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MILNER: Sorenson Favorite Among Open Teams Not Locked In

In addition to putting the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on the front row of the Daytona 500, Sunday’s qualifying also ensured two of the four spots for those without charters, were set.

Ironically, of the six drivers competing for those four spots, it was the two favorites, Elliott Sadler and Brendan Gaughan, who secured their spots in The Great American Race, based on their qualifying speeds.

Sadler, driving for Tommy Baldwin Racing, will make his fourteenth appearance in the Daytona 500 and his first since 2012. With six top 10 finishes in the race, Sadler has come close to winning previously.  He finished runner-up to Ward Burton in 2002 and, in 2009, was passed by Matt Kenseth on the last green flag lap.

Gaughan, like Sadler, has been a regular competitor in the XFINITY Series over the past several years. In his first Daytona 500 since a nineteenth place finish in 2004, Gaughan will be racing for Beard Motorsports in the same Leaving Family Racing car that Michael McDowell drove to a fifteenth-place finish in last year’s Daytona 500, with an ECR Engine and Gaughan’s Richard Childress Racing XFINITY Series pit crew.

For the four drivers yet to lock themselves in via speed or a charter, they will be competing for two spots in Thursday’s Can-Am Duels. With Sadler and Gaughan already locked in, no one stands out among the four remaining hopefuls.

Reed Sorenson has the most Daytona 500 experience of the four, with six starts with four different teams. He snagged a top five in 2008, driving for Chip Ganassi Racing and followed it up with a ninth-place finish a year later, driving the iconic No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports. Entry into the 2017 Daytona 500 would be his 263 career Cup start, with 15 top 10s to his credit.

Timmy Hill first arrived on the national scene in 2011 and was the XFINITY Series Rookie of the Year. In six years, he has made 171 starts in XFINITY, Trucks, and Cup, with three top 10s in total. Hill has raced at Daytona five times in NASCAR’s three touring series with a seventh-place finish in the XFINITY Series 2012 opener.  One plus he has is, in 2017, he reunites with Rick Ware Racing which gave him his start in all three major series (he also competed for the team in the 2012 24 Hours of Daytona) in his attempt to make his first Daytona 500.

DJ Kennington will seek to become the first Canadian since Trevor Boys in 1988. Daytona will be only his second Cup race, the first coming back in Phoenix. He has three XFINITY starts at Daytona but none since a seventeenth-finish in 2009. He will be driving for Gaunt Brothers Racing team, fielding their first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series entry after running in the Pinty’s Series in 2010 and 2011. Notably, Kennington is a two-time series champion, having scored both those titles with his family-run team. 

Cory LaJoie, son of two-time Busch (now XFINITY) Champion Randy LaJoie, returns to attempt to make his third Cup start and his first since 2014. Lajoie ran for JGL Racing in last year’s July Daytona XFINITY race, finishing 30th.  While BK Racing may not be challenging Joe Gibbs Racing for Toyota prominence, they do have extensive experience in the Cup series, dating back to David Reutimann’s entry into the 2012 Daytona 500. LaJoie has twenty NASCAR starts, spread across all three national series.

Based on experience from both driver and team, it would seem Sorenson could be the favorite to claim one of the two spots in the Can-Am Duels. Who would join him in racing their way into the Daytona 500 remains very much unclear. LaJoie’s alignment with BK Racing could give him the edge over Hill and Kennington.

Until the checkered flag drops on Thursday night, however, it is too close to call.

EMAIL: john.milner@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Timmy Hill Hoping to Make First Daytona 500 Start

Not many racers from Maryland make it to the big leagues, but Timmy Hill has done just that.  Now, the Port Tobacco, Maryland native is hoping to make the field for stock car racing’s biggest event, the Daytona 500.

Hill, 23, will attempt to make the field for the Daytona 500 and also compete in several other races for Rick Ware Racing  in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series – sharing a ride with Kevin O’Connell and Cody Ware for the newly formed team.

Despite it being his first attempt, Hill is confident thanks in part to his previous success at Daytona, which includes two top-10 finishes in the NASCAR XFINITY Series racing for the same team.

