After Brandon Whitt decided to step down as the driver of the No. 61 Specialty Racing Ford in the Nationwide Series ranks last week, ARCA Re/Max Series standout Matt Carter was tabbed as the team’s new driver.
And just as his former ARCA owner, Larry Clement, couldn’t control his enthusiasm about having Carter return to his ARCA team for that series’ upcoming race at Iowa Speedway on the Inside ARCA radio program Wednesday, Specialty Racing owner/crew chief Doug Taylor was equally high on the new talent behind the wheel of his Ford.
“We’re really excited,” said Taylor of the team’s driver change. “ [Matt’s] background as far as helping with the chassis setup and all of the other things involved with driving the car is working really well.”
“He brings a wealth of talent.”
Carter should be just excited to have landed in the ride he has after the No. 46 team he drove for in ARCA last season was shut down due to a lack of sponsorship, because he’s landed in a great situation in the Specialty garage. The team has made strides with regard to its chassis technology over the last season and a half, and has managed to secure assistance from Ford with chassis and body work.
Plus, besides the obvious advantage of having a seasoned Nationwide Series crew chief atop the pit box, Carter is also joining a team that has proven itself to be unwavering in its loyalty to its drivers. This is the same team that, upon making its return to full-time competition last year, brought back the same driver who took them to victory lane… a decade ago… in Kevin Lepage, and kept him in the seat even after Lepage triggered one of the ugliest wrecks in recent history at Talladega, drawing the ire of many in the Nationwide garage. In the end, only the dismissive attitude of potential sponsors towards a driver of Lepage’s age led the No. 61 team to replace the veteran with former Truck Series regular Whitt.
And that same loyalty was shown by the organization towards Whitt. Whitt’s departure from the seat of the No. 61 team was not a force-out, but rather a personal decision of his own… and an amicable split on both sides.
“We really had no intention of leaving Brandon behind,” says Taylor. “It was kind of his decision to stay out of the seat for a while. I would always leave an opening for Brandon, had no problems with the job he did.”
“I was hoping to get Brandon in the spotter’s stand to help us, but he wanted to take his time off and look at his life and make sure this is what he wants to do. So we’re going to give him that time, and see what happens.”
As for the team’s new driver, though the deal between Specialty and Carter is currently on a race-to-race basis, the mission remains the same: run all the races, and find sponsorship.
When asked whether or not the team was looking for a road course specialist to fill the driver’s seat with races at Montreal and Watkins Glen looming on the schedule, Taylor asserted that the team “want[s] to run [Carter] in the rest of the races [in 2009].”
But for now, the focus is on Daytona. And not surprisingly, the outfit is thrilled to be heading to the circuit’s most hallowed racetrack.
Considering the team’s chances this Friday night, Taylor remarks “We’ve got a great drafting car. I wish it was a better qualifying car… I don’t expect the car to qualify well. [But] right now, this car has drafted in the top five, top seven in every race we’ve ran it with our previous driver. We’re excited. [Plus] Matt’s run three ARCA races and ran well in those, finished third in one and ran real well.”
The strategy for the weekend harkens to another former plate-race winner: “We’ll probably ride around in the back… I don’t want to use the term like a Dale Jarrett, but he would sit around at the back of the pack and then with about 20 to go he’d be right up there chomping at the bit to win the race. I think that’s our best strategy. We’ve got a car that pulls up real well, so we can sit at the back of the fast pack, maybe have a chance of staying out of trouble.”
“The truth about Daytona and Talladega is its like a flip of a coin, the racing gods do have an effect on the outcome, but we’re excited, the car is fast in the draft and that’s what it takes to win the race.”
“We feel like we’ve got a car like Brad Keselowski in the Cup Series… it’s capable.”
There are no qualms in this outfit to speak of themselves amongst some of the sport’s bigger names in Jarrett and Keselowski. But this bunch isn’t satisfied emulating the big boys… they want to race them.
And, perhaps surprisingly, just as Taylor can’t wait to start his team’s new future with Carter behind the wheel, he also can’t wait to see Nationwide’s future, the Car of Tomorrow, wheeled onto the track.
