Tuesday, March 22, 2016

CUP: Open Team Roundup - Fontana

The 39-car list remained the same at Fontana, where the “West Coast Swing” wrapped up for 2016.  Through the race’s early stages, it looked as though the three Open teams would finish in the same order for the fourth time in a row.  But the frantic final laps scrambled the field, lifting one member to a surprising finish.


#98 Premium Motorsports
Driver: Cole Whitt
Started: 36th, Finished: 26th

Cole Whitt’s dogged determination finally paid off at Fontana, where he and Premium Motorsports led the Open drivers for the first time.  Whitt lost a lap in the early stages, but fought hard to not go down another for the rest of the afternoon.  At the halfway point on Lap 100, he was still just one lap back in the 31st spot, seventh among those contending for the Lucky Dog spot.  On Lap 122, when Danica Patrick wrecked off the nose of Kasey Kahne, Whitt was one of many drivers to earn the wave-around, and the following debris caution on Lap 156 preserved his return to the lead lap.  In the final laps, he outlasted Ryan Blaney and came under power with the car intact.  Fontana marked Whitt’s best Cup finish since last July at Daytona and ties for the third-best ever for team owner Jay Robinson since he crafted his current team from NEMCO Motorsports and Michael Waltrip Racing at the start of 2014.

In the next race at Martinsville, Whitt looks to make his sixth start at the short track, where he finished a career-best 18th for BK Racing in the fall of 2014.  Robinson’s team could use the experience - their Martinsville debut during the spring 2014 race saw Joe Nemechek, driving Robinson’s #66, break the late J.D. McDuffie’s record for the most Sprint Cup last-place finishes.

#21 Wood Brothers Racing
Driver: Ryan Blaney
Started: 14th, Finished: 35th

For the first time in 2016, Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers did not finish best in class among Open teams.  This was a big surprise not only because of their back-to-back top-ten finishes, but because how strong they continued to run at Fontana.  Blaney timed in 14th, but was as high as 3rd in practice, when they trailed Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards in Happy Hour.  Halfway through the race, Blaney was still 11th, knocking on the door of giving the team it’s best-ever showing at a track where, prior to Saturday’s XFINITY Series race, their driver had never before competed.  With five laps to go, Blaney was still 13th and on the lead lap when the day’s tire issues finally bit him, sending the #21 into the Turn 3 wall.  Blaney made it to pit road, but the car was too damaged to continue.  It was Blaney’s first Cup DNF since last fall at Texas.

In two weeks at Martinsville, the Wood Brothers are expected to make their 110th start at Martinsville and first since 2011, when Trevor Bayne came home 35th.  Again, the #21 has not finished inside the Top 10 at the track since 2005, when Ricky Rudd finished 7th that spring.  But this time, their driver may be an ace up their sleeve: in five Truck Series starts at the bullring, Blaney has three 5th-place finishes and an 8th in his 2012 debut.

#30 The Motorsports Group
Driver: Josh Wise
Started: 37th, Finished: 36th

Though Wise and The Motorsports Group continue their search for speed, Fontana marked another milestone as he, Blaney, and Whitt were all sponsored for the first time.  Wise, whose hometown is nearby Riverside, brought on Sacramento-area builders SBC Contractors as an associate on the rear quarter-panels.  Wise finished the race ten laps down, but wasn’t the first to fall behind the leaders.  It was the chartered entries of Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, Brian Vickers, and Chris Buescher who all had tire issues in the early laps.  The “overtime” period following Kyle Busch’s own late-race tire failure, combined with Blaney’s misfortune a few lap earlier, also gave Wise the chance of finishing second among the Open teams.  In the end, Wise finished on the same lap as Blaney, but one position behind.

Two weeks ahead at Martinsville, The Motorsports Group will make its first Martinsville attempt since their DNQ with Ron Hornaday, Jr. last year, the same event where Wise last started at the short track en route to a 30th-place finish.  Wise’s best Martinsville finish in Cup remains a 25th-place showing in the fall of 2014.




#26 BK Racing
#35 Front Row Motorsports
#40 Hillman Racing
#59 Leavine Family / Circle Sport Racing
#93 BK Racing

The five teams which last attempted the Daytona 500, three races ago, were again not on the entry list for Fontana.  When the series returns after this week’s Easter break, it will be interesting to see if some of the missing Open teams will brave banging up their cars at the short tracks of Martinsville, Bristol, and Richmond, or wait until the wild card at Talladega.

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