Thursday, May 14, 2020

PREVIEW: It's finally time to get back to business at Darlington

Josh Bilicki brings Tommy Baldwin Racing back to the Cup Series this Sunday.
SCREENSHOT: @joshbilicki
Sunday, May 17, 2020
CUP Race 5 of 36
The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington
2019 Last-Place Finisher: Inaugural Event

The Cup Series returns to action for the first time in more than two months following the unprecedented international response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the competitors prepare to run more than one Cup race at Darlington for the first time since 2004 –though with social distancing enforced and no fans in attendance – let’s take a look not only at the changes to the 40-car entry list, but also review the storylines from the first four races of 2020, and the hiatus that followed.

SEASON STORY / DRIVER CHANGE: #6-Roush-Fenway Racing
SEASON STORY: #11-Joe Gibbs Racing
Denny Hamlin won the rain-delayed Daytona 500 in February, edging Ryan Blaney for the victory. In doing so, Hamlin became just the fourth driver to win the 500 in consecutive years and the first since Sterling Marlin (1994-1995). The photo finish resulted from a terrifying crash entering the tri-oval where Blaney made contact with leader Ryan Newman, sending him into the outside wall and into the path of Corey LaJoie. The resulting impact left Newman with a serious concussion, though he was released from the hospital later that week. As Newman recovered, Ross Chastain drove in his place for the next three races and was still slated to run at Atlanta. Chastain finished no better than 17th in Newman’s #6. Newman has been cleared to race and will return to competition this Sunday.

RETURNING: #7-Tommy Baldwin Racing
On May 11 came news that Tommy Baldwin Racing would return to the Cup Series for the first time since they came up just short of making the 2019 Daytona 500 with Ryan Truex in the #71. The team will again return to their more familiar #7 on their Chevrolet with Josh Bilicki as the driver. Bilicki eyes his first start of the 2020 season – his most recent start was the 2019 finale at Homestead for Rick Ware Racing, when he finished 36th in the #52. Gravely is the primary sponsor with Bilicki’s frequent backer Insurance King as associate.

SEASON STORY: #12-Penske Racing
SEASON STORY: #88-Hendrick Motorsports
Alex Bowman scored the second victory of his Cup Series career on March 1 at Fontana, dominating much of the race and besting Ryan Blaney, who blew a tire in the final laps. Both Bowman and Blaney were charging through the field in Las Vegas and were in position to take the victory before a late-race caution ultimately handed the win to Logano. Blaney is still eyeing his first victory of the season after nearly claiming the first three, then nearly finishing last in Phoenix.

TEAM MERGER: #15, #27-Premium Motorsports
TEAM MERGER: #51, #52, #53, #54-Rick Ware Racing
TEAM MERGER: #77-Spire Motorsports
The rumored merger of Rick Ware Racing with Premium Motorsports (and Premium’s sister team Spire Motorsports) was reportedly completed during the hiatus. Photos showed cars from Ware’s team in the Premium shop alongside the #15 driven by rookie Brennan Poole and the #77 which was run by Reed Sorenson in the three races following Daytona. Both Poole’s #15 and Sorenson’s #77 were entered for Sunday's race along with three of the original four Ware cars – Joey Gase in the #51 Agri Supply Ford (the same Bobby Allison throwback he ran in the Talladega iRacing event as car #53), Garrett Smithley in the #52 Trophy Tractor Chevrolet, and J.J. Yeley in the #53 Jacob Construction Ford. That changed late Wednesday with the #52 withdrawn and replaced by the former Premium #27. Yeley and the Trophy Tractor sponsorship went to the #27, and Smithley was moved from the withdrawn #52 to the #53. Gray Gaulding will then run the #27 with returning sponsorship from Panini in both the Wednesday Darlington race and the Coca-Cola 600. The team reported there have been no Charter swaps among its teams - the #27 remains an "open" entry and was run at the sponsor's request.

