|SOURCE: NASCAR Media|
Released from Front Row Motorsports at the end of last season, Whitt signed with Premium Motorsports on February 2. The #98 switched from Phil Parsons Racing’s Fords and Premium’s former Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolets to Toyota for 2016 and on February 13 announced sponsorship from icebox company RTIC Coolers. One day earlier, Premium leased its charter medallion inherited from the Parsons merger to HScott Motorsports, meaning Whitt would have to make the field on speed or else race his way in.
Whitt was 40th and 37th in the opening two practices and remained 37th in time trials with a speed of 190.375 mph, ranking him fifth among the non-chartered “open” teams. He was just three-hundredths of a second of besting Robert Richardson, Jr., whose BK Racing #26 Stalk It Toyota was the second of two cars who were not quite locked-in, but could fall back on their qualifying time. Whitt and the three “open” cars behind him had no such safety net, meaning their only chance of making the 500 was to race their way in on Thursday.
Just 36 cars practiced on Wednesday morning, but Whitt pulled to 12th-fastest overall, second among the “open” teams behind overall leader Michael McDowell. He didn’t complete a lap in the two sessions that followed and instead set his sights on Duel Race 1, where he would roll out 19th.
Starting 22nd in Duel Race 1 was last year’s second-place points man Kevin Harvick, who along with teammate Brian Vickers had their qualifying times disallowed for a track bar infraction. He was joined at the back by Roush-Fenway Racing teammates Trevor Bayne, Greg Biffle, and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who all changed rear gears prior to the race. By the time the field entered Turn 1, Harvick had passed three cars, dropping Bayne’s #6 AdvoCare Ford to last.
On Lap 5, Bobby Labonte #32 Can-Am fell to last, joining the Roush-Fenway trio that was rapidly losing ground to the leaders. By Lap 12, Labonte had fallen four seconds behind the next car in line and ten second back on Lap 18. Labonte held the spot until Lap 30, when Ryan Blaney’s fleet #21 Motorcraft / Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford pitted by himself and lost a lap to the leaders.
Whitt, meanwhile, had been dogging McDowell for a transfer spot and tried some strategy after his own stop on Lap 41. While McDowell beat Whitt off pit road, the #98 lay back to catch the drafting help of a line of cars, including Regan Smith’s #7 Golden Corral / Nikko Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing. The plan seemed to work as Whitt caught McDowell within a lap and in Turn 1 looked set to make a move around McDowell’s #59. However, as he switched lanes, Smith made contact with Whitt’s rear bumper, sending the #98 spinning to the apron for the first caution of the night.
Whitt had fallen to last by Lap 48 as the crew made repairs and sent him back on track. On the restart, the #98 struggled to keep pace with the leaders and dove back down pit road the next time by, ending his night. Without enough speed to make the field, he became the first driver to miss Sunday’s race.
The only other two retirees were Paul Menard, who had a tire issue, and Brian Scott, who tangled off the final corner racing near the back of the lead pack. Scott’s #44 Albertsons Co. / Shore Lodge Ford was fastest in Wednesday’s second practice session, but was totaled when he slammed the inside wall near the entrance to pit road. Rounding out the Bottom Five were Labonte, the final car on the lead lap, and Clint Bowyer - his second-straight bottom-five finish in Daytona’s preliminaries.
*This was Whitt’s first last-place finish in the Duels, but the second in a row for the #98 team. Last year, when the #98 was owned by Phil Parsons, Josh Wise was unable to start Duel Race 2 when his Phoenix Construction Ford had electrical issues on pit road.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
22) #98-Cole Whitt / 47 laps / transmission
21) #27-Paul Menard / 58 laps / tire
20) #44-Brian Scott / 59 laps / crash
19) #32-Bobby Labonte / 60 laps / running
18) #15-Clint Bowyer / 60 laps / running
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