Thursday, March 23, 2023

PREVIEW: COTA fields stacked with ringers, champions, and entirely too many Cup regulars

IMAGE: Pardus Racing, Inc. Press Release

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Saturday, March 25, 2023 (1:30 P.M. ET, FS1)
TRUCKS Race 4 of 23
XPEL 225 at the Circuit of the Americas
2022 Last-Place Finisher: Sheldon Creed

There are 39 drivers entered for 36 spots as the Truck Series kicks off the first road course weekend of 2023, meaning three will fail to qualify.

Kaz Grala will make his 50th career Truck Series start and first since his 17th-place run in Las Vegas as he rejoins TRICON Garage as driver of the #1 entry, taking the place of 28th-place Atlanta finisher Layne Riggs. Grala, who finished 14th in this race last year and was runner-up to Todd Gilliland in the 2021 inaugural, carries sponsorship from Island Coastal Lager.

RETURNING: #7-Spire Motorsports
Alex Bowman, who came within a couple turns of winning last year’s Cup race at COTA, makes his 5th career Truck Series start ad first since his 29th-place showing at Sonoma last June. Bowman’s other Truck start last year came at COTA, where he ran 25th after qualifying 3rd.

RETURNING: #8-NEMCO Motorsports
The 62-year-old Texas native Samuel LeComte makes his fourth attempt at an elusive Truck Series debut. This time, he joins Joe Nemechek’s team NEMCO Motorsports, which has not started a Truck Series race since February 19, 2021 on the Daytona Infield Road Course, where Camden Murphy took a strong 13th.

Speaking of the Nemecheks, John Hunter Nemechek is not entered in the Truck Series race following a close 3rd-place run last week in Atlanta. Taking his place is a returning Taylor Gray, who joins his brother and teammate Tanner Gray for his first Truck Series start of the season. Tanner ran 26th in this race last year and most recently took 17th in the 2022 finale at Phoenix.

DRIVER CHANGE: #20-Young’s Motorsports
One of the many interesting road course “ringers” on this week’s entry list is 2016 Indy Lights Series Champion Ed Jones of the United Arab Emirates – the very driver who scored three podium finishes in 63 career IndyCar Series starts including a 3rd behind Takuma Sato and Helio Castroneves in the 2017 Indianapolis 500. While this will be Jones’ first NASCAR start, it will not be his first in closed-fendered competition. In sports car ranks, Jones has competed in the last three runnings of the 24 Hours of Daytona and just recently ranked 6th in the 12 Hours of Sebring. Little Caesars sponsors Jones, who takes the place of 35th-place Atlanta finisher Mason Maggio.

Logan Bearden made his Truck Series debut in this race last year, taking the 28th spot in a second AM Racing entry. This year, he runs the flagship #22 for the AM team, taking the place of 23rd-place Atlanta finisher Josh Reaume.

DRIVER CHANGE: #30-On Point Motorsports
Among the many bizarre driver changes caused by delayed drug test results last June in Sonoma was that of Colin Garrett, who handed the wheel of his 11/11 Veteran Project / UnBroken Toyota to Josh Bilicki. This week, Garrett makes up for lost time, bringing the same sponsors to the same entry he was slated to run that day – On Point Motorsports’ #30 Toyota. Garrett, who seeks his first Truck Series start since 2020 at Kansas, when he ran 24th for Niece Motorsports, takes the place of Ryan Vargas, who earned a sterling 14th-place finish in his Truck Series debut at Atlanta.

DRIVER CHANGE: #34-Reaume Brothers Racing
Speaking of Sonoma, Mason Filippi is back in the Truck Series for the first time since a disastrous afternoon in Mid-Ohio last year, where engine issues caused him to pull off the track in the early laps, and an equally difficult Sonoma where he handed the wheel over to Stefan Parsons before the race. Both races were with G2G Racing, for whom he is not racing this time around. For Saturday, he joins with Reaume Brothers Racing, taking the place of last week’s last-place finisher Keith McGee.

DRIVER CHANGE: #41-Niece Motorsports
After Bayley Currey’s career-best 4th-place finish in Atlanta’s frantic final laps, defending Cup Series COTA winner Ross Chastain will pull double-duty, taking to the controls of the #41 Worldwide Express Chevrolet.

Akinori Ogata also earned a respectable finish at Atlanta, running in the Top 20 and overcoming an incident where he spun into the inside wall to finish 17th, a new career-best for him in the Truck Series. This week, the ride goes to longtime short tracker Dale Quarterley, whose Toyota will carry sponsorship from Van Dyk Recycling and Motul. This will be Quarterley's first Truck Series start.

DRIVER CHANGE: #51-Kyle Busch Motorsports
Looking to spoil the party on Saturday is a returning Kyle Busch, who last time out won from the pole and led 84 laps at Las Vegas. Busch takes the place of Jack Wood, who finished 10th in this truck at Atlanta.

