NASCAR: Two drivers to make historic Cup Series debuts at Talladega

Harrison Burton and Jennifer Jo Cobb will make their NASCAR Cup Series debut on April 25 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Harrison Burton and Jennifer Jo Cobb will make their NASCAR Cup Series debuts at the GEICO 500 on April 25 at Talladega Superspeedway, their respective teams announced this week. Each brings their own unique brand of history into the Cup Series, which will first run at Richmond Raceway this coming Sunday (3 p.m. ET, Fox).

Burton will pilot the No. 96 Toyota for Gaunt Bros. Racing. The 20-year-old currently races full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in the No. 20 Toyota, previously piloted by current Cup regulars Erik Jones (2015-17) and Christopher Bell (2018-19). Burton burst onto the Xfinity Series scene last season with top ten finishes in each of his first ten races, a stretch that included wins at Fontana and Homestead. Though he failed to reach the Xfinity Series’ championship quartet at the end of the year, he would earn triumphs in the penultimate races of the season at Texas and Martinsville. Prior to his arrival at Gibbs, Burton won the 2017 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East regional stock car championship.

The No. 20 currently ranks third in the modern Xfinity Series standings. Burton has tallied five top ten finishes over the first seven races.

With his entry, Burton will become the fourth member of his family to partake in a Cup Series event. His father Jeff, now a NASCAR analyst for NBC Sports, won 21 Cup events in a career spent mostly with owners Jack Roush and Richard Childress. That tally includes two victories in the Coca-Cola 600. Harrison’s uncle and Jeff’s brother Ward won the 2002 Daytona 500 and has since gained viral attention for his sporting and conservation efforts. Ward’s son Jeb currently races alongside cousin Harrison in the Xfinity Series, driving the No. 10 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing. Harrison will also become the first driver born in the 21st century to partake in a Cup Series event upon his entry.

Gaunt Bros. Racing entered the Cup Series last season with Daniel Suarez behind the wheel. The team reverted to a part-time schedule this year, as team ran the Daytona road course and the Bristol dirt race with Ty Dillon behind the wheel. DEX Imaging, Burton’s primary sponsor in the Xfinity Series, will grace the No. 96 for the Talladega event.

Meanwhile, Cobb will make her NASCAR Cup Series debut in the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet. Though Cobb has run in subpar equipment throughout her career, she has been a staple in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series since 2011, fielding her own vehicles through her team, Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing. Her best career finish was a sixth-place posting at the season opening race at Daytona in 2011, with her best placement in the standings being 16th in 2014.

Cobb is perhaps best known on the Truck Series for her refusal to partake in the “start-and-park” phenomena that was prevalent in the last decade, refusing to drive an Xfinity (then Nationwide) car for 2nd Chance Motorsports when owner Rick Russell ordered to bring the car to the garage area shortly after the start to collect prize money for a list place finish.

She will be the 21st female driver to partake in Cup Series racing and the first since Danica Patrick in the 2018 Daytona 500. Her 216 starts in the Truck Series are the most among female drivers in NASCAR’s three national series. Cobb has had some recent success at Talladega, as her No. 10 Chevrolet Silverado led a career-best 16 laps at the Truck Series’ visit to the track last October. The Truck Series will run its own event, the ToyotaCare 250, at Richmond on Saturday (1:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Cobb’s No. 10 will start 33rd.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three pleasant surprise teams at the Easter break

In a year of dramatic parity, these three NASCAR teams have provided some solid surprise early showings through seven races.

There will be no Easter egg roll on asphalt on dirt for NASCAR’s national series, as the Cup, Xfinity, and Truck units have gone a brief hiatus. The premier Cup Series will return to action next Saturday night at Martinsville Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

With seven of 36 events down at the Cup level, parity has been the name of the game. We’ve seen seven different drivers win the first seven races. While some of the trophy-hoisters have been expected (Martin Truex Jr./Joey Logano), we’ve seen first-time winners (Michael McDowell/Christopher Bell), long droughts end (Kyle Larson/Ryan Blaney), and a young veteran start to build his tally up (William Byron).

