Thomas Bowles · Wednesday June 5, 2013
Did You Notice?… The small teams deserve an opportunity, too? Last week, we went through the grades of the 26 or so Sprint Cup teams with major funding and resource connections. But they’re not the only ones plugging along each week; the underdogs, largely out of the limelight do the best they can to survive with inferior equipment and long odds. It’s a battle amongst themselves to be the best, trying to position for better sponsorship deals and the two seconds of TV time that could make a difference.
Let’s take a look at how they’ve performed this season…
Front Row Motorsports
David Ragan: Outside of Talladega, Ragan has struggled with this program, posting an average finish (26.3) that’s only marginally better than the year before. But all sins, in the underdog world can be forgiven when you produce one of the biggest upset wins this century. His crafty push to the front at a plate race, producing the organization’s first ever triumph on the Cup level is enough to carry momentum through the rest of 2013 – the miracle these teams always hope for but so rarely receive. Grade: A.
David Gilliland: The word that comes to mind here is “loyal.” With FRM for four years now, he’s been a rock steady resource when it comes to feedback and development, inching this organization forward. His average finish reflects that: from 29.3 his first year to 27.2 now. But perhaps his biggest achievement, to date has been getting in line behind Ragan and pushing that car to victory rather than going after it himself. Winless in 235 career starts, making that move was the Adam and Eve temptation but it would have also cost the organization a likely victory; it’s that sacrifice that illustrates why he’ll be here for years to come. Grade: B.
Josh Wise: Poll 100 NASCAR fans and I bet 95 of them still don’t know who Wise even is, a fault of the coverage more than anything else. Yet this sophomore, who spent his rookie season start-and-parking has been a quiet surprise. No, you won’t see him in Victory Lane, and the chances of a top-10 finish are remote. But he’s started to rack up some top 25s, running competitively with this group after never really getting to even learn the racetracks last year. For a guy from whom not much was expected – Wise has just two top-5 results in 123 career starts in Nationwide and Trucks – he’s showing the potential is there. It’s whether this team will ever have the money to make him realize it. Grade: B-.
Travis Kvapil: One of the big disappointments on this side of the Cup garage. The lone driver retained by the organization, in their second season (Landon Cassill was fired) expectations were to improve on an average finish of 25.7 that included a lone top-10 result. But the team started off stumbling, barely making the Daytona 500 in 43rd spot and has remained an absolute mess. Horsepower is a major problem; four of their five DNFs have been for engine failures, and that’s not counting multiple extra trips to the garage for mechanical woes. If there’s a part out there, this team knows how to break it, limiting the opportunities for them to even compete. With a best run of just 22nd for Kvapil, leaving him a distant 35th in points it’s been nothing short of a nightmare – and with the horror stories told by Cassill, to the press you wonder if everyone’s even getting paid. Grade: D-.
David Reutimann: The two-time Cup winner, a last-minute addition to this ride prior to 2013 has struggled as well. Still without a top-15 finish, he hasn’t even cracked the top 20 since the Daytona 500 and crashed out in two straight races last month. With an average result of 29.5, combined with actual sponsorship funding from Burger King and the veteran experience of crew chief Pat Tryson I expected more. At least he’s not blowing up every week? Grade: C-.
Tommy Baldwin Racing
Dave Blaney: Baldwin’s loyalty to the Cup Series veteran deserves respect. Without his guidance behind the wheel, there’s no way this team builds up to the level of sponsorship support it has now. An average finish of 27.2, the highest since Blaney joined the team full-time in 2010 reflects that. But as a team that’s just transitioning to running the distance, as opposed to start-and-parking there are growing pains. Handling has been a major problem, causing Blaney to wreck out three times; it’s an uncharacteristic number for a driver known to protect equipment. The team also took a back seat at plate races, where they usually shine; could they have funneled their money elsewhere? If so, it’s a bit of a sacrifice as they’ve been mostly invisible on TV and off it throughout 2013. Grade: C.
J.J. Yeley: Before the season started, Baldwin said he’d run Yeley in just two-thirds of the season’s 36 events. But so far, they’ve found funding to run the No. 36 the distance every week. The pairing started off perfect, with a 10th-place finish in the Daytona 500 but it’s been tough sledding since; the team hasn’t even cracked the top 25. That may be a consequence of stretching the funding more than anything else; however, this car once would run circles around Front Row and some of the others on this list. Grade: C.
Bobby Labonte: Some wonder why the 2000 Cup champion, now a decade past his prime – and last victory – even still competes. Now 49 years old, there’s little left to prove and not much on-track to get excited about: a 15th, in the Daytona 500 is one of just three top-20 results. But Labonte, hoping for a possible teammate down the road minimizes expenses for JTG by always bringing the car home in one piece. Since the beginning of 2012, he’s only wrecked out once – last Fall at Kansas – and has his older brother’s talent of pushing equipment just as far as it will go. As long as this driver wants to compete – whether he should is a debate for another day – I feel like he’ll have a home at the No. 47 should sponsorship remain in place. Grade: C.
