It is almost time. The time for NASCAR’s long-awaited resumption of on-track racing is days away as the drivers and teams are set to embark on an 11-day racing span across the Carolinas, beginning at Darlington Raceway on May 17. Already, the spotlight focuses on Sunday’s 400-mile race serving as the initiating phase for NASCAR to complete this season amid the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. While veterans Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth highlight the names of Cup Series drivers set to return to racing on an extended, weekly basis, there are other notables that will compete on Darlington’s racing surface.
The first is Tommy Baldwin Racing, owned by Tommy Baldwin Jr., winner of the 2002 Daytona 500 as crew chief. TBR will field the No. 7 Chevrolet Camaro sponsored by Gravely Mowers and CNC Swiss Machining with Josh Bilicki set to pilot the car in Sunday’s 400-mile event. This weekend’s event at Darlington will be TBR’s first Cup race since November 2017 at Phoenix Raceway and the first at Darlington since September 2016. The team attempted to qualify for the 2019 Daytona 500 with Ryan Truex but they failed to do so and did not attempt additional races throughout last season.
For Bilicki, who has competed in 13 previous Cup races and has finished as high as 29th, Sunday’s event will be his first with TBR. This season he has competed in two of four Xfinity races and one Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series event, all in February, prior to racing’s hiatus. Thus far, his lone NASCAR start at Darlington came in September 2018 in the Xfinity Series where he drove for JP Motorsports and finished 28th.
Next is B.J. McLeod Motorsports, owned by B.J. and Jessica McLeod, which will make its NASCAR Cup Series debut on Sunday. BJMM will be fielding the No. 78 Chevrolet Camaro with B.J. McLeod as the driver. McLeod has been racing in NASCAR since 2010 and has operated BJMM in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for the last five seasons. The team currently fields three full-time operations.
While the team is new to the Cup Series, the driver/owner is not. McLeod has made 42 starts in NASCAR’s premier series, including the last two Daytona 500s. His best result is 25th, coming at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last September. McLeod is also currently in his third season driving for JD Motorsports with Gary Keller in the Xfinity Series, with a best result of 13th at Daytona in February. He has competed at Darlington in the last five Xfinity seasons and two Cup seasons.
Finally, Gray Gaulding will return to NASCAR following a six-month absence. Gaulding will be piloting the No. 27 Ford Mustang for Rick Ware Racing sponsored by Panini America at Darlington, but not until Wednesday, May 19, as J.J. Yeley will drive the No. 27 car on Sunday. Following Wednesday, Gaulding will make a second Cup appearance in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 24.
Gaulding has not competed in NASCAR since last season, where he drove for SS-Green Light Racing in the Xfinity Series. He had a productive season with four top-10s, including a career-best runner-up finish at Talladega Superspeedway in April and a final standings result of 13th. He has made 50 Cup starts with a best result of ninth at Talladega in October 2017, but none since 2019, where he drove for Rick Ware Racing and finished 36th at Bristol Motor Speedway in April. His lone Cup start at Darlington came in 2017, where he finished 36th driving for BK Racing, and his lone Xfinity start at Darlington came last September, where he finished 15th.
All drivers and teams scheduled to compete on Sunday will round out the 40-car field as NASCAR prepares to drop the green flag and resume a bizarre season in the making. How the new driver-team pairings, the weekly balance of competitiveness and safety between the competitors and crew members and the state of NASCAR for the remainder of 2020 fares will be assessed next week.