SEASON STORY: #22-Penske Racing
Joey Logano won the season’s most recent race at Phoenix Raceway on March 8, holding off Kevin Harvick in the final laps. He remains the only repeat winner in the four races run so far. The other came at Las Vegas, where he took the checkered flag after a late-race restart triggered a pileup on the frontstretch.

SEASON STORY: #24-Hendrick Motorsports
While he scored his first Cup Series last-place finish in the Daytona 500 after an early crash, William Byron scored the most victories in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, taking the checkers in three races – Bristol, Richmond, and Dover. Byron now looks to earn his first Cup Series victory, perhaps at the track where he won the pole last September driving the green-and-yellow “Days of Thunder” throwback.

SEASON STORY / DRIVER CHANGE: #42-Chip Ganassi Racing
Kyle Larson was quietly off to one of the strongest starts of his Cup Series career in 2020. Despite his struggles on the superspeedways, he finished 10th in the Daytona 500, then ran 9th in Las Vegas. At Fontana, he recovered from early contact that put him in the wall to take 21st at the checkered flag, then ran 4th at Phoenix, lifting him to 7th in the series standings. But during a livestreamed sim race on Easter Sunday, Larson uttered a racial slur, costing him his ride with Ganassi. While Larson has completed his sensitivity training, he is not entered in Sunday’s race. Matt Kenseth was tabbed as his replacement, and will make his first start in more than a year at Darlington.

SEASON STORY: #47-JTG-Daugherty Racing
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and his Roush-Fenway Racing crew chief Brian Pattie enjoyed a great start to the season in Daytona, where Stenhouse won the pole and led 24 laps. He then finished 3rd at Las Vegas, keeping him firmly in the Top 20 in points. Stenhouse has since led at least six laps in three of the four races this season, all but the most recent round at Phoenix, where he ran a season-worst 22nd.

SEASON STORY: #66-Motorsports Business Management
Prior to the season’s suspension, Timmy Hill was enjoying some well-deserved attention from the media. Hill qualified for his first-ever Daytona 500 in February and managed to finish 3rd in the XFINITY race that weekend. While mechanical issues gave Hill the early lead in the LASTCAR Cup Series Championship, he then excelled in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, taking the overall lead on points and a thrilling win in Texas. On May 10 came news that, his new sponsor for 2020, decided to invest more in MBM’s Cup and XFINITY programs to get them up to speed.

NEW TEAM: #78-B.J. McLeod Motorsports
For the first time, B.J. McLeod will field his own Cup Series car and drive it in the team’s debut, putting Todd Parrott atop the pit box. McLeod, who has driven for Rick Ware Racing in all but one of his previous 42 Cup starts, will field the same #78 number as his primary team in the XFINITY Series, bringing the #78 back to Cup for the first time since Furniture Row Racing closed following the 2018 Homestead finale. No sponsor is yet listed, but along with the late addition of Tommy Baldwin Racing brings the field to a full 40 cars for the first time since the Daytona 500. McLeod will look for a turnaround after he finished last in last year's Southern 500.

SEASON STORY: #96-Gaunt Brothers Racing
It’s been a troubling start for Daniel Suarez, his first with single-car open team the Gaunt Brothers. Suarez failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 after a crash in his Duel, then suffered a mechanical failure coming to the line at Las Vegas, where he returned to finish 30th. He did show measured improvement in the following two races, running a quiet 28th at Fontana despite several pit stops, then earning his first lead-lap finish of the year at Phoenix where he ran 21st. The team has just this week hired veteran Nick Ollila as technical director, which the group hopes will improve their performance.

Today in LASTCAR History (May 14, 1978): Coo Coo Marlin picked up the 6th last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Winston 500 at Talladega, when the engine failed on his #14 Cunningham-Kelley Chevrolet after 4 laps. Marlin would share his ride with son Sterling for a combined 11 races in 1978, but the pair failed to finish seven races, five due to engine failures.

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