Trevor Bayne: When Bayne won the Daytona 500, his career looked ready to launch into the stratosphere. Instead? He’s been a blip on the radar, taking two years to find full-time sponsorship that would let him run anywhere (the Nationwide Series) and never living up to his expectations in Cup. Still without a top-5 finish since that fateful day, five starts in the No. 21 Ford this season have produced no run better than 16th. Just 10th in the Nationwide standings, winless with the former championship No. 6 team there’s disappointment to go around. Note from Derrike Cope, Trevor: top-tier teams will only let you survive as a one-hit wonder for so long. Grade: C-.
Circle Sport Racing
Landon Cassill: Finding a ride after a late divorce from BK Racing, the youngster has slowly steadied the ship with a Joe Falk program that couldn’t finish races last year. Armed with a best run of 22nd, at Talladega the team even picked up sponsorship from Bicycle Playing Cards the last two weeks. But as some time on the Dover radio revealed, there’s still a bit of “amateur hour” over here as the crew learns the ropes of running the distance. They struggled to accurately diagnose a tire rub, had major handling problems and squandered a possible top-20 run into a 32nd-place finish, 12 laps off the pace. Not exactly how you get sponsors to stay on board… but with an increased level of RCR support, and funding I expect things to get better here. Grade: C+.
James Finch / Phoenix Racing: An unbelievable story of a man who does so much with so little. Armed with two drivers that have much to prove, Regan Smith and AJ Allmendinger he’s cranked out seven top-20 results in the season’s first 13 races. With two top-10 finishes, both at Talladega they’re in position to easily outperform Kurt Busch when he was driving the car full-time. And if Austin Dillon hadn’t jumped in the seat, struggling mightily in his few races subbing in the No. 51 could be fighting for a top-12 spot in owner points. It’s a remarkable performance, especially considering the difficulty of a “driver merry-go-round” system. Grade: B+.
Casey Mears (Germain Racing): The second “feel good” story of this group, hidden until the very end of the grades. GEICO’s given them money to run full-time, and the additional funding shows on the racetrack; five times, Mears has been in the top 16 and that’s without the typical boost these guys get from good runs at Daytona & Talladega. With the tough year for Ford, where the equipment is a step behind it makes what crew chief Mears and “Bootie” Barker have done even more impressive. Watch out on the road courses and even a short track or two this summer; you might actually see this car on your TV screen – and not as a lapped traffic. Grade: B.
David Stremme: An intriguing case, with an owner who came in and spent a lot of money (Brandon Davis), hired some big names (Steve Hmiel, Tony Eury, Jr.) then watched them leave in frustration. The sponsorship here is filled with companies where you wonder how much money they really have; the team spent 2012 a start-and-parker. Yet Stremme has gone the distance each week, failed to finish only twice and does have a top-20 result outside the plate races (Bristol – March). Not a team you know about, quite yet but they’re holding their own better than most thought. Grade: C+.
Fas Lane (Timmy Hill / Terry Labonte / Ken Schrader): The team’s got the right idea, hiring Hill as a rookie and trying to build with him. I just don’t know, with the equipment as old as it is and the 20-year-old’s inexperience whether it’s capable of working out. When your best run, as a freshman is nine laps down that screams “more races needed in the Nationwide Series.” Grade: D+.
Joe Nemechek: The good: he’s running the distance every week. But it just appears the equipment is so far behind it’s impossible to run with even the underdog crowd. Consistently the worst car, if not one of the top 3 worst on speed each week; that’s not going to attract a sponsor, either. Grade: D.
Scott Speed: Has only finished the two restrictor plate races, with a top finish of ninth at Talladega. The start-and-parks do little to help their cause, but hey, some of these teams would kill for that one miracle effort. Grade: D+.
Michael McDowell: See: Speed. Only difference was his ninth-place finish came at the Daytona 500. Grade: D+.
Mike Bliss and Scott Riggs: Hard to gauge when you’re just there every week to collect a check and park it. Grade: F.
Did You Notice? … Some quick hits before we take off…
- I don’t blame NASCAR for failing to suspend Paul Wolfe, despite accruing an additional violation while on probation. What I blame them for is an inability to explain why to the fan base. Judges make these types of subjective decisions all the time; perhaps a chronic abuser has a brief relapse, while on probation for example and they choose to not enforce it. But NASCAR, in the case of this broken part has to go out there and do a better PR job, showcasing to the fans why this rule-breaking isn’t the same as what the No. 2 Ford supposedly tried to pull at Texas. Otherwise, you’re left eating crow as too many think you’re playing favorites behind the scenes.
- Crucial weekend for Denny Hamlin at Pocono. With the way this team is running, plus his past success there you have to think he has to take at least one of these two races. A repaving throws past notes out the window, but Hamlin knows how to drive this triangle. I view Sunday as something close to “must win” status.
- Best wishes to Lee White, leaving Toyota after 15 years on the job. His replacement is critical, both in timing and competence; they’re having their best NASCAR season since joining the circuit in 2007. In fact, they’re one engine fix away from a first possible championship with Matt Kenseth or Kyle Busch. So California, pick wisely; not disturbing momentum is key.
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