The beginning of the 2008 season marked the reunion of one of the most formidable independent teams the now Nationwide Series has seen in recent memory. Though Brian Vickers and his Hendrick Motorsports-backed No. 5 team narrowly captured the 2003 series title, one team managed to win more races that season. That team was the No. 25 of Team Rensi, driven by Tennessee’s own Bobby Hamilton Jr.
Unfortunately, while both driver and team were reunited for 2008 thanks to a 25th-hour sponsorship deal from Smithfield Meats, the team has been unable to regain its title-contender performance level. Hamilton has demonstrated much of the consistency that allowed him to nearly win the 2003 Busch Series crown this season and has kept his equipment under him in one piece, but the realities of the now underfunded Team Rensi operation and the competition in the Nationwide Series field today has the No. 25 contending week in and week out for top 15s rather than victories, for the top 15 in points instead of the top five.
While Hamilton’s performance in the No. 25 this season has gone largely unnoticed on ESPN broadcasts and in larger publications, he has done a considerable amount with little this season. Hamilton is currently riding a streak of 12 consecutive top-20 finishes, a stretch of races that has included everything from the high banks of Daytona to the high banks of Bristol, the sweeping left turns of Michigan to the hard right handers of Watkins Glen. Hamilton has only one DNF due to a crash this season, smart racing that no independent single-car team can survive without.
When Hamilton has had the opportunity to speak on camera, he has proven still to be one of the Nationwide Series’ best interviews, demonstrating the dry humor and common-sense attitude of his father. Hamilton’s genuine gratitude towards his sponsors and team, coupled with his often biting yet always honest insight into the realities of racing as a Nationwide Series regular makes for exactly the type of personality and racer that NASCAR’s second-tier series needs if it truly wishes to establish its own identity. He’s the model driver for an independent team, just as Team Rensi is a model Nationwide Series entity.
Yet, despite doing everything right in 2008 on and off the track, fans likely won’t see either Team Rensi’s No. 25 or its driver on the Nationwide Series circuit next season. Smithfield will discontinue its sponsorship after 2008, and unless the team can pull another last-minute deal out, the No. 25 car will likely be parked for 2009.
Team Rensi’s fall in just the last five years from title contender to also-ran is just one of many such examples of Nationwide Series regular teams that have found themselves unable to compete for sponsors and for finishes in what is supposed to be a lower-tier racing division. Already, long-time Nationwide fixtures such as McGill Motorsports and PPC Racing have completely closed their doors, while others such as the former Brewco Motorsports (now Baker/Curb Motorsports) have shrunk from multi-car to single car teams.
The story of Team Rensi, as with the numerous other independent teams being forced out of big-time racing by escalating costs and a lack of sponsorship, can and certainly will be used to present what’s wrong with the Nationwide Series, as a case-study to determine what NASCAR can do to allow the little guy to compete in its second-tier ranks.
Stories like these have been featured on Frontstretch and across the motorsports community all season. And while many have been disappointed about the number of teams dropping to the wayside, many more have been dismissive of both the Nationwide Series and its regulars. This seeming indifference begs the question… are entities like Team Rensi really worth the time of day to discuss and save?
The answer is a resounding yes. The impending loss of Team Rensi for 2009 hurts the Nationwide Series. It’s one less team that’s actually running the distance and contesting every race. It’s one less independent entity to market.
But the loss of Team Rensi, and Hamilton for that matter, is a bigger loss for the fans. Throw the big picture of the health of the Nationwide Series out the window, and consider the loss of this team from a fan’s perspective. There is now one less underdog team to pull for, to come out of nowhere and make a race exciting. There is one less colorful driver out there, one less interview worth watching. Perhaps most importantly, there is one less piece of the former Busch Series remaining.
There can be and will be commentary to come on what action has to be taken, decisively and immediately, to ensure that what’s left of the Nationwide Series is preserved for the future. But for now, maybe race fans need to let the story of Team Rensi’s disappearance sink in on its own merits.
A blue-collar team forced to close shop and a hard-nosed old-school racer left without a ride. What race fan in their right mind would consider that acceptable?