This trio of teams has been particularly surprising, as we give them their due on a quiet weekend at the track…

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 08: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #47 Kroger Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Cup Series 62nd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 08, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

JTG Daugherty

Many eyes have turned to the NASCAR endeavors of a certain University of North Carolina alum turned NBA All-Star. The subject, of course, is Brad Daugherty and his shared team with Jodi and Tad Geschickter. There’s obviously plenty of time for Michael Jordan’s squad, 23XI Racing, to find their groove. In the meantime, it’s hard not to appreciate what Daugherty’s team has done in this young season.

One of the more interesting stories of the 2021 season is perhaps that of Ryan Preece. His No. 37 Chevrolet doesn’t have a charter, but he has managed to keep it competitive in the early going. Preece was one of four drivers (Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell the others) to finish in the top ten in each of the first two races. He’s also one of 11 drivers who have run at the finish of each of the seven events run so far.

Meanwhile, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came to the team’s No. 47 after a disappointing tenure at Roush Fenway Racing. He has earned top 20 finishes in all seven races to date, capping it off with a runner-up posting at Bristol. The team currently holds one of the 16 playoff spots, a fantasyland that JTG Daugherty has not seen since its lone appearance in 2014 (A.J. Allmendinger). Stenhouse will undoubtedly be capable of winning at Talladega later this month. He won the 2017 spring event and drove the No. 47 to a narrow runner-up finish there last season.

Adding to their consistency, both Preece and Stenhouse have done a great job keeping their cars clean this season. The two have failed to complete only a combined six of a possible 3,388 laps.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 06: AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #16 Ellsworth Advisors Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series Alsco Uniforms 300 at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 06, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Kaulig Racing

Anyone who has kept an eye on the NASCAR Xfinity Series would know that Kaulig Racing was on the rise through its victorious triumvirate. Such consistency has continued on the developmental level (Allmendinger won the Las Vegas race while he, Justin Haley, and Jeb Burton have united for 13 top tens). But their Cup program took some steps forward in the early showings as they inch closer to full-time status. Things got started when Kaz Grala raced his way into the Daytona 500’s main event (even leading 10 laps) before Allmendinger earned a top ten run at the ensuing road course event.

“I think it’s been the worst-kept secret that they have aspirations to get to the Cup Series, racing it full-time down the road, try to be a multi-car team down the road,” Grala said following his success at the Bluegreen Vacation Duels. “This is the first small step towards a big picture. I know (racing at Daytona) a victory for everybody at the team.”

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – MARCH 29: Daniel Suarez, driver of the #99 Camping World Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 29, 2021 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Trackhouse Racing

It was fair to keep expectations low for Trackhouse Racing. Even with strong backing from recording artist and philanthropist Pitbull, new teams have often struggled to gain their footing in modern NASCAR. Behind the wheel was Daniel Suarez, who struggled mightily, even by low-budget standards, in Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 last season.

But Suarez has enjoyed a slight resurgence in the seat of the team’s No. 99 Chevrolet. Signs of progress were apparent even before his top five run at the Bristol dirt event. The team probably would’ve earned a top ten finish at Atlanta if not for Suarez’s speeding penalty on pit road. He earned top 20 runs in the next two races after getting caught up in the early “Big One” in Trackhouse’s Daytona debut. The No. 99 currently sits in 20th in the standings, best amongst new teams and 28 points out of a playoff spot.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

 

NASCAR: Noah Gragson to make Cup debut at Daytona (Report)

Gragson, 22, is coming off a strong showing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. He will take over the vehicle vacated by Brendan Gaughan.

Per Chris Knight of Catchfence.com, rising NASCAR prospect Noah Gragson will make his Cup Series debut at the 2021 Daytona 500 in February. He is set to pilot the No. 62 Chevrolet for Beard Motorsports.

