|PHOTO: Essex Homes Facebook Page|
Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte
For just the third time in 2017, there are actually more cars than starting spots in Sunday’s field. Back this week is Tommy Baldwin Racing, which we last saw at Talladega with Elliott Sadler. Sadler will attempt to make his third start of the year in the black-and-red Accell Construction, Inc. colors we last saw with J.J. Yeley at Texas. Sadler’s best Cup finish at Charlotte came in the 2004 Coca-Cola 600, where he ran 5th for Yates Racing.
While Cody Ware finished 18th of 24 starters in last Saturday’s Monster Energy Open, he is not listed to make his first start in a Cup points race since Atlanta. Back in the #51 Chevrolet is Timmy Hill, who finished a season-best 28th two weeks ago in Kansas. Hill’s best of four Charlotte starts was one position better, a 27th in the 2013 running of the Memorial Day classic.
Carl Long, 17th and penalty-free in the Open, is also back at Charlotte, set to make his second-straight Cup start after a respectable 31st in Kansas. If he makes the cut, it will be his first Cup start at Charlotte since October 7, 2001, when his Thee Dixon-prepared #85 Noopco Dodge finished a career-best 29th in the fall race at the track. Long has yet to start the 600, though he qualified for the 2000 race before handing his ride to the DNQ’d Darrell Waltrip. Both Long and Hill are scheduled to pull double-duty as both are entered in Motorsport Business Management’s XFINITY cars for Saturday.
Also returning from a long Charlotte absence is Derrike Cope, who has 28 starts at the track but none since the 2004 Coca-Cola 600, where he ran 34th for Don Arnold in the #50 Bennett Lane Winery Dodge. The fall 1998 race saw Cope score his only career pole for Bahari’ Racing, a race where he finished 14th. His best finish in a points race at the track was a 6th way back in the fall of 1989. This week, he and teammate Reed Sorenson will again field their identical black machines for Premium Motorsports.
BK Racing teammates Corey LaJoie and Gray Gaulding exited the Open early last week with LaJoie coming in last and Gaulding returning to run a handful more laps before pulling out. While Gaulding has yet to make a Cup start in a points race at Charlotte, LaJoie did in the fall of 2014, when he finished 35th for Randy Humphrey’s brief solo venture in Cup driving the #77 Essex Homes Ford.
Last year, Jeffrey Earnhardt improved from a 39th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 to a 26th in the fall, both driving for Go FAS Racing. Car owner Joe Falk at Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group has a best finish at the track of 15th in the fall of 1998, where Todd Bodine enjoyed a late-season push driving the #91 Chevrolet. Matt DiBenedetto, slighted for last Saturday’s fan vote, also improved between both Charlotte races in 2016, running 32nd in the spring and a track-best 25th in the fall.
Cole Whitt once again finds himself in position to improve on TriStar Motorsports owner Mark Smith’s most recent performance at Charlotte. The team last entered a Cup race at the track in the fall of 2012, where “start-and-park” teammates Mike Bliss and Reed Sorenson finished 39th and 41st, respectively, in the 43-car field. Other than that race, Smith’s team has been absent from either Charlotte race since 1997, when Gary Bradberry ran 31st in the 600.
Hisense 300 at Charlotte
42 cars made the entry list for this week’s Charlotte race as the XFINITY Series has yet to have a short field in 2017. New this week is second entry from GMS Racing for Truck Series driver Ben Kennedy. Kennedy, who finished a strong 4th for Richard Childress last time out at Talladega, will drive the #96 Jacob Chevrolet alongside teammate Spencer Gallagher in the #23 Allegiant Airlines Chevrolet.
Missing this week is Morgan Shepherd, who finished 35th three weeks ago at Talladega. Shepherd has made 35 XFINITY starts at Charlotte with his track-best a pair of 3rd-place runs in 1982 and 1992.
Set to make his first XFINITY start since 2015 is Cale Conley, who we last saw driving the #14 Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America Toyota for TriStar Motorsports. This week, Conley drives JGL Racing’s “Young Guns” entry, the #24 Toyota sponsored this week by Merchant Services, Ltd. Conley already has three Charlotte starts to his credit with a best finish of 26th in the fall of 2015.
There’s been a driver switch at B.J. McLeod Motorsports as Jeff Green, who led 18 laps and finished 10th at Talladega, will move to the team’s flagship #78 Chevrolet with McLeod in the #8. Green is a past winner of the Charlotte race, scoring back-to-back victories in the spring of 2001 for Greg Pollex and 2002 for Richard Childress. He finished 37th here last fall. McLeod’s best finish in four Charlotte starts was a 25th in this race last year.
Alex Labbe returns to XFINITY competition for the first time since Texas as again the driver of Mario Gosselin’s #90 Can-Am / Kappa Chevrolet. It will be Labbe’s first start at Charlotte and a chance to improve on his career-best 23rd at Phoenix in his series debut last year.
Mike Harmon and the Veterans Motorsports, Inc. team are again entered this week in the #74 Dodge, having earned a respectable 25th back at Talladega. Harmon’s best Charlotte finish in seven prior starts was a 29th in the fall of 2015.
Next Race: Dover 200 at Dover
June 2, 2017