Pilot Point resident Robert Richardson Jr. is attempting to make his third consecutive Daytona 500, and his quest begins today with two laps of pole qualifying in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Richardson’s six career Sprint Cup Series starts have all come at NASCAR’s two superspeedways — Daytona and Talladega — while driving other people’s cars. This week, he’s driving the No. 23 Toyota of his family-owned R3 Motorsports team.
The team has never qualified for a Cup race but is planning to attempt the full schedule, Richardson said Thursday before leaving for Florida.
“It all depends on the first five races and how they go,” Richardson said. “We’ll just have to evaluate whether we want to try to stay in the top 35 in the Cup Series.”
The top 35 teams in owner points are guaranteed starting positions in Cup races. For the first five races of the year, last season’s points are used. If R3 can race its way into the early races, it might find itself in the all-important top 35.
It’s a tall order, and Richardson is only scheduled to drive the car for the season opener.
“We are going to try to make the 500,” Richardson said. “Scott Riggs will be driving the 23 car in the Sprint Cup Series for the remainder of the season.”
After Daytona, the team will return to fielding its usual Chevrolets. Richardson said Riggs will have to “start and park” in some races unless sponsorship can be found to pay for full-race supplies of tires, equipment and pit labor.
It’s unlikely Richardson will know today whether he has qualified for the race. NASCAR uses a complex system to set the field for its biggest event, starting with today’s two-lap qualifying runs.
Today’s session determines two things: which two cars will start on the front row for next Sunday’s Daytona 500, and the starting order for Thursday’s Gatorade Duel qualifying races that ultimately fill out the field.
Of the teams not in the top 35 in points, only the three fastest in today’s time trials will know they’ll be in the 500, and they’ll only know their starting position if they’re one of the two fastest overall.
There are 49 cars entered, so Richardson is one of 14 drivers competing for eight available starting positions. But one of those spots is reserved for a past series champion, if needed, and Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott will be eligible for it.
Richardson’s car was slowest in both practices Saturday, running its fastest laps at 184.441 mph in the first session and 186.610 in the second session.
He is scheduled to be the 45th driver to make his qualifying run today.
Richardson said it has been a struggle to get the car ready for the season, especially with the introduction of fuel injection to NASCAR.
“A lot of the teams are still waiting to get parts and pieces to update their motors,” Richardson said. “They can’t get them ready in time for Daytona.”
Richardson, who has started 23 Nationwide Series races in each of the last two seasons, will again race for R3 on the second-tier circuit. He said he and other R3 drivers will share the car for 15 events, while another team will use the entry in the rest of the Nationwide races.
“We’re splitting the season with Corrie Stott Racing,” Richardson said. “They’ll be using our car number. That way our No. 23 car stays in the top 30 in owner points.”
The arrangement is similar to one that Danica Patrick is using to make 10 Sprint Cup starts this year in cars fielded by Tommy Baldwin Racing.
According to its website, Corrie Stott Racing’s driver will be Jamie Dick, who last season made three Nationwide starts and five Camping World Truck Series starts.
“We’ve only got sponsorship for the two Texas races,” Richardson said. “We’re still trying to seek partnerships and sponsorship for the car.”
The McKinney native said what little backing the team has for its Nationwide car comes from Bimbo Bakeries’ Tia Rosa tortillas brand. He’s hoping any success R3 has in either series can help attract more sponsorship.
“Our new crew chief, Greg Connor, has turned our program around,” Richardson said. “We’re qualifying better; we’re racing better. We’re capable of getting top-15, top-20 finishes this year [in Nationwide].”
In the Sprint Cup Series, Richardson has been running at the end of four of his starts. Both times he’s run the Daytona 500, however, he’s been caught up in crashes. Last year’s wreck was a byproduct of the tandem racing that has developed over the last three years at Daytona and Talladega.
“That’s just characteristic of that type of racing,” he said. “Hopefully they’ve done some things to change it to get it back to pack racing, where you have 43 cars within a second or so of each other.”
Today, all Richardson has to worry about is running two solo laps as clean and fast as possible. Then the former SMU quarterback, who said he played behind current Chicago Bears QB Josh McCown for one season, can focus on helping his team get established on stock car racing’s biggest stage.
“It’s just a matter of putting a couple of pieces of the puzzle together and going out and making races,” Richardson said. “The guys are really anxious to see what our equipment can do at the Sprint Cup level.”
MATT CRIDER can be reached at 940-566-6906. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.