races,” Daily Press, May 17, 1995.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

TRUCKS: Caleb Holman gives #75 first NASCAR dirt track last-place finish since 1960

Caleb Holman picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career in Wednesday’s Eldora Dirt Derby at the Eldora Speedway when his #75 Food Country USA / Lopez Wealth Management Chevrolet fell out with transmission issues after 12 of 150 laps.  The finish came in Holman’s 34th series start.

The story of Holman’s last-place finish is as much about the team as it is the driver.  Team owner Charlie Henderson has been fielding competitive stock cars and trucks since March 14, 1982, when Brad Teague came home 12th in the Valleydale 500 at Bristol.  Not far from the Bristol track, on the other side of the Tennessee / Virginia border, Henderson Motorsports still has the same base in Abingdon, Virginia.  This same town not only held the headquarters for three-time Daytona 500 winners Morgan-McClure Motorsports, but also that of Food Country USA, the grocery chain founded by the Henderson family in 1914.  For this reason, most every racer that rolled out of the Henderson shop carried Food Country’s logos on the quarter-panels.

Since their 1982 debut, Henderson Motorsports has remained a fixture in stock car racing, having entered races in all three of NASCAR’s top divisions, ARCA, and the X-1R Pro Cup Series.  They were most prolific in the XFINITY Series from 1985 through 2007, during which time the Food Country USA colors made 296 series starts.  Their best points finishes were a pair of 7th-place runs in 1987, again with Brad Teague, and 1992 with Butch Miller.  Teague also gave the team its first of three XFINITY wins, which came at Martinsville in 1987.  The other two were earned in 1989 by journeyman driver Rick Wilson, who in 2010 would drive a similarly-painted car to victory in an exhibition race at Bristol.

Caleb Holman has been the bridge for Henderson Motorsports’ transition from XFINITY to its current life in the Truck Series.  Also born in Abingdon, Holman made his stock car debut in 2003, when he finished 18th in his ARCA debut at Nashville.  At the time, the 19-year-old Holman was driving for his father Darrell, who also entered him in two XFINITY races that year at Richmond and Milwaukee.  Holman first drove for Henderson’s team in 2005, when he ran 26th in a Pro Cup race at Bristol, and drove the team’s final two XFINITY races at Richmond in 2006 and Bristol in 2007.  By then, Henderson and Holman had turned their attention to full-time Pro Cup competition.  The duo won their first of 15 races at Bristol in 2008.  In 2014, Holman stormed to the series championship, scoring half the season’s 12 wins and finishing Top 10 in each.

Henderson Racing’s Truck Series effort, meanwhile, began in 2012 with Holman running a partial schedule.  This time, the team made their series debut at Rockingham in 2012, where Holman finished 21st.  As Holman reached the peak of his Pro Cup career, the Truck Series remained a part-time operation with no more than eight starts a year.  But, after the Pro Cup Series ended in 2014, the team has still only run a handful of races.  Slowly, but surely, the team has again rebuilt itself with Holman earning his first Top 10 at Marintsville in 2015, an 8th in a race won by Matt Crafton.  This year, Holman has shared his ride with driver-turned-broadcaster Parker Kligerman, and the team has now doubled their Top 10 total with four in 37 series starts.

The Eldora dirt track held special significance for both driver and team.  Last year, Holman took his first NASCAR pole at the track and finished 2nd in his heat race before an early wreck in the main left him 30th.  In a field of 34 series regulars and dirt-track ringers, Holman was looking to build on the performance.  On Tuesday, he ran 10th in the opening practice, then put up the fastest lap in Happy Hour – the only driver to break the 20-second mark.  Wednesday saw him qualify 9th with a lap of 88.162mph, which lined him up next to point leader Christopher Bell on the front row of Heat Race #4.  Holman defended his spot, and remained 9th on the grid for the Main.

