Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Small Team Storylines: Fontana

Auto Club 400 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California

The current entry list includes 39 drivers for 40 spots, one spot short of a full field for the fourth week in a row.

Derrike Cope finished 33rd last Sunday at Phoenix, his best run at the track since 1998 and his best finish of 2017.  This week, he’s back once again in a yet-unsponsored #55 Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports.  It will be Cope’s seventh Fontana start and first in Cup since September 5, 2004, when he finished 40th driving for William Edwards in the #96 Mach One Inc. Ford.  Teammate Reed Sorenson is again in the #15, which has alternated between a Toyota and Chevrolet since Daytona.  After finishing 30th in the Chevrolet at Phoenix, he will run a Toyota on Sunday.

BK Racing endured another difficult weekend in Phoenix.  Corey LaJoie has now been involved in at least one accident in each of the first four races while teammate Gray Gaudling tangled with David Ragan in a hard Turn 1 accident.  However, the team again does not appear to be struggling for sponsorship.  SunFrog.com, which previously backed Tommy Joe Martins’ Truck Series ride at Daytona, will be back to sponsor Gaulding for a second-straight week.  Bubba Burger, an associate sponsor of Rick Ware Racing among others, will be the primary for Corey LaJoie’s #83.

Speaking of Rick Ware Racing, Timmy Hill will again pilot the #51, having finished a season-best 32nd at Phoenix.  The team continues its search for speed and will look to improve on last-place qualifying runs earned in all three of their starts.  Also without an announced sponsor is Cole Whitt and TriStar Motorsports’ #72 Chevrolet.  Left with their first DNF of the year and a season-worst 34th-place finish after a late accident, Whitt will be looking for a turnaround.  Sunday will be team owner Mark Smith’s first Cup start at Fontana since 2013, when Mike Bliss ran a “start-and-park” effort for Humphrey-Smith Motorsports.

One small team which will have a primary sponsor this weekend is Phoenix last-placer Jeffrey Earnhardt and Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group.  A “thank you” message on social media indicates that NiceRide Apparel will again grace the black-and-silver #33 Chevrolet.

Matt DiBenedetto continues to enjoy a quietly consistent season with Go FAS Racing.  After four races, he stands 27th in points, has yet to score a DNF, and has each time finished inside the Top 30.  Sunday will be DiBenedetto’s third Fontana start in Cup, and he finished inside the Top 30 again last year, running 27th for BK Racing.

California 300 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California

42 drivers are listed for 40 spots, marking the first time since Atlanta that there were 40 or more cars on the preliminary entry list.

Last week in Phoenix, Morgan Shepherd and Mike Harmon both made their first XFINITY starts of the season, but this week only Harmon is on the list.  Obaika Racing has also entered both its Chevrolets once more, but it will be anyone’s guess if the #77 and driver Josh Bilicki will actually make it into the field (Stephen Leicht is again entered in the #77 with Bilicki in the #97).

New this week is James Carter’s prolific #72 CrashClaimsR.Us Chevrolet with Scottish driver John Jackson behind the wheel.  We haven’t seen Jackson in XFINITY since last fall at Kentucky, when he finished 39th in the #40 Chevrolet for Motorsports Business Management, and the #72’s most recent green flag was last September at Darlington (another 39th).  In 16 previous starts, the Carter #72 has yet to finish better than 31st, making them a possible LASTCAR favorite alongside Jordan Anderson and the #93 RSS Racing Chevrolet, which may be headed to their third-straight last-place finish.

Motorsports Business Management retains the same two-car lineup at Fontana with Carl Long in the #13 Dodge and Timmy Hill in the #40 Toyota.  Hill’s double-duty weekend last week yielded a 26th-place finish in XFINITY, the team’s best run since Brandon Hightower’s 13th place in Daytona.

The return of the Cup veterans to XFINITY after the “Dash 4 Cash” hiatus has also brought back last-place record holder Jeff Green to B.J. McLeod’s #8 Chevrolet.  Green’s 26th-place run at Atlanta still remains the #8 team’s best performance of the year, four spots better than Matt Mills’ performance last Sunday at Phoenix.  Green will again be joined by McLeod (#78) and David Starr (#99) in the three-car effort.

Also back after skipping Phoenix is Biagi DenBeste Racing, which for the first time this year will put Cup veteran Casey Mears in its #98 Ford in place of Aric Almirola.  It will be Mears’ first XFINITY start at Fontana since 2007, when he scored the second of two career runner-up finishes at the track for Rick Hendrick.

Through the first three races of the season, each of Johnny Davis’ three drivers at JD Motorsports has had the privilege of beating their other two teammates.  But at Phoenix, Ross Chastain’s 22nd-place finish in the #4 ahead of 23rd-place Harrison Rhodes (#01) and 24th-place Garrett Smithley (#0) broke the tie.  Smithley and Rhodes still hold the team’s best finishes of the year, an 8th and 10th respectively at Daytona.

A fiery crash at Phoenix left Joey Gase with his first DNF of 2017 and a 35th-place finish.  Driver and team hope for better in Fontana, where other than a last-place effort in 2013, the duo have never finished worse than 30th.

An “atta-boy” to JGL Racing, which has finished inside the Top 20 in all four races so far in 2017.  The #24 youtheory Toyota returns to Corey LaJoie this Sunday, who despite his struggles in Cup produced a workmanlike 16th-place run at Fontana.  J.J. Yeley also earned a season-best 16th at Phoenix in TriStar’s #14 Toyota and continues his rebound after back-to-back DNFs at Daytona and Atlanta.  Superior Essex will back the Yeley effort.

Next Race: April 1, 2017
Alpha Energy Solutions 250 at Martinsville

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