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Coke Zero 400 at Daytona
After four consecutive short fields, including a track record 38 last Sunday in Sonoma, there will be exactly 40 cars attempting the 40-car field for Saturday’s Independence Day classic. Most notable, however, is the lack of the #96 Toyota of Gaunt Brothers Racing, which attempted the previous two plate races with Canadian driver D.J. Kennington. This week, Kennington is instead entered in Premium Motorsports’ #15 Chevrolet (teamed with Reed Sorenson, who moves back in the #55 Toyota). Also missing is Rick Ware Racing, which failed to qualify for both Daytona and Talladega, then ran last Sunday with Josh Bilicki running 36th at Sonoma.
While the Gaunt and Ware teams are missing, the #75 Beard Motorsports has returned for its third-straight restrictor-plate attempt, and will again go with veteran driver Brendan Gaughan. Gaughan turned in a strong 11th-place finish the last time out at Daytona, and perhaps would have been in position for another at Talladega had the car not suffered front valence damage at the start.
Also returning is Tommy Baldwin Racing, making its fifth start of the year and its first since J.J. Yeley ran 26th in the Coca-Cola 600. Sponsorship from Golden Corral and driver Elliott Sadler return for the third of three plate starts, returning to the scene of a 20th-place run in February.
The other team returning is BK Racing’s #83, absent at Sonoma, but this week back with Ryan Sieg to make his third Cup start of the year. Fresh off a career-best 2nd at Iowa, Sieg could be a dark horse to watch, particularly after his other battle for the lead in the XFINITY race at Talladega. Corey LaJoie slides over from the #83 to the #23, the car driven last Sunday by Alon Day and before that by Gray Gaulding and Sieg.
Another dark horse will be Matt DiBenedetto, who finished a season-best 9th in this year’s Daytona 500. The driver earned a solid 23rd-place finish at Sonoma, and will look to continue to build after a rough few weeks of late-race misfortunes.
Back behind the wheel this week is Darrell Wallace, Jr., who for the third time this year takes the controls of Richard Petty Motorsports’ #43 Smithfield Ford. Wallace has made six Daytona starts in the XFINITY Series with a best of 6th in the February 2016 opener. The team he’s driving for last took the checkered flag here in July 2014, when the Aric Almirola won the rain-shortened Sunday event. With Almirola set to return in mid-to-late July, Wallace will look to make the most of Saturday’s race.
Jeffrey Earnhardt is back with Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group, and so is sponsor Hulu for the green #33 Chevrolet. Earnhardt had a good run going in February’s Daytona 500, running near the Top 10 before a late-race crash left him 26th. Coming into Saturday, that finish – his only prior Cup start at Daytona – remains his best run of the season.
Another driver to watch will be Cole Whitt, who like Earnhardt had a strong run going in February’s 500 before running out of gas on the final lap. Whitt quietly finished 21st at Sonoma, came home 11th in this race last year, and still ran 18th despite the empty fuel tank early this year. In 14 previous Daytona starts in the Cup Series, team owner Mark Smith has only finished better than Whitt’s 18th-place run two times – a 10th in 1991 with Bobby Hamilton, and a 15th in 1993 with Greg Sacks – both in the #68 Country Time Lemonade machine.
At Talladega, we saw several teams forgo an impound violation and change their cars from qualifying to race setup after the opening lap – most notably the #55 of Premium Motorsports and the #83 for BK Racing. With exactly 40 cars on the list this week and no risk for any Open car to be sent home, it’s unlikely this strategy will be used this weekend.
Firecracker 250 at Daytona
43 drivers are entered to attempt the 40-car starting grid for the XFINITY race at Daytona.
As of this writing, the driver has yet to be announced for RSS Racing’s #93 Chevolet, the team dominating this year’s LASTCAR standings. Jeff Green, the driver for each of the last four races and last-place finisher in three of them, is this week back in the #8 for B.J. McLeod. No doubt, the team is looking to build on Green’s 10th-place finish at Talladega and Tommy Joe Martins’ sterling 11th-place run last week in Iowa. McLeod is himself entered in place of Martins in the flagship #78.
Corey LaJoie is listed as pulling double-duty this weekend, this time running the XFINITY event in a fourth JD Motorsports entry, the #15 teamjmotorsports.com Chevrolet. While “start-and-park” entries are rare at the restrictor plate races, they do still happen. It is as yet uncertain whether LaJoie’s car will run the full race. Another possible “start-and-park” candidate is the second King Autosport Chevrolet, the #92 for team owner Mario Gosselin, which was withdrawn last week at Iowa. JGL Racing has entered a third Toyota, #26, for Scott Lagasse, Jr., but given Lagasse’s past runs at plate tracks, the car will run the distance.
Chris Cockrum looks to make his fourth start of the season and first since Talladega. Back in his #25 Advanced Communications Group Chevrolet, Cockrum’s best finish of the season has been a 28th at Daytona, and the Florida track also saw his career-best 21st in 2015.
Also back on the list is ARCA veteran Mark Thompson, who runs Motorsports Business Management’s #13 Toyota alongside Timmy Hill in the #40. The 65-year-old Thompson is a decade younger than 75-year-old Morgan Shepherd, who looks to rebound from a February DNQ to make his 21st XFINITY start at Daytona in his 50th anniversary season.
Casey Mears reprises his role as Aric Almirola’s relief driver in the #98 Fresh From Florida Ford. Mears could be a dark horse to take the checkered flag – Almirola won this race last year in the Biagi car, and Mears has shown flashes of brilliance on the restrictor-plate tracks during his Cup career.
Speaking of dark horses, one cannot overlook any of the drivers who ran so well last Saturday in Iowa. Garrett Smithley, Jeremy Clements, Dakoda Armstrong, Ross Chastain, and especially runner-up Ryan Sieg are all entered and could have something to say to the likes of Cup regulars Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, and Joey Logano.
Next Race: Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 at Kentucky
Thursday, July 6, 2017
While the entry list for this race has yet to be published, it is expected to include the #52 Halmar Friesen Racing entry for driver Stewart Friesen, which has skipped the previous two rounds in Gateway and Iowa.