Starting last in Wednesday night’s feature was ARCA driver Ray Ciccarelli, who filled the seat of Jennifer Jo Cobb’s #10 Stealth Belt Chevrolet.  Though not on the preliminary entry list, Ciccarelli had locked himself into his first-ever Truck Series start despite a spin in the Last Chance Qualifier that left him 2 laps down, 7th in the 8-truck field.  The only driver to actually fail to qualify was Tommy Regan, who ran a conservative lap in Norm Benning’s second truck, #57, then parked after two laps of Heat Race #3.  The other driver sent home was a frustrated J.R. Heffner, whose Martins Motorsports-prepared #44 A. Colarusso / Park East Sales Chevrolet lost an engine during his qualifying lap.  Without a backup engine and unable to obtain another, driver and team were forced to withdraw before the Heat Races even began.

As the 32-truck field field made their pace laps, 31st-place starter Mike Harmon (who replaced Josh Reaume in Beaver Motorsports’ #50 Chevrolet) made a brief unscheduled pit stop, then returned to the track before the start.  When the green flag dropped, it was Harmon who now trailed the field by 8 seconds on Lap 1, then 10 seconds on Lap 2.  On the fourth circuit, last place changed hands with the first caution of the night.

Bobby Pierce, twice denied a dominant victory in this event, had been struggling to find the handle on his #63 Gotta Race / 866-Get-A-Pro Metal Roofing Chevrolet.  After handling woes in practice and qualifying, Pierce spun out of a transfer spot in Heat Race #1 and backed into the Turn 3 wall, crumpling the sheet metal around the fuel filler neck.  Extensive repairs by the Mike Mittler team’s seven crewmen got the truck back onto the grid for the Last Chance Qualifier just in time for the start.  Pierce responded by rallying from the back of the pack to the win, securing the 26th spot on the grid.

But on Lap 4, Pierce was in trouble again.  J.J. Yeley lost control in front of him and the two made contact, damaging Pierce’s right-front.  Then Pierce’s teammate Chris Windom rear-ended the #63.  Pierce lost a lap as his truck stalled, then managed to make it to pit road.  Yeley, whose left-front was obliterated in the collision with Pierce, took the last spot on Lap 5 as the crew looked under the hood of his #83 Chevrolet.  He rejoined the race on Lap 10, four laps down, as the field lined up for a restart.

On Lap 12, Caleb Holman was still among the leaders when his truck bogged-down on the restart.  Sitting in the outside lane, Holman was able to steer clear of traffic and hug the outside wall, then came down to the garage area.  He reported that the truck’s transmission was stuck in first gear.  Four laps later on the 16th circuit, Holman slipped behind Yeley for last, where he would remain for the rest of the race.  On Lap 25, Holman made one more lap to see if the team’s repairs were successful.  Unfortunately, he quickly returned to the garage, where his #75 was lined up next to Tommy Regan’s parked #57.  The team was done for the night.

Holman’s mechanical troubles did allow him to escape unscathed from a series of hard crashes that slowed many of the early laps and filled the remainder of the Bottom Five.  31st went to Daytona winner Kaz Grala, whose #33 15-40 Connection Chevrolet collided hard with the right-front of Christopher Bell’s spinning #4 Toyota.  While Bell managed to work his way back to the lead before a flat tire left him 9th, Grala was done for the night.

