Editor’s Note: Jeff Meyer is on vacation this week. Look for him to return with a brand new edition of his usual Voices sarcasm next Thursday… in the meantime, Bryan Davis Keith fills in.
Bill Elliott dominated the headlines for much of Speedweeks with his performance in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 at Daytona. Regan Smith is currently averaging a top-20 finish in his outings in the Furniture Row Racing No. 78. And David Gilliland is coming off an unexpected 14th-place outing in only the third Cup race ever attempted by TRG Motorsports.
Maybe it’s just a fluke streak of performances early on in the season, a product of two of three races featuring higher than average attrition –or maybe the CoT and testing prohibitions are starting to level the playing field a tad. But whatever the cause, 2009 has so far showcased a level of competitiveness from single-car teams that the Cup ranks have not seen in a while… and this is excellent news for the sport on a variety of levels.
For one, seeing single-car operations able to compete effectively at the Cup level bodes well for the number of organizations that sprung up during the offseason. Teams such as Mayfield Motorsports and Tommy Baldwin Racing have moved from pipe dreams to on-track success stories, and now, each seems positioned to have a long-term opportunity to grow within the series just one month after entering into full-time competition.
Tommy Baldwin cited a belief that there was a true opportunity in the current economic climate to establish a new Cup operation, all while building a talented team without breaking a budget. It appears he may be on to something. Scott Riggs has been competitive in his TBR No. 36 in each of the races he qualified for (especially at Daytona, where he was a contender to win his Gatorade Duel race). Jeremy Mayfield and his No. 41 squad have not been quite as competitive on the track, but have still done well enough to secure significant sponsorship that will take them through a full season. And both teams have been rife with stories of the multitude of unemployed racers who have offered to pitch in and work on their cars – even without pay – just to have something to do.
While these respective teams have had their struggles with expected growing pains – both failed to qualify for last week’s race at Las Vegas – there is a light at the end of the tunnel that perhaps hasn’t shone brightly in recent seasons. Being a viable presence on the Cup circuit does not appear to be out of the question for them, and since the economy isn’t going to be fixing itself anytime soon, Tommy Baldwin’s model is going to become more and more prolific. But if these teams are going to be able to effectively run with the big boys, there’s no reason more owners out there can’t follow their lead in trying to break through the starting lineup. After all, Baldwin’s example in securing affordable, talented team personnel or Mayfield’s example in landing sponsorship are back to basic, blue-collar principles that can be applied within all types of organizations in the Cup garage.
In short, with the way things are going, these teams prove the road to Cup ownership is still very accessible – and in NASCAR’s current situation, that’s no small deal. With contraction and merging the name of the game this past offseason, it’s more important than ever to attract new blood and fill those open spots those former teams left in the starting lineup.
Further, the current situation on and off the track is one that could also return the ranks of part-time Cup efforts to viability. It has been a long time since the days where David Pearson could pick and choose races to run in the Wood Brothers Ford – yet still be the class of the field wherever he showed up. And while 2009 may not see the Cup Series return to that state, seeing Gilliland and Smith able to post top-20 finishes on an intermediate circuit with their cars is certainly not something that’s happened frequently over the last decade.
Say what you will about attrition at Las Vegas having an effect on the finishing order this past Sunday. But since Smith took over the Furniture Row team’s now part-time effort, they’ve scored consecutive top-25 finishes, something that Joe Nemechek couldn’t do but twice in 48 starts with the No. 78 team. Plus, Elliott’s performance at Daytona with the Wood Brothers may not have turned out flashy on the scoring pylon, but that doesn’t change the fact the team’s trademark No. 21 Ford was a contender for the 500 pole – as well as in the race itself – for the first time in many, many years.
Now, the question becomes whether the 53-year-old Elliott and Co. can build upon that one-hit wonder. Should they be able to qualify the No. 21 at Atlanta and post another top 25 finish this weekend, that would go a long way towards not only cementing the Wood Brothers’ presence on the Cup scene, it would also add some legitimacy to the idea of selectively running races and remaining competitive in doing so.
It is still only three weeks into the season, and it takes a lot of extrapolation to draw some of the conclusions that I have in trying to assert that 2009 may well see the re-emergence of old-school NASCAR team models.
But it’s a trend that is at least worth a look at.