Toyota / Save Mart 350 at Sonoma
First, the bad news. Just 38 drivers are entered in Sunday’s field for the first road course race of the season, the shortest-ever Cup field at the Sonoma Raceway. It’s the shortest Cup field on a road course since August 8, 1993, when Dorsey Schroeder trailed a 38-car field at Watkins Glen. Missing this week is Corey LaJoie and his #83 BK Racing Toyota, marking the first time in the team’s six-year history that they haven’t entered the #83 in a Cup Series race.
Now, the surprisingly good news. Despite just 38 teams arriving at the track, there are going to be several new faces behind the wheel. No less than five drivers will make their Cup Series debuts on Sunday, one more than the previous record in 2013 when Paulie Harraka, Alex Kennedy, Victor Gonzalez, Jr., and Justin Marks started this race.
Leading the group is 25-year-old Alon Day, who on Sunday will become the first Israeli driver to start a Cup Series race. In 2015, Day moved from the Indy Lights Series to NASCAR, joining the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, which runs entirely on road courses. He took three victories that year at the prestigious Autodromo dell’Umbria in Italy and Belgium’s Circuit Zolder, finishing 2nd in the standings behind Ander Vilarino of Spain. Last year, he came stateside, making two starts each in the XFINITY and Truck Series. He impressed in his XFINITY debut at a rain-soaked Mid-Ohio, finishing 13th in Carl Long’s Dodge after contending for the lead all afternoon. His ride this week will be BK Racing’s #23 Earthwater Toyota, driven earlier this year by Gray Gaulding and Ryan Sieg.
Day joins a long list of international drivers who have raced in Cup at Sonoma, many some of the greatest road racers in the world: Max Papis (Italy), Hideo Fukuyama (Japan), Klaus Graf (Germany), Mattias Ekstrom (Sweden), Jan Magnussen (Denmark), Andy Pilgrim (England), Dick Johnson (Australia), Marcos Ambrose (Tasmania), Christian Fittipaldi (Brazil), Juan Pablo Montoya (Colombia), Marc Goosens (Belgium), Victor Gonzalez, Jr. (Puerto Rico), and Canadians Roy Smith, Patrick Carpentier, Jacques Villeneuve, and Ron Fellows.
Rick Ware Racing returns from their one-week hiatus at Michigan, and this week welcome Josh Bilicki and sponsorship from Marriott Hotels. An SCCA and Spec Miata driver since 2011, the Wisconsin-born Bilicki has made four XFINITY starts with a best finish of 28th at Phoenix last fall. This year, Bilicki was set to drive for Obaika Racing, which gave him his first start at Road America, but the deal fell apart as the team disappeared after Bristol. The deal with Ware came soon after, and the #51 Chevrolet will now carry sponsorship from Marriott Hotels.
After two respectable runs by Darrell Wallace, Jr., Richard Petty Motorsports has elected to bring on a “road ringer” of its own in the form of sports car driver Billy Johnson. Fresh off his second appearance in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where he and teammates Stefan Mucke and Olivier Pla finished 27th overall in Chip Ganassi’s Ford GT, Johnson looks to make his first NASCAR start since 2013. That year, he made his fifth and most recent XFINITY race for Roush-Fenway Racing, a deal which began when he practiced Carl Edwards’ Ford at Road America. Four of Johnson’s five XFINITY starts came on road courses at Watkins Glen, Road America, and Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the last of which producing his best finish of 8th. While he’s never piloted a stock car at Sonoma, he’s one of the most experienced road course drivers in the field, having scored Grand-Am victories at Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen, and Road America. Johnson joins a select group of road course upstarts who have piloted Petty’s #43, including fellow Grand-Am alums Christian Fittipaldi and Scott Maxwell.
Premium Motorsports has doubled-down on its new driver lineup, not only bringing back the #55 Chevrolet from a one-week hiatus at Michigan, but putting new first-time Cup drivers in both the #55 and the #15. Replacing Derrike Cope in the #55 is local driver Tommy Regan, whose hometown of Tracy, California is 75 miles south-east of the Sonoma Raceway. Regan is perhaps the greenest driver in the field, having made just six Truck Series starts with no finishes better than 24th, including a pair of last-place finishes. What Regan lacks in experience he makes up for in enthusiasm. Confusion reigned earlier this year when stories came out that Regan would drive Rick Ware Racing’s #51, even after Josh Bilicki was tabbed as driver. The white #55 that Regan will drive resembles the picture from that promotion – a white Chevrolet with sponsorship from automotive part supplier Oscaro.
Joining Regan at Premium Motorsports is Kevin O’Connell, who replaces Reed Sorenson in the #15 Chevrolet. Like Billy Johnson, O’Connell’s name should sound familiar to those who have watched the XFINITY Series compete on the road courses. It was O’Connell who, in 2014, was tabbed by Rick Ware Racing to drive the #23 Shania Kids Can Chevrolet at Road America. The result was a near-upset at the finish where only a resurgent Alex Tagliani was able to snatch away a runner-up finish, leaving him a strong 3rd behind Tags and race winner Brendan Gaughan. The finish remains Ware’s best-ever finish in XFINITY and their only top-five finish. Unlike many of the drivers listed above, O’Connell has actually raced stock cars at Sonoma before, finishing 15th and 20th in the 2007 and 2008 K&N Pro Series West events, and also ran 9th in Grand-Am here in 2006.
