As NASCAR heads to Circuit of the Americas, many Cup, Xfinity, and Camping World Truck Series teams have enlisted the services of special drivers. Much of such teams chose to get their driver reveals out of the way on Monday, and the announced names range from drivers running their first races in years to those doing so for the first time ever.
With qualifying returning for the first time since the season opener at Daytona in February, the Xfinity and Truck races will see DNQs.
Cup: Xfinity regulars continue road course dabbling
Two of the one-off appearances for the Cup Series’ EchoPark Texas Grand Prix on Sunday return from the Daytona Road Course in February, but the three confirmed names on Monday are all running for Xfinity points.
Ty Dillon will make his third start of the season in the part-time #96 of Gaunt Brothers Racing. He finished nineteenth at Daytona followed by twenty-sixth in his most recent race at Bristol Dirt. In eleven career Cup road course starts, his best finish is fifteenth at the Charlotte Roval in 2019, while he scored a stage win in the 2020 edition.
Full-time Xfinity team and part-time Cup organisation Kaulig Racing continues to maintain a diet of superspeedway and road course races with the #16. A.J. Allmendinger, one of the team’s Xfinity drivers, will make his second Cup start in 2021 after finishing seventh at Daytona. A noted road course expert, his lone Cup win came at Watkins Glen in 2014 while all but two of his six career Xfinity victories have come on such tracks.
Team Penske will once again field the #33 for reigning Xfinity champion and another road course ace in Austin Cindric. The current Xfinity points leader is running a limited Cup slate before moving up full-time in 2022, with COTA marking his fifth career start. He is a four-time Xfinity road course winner.
Making his NASCAR début in the #78 for Live Fast Motorsports is IMSA driver Kyle Tilley. Tilley is the reigning Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona LMP2 class winner.
Xfinity: Harvick, RCR duo among Double Duty drivers, joined by ringers
Whenever allowed, one can always expect to see Cup drivers racing in the lower series to gain additional track time or for the fun of it. As COTA is new for NASCAR, it comes with little surprise that some Cup racers are dabbling in Saturday’s Pit Boss 250.
The highest-profile one-off in the field is Kevin Harvick, who will run his first Xfinity race since 2018 in his maiden start with B.J. McLeod Motorsports. The two-time Xfinity champion has never finished outside the top ten at a road course in the series and has a pair of wins at Watkins Glen and Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. The effort was initially revealed in March as a brand-new car for his Cup team Stewart-Haas Racing, but he elected to join BJMM’s #5 as a full-time vehicle gives him a chance to make the field should qualifying go awry. The SHR announcement also included running the road races at Road America and Indianapolis, both also new for the Cup schedule but Xfinity fixtures, to help him learn the tracks.
“I’ve spent a lot of time on iRacing and we’ve had a couple of simulator dates to get prepared for this weekend, one just for basically learning the track and the second for actually trying to go fast enough to be competitive when you get on the race track,” said Harvick. “But the main reason we decided to run the Xfinity race at COTA, and a couple of the other new road courses, is that being on-track in real time is the best experience you can get. There’s just nothing that can replace reality and being on the racetrack.
“[Cup crew chief Rodney Childers and I have] just not really had any strong arguments as to why we should run a particular race in the Xfinity Series because the cars have migrated and become so different from the Cup cars. But as we talked about street cars and Trans-Am cars and this test and that test to prepare for COTA, we just settled in on trying to put together an Xfinity programme. This started four months ago when we said this is what we wanted to do so we could go find a strong partner like we have in Rush Truck Centers and allow B.J. McLeod Motorsports to put a good car together. We wanted to get far out in front of it so that we could be properly prepared.”
Harvick takes over the #5 from Matt Mills, who tweeted, “As hard as it is to step out of the car, this was a no brainer for me. The knowledge @KevinHarvick & everyone at @StewartHaasRcng @TeamBJMcLeod will help our team grow and get stronger! I’ll be back at @CLTMotorSpdwy in the @JF_Electric No. 5!”
Richard Childress Racing‘s Cup drivers Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon, both former Xfinity champions, are also entered. Reddick will drive the #31 for the new Jordan Anderson Racing with the hope that the team can finally run a race after being locked out of the grid for every race to start the season. The #77 of Bassett Racing is in the same boat as JAR and Dillon, who last ran an Xfinity race in 2019, hopes to do the same. Reddick has five top tens in eight Xfinity road races, while Dillon has two top tens in seven such starts.
The #17, which is an alliance between SS-Green Light Racing and Rick Ware Racing, will have Cole Custer behind the wheel in his first Xfinity start since 2019. Custer’s best Cup road course finish is ninth at the Roval in 2020, while he has nine top tens in eleven Xfinity starts at such tracks.
Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch, the winningest driver in Xfinity history, will make his season début in the #54 for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Another car that has suffered the same troubles as JAR and Bassett is Our Motorsports‘ #03, which has allowed Andy Lally to dubiously accumulate DNQs on his racing record for events without qualifying. However, he is entered in the #23, which the team took over while the #03 is unavailable. The 2011 Cup Rookie of the Year and sports car champion has exclusively run road courses at the Xfinity level since 2007 and finished thirty-first at the Daytona RC for BJMM; he has seven top tens in fourteen starts.
While he has no Cup experience, former sports car racer Kris Wright is one of the road course ringers as he returns to Sam Hunt Racing‘s #26. The Truck rookie finished eighteenth in his Xfinity début at Daytona. Brazilian GT3 star Miguel Paludo is back in JR Motorsports‘ #8 after finishing seventh at Daytona in his first NASCAR race since 2013.
Another road course expert with not much stock car familiarity is Spencer Pumpelly, who will drive the #6 for JD Motorsports in his maiden NASCAR start. Pumpelly is a two-time Rolex 24 class winner who has raced in IMSA and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He finished third in his lone ARCA Menards Series race in 2009 at the New Jersey Motorsports Park road course. He replaces rookie Ryan Vargas, who will return the following week at Charlotte.
“I am very excited for this opportunity to drive for Johnny Davis and work with all the guys at JD Motorsports,” said Pumpelly. “I have been racing for 25-plus years and have had the opportunity to drive some really cool cars at places like LeMans and Daytona, but I’ve always said the most fun I’ve had in a car was racing stock cars on road courses. This will be my first Xfinity start so I know it will be a tough challenge but with the help of the guys on the team I’m sure we can get up to speed and be competitive.
“COTA is a track I know well and I have two IMSA victories there so hopefully my track knowledge can help a little. I know the guys in Gaffney are working hard getting things ready and I can’t wait to get on track.”
“I have been made aware of the team’s decision to take on another driver headed into this race weekend,” Vargas stated. “I understand the decision and financial reasons behind it all. I completely support JD Motorsports and will support them and the #6 team this weekend at COTA crewing on the car. This should be a great opportunity to help our programme, and I look forward to hopping back behind the wheel at Charlotte.”
Boris Said, a name that immediately springs to mind for many when they think of the phrase “road course ringer”, is entered in the #13 for MBM Motorsports. A longtime road course veteran, Said last raced in NASCAR in 2017 with two national series wins (Sonoma Truck in 1998, Montreal Xfinity in 2010).
Truck: Menard back in NASCAR, surrounded by sports car stars
Perhaps the biggest one-off Truck driver for COTA is Paul Menard as he enters the Truck Series’ Toyota Tundra 225 in the #66 for ThorSport Racing. The Cup veteran retired after the 2019 season with four national series victories, the last of which came at Road America in 2015. He has not run a Truck race since finishing thirty-third at Martinsville in 2007, which itself was his first start in the series since 2003.
“I appreciate Duke and Ronda (Thorson) giving me this opportunity to get back into a truck, while working with Bud Haefele again,” Menard said. “COTA is a new track for the series and one that I have never been to before, so we’ll all be on relatively equal footing. I’ll have fifty minutes to learn the track and knock the rust off and am certainly looking forward to the challenge of trying to add my name to the list of winners in all three national series.”
With Wright running the Xfinity race, Kaz Grala will take over his #02 Young’s Motorsports machine. It is the same deal as at the Daytona Road Course, where Grala finished eighth. Grala, a Daytona Truck race winner, also has top tens in two of three career Cup starts.
In the #30 for On Point Motorsports is Michele Abbate, a Trans-Am West Coast Series driver who finished runner-up in the 2020 race at COTA and in the points battle. She is the youngest female driver to score a podium finish in the SCCA National Championship Runoffs GT1 class in 2018.
“With NASCAR’s announcement of adding COTA to their schedule I immediately hit the ground running doing everything I could to make my début,” Abbate said.
The #33 of Reaume Brothers Racing will have Cameron Lawrence, the winningest Trans-Am Series TA2 driver and 2015 Rolex 24 GTD class champion. Lawless Alan, who ran the Daytona RC for the team, will be his partner in the #34.
CMI Motorsports will field a triumvirate of trucks with the #49 for John Atwell, the #72 for Samuel Lecomte, and the #83 for Brad Gross. All three drivers are new to NASCAR and have experience in the Trans-Am Series.
Roger Reuse is in Jordan Anderson Racing’s #3; his brother Bobby ran the Daytona Road Course. Camden Murphy joins Spencer Davis Motorsports‘ #11, while Jack Wood will make his Truck début in GMS Racing‘s #24. Late model driver Logan Bearden is in the #44 for Niece Motorsports, also in his first NASCAR start.