NASCAR‘s upcoming weekend at Darlington Raceway will be the sanctioning body’s “throwback weekend”, a time for teams and drivers to celebrate history with special liveries. Niece Motorsports seems to be taking things to another level by having a throwback driver in the #45 Chevrolet Silverado for Friday’s Camping World Truck Series race: Erik Darnell, who last raced in NASCAR in 2012 and in the Trucks four years prior, is scheduled to drive the #45 in Friday’s LiftKits4Less 200. Northern Tool + Equipment will serve as sponsor.
“I’m excited to get back behind the wheel in the Truck Series, especially with an organisation of this caliber,” Darnell said in a team statement released Monday afternoon. “The support from Northern Tool + Equipment means so much to me. Darlington is a tough but fun track, so Friday night should be a good time. Thank you to (team owner) Al Niece for the opportunity.”
Darnell raced in the Truck Series from 2006 to 2008 for Roush Fenway Racing. After finishing twelfth in points in his first two years, he broke through in 2008 with a fourth-place championship finish. In 76 career starts, he has thirty-two top-ten finishes and two victories. His growth in Roush’s driver development programme also saw him win twice in the now-ARCA Menards Series.
However, his burgeoning career with Roush came to a grinding halt over the next two years as sponsorship troubles prevented him from making the proper jump to the next level. In 2009, he ran sixteen races in what is now the Xfinity Series for Roush, during which he notched five top tens and a pole, and also began competing in the Cup Series for Hall of Fame Racing. He left Roush after racing just thrice in 2010 and ended up in a backmarker Cup ride for 2011.
His final year of NASCAR racing came in 2012 when he entered all but one Xfinity race for Key Motorsports, finishing seventeenth in the standings with a best run of fourteenth at Talladega. That year’s finale at Homestead, where he finished thirty-eighth, remained his final start in any NASCAR national series for the next decade.
While he had not raced in NASCAR since, Darnell continued his career in short tracks. Speaking with Speed51 in 2017, he noted that although he was “completely out of the NASCAR side of things” and was not aiming for a return, he would not completely rule it out should the opportunity arise.
Darnell has never raced at Darlington in the Truck Series as it was removed from the calendar prior to his full-time début, but he has a fourth-place finish there in the Xfinity Series in 2009.
Niece Motorsports has raised eyebrows with its surprise names in recent years; for example, 2012 Truck champion James Buescher last raced in NASCAR in 2015 but joined the team in late 2020 and for the 2021 season opener. Travis Pastrana, Conor Daly, and Trevor Bayne have also driven for the team; like Darnell and ex-Niece full-timer Ty Majeski, the trio has ties to Roush, as does some team personnel like Niece general manager Cody Efaw. The #45 was driven by Brett Moffitt to start the year before he switched to Xfinity points, and Bayley Currey piloted it last week at Kansas.
“I’m so excited to have Erik behind the wheel of one of these Niece Motorsports Chevrolets,” added Efaw. “We’ve been trying to get him in a truck for the past few years, so I’m thrilled that we were finally able to do it.”
The 38-year-old Darnell is not the first driver in 2021 to return to the Truck Series after last racing there in the 2000s. Bill Lester and Martin Truex Jr. respectively raced at Atlanta and Bristol in their first Truck starts since 2007 and 2006.