Tuesday, February 16, 2016

CUP: Open Team Roundup - 2016 Preview

In the aftermath of the Race Team Alliance (RTA)’s new arrangement, LASTCAR.info is debuting this new segment for 2016 that will focus on the week-by-week performance of the Open (non-chartered) teams running in the Sprint Cup Series.  To begin, we’ll look at the eight teams challenging for the final four spots in the Daytona 500.


#21 Wood Brothers Racing
Driver: Ryan Blaney
Starts 4th in Can-Am Duel #1

Despite being the only current Cup Series team to have raced throughout the sport’s entire six-plus decades, the Wood Brothers were not afforded a charter for 2016 and pulled out of the RTA soon after.  Regardless, the team is full speed ahead on their effort to run their first full season since 2008 with returning young gun Ryan Blaney.  As expected by many, Blaney was plenty fast enough to lock himself in as the fastest Open team.  What remains to be seen is if the Woods can overcome the technical gremlins that left Blaney with four engine failures in 2015.  The technical alliance with Penske Racing and the new Ford Fusion should help performance, but without a charter, one struggle in practice followed by a rained-out qualifying session can still send the #21 home for future races.

#93 BK Racing
Driver: Matt DiBenedetto
Starts 12th in Can-Am Duel #2

Matt DiBenedetto did a workmanlike job during his rookie season in 2015, rebounding from two early-season DNQs and finishing a season-best 18th at Talladega.  This year, despite conceding his chartered #83 to Michael Waltrip for the season opener, DiBenedetto also locked himself in to his first 500 field on speed.  Like Blaney, DiBenedetto and the BK Racing program are benefitting from a technical alliance of sorts, having inherited cars and several crew members from the now-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing.  At least for the 500, the team has expanded from three cars to four with sponsorship on each.  Anyone in BK’s foursome could be a dark horse in the 500 itself - last year, Johnny Sauter was 13th-fastest in time trials, was sent to a backup car, and still finished 19th.


#59 Circle Sport / Leavine Family Racing
Driver: Michael McDowell
Starts 13th in Can-Am Duel #1

As news of the charter program swirled during the offseason, a number of teams merged, likely to better ensure their chances of making those final four spots.  The biggest merger occurred between Leavine Family Racing, which has fielded the #95 part-time since 2011, and Circle Sport, owned by longtime team owner Joe Falk.  Helped by a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, Falk’s #33 ran full-time by 2013 and grew to two teams with crew chief Mike Hillman’s #40 later that season.  However, for 2016, the decision was made for the #33 to merge with Leavine’s #95, bringing the Childress alliance with him for a full-season run.  Like BK Racing, the team’s chartered primary car will not have its regular driver behind the wheel - Childress’ Ty Dillon will run the #95 with sponsorship from Cheerios.  However, for the first time, the Leavine program will field two cars.  Michael McDowell, who joined Leavine in 2014, may have to race his way into his fifth Daytona 500 driving the Open team car #59.  He is the first of two drivers on the bubble, meaning that he could be locked-in depending on who finishes best among the Open teams.

#26 BK Racing
Driver: Robert Richardson, Jr.
Starts 18th in Can-Am Duel #2

Joining McDowell among the bubble drivers is Robert Richardson, Jr., driving the #26 run last year by rookie of the year candidate Jeb Burton.  In eight previous Cup starts - all of them at Daytona and Talladega - Richardson has finished no better than 18th in his series debut and has not raced in Cup since Talladega in the fall of 2012.  Although the driver and team arrangement came together less than a week before qualifying, Richardson now has a decent shot at making the 500 field, though he will start Duel Race 2 directly in front of two of his challengers.


#98 Premium Motorsports
Driver: Cole Whitt
Starts 19th in Can-Am Duel #1

After several mergers and reorganizations over the past five years, Premium Motorsports earned themselves a charter spot by acquiring Phil Parsons Racing, whose #98 was an RTA member.  However, team owner Jay Robinson has since leased the #98’s charter to HScott Motorsports to secure driver Michael Annett and the #46 a spot in the race, and without enough speed in qualifying, the team is now one of the four who must race their way into the 500 field.  Behind the wheel will be third-year driver Cole Whitt, 31st in driver points last year when he drove for Front Row Motorsports.  Whitt could turn heads on the plate track - he started 19th and finished 22nd in the 2015 Daytona 500 and went on to finish a season-best 13th at Talladega.  Like the Wood Brothers, however, Premium needs to get a hold of their mechanical issues.  Last year, a broken axle and an oil leak made them miss the start at Indianapolis and Michigan, and as a Parsons car, an pre-race ignition issue kept them out of the 500 field.  If all goes well, however, Premium plans to add the #49, a second team car later this season, with the driver to be announced.

#35 Front Row Motorsports
Driver: David Gilliland
Starts 19th in Can-Am Duel #2

Whitt’s former ride, the #35, wasn’t originally set to run in 2016 as the team’s chartered #34 and #38 were locked-in with defending XFINITY Series champion Chris Bueshcer and defending LASTCAR Cup champion Landon Cassill driving each.  However, Gilliland, the former driver of the #38, will return to the site of his 2007 pole position driving a yet-unsponsored #35 that must now race its way into the field.  In 330 previous starts, the California driver has historically surprised at both the plate tracks and road courses, and will need to recapture that magic on Thursday night.

#30 The Motorsports Group
Driver: Josh Wise
Starts 21st in Can-Am Duel #1

Perhaps the ultimate underdog in Thursday’s field is The Motorsports Group (TMG), Curtis Key’s single-car team that struggled tremendously to transition from the XFINITY Series to a part-time Cup runner in 2015.  TMG made just two starts in fifteen attempts last year, finishing 42nd with Ron Hornaday, Jr. at Atlanta and a season-best 40th with Jeff Green at Richmond.  As of this writing, the team is also without sponsorship, and they were not able to find enough speed to lock themselves into the show.  What the team does have, however, is journeyman Josh Wise, who in 2014 gave Phil Parsons Racing its best-ever season after five long years of “start-and-parking.”  That year began with Wise finishing an impressive 5th in Duel Race 1 and ended with a 36th-place finish in driver points with just one DNQ.  If TMG is to make its first 500 appearance, Wise might be the best man for the job.

#40 Hillman Racing
Driver: Reed Sorenson
Starts 20th in Can-Am Duel #2

Initial reports over the offseason indicated that Hillman Racing, the single-car team Landon Cassill raced into the last two Daytona 500s, had been absorbed into Premium Motorsports.  However, just a few days ago, Mike Hillman announced that his #40 would again enter the 500.  Dismayed after being denied a charter, Hillman reported he plans to attempt at least a partial season in 2016 and has welcomed back returning sponsor CRC Chemicals for the Daytona effort.  Like TMG, Hillman has selected another veteran journeyman driver in Reed Sorenson, a six-time 500 starter who finished 5th in 2008 and 9th in 2009.  Last year, it was Sorenson who penned the feel-good story of the week when Xxxtreme Motorsports rebounded from a qualifying crash and gave Sorenson a backup #44 Chevrolet he raced into the field.  Sorenson may have an even better ride in 2016, as Hillman’s cars have excelled at the plate tracks - most notably a 4th by Cassill at Talladega in 2014.


Lou said...

Looking forward to this new segment in the future.

UnderdogFan89 said...

Same, I really appreciate how Brock highlights these teams.