The other three spots were filled by trucks involved in another grinding Turn 2 crash.  On Lap 43, Ben Rhodes’ #27 Safelite Auto Glass Toyota was collected in a collision between Australian rookie Max Johnston’s spinning #02 Brandt Chevrolet and Korbin Forrister in Jennifer Jo Cobb’s second truck, the #0 Chevrolet.  While Forrister managed to make his way back around the track, he soon found his way to the garage along with the other two disabled trucks.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #75 in a Truck Series race since October 15, 2011, when Johnny Borneman III’s unsponsored Norm Benning Racing Chevrolet fell out with handling woes after 1 lap of the Smith’s 350 at Las Vegas.  Benning himself finished 15th that day, which was his career-best finish at the time.  Wednesday at Eldora, he finished 13th, his second-best series finish behind a 12th at Talladega in 2013.
*This marked the first NASCAR last-place finish for car owner Charlie Henderson since August 21, 1998, when Kelly Denton’s run in the Food City 250 at Bristol ended after his #75 Food Country Chevrolet lost an engine after 8 of 250 laps.  It is the team’s first last-place finish in the Truck Series.
*Among the top three NASCAR divisions, this marked the first last-place finish for the #75 on a dirt track since June 5, 1960, when John Dodd, Jr.’s 1960 Ford lost an engine after 37 laps of the Richmond 200 at the Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway.  It was Dodd’s only last-place finish in 23 career Cup starts.  The track, now known as Richmond Raceway, wasn’t paved until 1968.

32) #75-Caleb Holman / 12 laps / transmission
31) #33-Kaz Grala / 34 laps / crash
30) #27-Ben Rhodes / 40 laps / crash
29) #02-Max Johnston / 41 laps / crash
28) #0-Korbin Forrister / 44 laps / crash

1st) Copp Motorsports, Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing, Norm Benning Racing (2)
2nd) Halmar Friesen Racing, Henderson Motorsports, MB Motorsports, MDM Motorsports, TJL Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (11)


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Preliminary Entry List Storylines: Indianapolis and Eldora

PHOTO: @BobbyPierce32
Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis

For the eighth time in 2017, there will be a full field this Sunday, and for just the third time this season, one car will be sent home after qualifying.

Returning this week are two teams with very different partial schedules.  Motorsports Business Management returns for the first time since Kentucky, and for the first time since Kansas, team owner Carl Long is the listed driver.  Long has never started the Brickyard 400, and his two previous entries in 2000 and 2005 were both withdrawn.  Joining MBM is Tommy Baldwin Racing, which we last saw earlier this month at Daytona.  In place of plate driver Elliott Sadler is their intermediate driver J.J. Yeley, who has six Brickyard starts with a best finish of 28th in 2008.

Gray Gaulding confirmed on Twitter last week that his two-race stretch for Premium Motorsports has been extended into this Sunday’s race, and he will again pilot the #55 Toyota.  This time, his car will be sponsored by Low T Centers, which has backed both of Premium’s cars for much of the season.  Joining Gaulding this week is XFINITY regular Joey Gase, whose turn in the #15 Chevrolet will raise awareness for brain aneurysms through The Lisa Colagrossi Foundation.

For the second time this month, B.J. McLeod will run double-duty at Indy, where in the big show he will again campaign Rick Ware Racing’s #51 Chevrolet.  It is as of this writing unclear who the team’s sponsor will be, or if he will again run the former Clemson University car without the college’s decals, as he did at Kentucky.

For the third time in four races, BK Racing will again run Corey LaJoie in the #23 Toyota and Ryan Sieg in the #83.  The duo struggled last week at Loudon, both running two laps down and finishing 31st and 32nd.  Both are expected to make their first Brickyard 400 starts.

Give a call to Matt DiBenedetto, who last week earned a season-best 16th starting spot at Loudon.  The run equaled his career-best at the same track last year for BK Racing.  Unfortunately, the finish was also nearly identical – 30th on Sunday, up just one from 31st in 2016.

Looking for a much-needed turnaround is Cole Whitt, whose TriStar Motorsports #72 Chevrolet has had five engine failures in the last eight races, including the last three races in a row.  The Brickyard’s long straightaways will be one of the biggest tests for TriStar’s engine department.  Whitt’s best finish in three Brickyard 400s was a 29th last year for Premium Motorsports.  Curiously, TriStar has made just one start before in this race – a last-place “start-and-park” effort by Mike Bliss in 2012.  Their rookie driver Loy Allen, Jr. was among the 43 drivers who failed to qualify for the 1994 inaugural.

