The Frontstretch: Nuts for Nationwide: Five Races In, Some Underdogs Showing Promise by Kevin Rutherford -- Friday April 5, 2013

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Last week, we looked into the highs and lows of the 2013 Nationwide Series season, five races in. In one small segment, the spotlight turned onto the series’s smaller teams and their progress throughout the season.

As we near the completion of the second straight off-week in the series, let’s take a closer look at the little guys and gals.

The current owner points standings in the series are led by Roger Penske’s No. 12, driven by Sam Hornish Jr., the driver points leader. The following 14 spots, all the way down to 15th, are occupied by the sport’s more successful organizations, from the Nationwide programs of Cup teams like Penske and Roush Fenway Racing to series stalwarts such as Turner Motorsports and JR Motorsports.

A bit below that point are Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 and JR Motorsports’ No. 5 and Turner’s No. 30, fielded by some of the sport’s highly regarded organizations.

And then, in 16th, is TriStar Motorsports and its No. 19.

Mike Bliss and his TriStar Motorsports team are the unidisputed kings of the Nationwide underdogs.

Much has been said about the triumphs of this four-car organization, due in part to the driving of former full-time Cup competitor and one-time Truck champion Mike Bliss. While TriStar hasn’t been astounding across the board, Bliss has been able to wheel the small team’s equipment into the top 10 or 15 more times than not, finishing eighth in the overall standings in 2012. So far in 2013, he’s 13th, continuing the tradition of running extremely well for an underdog team while also competing in Cup for Humphrey Smith Racing (co-owned by Mark Smith, his Nationwide owner).

TriStar has been able not only to field Bliss full-time in the series despite being unsponsored at times — it’s kept two other teams going without parking as well. Eric McClure brings Hefty sponsorship to the organization and tends to keep his No. 14 out of trouble, scoring his first top 10 in the series at Daytona last February. Hal Martin currently pilots the No. 44 for his Nationwide rookie season, and has slotted the team 25th in owner points after five races. A fourth team, the No. 10, is one of the series’ most notorious parkers, but as long as it keeps TriStar’s unsponsored teams afloat, can you really get too mad at them?

The cool thing with TriStar is the possibility of continuing to rise up the ranks, perhaps becoming one of Nationwide’s powerhouse, well-known organizations. Years ago, RAB Racing was a fledgling team that couldn’t catch too many breaks. Nowadays, the No. 99 driven by Alex Bowman is a consistent competitor, at times able to run with some of the sport’s bigwigs. It’s an encouraging prospect, one that spells heightened possibilities for some of the other underdogs in the sport.

And boy, there are many. Despite the decrease from 43- to 40-car fields, there are nearly 20 full-time Nationwide teams that are either newer start-ups or longtime competitors that still count the occasional top 10 as a big triumph.

Up there with TriStar is Clements Racing, a single-car operation owned by Jeremy Clements and family. Though Clements was suspended for two races earlier this season by NASCAR, his No. 51 team has stayed within the top 30 in owner points, thanks in part to an admirable two races from Truck Series competitor Ryan Sieg.

Mention should also be paid to SR2 Motorsports, an upstart from 2012 that has expanded into two full-time teams after absorbing MacDonald Motorsports, as well as Dexter Stacey’s No. 92 ride, which sits on the bubble in the top 30 after missing the season’s first race. It’s not easy to come out during one’s first season and even come close to a locked-in position in the series. The rookie Stacey has done that. Props.

Of course, there’s also the best underdog story of the season thus far, journeyman Mike Harmon’s No. 74 ride and its spot inside the top 30. After Harmon’s woes the last few years as an underdog owner and competitor, seeing that team locked into a race without worry of going home is both encouraging and commendable.

Even a few of the teams outside the top 30 should be commended for showing promise, including Jamie Dick’s No. 55, out on its first full-time Nationwide season after hooking up with R3 Motorsports last year to dual field the No. 23. Though Dick hasn’t had the best luck this year, when that team is on, it actually has some decent speed.

But will any of these teams be able to take things to the next level? Perhaps challenge TriStar as one of the better underdog organizations? That’s harder to say.

It will partially depend on the general economy, and the ability of many of these teams to sign long-term sponsors. Many are still funded largely out-of-pocket, which isn’t necessarily something that can last unless one’s pockets are pretty deep. Teams like ML Motorsports and Clements Racing have shown exceptional promise, but that may be more of a testament to those teams’ drivers, who could be on track for big things if they can find chances with bigger organizations.

For the moment, it’s fun to watch these guys duke it out against teams that often have twice — or more — the budgets they possess. The day might never come that they win championships — but hey, wouldn’t that be something?

Quick Hits:

-Landon Cassill has replaced Danny Efland as the driver of Johnny Davis Motorsports’ No. 4 Flex Seal car. The team is currently 37th in the owner points, meaning Cassill will have his work cut out for him when he joins the team. But with Mike Wallace already a part of the organization, the team now has two seasoned competitors driving, which could spell success after a tough first few races.

-After running the first four races for Go Green Racing, Jeffrey Earnhardt will compete for JR Motorsports in its No. 5 at Richmond. Earnhardt, son of Kerry Earnhardt and grandson of Dale Earnhardt, will get his first taste of quality equipment in the Chevy after bouncing around with smaller teams the past few years.

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