RETURNING: #75-Henderson Motorsports
Road course racing means last year’s Mid-Ohio winner Parker Kligerman, who will run double-duty on Saturday between his full-time XFINITY effort for Big Machine Racing and his longtime part-time entry with Charlie Henderson. This will be Kligerman’s first Truck Series start since he ran 32nd in this year’s Daytona opener and follows a 19th in this race last year.

CUP INVADERS: #7-Alex Bowman, #41-Ross Chastain, #51-Kyle Busch

Saturday, March 25, 2023 (5:00 P.M. ET, FS1)
XFINITY Race 6 of 33
NASCAR XFINITY Series 250 at the Circuit of the Americas
2022 Last-Place Finisher: Bayley Currey

There are 42 drivers entered for 38 spots, meaning four will fail to qualify.

DRIVER CHANGE: #10-Kaulig Racing
After, like Alex Bowman, last year’s Cup win at COTA just slipped from his grasp, defending COTA XFINITY race winner A.J. Allmendinger will likewise pull double-duty on the track, his in both XFINITY and Cup. Saturday marks Allmendinger’s first XFINITY start since last November’s championship race marked the handing over of his full-time entry to current rookie Chandler Smith. He takes the place of his Cup teammate Justin Haley, who ended up 10th in Atlanta.

RETURNING: #17-Hendrick Motorsports
While his Cup teammate Bowman runs a Hendrick-sponsored entry in the Truck Series race, William Byron – the only two-time race winner in 2023’s young Cup season – will do the same in XFINITY. This #17 entry last ran at Darlington last September, where Kyle Larson finished 5th.

DRIVER CHANGE: #19-Joe Gibbs Racing
Like Allmendinger, Ty Gibbs will make his first XFINITY start since last November’s championship race – his the scene of his title-clinching effort over three JR Motorsports teammates. Gibbs takes the place of Ryan Truex, who ran a strong 3rd in Atlanta.

DRIVER CHANGE: #35-Emerling-Gase Motorsports
Parker Chase brings sponsorship from nativity to the lead Emerling-Gase entry this week, taking the place of Patrick Emerling himself, who ran 18th in Atlanta. Chase rejoins the circuit for the first time since this year’s Daytona opener, where he ran 16th for Sam Hunt Racing.

DRIVER SWAP: #44-Alpha Prime Racing
DRIVER SWAP: #45-Alpha Prime Racing
Two of the three Alpha Prime entries swap drivers as Jeffrey Earnhardt, 34th in Atlanta, takes the wheel of the #45 and Sage Karam, 31st after radiator issues last Saturday, pilots the #44.

NEW TEAM: #50-Pardus Racing, Inc.
Three-time SCCA national champion Preston Pardus, long a road course entry for DGM Racing, will this year drive for his family’s own brand-new team. Pardus Racing, Inc. will run the #50 – a number crew chief and NASCAR veteran Dan Pardus ran in 1999 – and carries a vibrant paint scheme with Texas-based sponsor Garage Oil Spirits. If they qualify, this will be Preston’s 20th XFINITY start following a pair of 14th-place runs in the last two COTA races.

DRIVER CHAGE: #53-Emerling-Gase Motorsports
Welcome back the popular Brad Perez, who last year made his first NASCAR national series start in COTA’s Truck Series race driving for Reaume Brothers Racing. This time around, Perez seeks his third XFINITY start and first of the year. As with his previous two starts, where he ran 20th at Watkins Glen and 23rd on the Charlotte “Roval,” Perez drives for Emerling-Gase, though this time in the second entry which in Atlanta was driven by Joey Gase before he was collected in a Lap 2 crash. APEX Coffee Roasers and Weiss Sand & Clay LP join as sponsors.

DRIVER CHANGE: #66-Motorsports Business Management
It’s been a particularly rough first few races for Motorsports Business Management. Last week, in partnership with Alpha Prime Racing, Caesar Bacarella fell victim to a freak axle issue that triggered his Lap 2 crash with Joey Gase, leaving Bacarella in last place. MBM had planned to enter Argentinian driver Baltazar Leguizamon for Saturday, but the deal fell through due to lack of sponsorship. Cameron Lawrence has since stepped into the #66, seeking his own XFINITY debut at the track where he finished last in the inaugural Truck Series race in 2021. While Leguizamon is expected to run for MBM later this season, he has also landed another ride for Saturday as he takes the place of Atlanta DNQ Dawson Cram in CHK Racing’s #74.

RETURNING: #88-JR Motorsports
Miguel Paludo continues his road course part-time schedule for JR Motorsports, returning to the site of a 34th-place run in 2021 and a 9th just last year. Last seen in last year’s race on the Indianapolis Grand Prix Circuit, where he took 24th, Paludo will again share BRANDT Agriculture sponsorship with Justin Allgaier.

