Hill arrived in Florida for his first-ever attempt to make the Daytona 500 field. In 48 previous starts, his best finish was a 22nd at Kansas in 2012, when he drove for Frankie Stoddard. He made his Cup debut at Las Vegas earlier that season, driving for Rick Ware Racing in the #37 Poynt.com Ford. Ware, a longtime car owner in road racing, XFINITY, and Truck Series competition, had attempted the 500 field that year with veteran Mike Wallace behind the wheel, but missed the show. In the five years since, Ware continued to field XFINITY and Truck Series rides while Hill split time across all three of NASCAR’s top divisions.
This year, Hill and Ware have reunited once more for Ware’s second Cup effort. On January 20, it was announced the team will run full-time as an Open team with driving duties shared between Hill, Stanton Barrett, and road racer Kevin O’Connell. The cars and equipment were acquired from Tommy Baldwin Racing, which scaled-back to a part-time operation to focus on a Truck Series effort. The Spoonful of Music Foundation, a non-profit organization to improve the lives of ailing adolescents, signed on for SpeedWeeks, and Bubba Burger partnered with the team for this and at least a handful of other races.
Hill ranked 41st in opening practice, slowest of the six Open teams and second-slowest overall, ahead of Jeffrey Earnhardt for Circle Sport / The Motorsports Group. The struggles continued in qualifying, where Hill anchored the charts with a lap of 184.102mph.
Hill’s lap put him last in the 21-car field for Race 2, though he was joined by Michael Waltrip’s #15 Aaron’s Toyota, sent to the rear due to a transmission change. When the green flag dropped, Waltrip fell to the back entering Turn 1, but soon conceded last to Elliott Sadler. Sadler, who like Brendan Gaughan in Race 1 had locked his #7 Golden Corral Chevrolet into the field on speed, was also pacing himself in the back, saving his car. By the third lap, Sadler had lost touch with the leaders, 2.7 seconds behind the pack.
Joining Sadler behind the pack was Hill, whose #51 seemed to be struggling with speed. On that same third lap, Sadler moved around him on the backstretch, and Hill slotted in behind. By Lap 7, Sadler had left Hill behind, and his Chevrolet was now 15 seconds behind 20th-place Jeffrey Earnhardt in the #33 Little Joe’s Autos / Curtis Key Plumbing Chevrolet. Hill linked up with Earnhardt, but continued to lose ground to the lead pack. The 24th time by, the leaders caught and passed the pair in Turn 1. When the competition caution fell on Lap 27, this gave the Lucky Dog to Earnhardt, pinning Hill a lap down for the final half of the race.
On the Lap 31 restart, Hill pulled down pit road with apparent engine trouble, then took his car behind the wall. Not fast enough to get in on speed, Hill was the first driver to be officially eliminated from the 500 field. Sorenson joined him after the last-moment heroics of D.J. Kennington.
20th in the final running order went to Ryan Blaney, who led three laps in the Wood Brothers’ #21 Motorcraft / Quick Lane Tire 7 Auto Center Ford, but suffered damage in a tangle with Jimmie Johnson on Lap 43, leaving him 38th in the 500 field. Erik Jones came home 19th and will start 36th, having rear-ended A.J. Allmedinger’s car in the chain-reaction caused by the Johnson-Blaney incident. Jeffrey Earnhardt, the final car on the lead lap, will start 34th in the first restrictor-plate points race for The Motorsports Group’s Cup effort. TMG secured a Charter through Circle Sport, who in 2016 partnered with Leavine Family Racing. Waltrip rounded out the Bottom Five and will roll off 32nd.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #51 in the Can-Am Duels.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
21) #51-Timmy Hill / 29 laps / engine
20) #21-Ryan Blaney / 55 laps / crash / led 3 laps
19) #77-Erik Jones / 59 laps / running
18) #33-Jeffrey Earnhardt / 60 laps / running
17) #15-Michael Waltrip / 60 laps / running