More rain at Daytona hands Coke Zero 400 pole to David Gilliland

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Mother Nature has helped make a surprising grid for Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

Four of NASCAR’s smaller teams have locked out the front two rows after rain showers hit the 2.5-mile oval following the opening round of Sprint Cup qualifying. With the NASCAR Nationwide Series scheduled to race later tonight, the sanctioning body chose to cancel the final two rounds of qualifying and set Saturday’s field on Round 1 results.

That gives David Gilliland of aptly-named Front Row Motorsports the pole position. Also capitalizing on the rain was Tommy Baldwin Racing, which will have its driver, Reed Sorenson, starting second. Additionally, Hillman Racing’s Landon Cassill and Circle Sport’s Bobby Labonte will make up the second row.

Defending Coke Zero 400 winner Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth start in Row 3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Gilliland’s teammate, David Ragan, are in Row 4, and Row 5 features Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle.

“Everybody at Front Row Motorsports has worked real hard on our restrictor-plate program and with our win last year at Talladega with David Ragan, I feel like this is our strong suit for our team,” Gilliland told MRN Radio.

“We knew anything could happen coming here, and Frank Kerr, my crew chief, has worked really hard on this car. It’s got a lot of speed and we’re really looking forward to tomorrow.”

Today marked the debut of NASCAR’s new knockout-style qualifying at Daytona (the Daytona 500 has its own qualifying format), and the first round saw strategies aplenty. It manifested itself on the track with major speed differences between packs of cars as they made their way around.

Sorenson told Fox Sports that he had to bide his time before he was able to put together a flyer.

“For a while there, we were going slow like forever – maybe seven or eight laps there and then we finally took off,” he said. “I actually got separated from the guys I was following a little bit and the 40 car [Cassill] was behind me and the 33 [Labonte] got in front of me, and that enabled us to get sucked up to those guys and run a good lap.”

“This is a great opportunity for us, and I don’t know about starting [up front] and whether that helps or hurts you. But it’s exciting for us to be on the front row. Hopefully, we can stay there all night and be there at the end.”

Meanwhile, as the smaller teams got to the front of the grid, many big teams will have to start from the back of it.

Among those that did not make the Top 24 were Kentucky winner Brad Keselowski in 26th, his Penske teammate Joey Logano in 28th, Danica Patrick in 29th, Kyle Larson in 35th, Denny Hamlin in 37th, Kyle Busch in 38th, and Kurt Busch in 39th.

Logano was one of several drivers that seemed befuddled over how today’s session played out.

“I don’t know about [qualifying being] crazy, we were only going 5 miles per hour for a little bit…It’s just kind of frustrating to try to figure it all out and what’s going on,” he said to MRN.

“You have a good run, then you get blocked and you try to get another run but half the cars are off the race track so you can’t get another one going.

“…I’m as confused as everybody else is right now.”

Also in the same boat was Earnhardt Jr., who like Logano, attempted to convey proper thoughts on qualifying before settling on the following:

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES AT DAYTONA – COKE ZERO 400 STARTING LINEUP

John Force has a job for soon-to-be retired Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Photo courtesy John Force official Twitter page
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The battle for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s post-retirement services has begun.

And leave it to none other than 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force to be the first to offer Junior a job.

As a Funny Car driver, of course.

Look at the plusses: they both drive for Chevrolet, they both like beer, Junior wouldn’t have to worry about turning left or right (on road courses) any more, he’d be able to stay on the straight and narrow (drag strip, that is) and …

Perhaps the best thing of all, he could ultimately become Force’s replacement as the most popular driver in NHRA drag racing when (or if) Force ever decides to retire himself.

Check out Force’s job offer:

Several current or former Verizon IndyCar Series drivers also took to social media to pay homage to Junior — including another member of the Force family, son-in-law Graham Rahal, who is married to drag racer Courtney Force.

 

 

 

Loftus Robinson Rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for Indy 500

Photo: Dreyer and Reinbold Racing
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Indianapolis-based real estate developer Loftus Robinson will rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The relationship between Loftus Robinson and DRR goes back to 2015, when they first partnered for the “500.” The partnership continues for 2017, with Sage Karam piloting the effort for the second consecutive year.

“Being an Indianapolis-based company, we felt it has been important to partner with another local company, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in the famed Indy 500,” said Drew Loftus, co-principal of Loftus Robinson. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has served as a great backdrop for our business’ growth. We have enjoyed our relationship with Dennis and his racing team. They have built a tremendous infrastructure to assist us and our partners through the event. We’re anxious to see Sage back on track in the No. 24 DRR Chevrolet this May.”