“I was actually kind of bragging to someone about it and talking to Rick as well,” Hill said.  “The reason Rick feels so confident for me to drive the 500 because I’ve been to Daytona five times.  Out of those five times, I’ve finished top 10 twice and, out of the five races, I had an average finish of 12.5.  I raced for Rick three of those times and two of them were top-10s.  He feels confident about me going down and racing for him.  He won’t be able to find anyone who’s had the experience there I had.”

While the Rick Ware Racing team is a lower budget team, Daytona is a great equalizer and Hill hopes to use that to his advantage to make the field for The Great American Race.

“It’s always been a good racetrack for myself and I’ve done a good job for Rick there in the past,” Hill continued.  “We don’t have quite the budget with Rick’s team as the other teams like Hendrick and Gibbs.  We’ll have a lot of obstacles to hurdle to make the race.  If we have to gamble, I think we the best odds to make this thing.”

Being an unchartered team, Hill knows his best opportunity to make the field for the Daytona 500 will come in the Can-Am Duel, the preliminary races held on the Thursday before the Daytona 500 that set the field for the Great American Race.

“That’s where we are going to put most our effort, trying to race those duels,” Hill explained.  “They’re 150 miles so there will be strategy being played.  You have to position yourself.  You don’t have a lot of time to play it safe because the race will be over faster than you think.  It’s hard to make a game plan for that race, all you have to do is have your mind on which cars you have to beat and have the other uncharted cars.

“There are five or six of us going down there; there will be at least two cars going home.  It’s hard to tell.  Pressure will be on.  To have the chance to race our way in adds a little more excitement, more stuff in our control.”

Like many in the sport, racing was in Hill’s blood when he was born.  His father, Jerry, made 58 starts in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and 54 starts in the ARCA Racing Series in a career spanning over a decade.  The younger Hill began racing Go-Karts at King George Speedway in Virginia, just south of its border with Southern Maryland.

“My dad got me into racing,” Hill said.  “He did it more as a hobby but he started in the late 80s and into the 90s.  Back then, he and his buddies built some ARCA cars in Maryland out of their two-car garage and did some racing when you saw more of that.  They did it all and you just don’t see that anymore now.  I went to the tracks to cheer him on as a kid.  What finally got me going was in the early 2000s, he ran a couple truck races and we saw the other divisions come out and begged my dad to let me race.  I started out in Go Karts in King George Virginia.”

Hill graduated up to the Allison Legacy Series, where he won the national series championship in 2009, joining former Daytona 500 Champion Trevor Bayne and former Southern 500 winner Regan Smith.  From there, he moved up to ARCA and eventually into the XFINITY Series.  While competing in ARCA and NASCAR, Hill was also attending Automotive Technology classes at North Point High School, a prestigious science, technology and industry in Charles County, Maryland, where he graduated in June 2011.

“Ultimately, in 2011, we ran for rookie of the year for Rick Ware in XFINITY,” Hill remarked.  “He gave me my start in the NASCAR world.  We had a good year, think we finished 16th or 17th in points overall.  We had some really good finishes.  Think my best finish was at the road course that year.  Good runs at Daytona and Talladega.”

After having moderate success, Rick Ware Racing made its first jump to competition in NASCAR’s premier series, although Hill was ineligible to compete in the Daytona 500 that year.  He would go on to make his series debut in the third race of the 2012 season at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Nevada after failing to qualify in his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series attempt at Phoenix International Raceway in Arizona.

“It propelled us the following year; Rick made a big jump with his first try in the Cup Series in 2012,” Hill recalled.  “I wasn’t eligible to run the 500.  When I went to Phoenix, it was heartbreak, it was just repaved and it was tough for the first cars.  Missing my first attempt at a Cup race was a big heartbreak for me but it gave me extra motivation to perfect what I do as a driver.  Following week, we went to Vegas and there were two extra cars there and we made it on time.  We sent Robby Gordon and David Stremme home and Rick gave me a big hug, it was the first race he made as an owner and me as a driver.”

After making the field, Hill was sidelined early.  After that race, and continued struggles throughout the season, the Rick Ware Racing team ultimately returned to the NASCAR XFINITY Series full-time.

