Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: Meet the 5 Drivers Making Their Cup Debuts at Sonoma

Remember the beginning of this month, when this column covered Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debuts and how they were up in 2017?

Turns out we were just getting started.

At that point, four drivers had (or were about to) make their series debuts in 2017, with the addition of Ryan Sieg and Ross Chastain at Dover International Speedway. That number equaled the amount in 2016 alone, a sign that, perhaps, Cup debuts were on the rise.

Since then, Darrell Wallace Jr. has joined their ranks, giving the series five debuts before it even hits its halfway point.

And now? Let’s, uh, double that number.

You’re probably already aware of some, if not all of them. Josh Bilicki, Alon Day, Billy Johnson, Kevin O’Connell and Tommy Regan will make their Cup debuts this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, barring any last-minute entry list changes. That’ll put the series at 10 total, still before the halfway mark of the season — quickly approaching 2015’s 12-driver mark.

But something that article earlier this month pointed out was that in the past five seasons, the largest crop of debuts in a single race weekend belonged to, again, Sonoma — that time in 2013. The final number? Four.

That’s what makes this weekend even crazier. Five debuts in one race is practically unheard of in recent NASCAR on the Cup level. Lower national series, eh, sure; it felt like for a while there, especially once the Camping World Truck Series introduced its younger-than-18 rule, it would rack up four or five on a couple short tracks a year. Which made sense, since it’s a feeder series into the big leagues. Much greater talent turnover.

On the five-Cup-debuts-in-one-race front… look, I’ll level with you here, this is is not a full-time job and I didn’t have but a few hours to do some research here, so this hasn’t been double- and triple-checked like I’d normally like. But in the quick research I conducted, the last time I could find at least five drivers making their first Cup starts in the same race happened nearly three decades ago.

You’d have to go back to 1989 at — where else? — Sonoma, where Troy Beebe, Darin Brassfield, Bill Cooper, Terry Fisher and Dick Johnson all started their first Cup races. Brassfield fared the best of the group, coming home 22nd, a lap down, while it was the only Cup start ever for Cooper, who finished 35th, filling in for the late Deake Lyndall, who passed away in a plane crash a few weeks before the race.

Look, again, this was some very spur-of-the-moment research conducted just prior to a Thursday night deadline here, so if anyone remembers it any differently since 1989, please speak up. I’ll be double-checking later, along with going deeper into the ’80s and beyond, because this is sort of an interesting stat to me at this point anyway.

Luckily, that’s not the axis on which this week’s edition hinges. Let’s meet some drivers!

Josh Bilicki: Look for him in Rick Ware Racing’s sorta-full-time No. 51. Josh Bilicki first popped up in the NASCAR ranks last season, driving three races for Obaika Racing in the XFINITY Series with a best finish of 28th at Phoenix International Raceway. Knows his way around a road course, though; he’s competed in the IMSA Continental Tire Sportscar Challenge (Ryan Ellis came from there, too).

Alon Day: Already the first Israeli driver to compete in NASCAR’s national series by running in the XFINITY and Truck series last year, Alon Day now moves to Cup, where he’ll be racing the No. 23 for BK Racing that’s normally piloted by Gray Gaulding. He finished 13th in his XFINITY debut last season at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for MBM Motorsports and was named Israel’s athlete of the year in its motorsports category earlier this year.

Billy Johnson: You may remember Billy Johnson from five starts in the XFINITY Series between 2010 and 2013, all of which came with Roush Fenway Racing. With that kind of power, perhaps it’s troubling that he only managed one top 10 in that span — an eighth at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in 2012 — but he led 10 laps at Road America in 2013 and has multiple top-10 starts, along with three victories in the Rolex Grand-Am Sports Car Series. He’s also driving the best car of the group: Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43.

Kevin O’Connell: Premium Motorsports, in collaboration with Rick Ware Racing, will feature Kevin O’Connell in its No. 15 for his first Cup start. The 50-year-old from Newport Beach, California, had a heck of a show in the 2014 Road America event in the XFINITY Series, finishing third but at one point challenging for the win in the final laps.

Tommy Regan: Perhaps the littlest-known driver of the five, Tommy Regan comes to the Cup Series with six Truck starts under his belt, the best a 24th-place run at Gateway Motorsports Park in 2015. The 39-year-old Californian (he’s from Pleasanton, about 60 miles away) will drive the No. 55 in another joint venture between Rick Ware Racing and Premium Motorsports.

About the author

Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.

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Capt Spaulding

Ringers or Fillers, you make the call….

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