Lily Diabetes 250 at Indianapolis

Last week at Loudon, Motorsports Business Management’s late entry of John Jackson in the #72 Chevrolet prevented the series’ first short field of 2017.  This week, Jackson is not on the list as, following the withdrawal of Biagi DenBeste Racing’s #98 for Casey Mears, there are exactly 40 cars for 40 spots.  Among those locked-in will be Morgan Shepherd in his #89 and Reed Sorenson in JD Motorsports’ #15, which made its first “start-and-park” effort last week in Loudon.

Missing from this week’s list is Martins Motorsports’ #45 Diamond Gusset Jeans Chevrolet, which was earlier this year slated to return this weekend.  Tommy Joe Martins tweeted Monday that he will continue to drive for B.J. McLeod Motorsports for as long as he’ll have him.  Sure enough, he is again driving the #78 on Saturday alongside McLeod in the #8 and the #99 Striping Technologies Chevrolet of David Starr.  McLeod confirmed last week that the #99 is owned by his team and is operated by Bobby Dotter of SS Green Light Racing.

Eldora Dirt Derby 150 at Eldora

Tomorrow night, 34 drivers will wage war in the lone dirt track event on the schedule.

Norm Benning, the lead story of the 2013 inaugural for his thrilling battle in the Last Chance Qualifier, looks to make his first start in the event since his track-best 19th in 2015.  For the first time, Benning will field two trucks in this race, bringing out the #57 that has run a handful of races this summer.  As of this writing, there is no listed driver for this second truck, which earlier this year was driven by Tommy Regan, J.J. Yeley, and B.J. McLeod.  Before he heads to Indy, Yeley will drive D.J. Copp’s #83 Chevrolet.

Two more teams are currently listed without drivers.  The first is Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing’s flagship #10 Chevrolet (Korbin Forrister is already listed in Cobb’s second truck, the #0).  Cobb made her way into the last two main events at Eldora, finishing 27th in 2015 and 26th last year.  The other entry without a driver is Bryan Hill’s #20 Young’s Building Systems Chevrolet, the team Tyler Young drove for in Iowa.

For the first time this year, both Stewart Friesen and his Stewart-Friesen Racing return to familiar territory.  The veteran dirt-tracker made his series debut here last year, finishing 28th.  But there’s a large number of other dirt track stars with eyes on victory.

Making his own series debut is sprint car racer Max Johnston, who brings sponsorship from Brandt Agriculture to Randy Young’s #02 Chevrolet.  2016 Southern Sportmod Champion Jeffrey Abbey will do the same, the Texan switching from his late model to Al Niece’s #45 Black Riffle Coffee Company Chevrolet.  USAC wingless sprint racer Chris Windom, fresh off a win in Pennsylvania’s Eastern Storm, climbs through the window of MB Motorsports’ #36 Chevrolet.  Windom will have a good teammate to take notes from: Bobby Pierce – so close to winning the last two Eldora races from the pole – will once again pilot the cherry-red #63 Gotta Race Chevrolet.  Unlike the last two years, Pierce’s truck will carry the current 2017 Chevrolet sheet metal.

Also returning are four-time track champion J.R. Heffner, looking to improve on his track-best 4th-place start and 15th-place finish last year, and late model racer Justin Shipley, who will again drive Tracy Wallace’s #80 Ford.  XFINITY Series part-timer Brandon Hightower will return to his late model roots when he drives in place of Jordan Anderson in the #1 TJL Racing Chevrolet.  So will NASCAR legend Ken Schrader, who this year takes a turn in Bolen Motorsports’ #66 Chevrolet, a team which last year with Anderson were determined to get their truck into the main event.  Then, of course, there’s west coast sprint car star Rico Abreu, who returns to the Truck Series and ThorSport Racing for the first time this year in the #89 Curb Records Toyota.