Editor’s Note: Mike Lovecchio is at Daytona this week, giving Frontstretch full coverage of the Daytona 500 from the garage – and culminating a week’s worth of stories with a LIVE chat during the race from inside the Speedway. Come back on Sunday and check it out for yourself!
For most of the 17 teams vying for the final four spots up for grabs in the 51st annual Daytona 500, today’s 150-mile Duel qualifying races will not only determine whether or not they’re in for Sunday, but whether or not their team will travel to California, Las Vegas, and beyond. The pressure is immense for these small-time operations, as a season’s worth of success or failure could depend on only 60 laps.
For former Sprint Cup winners Jeremy Mayfield and Joe Nemechek, though, it’s a totally different story. Sure, making the Daytona 500 and its approximately $250,000 payout would certainly be a springboard to a potentially successful 2009. But missing it wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world – leaving them far more relaxed than others on their end of the garage.
In what’s been a difficult offseason full of layoffs and mergers for the sport, Mayfield and Nemechek have decided to go grassroots full-time Cup racing by becoming owner/drivers. Both decided just one month ago to attempt the full schedule, and while making the Daytona 500 would help finance the $175,000 to $200,000 to come to Florida and compete, it won’t determine whether or not they race next week.
“Daytona is not make or break, but I can tell you if we make it, it’ll be like winning three or four races in a row,” Mayfield admits. “I can’t pay NASCAR enough. They made it where a guy like me can come in here and do this.”
In early January, Mayfield didn’t have a team, cars, a shop, a hauler – or a full-time Sprint Cup ride on the horizon. But in just one month, he purchased five former Bill Davis Racing CoTs, built an “All-Star” crew of the best laid off crew guys from across the sport, and moved into the old Stavola Brothers Racing shop in North Carolina.
For Mayfield – the subject of controversy in stints with Roger Penske and Ray Evernham – it’s a self-made opportunity to build his career back up from scratch. And by running his own deal, this is his chance to race without having to deal with the politics of driving for a big team.
“It’s the best shot for me with the desire and the passion I have of not wanting to be a ‘B’ team or being the ‘B’ guy. The last two places I was at with big organizations, no matter what they say, I was not the ‘A’ guy,” he said. “I couldn’t see myself sitting there and taking an ass-whoopin’ every week and not fighting for what I believe is right… it might be my last chance, but it will be the fairest chance I’ve gotten.”
Co-owner of Mayfield Motorsports, Gary Smith, brings significant sponsorship dollars to the team as CEO of Big Red Inc. and the All Sport sports drink. Still, Mayfield does not have the resources of the high-dollar programs like Hendrick Motorsports, and has a team of only 20 crew members. The team still feels confident that they can come in and compete; but with the sport’s current Top-35 rule, they know chances are they’ll miss a few races.
“We’re a team that doesn’t have the money of the bigger teams. I can tell you we’re probably going to miss races – it could rain and we don’t have the points and we didn’t buy the points,” Mayfield said. “If I could figure out a way to get them without buying them, it would be great.”
“Is it the fairest thing to do? I don’t know if it’s the fairest thing. A lot of stuff happened this year that NASCAR didn’t expect to happen with the points situation. If it rains, we go home – but we chose to do that.”
Nemechek also expects to run into the same Top-35 woes; but he admits if he had the opportunity to “buy” his way into the Top 35, he would.
“Does it bother me? I guess it does a little bit,” he acknowledged. “But if I was in their position and I’d invested as much money as these teams invested in the sport to guarantee a “locked-in” spot, I’d want to get as much as I could out of it, too – so I don’t fault them at all.”
Both NEMCO Motorsports and Mayfield Motorsports will use engines from Triad Racing Technologies, while Nemechek has purchased chassis from Team Red Bull. Unlike Mayfield, Nemechek’s no stranger to team ownership, running as an owner/driver with Burger King sponsorship in the mid to late-1990s. But he has far less funding the second time around, less than even Mayfield – meaning he hasn’t been to the wind tunnel, hasn’t tested, and has just 10 full-time crew members on the payroll with only one engineer.
In fact, the No. 87 owner has just three cars at his shop – one speedway car and two downforce cars – and has brought his California car to Daytona as a backup. Still, despite the lack of resources, Nemechek posted one of the fastest times of the “go or go home” cars in last Sunday’s Daytona 500 time trials, posting the 19th overall time out of 56 cars.
With two spots up for grabs in each of the two qualifying races today, Nemechek and Mayfield will have decent shots at landing one of them: Nemechek will roll off the grid ninth in Race 1 (with the chance to also make the race on speed), while Mayfield starts 21st in race 2. Making the 500 would certainly be a shot in the arm for both teams; but as the season progresses, both feel the car count will shrink, giving them the opportunity to make more and more races.
“A lot of these teams are banking on getting into the Daytona 500, and that’s going to determine whether or not they go to California or Vegas or any of these other races,” Nemechek said. “I think that’s what a lot of these other teams are doing – but we didn’t do that program. We’re going after the best of the best.”
“We’re going to be in California no matter what, and Las Vegas no matter what. There’s no good rides available for drivers; there’s a surplus of drivers. So what does that make you do? You’ve got to create something on your own.”