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  • Allen Turner

Final preparation for prestigious Daytona 500 still underway at Cerro Gordo’s RBR Racing

Rick Benton II has a tough decision to make concerning the third weekend in February.

Will he travel to Greenville, where the East Carolina University Pirates have a three-game baseball homestand against Western Carolina University, or will he go to Daytona Beach, Fla. where the Cerro Gordo-based RBR Racing Enterprises team will be field its first ever entry in NASCAR’s premier Monster Energy Cup Series season-opening Daytona 500?

After all, Benton’s son, Trey, is a starting pitcher in the ECU baseball rotation and Benton seldom misses a game. Trey is scheduled to be the starting pitcher for ECU on either Friday or Saturday before the big race Sunday in Daytona.

So, does he go to Greenville for the ECU game, or does he go to Daytona Beach, where the RBR team, owned his dad, Ricky Benton, will make its debut in what has been dubbed the superbowl of stock car racing? Only time will tell, but even while Benton II wrestles with that decision, preparations for the Daytona 500 continue at the shop in Cerro Gordo.

The RBR team will leave Cerro Gordo Thursday with its massive high-tech hauler, taking with them two identical Ford Fusion race cars, one of which will be piloted by driver David Gilliland in the big inaugural race of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The second car is a back-up which will be used if problems develop with the primary ride.

The Cerro Gordo contingent will include team owner Ricky Benton, Sr., who’ll spend the entire ten days leading up to the Feb. 18 Cup race in Daytona. Pit crew chief Mike Hester, a Bladenboro native who has filled the same role in RBR’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series efforts in previous seasons, will be among others leaving Thursday.

Hester laughs when asked how he determines which car serves as the primary ride and which will be the backup. “It all depends,” he says, “on which one we’ve been able to spend the most time working on. That’s the one that’ll be the primary car.” Except for the number of shop hours devoted to preparing each, the two cars are exactly the same and they are powered by Roush Yates engines from the premier engine-building shop in the NASCAR world.

While Feb. 18 in Daytona will mark RBR’s debut in the premier NASCAR racing series, the Cerro Gordo race team is no stranger to success on other NASCAR levels. RBR has won two third place and two sixth place finishes in six starts in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at the 2.5-mile Daytona oval.

But the leap from the truck series to the Monster Energy Cup competition is a huge one. “It’s a pretty challenging deal,” says Rick Benton II. “You go in there and you’re showing up against people like Richard Childress and Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick and Roger Penske, and it’s tough. It’s a much different thing than the truck series. The truck stuff is pretty big, but the Cup is a whole different ballgame. It’s a different league.”

The team’s shop crew is headquartered in Cerro Gordo, but with the exception of crew chief Hester, the pit crew is made of professional pit crew members, most of whom work out of the racing mecca that Mooresville, 25 miles out of Charlotte, has become. “Those pit crew members are professionals … they’re pro athletes and their professional sport is being pit crew members,” says Benton.

The 42-year-old driver of the number 92 Ford Fusion, David Gilliland, has been racing since 1996. A native of Riverside, California, he’s the son of former Cup and Winston West driver Butch Gilliland and the father of K&N Pro Series driver Todd Gilliland. He was the NASCAR Grand National Division’s west series Rookie of the Year and has had wins in the NASCWR Elite Division southwest series.

Benton is sold on the driver. “We think he’s a good wheel guy.” And having him teamed with Hester as crew chief makes for a good combination, Benton says. “Mike (Hester) has always been a big part of our racing success. It seems like he’s at the shop 24/7.”

In the Cup series, Gilliland’s best finish was a second place at Talladega in 2013. In 2014, he was the polesitter for the July Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Being at Daytona with RBR Enterprises this month will be a homecoming of sorts for Gillibrand, as he ran seven races in 1915 in the RBR number 92 truck in the Camping World Truck Series.

While RBR Racing will compete again in the truck series this season, Rick Benton II hopes the team also sees success in the more prestigious Cup series. “We plan to run the number 92 on all the superspeedways,” Benton says, “your Charlottes and your Darlingtons and your Talladagas and your Daytonas. We’ll run the truck on the smaller tracks this year, but we’ll go to the superspeedways with the car.”

He adds, “This is going to be an interesting year. We’ve been in racing for so long that we decided if we’re going to do it (move up to the Cup series), let’s go ahead and do it now. Right now, of course, we’re focusing on Daytona. The Daytona race is like a season in itself. If we can survive that, then we’ll try to focus on the other superspeedways.” “

“We will survive and advance as long was we don’t tear our stuff all to pieces,” he smiles. “There’s so much technology involved that if you tear it up in a race, it’s really something to try to get it back together. We are huge underdogs, but we’re looking forward to it.”

He says Cup competition is very expensive compared to truck competition and estimates that it costs five times as much to field a Cup car as it takes to run an entry in the truck series.

But he is at peace with the expense and the effort. He sees a lot of hometown and community pride in RBR’s entry into Cup racing. “There’s a lot of pride all over Columbus County and in counties beyond about Black Tire Service’s and RBR Enterprises’ involvement, especially now in the Cup series. Our customers are getting involved in the excitement, and we’re hoping to put Columbus County on the map with success in the Cup series.”

The number 92 Ford Fusion that will be driven by Gilliland in the Daytona 500 is sponsored, not only by Black’s Tire Service, but also by Carquest, Valvoline and Highland Construction.

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