Robby Benton, team principal of GT Daytona (GTD) class competitor Change Racing, had a little spare time between the Rolex 24 and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, so he and his crew decided to do a little additional racing in addition to entering the No. 16 Lamborghini Huracán in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
In three weeks, using mostly spare parts left over from when Benton’s main job was running NASCAR team RAB Racing with Brack Maggard, they built a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Camry to enter in the 2017 Daytona 500. The hired a little-known driver from Canada, D. J. Kennington, picked up enough sponsorship to help pay the bills, and – less than a month after competing in the Rolex 24 At Daytona – packed up the same Lamborghini trailer with the new Camry and headed south from its Concord, North Carolina shop.
Of course, there was a potential problem: With one car built from leftovers, a driver that was hoping to make only his second NASCAR Cup start, and a team with no points or one of the coveted “charters” that guarantees you’ll be in the field, it was kind of like buying a pick and a shovel and heading off to California to mine for gold: You’d better enjoy the trip, because once you get there, you’ll likely be disappointed.
But that may be underestimating Robby Benton and his crew, and it is shortchanging the value of their partner in the NASCAR venture, Marty Gaunt, another Canadian who runs Triad Racing Technologies, which builds engines for multiple NASCAR teams, most of them in the Xfinity or Camping World Truck series.
The team didn’t qualify well enough to guarantee a spot for the Daytona 500, so the only option was to earn a spot through one of the two 150-mile Can-Am Duels held the Thursday before the Daytona 500. Kennington was in the second race, and coming down to the last lap, it appeared all was lost. He was in 16th behind Elliott Sadler, who was already in the Daytona 500, and Kennington had to finish 15th to make the show.
Benton was his spotter, and told Kennington he had to find his way around Sadler. In the last turn of the last lap, he did, finishing a half car-length ahead. The No. 96 Lordco/Castrol Toyota would start the Daytona 500 28th in the 40-car field.
It would be nice to report that they finished well, but unfortunately they didn’t, though it was no fault of Kennington’s – He finished 36th after he was involved in a 16-car crash between turns 3 and 4. A competitor’s car slid down the banking into the No. 96, causing serious right-front damage. Still, it was likely profitable – NASCAR no longer reveals purses for the races, but for the last year they did, 2015, finishing 36th in the Daytona 500 paid $313,883.
The car, Benton said, “was pretty beat up,” but they’ll have plenty of time to fix it, as the next planned race for the team is May 7 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Meanwhile, Benton and the Change Racing team have their hands full with the WeatherTech Championship. Through a friendship with Lamborghini Carolinas CEO Eddie Littlefield, Benton – strictly a stock car guy until then – was asked to field a team in the 2013 Lamborghini Super Trofeo Series North American Championship, its inaugural year in North America. The driver was another NASCAR alum, 2010 Cup Rookie of the Year Kevin Conway.
Though Benton knew little about Lamborghinis, and Conway knew little about road racing, they won the championship, repeating in 2014.
“It started out where I made room in a corner of my shop for the Lamborghinis,” Benton says. “Now, the stock cars are in a corner.”
When Lamborghini decided to join GTD in the WeatherTech Championship in 2016, Change Racing made the move. It was a steep learning curve. Just before his first test at Daytona in 2016, Benton said, “I’ve got a lot of experience at Daytona, but not in sports cars. I know how to get to the track, I know where the tunnels are and I know how to get to pit road. That’s about all we’ve been able to translate so far.”
But Benton and the team learned quickly, and Change Racing is likely closing in on its first victory. It could come at the 65th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida on March 18, where regular drivers Jeroen Mul and Corey Lewis join guest driver Brett Sandberg. Last year, Lewis and co-driver Spencer Pumpelly finished ninth in GTD season points.
Benton says that while he’ll likely always have a foot in oval track racing, he enjoys both IMSA and the Lamborghini.
“Everybody has made us feel welcome,” he said, “and I’m really happy to be a part of the series.”