Beyond The Cockpit Feature · Bryan Davis Keith · Wednesday September 8, 2010
It’s been a month of transition for Front Row Motorsports, major, unexpected decisions shaping the philosophy and the future of the team going forward. For while some details are still missing as to what transpired at Michigan last month, the results remain the same: Kevin Conway and his ExtenZe sponsorship are no longer associated with the operation.
“The word they [ExtenZe] used with us was hiatus, they were putting the sponsorship on hold,” FRM General Manager Jerry Freeze said of one of the more notable in-season shifts the sport has seen this year. “Basically, it got to a point where they weren’t going to sponsor us anymore, and the driver was tied to the sponsorship. So we just said at Michigan that we were going to make a change.”
It wasn’t an easy choice by any means for one of the sport’s cash-strapped operations. Now, not only is there a long-term commitment to make as to who’s going to be a replacement driver (Tony Raines and Dave Blaney have each wheeled the team’s third car since MIS), the organization is now faced with the financial pinch of having the organization’s one primary sponsor depart.
“We’ve actually had to cut back on resources at the shop to try and make it work,” said Freeze. “The guys didn’t have as many tires as they felt they needed before – now they have even less. But this is the hand we’ve been dealt.”
“We feel like we can continue doing this for the rest of the year. Do we have the resources to go out there and win races? I don’t think so. But for us, it’s all about finding that sweet spot in the 20s. In the low 20s would be a really good day for us, an exceptional day in the teens. I definitely think the drivers are capable of that. But we’ve had to ratchet back a bit on what we have to race just so we can survive.”
Survival is the key for this team right now, as without a primary sponsor, what was a tight-budgeted two-car operation is now a tighter-budgeted three-car stable. And while they believe they can sustain their current model for the rest of the 2010 season, 2011 is a whole other story.
When asked about the future of the team’s third car, the No. 38 squad that currently sits outside the top 35 in owner points, Freeze didn’t mince words.
“It’s a big question mark right now. Unless we have some phenomenal success in finding sponsorship, I don’t see any way we can carry three cars next year.”
“I think the likely scenario is that FRM will run two cars next year. We really like David [Gilliland] and Travis [Kvapil], we’re planning on those guys coming back and we’re talking with them about it, so that’s the direction I think we’ll be going in. Then again, maybe we start next year running that third car if it’s in the top 35. If it’s not, it may just go away.”
That said, the team is also very much aware of just how valuable team number three is. They know just how close they are to locking a third entry into the Sprint Cup field, and what that means from both a competitive and fiscal standpoint.
“Now we get that car back in the top 35, we have a lot of options for next year,” Freeze explains. “That’s why we’re working so hard … I would bet the house that if we had a third car in the top 35 at the end of this year that we could find a driver with a sponsor to run the Daytona 500. That’s a great-paying race, and could be a great value to FRM.”
That’s why it was all hands on deck for the team this past weekend at Atlanta. When it was time for qualifying practice, everyone on the team’s engineering staff was working on Blaney’s No. 38 car, making sure their new driver would have the horses he needed to race on Sunday (their efforts paid off: he qualified fourth of the 12 go-or-go-homers and comfortably made the field). With so much on the line financially that’s why, despite the organization’s commitment to making all three teams stand on their own now that three solid veterans are behind the wheel, they’ll continue to give that No. 38 team extra special attention the rest of this year.
“We’ve kind of moved our teams all around that No. 38 car this summer, and we’ll continue to take our best, strongest qualifier every week and put them in that car,” Freeze said of their future plans. “So Tony [Raines] is going to drive all the short tracks and Dave [Blaney] is going to run the superspeedways. We feel like that gives us the best shot to get that team back into the top 35.”
Not only does that duo offer the team a chance to recover from a disastrous penalty for tire bleeder valves at Pocono earlier in the summer – one that knocked them out of a “locked in” spot in the first place – they’re also a valuable asset in allowing the team to move forward with its biggest competitive initiative: getting all three teams on a uniform chassis setup.
“We’ve got some old Richard Petty Motorsports cars, some old DEI cars, a Ganassi car, we’ve got the gambit in the shop,” Freeze explained as he detailed the team’s inventory. “We’ve been trying really hard to get settled on a particular chassis that all three crew chiefs have belief in … so when everyone communicates, they’re comparing apples to apples instead of apples to oranges.”
It’s an effort that the team has been making progress on. Kvapil’s No. 34 car hit on a combination several weeks ago that they felt comfortable with, and the No. 38 Ford under Gilliland’s leadership has followed their example. It’s just the latest example of chemistry between the two drivers that in 2008 put Yates Racing back on the map with both a pole-winning run at Talladega and a near-win at Sonoma, a strong working partnership that has only continued to blossom as teammates under the Front Row banner.
“The coolest thing about David and Travis is they have a great relationship,” Freeze said. “They completely trust each other, and they were kind of the most vocal ones saying, ‘Let’s all get on the common chassis.’ We want to work together, but when this team’s going this direction and that team’s going that direction, that’s not a way for us to work together. So they were vocal about that and helped steer us in that direction the last few months.”
And now, they’re going to get a bonus: having a veteran to bounce that continued input off of.
“David and Travis, they’re real similar personalities,” Freeze explained. “They’re experienced guys, they’re really into their race cars, they really understand the chassis side of the cars, they know what they’re talking about with their crew chiefs, but they’re not headstrong to the point that they say you’ve got to have this or that. So, [like at Bristol], they’ll take Tony’s input and really value it. Whereas before, with a rookie driver, he’ll make a comment and even if it’s in the right direction, they’re not going to take it as gospel.”
“[To an outsider], it seems like we’ve run all three cars this year to keep the rookie driver running. That’s really taken away any consistency not just with that car but with the other two teams. By plugging Tony and Dave in there, we wanted to go with some solid veteran guys for the rest of the year so all three teams can stand on their own two feet from this point going forward.”
That’s not to say that Front Row is about to become every man for itself, though. Earlier this season, it took a supreme level of cooperation to get the No. 38 off the ground, a team that took shape less than a month before the Daytona 500. And until an untimely penalty at Pocono, Front Row had done the unthinkable, going from a journeyman operation whose second car was a start-and-park entry to a three-car staple on the Sprint Cup circuit in just six months.
That same cooperation allowed the teams to continue and employ a “one team operating three cars” model at Atlanta, getting their new driver into the field, as well as allowing Gilliland to score a top-20 finish for the team’s No. 37 car. It’s what they’re counting on to get through the rest of 2010.
And even if three cars aren’t in the team’s future, there’s no doubt that cooperation is still in everyone’s best interest. For Blaney, there’s a chance to race instead of start-and-park for the first time in years. For Kvapil and Gilliland, there’s a new source of information to keep their team and chassis moving forward. And for Front Row, there’s the chance that maybe, just maybe, a third spot in the top 35 will materialize in time for Daytona next year.
Not too shabby a situation for a team that just lost their biggest sponsor.
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Photography for this article provided by The Hot Lap’s Phil Cavali.
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