Going By the Numbers · Kevin Rutherford · Tuesday July 16, 2013
When Brian Vickers won Sunday at New Hampshire, his victory wasn’t necessarily a shocker, but it was a bit unexpected. Despite part-time status over the last two years (three if you count his illness-shortened 2011), Vickers has been a formidable presence in the Sprint Cup Series when he does race, piloting Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 to a slew of top-5 and top-10 finishes and asserting himself as a candidate — though at this point it seems like a done deal — for a full-time ride in the future.
After he crossed the line to win his third Cup race in 271 starts, I immediately thought about the part-time driver in general and his successes — or, sometimes, lack thereof. A competitor that only races in the Cup Series on an irregular basis isn’t exactly commonplace, especially in recent years. The only higher profile cases are Vickers himself, along with the rest of the No. 55 crew (Mark Martin and Michael Waltrip), as well as the Wood Bros. machine driven by Trevor Bayne. You’ll see the occasional other part-timer — the 71-year-old Morgan Shepherd and his Brian Keselowski-owned team last weekend, for one — but generally it’s the same 41-ish guys showing up every week these days.
But there are successes. The No. 55, of course, is always a threat no matter the driver, now up to 13th in owners points with Vickers’s win and three top 10s, Martin’s top 5 and four top 10s and Waltrip’s two top 5 finishes on the restrictor plates.
Interestingly, the notion of a part-timer winning a Cup race is retro these days. One can think back to the earlier days of NASCAR, during which certain racers might show up on occasion but still challenge for the win whenever they were around. This trend continued into the ’80s, when David Pearson was still coming out on a part-time basis but still piecing together that occasional victory.
The ’90s weren’t as promising for part-time guys. You had some drivers who didn’t run the full schedule winning races, but not running all the races wasn’t an executive decision they made before the season began. There were Kyle Petty’s injuries in 1991, for instance. Same with Ernie Irvan three years later and Davey Allison’s untimely death in 1993.
The late ’80s were similar, with Bobby Allison’s 1988 injury cutting off what would have been a full-time effort. When Tim Richmond returned to NASCAR in 1987 having missed much of the season, he was still by that point going to run the rest of the year, so it’s tough to place him in the part-time category, as he was going to run the remainder of the year before illness sidelined him yet again.
In fact, the last part-time guy to win a race before the turn of the century was Greg Sacks. Sacks, driving a research and development entry for DiGard Motorsports, won the 1985 Firecracker 400 at Daytona, which ended up getting him a more stable ride with the team thereafter. But at the moment of his win, Sacks was no more than an occasional Cup driver who had no immediate plans to run every race.
Basically, it took NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series either over 15 or nearly 25 years, depending on how you look at it, before a part-timer visited victory lane again.
What matters is how one considers Jamie McMurray’s 2002 season. McMurray, a substitute for Sterling Marlin in Chip Ganassi’s No. 40 after Marlin’s injury, cruised to a Charlotte win in only his second series start. In all, he ran six races that year, including six of the last seven races of the season. He was known as the indefinite sub — save for his one skipped race to fulfill his full-season obligation in the Busch Series — so his distinction as a true part-timer is a bit murky.
Otherwise, you have to go all the way to Brad Keselowski, whose situation was far less ambiguous. Keselowski’s 2009 NASCAR schedule involved an occasional entry in the Cup Series for Phoenix Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. At Talladega’s Aaron’s 499, he emerged victorious in a controversial finish, during which he clipped Carl Edwards and sent the driver’s No. 99 into the catchfence. Still, a win was a win, especially for a team like Phoenix Racing, which had often run part time itself.
The other of note, of course, is Trevor Bayne’s improbable Daytona 500 win in 2011, a season during which he planned only to run a part-time schedule in Cup and race for the Nationwide Series championship. There was some ‘will he, won’t he’ confusion for a few races after, when the possibility arrived that Bayne could end up in Cup instead, but that was quickly nixed.
Since Keselowski’s 2009 win, the series has had a part-time competitor score victory every other year, this coming after a period of prolonged dormancy or even-more-prolonged dormancy, based on one’s view of Jamie McMurray’s 2002 win.
Why is this only becoming a thing again now?
The restrictor plate tracks help. In the last few years alone, a ton of drivers on part-time schedules have either won or performed well, including Waltrip and Scott Speed this year. Daytona and Talladega are called the great equalizers, and it’s not an unfounded nickname.
Give a shout out to the increased similarity of each entry, too. More than ever, many of the cars out there on the track are created almost equal. Even some of the smaller teams are still able to keep up to an extent, and tend to piece together some better runs on occasion (props to Joe Nemechek, David Stremme and two of the three Front Row Motorsports cars on lead-lap finishes at New Hampshire, for instance).
But there’s also an increased presence of teams that aren’t committed to just one driver, or are willing to cut back schedules while still performing well when they do show up. Michael Waltrip’s No. 55 is a prime example here, as were the Ginn Racing/Dale Earnhardt Inc. machines Martin drove in 2007 and 2008. Furniture Row Racing could hold its own when it was running a part-time schedule with Regan Smith. The Wood Brothers can still pull out a good showing with Bayne.
It’ll be interesting to see if the No. 55 model of ‘many contributors, one goal’ is used more often by bigger teams, not just smaller operations like FAS Lane Racing. If it is, this may not be the last part-timer we see in victory lane anytime soon.
In fact, if the pattern is to be followed… any bets on who’ll take a checkered flag in 2015? I’m gonna call someone like Chase Elliott or Ty Dillon, running a limited schedule for a bigger team.
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