Josh Bilicki returns for only his second XFINITY start of the year following a 31st-place run in Las Vegas, again as driver of DGM Racing’s #91 Chevrolet. The road race ace takes the place of Chad Chastain, who finished 24th last week in Atlanta.

Following the well-publicized incident in Atlanta where NASCAR’s controversial decision to park his #92 led to him stopping on the starting line and walking away from his car, Josh Williams has been suspended for one week and will not run the Alloy Employer Services Chevrolet this Saturday. As sales from his charity benefitting t-shirts continue to rise, longtime DGM driver Alex Labbe will run in Williams’ place.

DRIVER CHANGE: #07-SS-Green Light Racing
After a disastrous start to the 2023 season where he’s ranked 37th in Owner Points and been on the verge of LASTCAR title contention, Blaine Perkins has parted ways with the Bobby Dotter team, effective immediately. Stepping aboard is Truck Series regular Carson Hocevar, whose planned XFINITY debut with Spire Motorsports has effectively been moved up to this weekend. Hocevar’s first XFINITY race will be a double-duty effort on Saturday.

DRIVER CHANGE: #08-SS-Green Light Racing
The second Dotter entry has been made available to one of Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cup drivers in Aric Almirola. Almirola, who enjoyed a strong run at Atlanta before a blown right-rear tire nulled his chances, will take the place of 20th-place Atlanta finisher Gray Gaulding. Rush Truck Centers is the sponsor for this fourth entry fielded by a Cup Series regular. This will be Almirola’s first XFINITY start since August 4, 2018 at Watkins Glen, when he ran 5th for Biagi-DenBeste.

CUP INVADERS: #10-A.J. Allmendinger, #17-William Byron, #19-Ty Gibbs, #08-Aric Almirola

Sunday, March 26, 2023 (3:30 P.M. ET, FOX)
CUP Race 6 of 36
EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas
2022 Last-Place Finisher: Andy Lally

There are 39 drivers entered for 40 spots, the biggest Cup field since Daytona, but also its fifth consecutive short field.

DRIVER CHANGE: #9-Hendrick Motorsports
As planned following the race in Las Vegas, endurance racing star Jordan Taylor will make his NASCAR Cup Series debut this Sunday as driver of Chase Elliott’s fleet #9 UniFirst Chevrolet, replacing 18th-place Atlanta finisher Josh Berry. Wearing a Jeff Gordon-themed helmet adorned with his alter ego “Rodney Sandstorm,” Taylor will certainly be one to watch.

DRIVER CHANGE: #15-Rick Ware Racing
Another major storyline for Sunday are the entries of not one but two Formula One World Champions in this week’s race. Running the RWR #15 affiliated with RFK Racing is 2009 World Champion Jenson Button, winner of 15 Grands Prix including his storybook 2009 title with upstart Brawn GP. Mobil 1 extends its sponsorship for what will be Button’s first start in any of NASCAR’s top three series. He takes the place of J.J. Yeley, who ran 26th in Atlanta.

RETURNING: #50-The Money Team Racing
Welcome back Conor Daly and The Money Team, back at the track for the first time since their tumultuous SpeedWeeks at Daytona. will again sponsor the #50 this week as Daly makes his first Cup laps on the Austin track.

DRIVER CHANGE: #78-Live Fast Motorsports
Josh Bilicki pulls double-duty with his XFINITY effort for DGM as he looks to turn around a rough stretch for the Live Fast team, which has finished last the previous two races with B.J. McLeod. Bringing back his familiar sponsorship from Zeigler Auto Group, which backed him last year at Spire Motorsports, Bilicki finished 22nd in this race last year and seeks his first Cup start since last August at Michigan, where he was 21st.

RETURNING: #84-Legacy Motor Club
Also back for the first time since Daytona is Jimmie Johnson, who this time around will make his first Cup laps at COTA. Carrying sponsorship from Club Wyndham, Johnson continues his pursuit of an 84th victory, his first on a road course since Sonoma in 2010.

RETURNING: #91-Trackhouse Racing (Project 91)
Last but certainly not least, Trackhouse’s Project 91 is back for the first time since last summer at Watkins Glen, and as they had that day brings with them 2007 Formula One World Champion Kimi Raikkonen. At The Glen, Raikkonen made it just short of halfway before teammate Ross Chastain triggered a wreck in the Inner Loop, leaving Kimi in 37th. He looks to improve in his second Cup start, which will mark the first time he’s raced Jenson Button in professional competition since the Grand Prix of Monaco on May 28, 2017. That day, Button crashed out of his final Grand Prix while Raikkonen ran 2nd to Sebastien Vettel.

TODAY IN LASTCAR HISTORY (March 23, 1996): Jeremy Mayfield picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Busch Grand National Series career in the Dura Lube 200 at Darlington when his #98 Northstar Motorsports Ford crashed after 50 laps. 

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