“We wanted to survive that race, went 45 laps, blew a right front tire and ended our day early.  That was the only car we had so we brought a backup car and missed a couple more after that and forced our hand to go back to XFINITY a couple years.  We had a couple top 10s in XFINITY that year.  I know that was tough for Rick but he’s more prepared now than ever to come to Cup and make an extra charge at it.”

Hill continued making starts as a journeyman racer for multiple different teams in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the NASCAR XFINITY Series.

Hill was involved in a controversial incident at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2014 when, seconds after a caution came out when Cole Whitt spun in turn four, Hill crashed into the back of Matt Kenseth’s car.  Hill, who called it an “unflattering moment,” was lit up on social media in the hours and days following the incident.

“That was an unflattering moment,” Hill remembered.  “People don’t understand how fast that track is and how fast things happen.  You turn 15 second lap times there.  That race, we didn’t have the best car so I found myself looking in the mirror a lot watching cars lap me.  As I came off turn four, spotter said there was a wreck in turn one and it gave me maybe four seconds to slow down and I ultimately crashed into Kenseth.  I took a hit from the announcers that I should’ve slowed down more but they don’t understand how fast it happens.”

Hill felt the criticism was unfair since, after all, some of the elite competitors in NASCAR racing had also been involved in similar crashes during their careers.

“The following year, Kevin Harvick had an almost identical crash but him being a bigger star they didn’t get the coverage trashing me,” Hill remarked.  “You can’t find any other driver who has the starts that I have with few crashes.  That one happened to catch the highlight reel and it had a little bit of an impact.”

Hill’s rise to the big leagues is unusual because Maryland is not known for producing big name racing talent in the same way states like North Carolina, Virginia and California have been.  In fact, the last time a driver from Maryland won a race in any of NASCAR’s national touring divisions was when Elmo Langley won at Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, Virginia.  Notably, the track closed in 2012 but was replaced in 2016 when Steve Britt opened up the Dominion Raceway motorsports complex in Thornburg, Virginia.

There aren’t a lot of opportunities for racers from the Old Line State.  Maryland, which once had multiple motorsports facilities, including Beltsville Speedway and Marlboro Motor Raceway, where Roger Penske got his start in 1958, currently only has two dirt oval racetracks — Hagerstown Speedway in the north and Potomac Speedway in the south.  Hill hopes his success can result in other drivers from the state can also break through.

“There’s not a whole lot of opportunity for people to get their feet wet in racing [in Maryland],” Hill explained.  “There are only a couple tracks and both are dirt.  Closest to our house is Potomac Speedway.  Other than that, there’s really no racetracks.  I never raced dirt but we went across the bridge to King George Speedway (kart track) in Virginia.  It was tough at the time and still is for people who are interested in racing to get their feet wet in it.  Hopefully one day, that can change.  Maybe people can see that Maryland drivers can and have made it to NASCAR and they might have the interest in building a track in Maryland and give people that chance.”

For now, Hill says traveling is the key for racers from a state not known for its racing heritage.

“True racers are going to travel,” Hill commented.  “We did a lot of traveling as far west as Indiana and up to New York and Florida.  People will travel if they want to do it.  That’s what we were forced to do.  There are more options in North Carolina.  It’s hard to ask for tracks to be made because they are expensive.  I wish for the best.  You’re forced to travel in this sport.  I hope there can be more tracks in Maryland to give people a shot at racing at a reasonable cost.”

Timmy’s younger brother, 22-year-old Tyler Hill, has also moved up into racing.  He’s competed in a handful of Late Model Stock Car races and participated in the open test held by the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards at Daytona back in January.

Timmy Hill hopes to make his Daytona 500 debut when the green flag waves on the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season on February 26th.  The race will be televised live on Fox.  The qualifying races will be held on February 23rd in primetime and will be televised live on Fox Sports 1 (FS1).

“I hope we make the race,” Hill stated.  “I think we have a good shot at it so hopefully we pull it off.”

E-MAIL ANDY AT  andymarquis@gmail.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.