Four years ago, BK Racing came to Daytona as a two-car team that struggled to get out of its own way. It ran a total of nine laps in the Duels (combined), made the race through provisionals and then promptly struggled to hang onto the lead draft. A comedy of errors on pit road and in the driver’s seat made the remnants of former Team Red Bull look like they’d be remnants, period, by midsummer.
But it survived, and now, come 2016 in NASCAR’s wacky world of Charter systems, mergers and closures in the offseason, BK has been positioned to thrive.
A once small-time program, the newly anointed two-charter team brought four cars down to Daytona, went four-for-four in making the field and positioned itself as the sport’s best underdog story thus far during Speedweeks. Its stories run the gamut from a two-time winner of the Great American Race (Michael Waltrip) to a hay rancher – yes, a hay rancher! – earning the 40th and final spot in the field.
That would be Robert Richardson, Jr., entering the race with perhaps the longest odds after not having qualified for a Cup race in four years. The last time he ran in NASCAR’s top three series? 2014, after his family-owned team folded up following some years of modest success in the XFINITY Series. So as of two weeks ago, Richardson didn’t consider himself a race car driver; he considered himself a normal Texas guy pulling a 9-to-5 (and then some) for his family.
“My ranch is located in Pilot Point, Texas,” he explained. “I do hay production for a lot of the horse ranches there locally. Anything from racehorses, barrel horses, anything a horse can be used for.”
Richardson was out on the job when he got a random phone call from Lane Segerstrom, the founder of Stalk-It, who wanted to re-test the NASCAR waters by sponsoring a car in Sunday’s Daytona 500 (Richardson had been sponsored by the company in the past). Talks led to action, Richardson paired up with BK owner Ron Devine and a strong qualifying effort combined with a little luck left the No. 26 car the last one standing at the end of Thursday’s second Duel.
“It’s like winning the lottery,” he said. “I’m in awe that this happened. The stress that I’ve been putting just on myself in general to make this race… I’ve been pacing the floor ever since I woke up [Thursday] morning.”
Teammates Waltrip, David Ragan and Matt DiBenedetto didn’t have that issue as all were locked in by the start of the qualifying races. DiBenedetto, starting just his second year in Cup, was the most impressive, clocking a speed good enough to time in Sunday before posting a ninth-place finish in his Duel. The lone BK holdover from 2015, he believes some offseason moves will lead to a solid step up in performance.
“We’re really, really thankful to Toyota for giving us more help,” he said. “That and then, you know, Ron Devine made a huge commitment during the offseason, showed that he wants to get better by buying a whole fleet of cars from Michael Waltrip Racing, equipment from there, we hired some personnel from there.
“We’re still a small team, so we still run on a smaller budget obviously than some of the bigger teams. But I feel like we are going to take it to the next level.”
Among the new arrivals is Waltrip himself, planning a limited schedule with BK while his own middle-tier Toyota team closed down. Fifteen years after his first Daytona 500 victory, the 52-year-old FOX broadcaster is unlikely to add to that total Sunday. But what he does do is bring restrictor plate experience to the program as well as important connections. In a touch of irony it’s his failure that could position BK to be a bigger success story; Toyota had no choice but to up its support of the program after Waltrip’s closure left four-car Joe Gibbs Racing and newcomer Furniture Row as the only other teams running Camrys.
“There’s a lot of change happening in NASCAR,” DiBenedetto said. “It is a very different format and system than we’re used to. But I think it’s going to be a great evolution for the sport.”
The question now is whether that step forward will continue through Sunday for BK. Its other new hire, Ragan, has a victory here in the July race and quietly raced well in the draft through Thursday’s Duel. With the charter system designed to boost programs like Ragan’s No. 23, one of two BK locked-in cars, it’s an early test to see how much — if any at all — the partnership can have an effect on the small programs.
But step one for BK was to go four-for-four in putting cars in the field. And by knocking off respected veterans like David Gilliland (Front Row) and Reed Sorenson (Hillman), this race team showed it was trending in the right direction Thursday.
“There was a lot of focus going into this ’cause there was only a handful of unchartered cars coming here trying to make the race,” DiBenedetto said. “They put a lot of focus on us, a lot of extra stress on us trying to make it. But I’m excited about it. Now that it’s all over with, we can say it was cool.”
You can also say BK is firmly on the radar screen, however small the dot, for Sunday’s 500.