American Ethanol E15 200 at Iowa
Back on the short track in Iowa, 41 drivers are entered to attempt the 40-car field, the first time since last month at Charlotte where at least one car will be sent home after qualifying. Rejoining the series this weekend is Quin Houff, who we last saw finishing 27th at Richmond in April. Both Houff and Precision Performance Motorsports have impressed in their partial season this year, and look to continue that momentum at Houff’s first Iowa start.
Also welcome back two-time Iowa winner Sam Hornish, Jr., who this time resurfaces as driver of Penske Racing’s #22 Discount Tire Ford. While the details of Hornish’s schedule this year are still to be determined, the current calendar includes both races at Iowa and the road course in Mid-Ohio. Hornish won this race in a walk last year, leading 183 of 250 laps driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. It will be interesting to see how the IndyCar champion does in his first race for Penske since 2013.
Another surprise on the list is Scott Lagasse, Jr., who this week gets a turn in Richard Childress Racing’s #3 Chevrolet (likely vacated as both Austin and Ty Dillon race in Sonoma). Lagasse has been hot and cold in his two XFINITY starts this season, avoiding all the wrecks at Daytona to finish 6th, then getting caught up in one at Talladega to finish 34th. He hasn’t made an XFINITY start at Iowa since 2009, when he ran 9th for Bryan Mullet in the #11 America’s Incredible Pizza / Fat Brain Toys Toyota. Regardless, he has made the list with sponsorship from his cancer awareness initiative “Screen Your Machine.” Ben Kennedy also returns from GMS Racing to drive for Richard Childress Racing, and will drive the #2 Rheem Chevrolet alongside Lagasse.
All eyes will certainly be on 22-year-old Ty Majeski, who makes his XFINITY Series debut this weekend in Roush-Fenway Racing’s #60 iRacing.com Ford. Majeski has impressed in his young career, claiming his first of three consecutive ARCA Midwest Tour titles as a rookie in 2014 and finishing 4th in his ARCA debut at Madison International Speedway last June. The Roush-Fenway development driver and NASCAR Next member has another good chance to turn heads this weekend as the distance between Sonoma and Iowa has kept away the Cup regulars.
Making his second XFINITY start this Saturday is Truck Series regular Christopher Bell, who we last saw finish 4th at Charlotte. This time around, Bell slides over to Joe Gibbs Racing’s #20 ToyotaCare Toyota while Kyle Benajmin drives the #18 SportClips Toyota.
The only car on the list without an announced driver is King Autosport’s unsponsored #92 Chevrolet, which returned last week at Michigan for its first start of the season. Josh Williams is the likely choice to make his sixth XFINITY start this weekend as he drove the car last week, finishing 34th.
Iowa 200 at Iowa
Iowa’s Truck Series race shows just 29 drivers for the 32-truck grid, marking the series’ third-consecutive short field. The list is likely to increase by at least one as Beaver Motorsports’ #50 Chevrolet, run the last two weeks by Josh Reaume, is again not entered, while Jordan Anderson’s #1 Fueled By Fans Chevrolet, fielded by TJL Motorsports, has finally made the initial cut. Also missing are the second Norm Benning truck, #57, driven by Tommy Regan last week (Regan will drive Cup in Sonoma); the #68 of Clay Greenfield, the #87 of Joe Nemechek, and the #44 Faith Motorsports entry. While earlier reports indicated that Martins Motorsports sold the #44 to Faith, the Martins team has returned this Friday with the #42 Chevrolet, tabbing Faith’s previous driver Matt Mills to drive. Last week in Gateway, Mills had been replaced by Donnie Levister in Faith’s #44.
Also returning this week is MDM Motorsports, which will have Brandon Jones drive the #99 SoleusAir Chevrolet in place of Timothy Peters. Jesse Little will make his first Truck Series start since Dover in his family’s #97 Toyota, and will look to build on their 14th-place finish at “The Monster Mile.” Austin Wayne Self returns for his first Truck Series start since Texas, this time as driver of Al Niece’s #45 Niece Equipment Chevrolet. Harrison Burton makes his own return to Trucks since Dover, this time with Morton Buildings as sponsor of Kyle Busch’s #51 Toyota.
Friday will mark the return of Weatherford, Texas driver Ted Minor, who we last saw make three starts in 2014, then withdraw from the 2015 Iowa race. In place of Joey Cefalia’s #12 FindIT Chevrolet which he drove for most of his starts, Minor is entered with a new team, the #14 Edge Guard Chevrolet fielded by Boyd Long, Jr. With fields continuing to be short, the addition of new teams like this could not have come at a better time.
Mike Mittler is for the second-straight race the listed owner of both the #63 and #36 Chevrolets, but as of this writing, neither have a set driver, and the #36 is looking for sponsorship. Last week at Gateway saw brothers Kyle and Kevin Donahue drive the two trucks with Kyle’s #63 finishing 16th and Kevin’s #36 out early with brake issues in 26th.
Following the practice crash and last-minute driver swap at Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing, Cobb is again entered in the team’s #0 Chevrolet with young Bryce Napier driving the #10 ASAP Appliance Services Chevrolet.
Finally, congratulations to ARCA part-timer Mike Senica, who will make his Truck Series debut this Friday in D.J. Copp’s #83 Chevrolet. The 51-year-old Pennsylvania driver will carry sponsorship from PB2 Powdered Peanut Butter.