Team co-owner Dennis Reinbold echoed Loftus’ enthusiam. “Loftus Robinson has been one of the Indianapolis area’s top young commercial real estate companies in recent years and we are very pleased to have them back in 2017 with our Indy 500 entry,” he explained. “Loftus Robinson has utilized our racing team’s participation in the world’s greatest auto race to formulate strong relationships with their business partners as well as developing new clients right at the track. We hope to put them in victory lane on May 28 with Sage at the wheel.”

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on May 15.

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JR Hildebrand cleared to return for Phoenix

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After sitting out the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama last weekend, JR Hildebrand will be able to return to action for this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), after being cleared Tuesday to drive.

The primary driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing sustained a broken bone in his left hand in a final lap accident at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, after a collision with Mikhail Aleshin. He was re-evaluated upon returning to Indianapolis and was not cleared to drive for the Barber Motorsports Park race.

Hildebrand was on site in Birmingham, Ala. in a driver coach role for Zach Veach, who filled in for his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Veach started and finished 19th in his first start.

For Hildebrand, the return to Phoenix comes after he paced the series official preseason open test there in February, and comes as a great opportunity to come back from a challenging start to the year. Hildebrand had nondescript runs of 13th and 11th in the first two races but was 11th in points after Long Beach, although he fell to 21st when he missed Barber.

“It’s been a tricky couple of weeks working through this injury, I’m certainly anxious to get back in the car!” he said in a release. “I feel like I’m far enough along to be able to go for it this weekend in Phoenix. I know we’ve got a good program; I want to be able to come through for the team at an event where we should be strong. The competition there is tough, I expect we will really have to be on our game over the course of the weekend. I’m looking forward to getting back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car! Everyone has been super helpful and I appreciate the hard work that everyone has put in to be able to get me back in.”

Meanwhile team owner Carpenter makes his first start of the season in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet as part of his oval-only program.

Spencer Pigot will be back in the No. 20 car at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 13, before Carpenter’s back in for the rest of the month of May leading up to and into the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IMSA: Henzler, Bonanomi called up for drives at COTA

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Two fill-in drivers have been confirmed for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s next race at Circuit of The Americas, on May 6.

Wolf Henzler will deputize for Kevin Estre in the No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR, while Marco Bonanomi will make his IMSA Prototype class debut as a fill-in driver for Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson.

Henzler will be in the No. 912 car alongside Laurens Vanthoor in GT Le Mans in the first “standard” two-hour, 40-minute race of the season, the Advance Auto Parts Showdown, as Estre will be on FIA World Endurance Championship duty the same day in the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with Porsche’s GT Team there.

Henzler’s absence means if TRG runs its Porsche 911 GT3 R at COTA in the GT Daytona class, Kevin Buckler would need a replacement for him.

There’s another potential fill-in-for-WEC driver scenario needed if Alegra Motorsports, the Rolex 24 at Daytona winners, were to run in GTD as well. Thus far Carlos de Quesada’s team has run Daniel Morad and Porsche factory driver Michael Christensen in its No. 28 Porsche in GTD through three races, but with Christensen and Estre set to share the No. 92 car at Spa, a replacement would need to be sourced there.

Bonanomi is the second replacement that is confirmed though. The Italian, who made one prior IMSA start since the 2014 merger with Fall-Line Motorsports in an Audi R8 LMS Ultra, will fill-in for “TKS,” who returns to England to take care of his mother, who is battling cancer.

“Tom will unfortunately miss the next race at Circuit of the Americas. He needs to be able to spend time back in the UK with his mother who is presently undergoing treatment for cancer,” said team principal Bobby Oergel.

“As all the drivers who have driven with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports know, once you’re a part of our team, you’re family, and Tom is a big part of this family. It’s unfortunate that he will miss a round of the championship, but we know that family comes before racing, and we’re happy that he is able to take the time he needs to be with his family during this time.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Tom and his mother, and we are praying that she will be cancer free in the near future.”

Bonanomi has tested with the car and will share the car with Jose Gutierrez, who missed Long Beach as Will Owen filled in for him there.

“I was very happy to receive the call from PR1 to drive at their test at COTA. It was my first time driving the Ligier, but I think the test was very positive,” said Bonanomi.

“We tested some set up changes for the race that I think will be very good. The track itself is very demanding on the car and tires, especially with the extreme temperatures that can be present. The first practices during race week will be very critical to get everything just right in terms of set up, but after the test, I think we should be pretty close.”