Gragson, 22, is coming off a strong in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, driving the No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, a team co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick. He won two races, including the Xfinity opener at Daytona, and eared top-ten finishes in 25 of 33 events. This offseason, Gragson announced that he would return to the No. 9 car on a full-time basis for the 2021 Xfinity season, which begins on February 13, the day before the Daytona 500.

Gragson has earned a reputation for aggressive driving but has been viewed as a rising star amongst NASCAR’s lower-tier series. His ledger also includes a pair of victories on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series circuit, both in vehicles owned by two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch. Gragson came home in the runner-up spot in the 2018 Truck Series standings, behind only Brett Moffitt.

Beard Motorsports, headed by former part-time Xfinity driver Mark Beard, had run a part-time NASCAR schedule throughout the course of the past decade. Their No. 62 car has appeared in every Cup Series race held at Daytona and Talladega (both two-plus mile superspeedways) since 2017, driven by NASCAR veteran Brendan Gaughan in each of those appearances. Gaughan kept the car competitive, running at the finish in 11 of 17 starts. His best finish was a seventh-place posting in last season’s opener at Daytona. Winner of ten races at the Xfinity and Truck levels, Gaughan announced his retirement after the 2020 season.

The No. 62 car will likely have to race its way into the race through one of the 150-mile qualifying races held prior to the main event.

The 2021 Daytona 500 is currently scheduled to be held on February 14.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR makes early adjustments to 2021 schedule

The early portions of NASCAR’s 2021 schedule will have a strong Floridian feel, as the second weekend of the season will remain at Daytona.

For many, Florida in February is but a pipe dream. For NASCAR, it’s a new reality.

The auto racing circuit announced a pair of schedule shifts on Tuesday afternoon. Following the season-opening Daytona 500 for the premier Cup Series on February 14, the series will remain at the iconic Daytona International Speedway to run its second weekend of events at the venue’s road course on February 19-21. Each of the circuit’s trio of national series (Cup, Xfinity, Camping World Truck) will race on the road course for the second straight year. The second event of the season was originally a doubleheader between the Xfinity and Cup Series for Homestead-Miami Speedway, which will now move to the weekend of February 27-28.

Lost from the schedule is the annual trek to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, which has annually hosted a Cup Series event since 1997. A NASCAR statement states that moving from Fontana was necessary due to “challenges resulting from the ongoing pandemic and the need for significant advance planning”. The venue was set to host its final events on its traditional two-mile D-shaped oval, before undergoing renovations that turn it into a half-mile short track. These refurbishments have likewise been put on hold. Alex Bowman is the defending winner of the Cup Series’ 400-mile race at the track, while Harrison Burton took the Xfinity portion (300 miles).

NASCAR visited the Daytona road course for the first time in August due to Watkins Glen International’s date being lost due to health protocols in New York State. The course is 3.61 miles in its NASCAR incarnation and each of the national series partook. Daytona’s road course was recently announced to be hosting the Busch Clash exhibition, a season-opening showcase that is open to playoff drivers, race winners, stage winners, and pole sitters from on-track qualifying. The race will be held on Tuesday, February 9, five days before “The Great American Race”.

This shift will only add to a Cup Series-record in races on a road course in 2021, as the season is scheduled to visit seven such venues. In addition to the recurring visits in Daytona, Watkins Glen, Sonoma, and Charlotte, the Cup Series will also visit road courses at Indianapolis, Road America, and the Circuit of the Americas.

Homestead-Miami Speedway is a 1.5-mile oval in Homestead, a 40-minute drive from Magic City. The track hosted NASCAR’s season finales from 2002 through 2019, with that date since shifted to Phoenix. Denny Hamlin is the defending winner at the track, taking home the Dixie Vodka 400 in June.

The news of another road course should be welcomed warmly by defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott. He and his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team have won each of the last four races held at such tracks, including the inaugural visit to Daytona (the Go Bowling 325) in August.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags