Geico 500 at Talladega
After seven short fields in the first nine races of the season, there are 42 Cup teams entered in this Sunday’s race – the exact same 42 teams which arrived for the Daytona 500.
Back for the first time since Florida are D.J. Kennington and Brendan Gaughan, the two feel-good stories of SpeedWeeks. Kennington, the two-time NASCAR Pinty’s Series champion, ran a clean race before he was eliminated in a multi-car wreck not of his doing. This week, he trades the blue-and-white paint scheme for an all-white Toyota with sponsorship from his engine provider Triad Racing Technologies. Gaughan finished a strong 11th at Daytona in team owner Mark Beard’s old Richard Childress Racing chassis, the driver’s best finish in the series since he ran 6th in the 2004 finale at Homestead. Both drivers and teams hope for a sunny weekend as each will be sent home if qualifying is washed out.
Also returning is Tommy Baldwin Racing, who we last saw three rounds ago at Texas. Back behind the wheel is Elliott Sadler, 20th in Daytona, and sponsor Golden Corral, which Sadler carried to a 7th-place finish in last Saturday’s XFINITY race at Richmond. If the car makes the cut, Sadler will again run double-duty this weekend, where he arrives as the defending winner of the XFINITY race.
As announced on April 12, Joey Gase is also set to make his first Cup start since Daytona. After running with BK Racing in Florida, he moves to the #15 at Premium Motorsports, moving its regular driver Reed Sorenson to Derrike Cope’s #55. When last we saw Sorenson in the #55, he was wrecked out of the transfer spot in his Can-Am Duel by Corey LaJoie, sending Sorenson and team home. Xchange of America, which sponsored Sorenson at Texas, returns to the #55 this week. Gase brings with him sponsorship from Sparks Energy, which also backs his XFINITY entry with Jimmy Means Racing and is the title sponsor for the XFINITY race. Gase finished 23rd in his Daytona Cup debut this February and will be making his first Cup event at Talladega.
As of this writing, three teams do not have a listed primary sponsor: Rick Ware Racing’s #51 Chevrolet for Timmy Hill, Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group’s #33 Chevrolet for Jeffrey Earnhardt, and – surprisingly – Chase Elliott’s #24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports (since Hooters was named his official sponsor on January 23). Hill looks to make his third Talladega start for a third different team, following a 42nd-place run for Joe Nemechek in 2012 and a 41st-place finish for Premium Motorsports in 2015. Jeffrey Earnhardt made his Talladega debut last fall (running 34th), where he also first ran his current silver-and-black paint scheme as tribute to his grandfather.
At Daytona, Cole Whitt nearly scored a Top 10 for TriStar Motorsports in his #72 Chevrolet before he ran out of fuel, leaving him 18th. Since then, Whitt has continued to surprise, giving the team some of its best runs in years. Sunday at Richmond, he finished 27th, the team’s best finish at the three-quarter-mile oval since March 7, 1993, when the late Bobby Hamilton ran 22nd in the #68 Country Time Ford. Whitt’s best finish at Talladega came in this race two years ago when he finished 13th, though last year he was again in the Top 10 when a last lap, last turn pileup left him 18th. RTIC Coolers, who backed his Premium Motorsports entry here last year, serves as Whitt’s primary sponsor for the third time this season.
Leavine Family Racing and driver Michael McDowell are always ones to watch on the superspeedways. Both driver and team scored their best Cup finish in the rain-shortened Daytona race in July 2014, finishing 7th. The team is expected to make an announcement this week, which may have something to do with Winn-Dixie sponsoring their red #95 Chevrolet this week.
A dark horse to watch this Sunday will be Ty Dillon, who prior to the pit incident with Clint Bowyer late at Richmond had been riding a streak of seven finishes of 22nd or better, including five Top 20 finishes. Like LFR, Germain Racing has also been a sleeper at the plate tracks, particularly Talladega, where in the fall of 2012 previous driver Casey Mears was pushing Michael Waltrip to the lead on the final lap when Tony Stewart’s block triggered a wreck that handed the win to Matt Kenseth. Dillon ran 30th in the Daytona 500 when he was eliminated in a crash on Lap 143.
Also one to watch will be Matt DiBenedetto, who ran a strong 9th during his last plate race in the 500. DiBenedetto has just one Top 20 finish since then – a 19th two weeks ago at Bristol – and the Go FAS Racing team finished in the same spot in this race last year with Bobby Labonte.
Sparks Energy 300 at Talladega
42 teams are also listed to attempt Saturday’s XFINITY Series race. For the second-straight week, neither of Obaika Racing’s cars (#77 or #97) are entered, nor are drivers Stephen Leicht and Josh Bilicki.
Owner-drivers Mike Harmon, Morgan Shepherd, and B.J. McLeod are all entered. Harmon hasn’t started an XFINITY race at Talladega since 2014, when he ran 28th in his Dodge. His best finish remains a 17th in 2008. Shepherd made the show last year, finishing 39th after running 27 laps, which was his first start there since 2013. His best XFINITY finish stands as an 11th in 2003, but in Cup he’s scored four Top Fives, including a track-best 3rd in 1995. McLeod made his first Talladega start last year and ran 36th. Jeff Green returns to McLeod’s #8 after a one-off in Jordan Anderson’s #93 RSS Racing Chevrolet last week. The switch ended Anderson’s last-place streak at five races, though Anderson could continue the team’s streak to seven races if he qualifies this Saturday.
Back for the first time since the second round at Atlanta is Chris Cockrum and his #25 Advanced Communications Group Chevrolet, which ran 37th here last spring after a hard crash on Lap 31.
Scott Lagasse, Jr., who came home 6th after the dust settled at Daytona, is back in JGL Racing’s #24 Toyota. Last Saturday at Richmond, the #24 earned its best finish since then with Dylan Lupton, taking 12th on the lead lap.
Martin Roy, known for his dramatic near-miss at Las Vegas, is back in Mario Gosselin’s #90 Chevrolet for the first time since Fontana. If his #90 Cote / Gamache Truck Center Chevrolet makes the cut, it will be Roy’s first Talladega start.
Richard Childress Racing has also entered Ben Kennedy in their #2 Rheem Chevrolet, giving Kennedy his first XFINITY start since last summer at Iowa. Kennedy finished 5th in last fall’s Truck Series race at Talladega.
ARCA veteran Mark Thompson is entered in Motorsports Business Management’s #13 Phoenix Air Toyota. Thompson was withdrawn from February’s race in Daytona, but has made at least one plate race the last two years, running 27th at Talladega in 2015 and 31st at Daytona in July 2016. Timmy Hill is entered in the second MBM car, the #40 Dodge, and could again be running double-duty.
Next Race: May 12, 2017
Toyota Tundra 250 at Kansas