When asked about rumors that the Nationwide CoT would be raced in a limited schedule in 2010, Taylor said “I can’t wait. It’s going to save us money. I’ve got nine cars right now, and we’re running frugally to keep at nine cars. With the CoT, I see it being at least three complete cars and at least two backups, with it being a shell with the crush panels and the paint worked out on it.
“It [only] takes about a day to assemble it at that point, so if we had a major catastrophe one weekend, we could be ready for the next one with two cars by having three or four complete cars and maybe a backup or two without suspension and seats, wiring in it.”
As for the expected financial repercussions that implementing a new race car would impose on Nationwide teams, Taylor did not seem overly concerned… because he sees the savings from the car being all but instant.
“NASCAR has taken the development out of it for us. We built a CoT Cup car, as far as the chassis, and we got to the point where it was ready for a body in at least 150-200 man hours less, and the cost of the chassis was the same. Right there, I save money. I can take the car straight to the body shop without putting suspension on it, that’s another 100 hours of labor to get the suspension in it.”
“As far as the body and development goes, the window is so narrow from the best to the worst. For instance, Hendrick’s best car will run at Daytona, and their worst will run at a road course, but they in fact won a speedway race in a road-course car last year. It narrows that gap for us underfunded teams tremendously, the cost of putting the body on it isn’t going to be any more.”
Further, the limited schedule currently rumored for 2010 (restrictor-plate and road-course races) is one that would instantly prove beneficial to teams needing to cut their stables of cars down.
“If they take away the speedway car and the road-course car, those are oddball cars, and that’s the part of the fleet that we have to have six to eight extra cars for those five races. Theoretically we should be able to take that, as a Nationwide team, take the same cars to all five of those races. The only two that are close would be Watkins Glen and Montreal, [but] realistically we could build two CoT cars and run those five races, and have a start on the fleet for say, 2011.”
Perhaps more important than any of that though, is as mentioned above… this team wants to race the big boys. And Taylor sees this CoT as a way to make such a dream viable.
“If I’ve got to race with Carl Edwards or Kyle Busch every week with this current car, constantly at the wind tunnel, constantly developing this current car, which we plan on doing when we get sponsorship, its going to cost me more.”
“I know with the current car, in order for me to get up with Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch and the guys who are winning regularly, I have to spend upwards of a million dollars in development of the current car, whereas I really believe with the CoT standards you could be within a small percentile of that.”
It’s hard to argue with a lot of the points Taylor makes in supporting NASCAR’s new car, but his viewpoint is not one being shared unanimously across the Nationwide Series garage. While there seems to be consensus that the drivability of the new car is dramatically improved over the Cup Series CoT (Nationwide drivers Kenny Wallace and Jeremy Clements both spoke with praise to Frontstretch writers regarding the car’s handling), there are a number of drivers and teams out there who do have concerns about a potential new car coming to fruition in a brutal economy.
Says Clements, who’s currently running a partial-schedule with a family run team, “The only thing I think about, is that all those cars they’re [NNS teams] racing now are going to be obsolete. That’s going to cost owners a lot of money, and right now they can’t find money, so I definitely don’t think it’s a good time to do it. They’re going to have to buy all new cars and spend a lot of money to do it right now, and I don’t that’s logical with the way the economy is.”
Peyton Sellers, driver and co-owner of Cardinal Motorsports, echoed Clements’s sentiments.
“The [Sprint Cup] All-Star Race is one of the best races we’ve seen out of the CoT car in general and it’s taken them over two, two and a half seasons now to get them racing as good as they have [that] Saturday night. And I just don’t see the Nationwide Series… I mean we’re having start and parks show up now. I don’t see how you could throw another car on somebody and mandate it. All the JTGs, Baker/Curbs, your independent Nationwide teams, they can’t afford to do that.”
“[But] it’s going to take a Richard Childress to shut down his Nationwide operation and say we’re not doing it anymore, or Jack Roush. It’ll take something like that to happen before NASCAR opens their eyes and says maybe we can’t sustain this right now.”
Sellers and Clements do have a point, as their teams operate in a different manner from Specialty Racing. Unlike the former two teams mentioned, Specialty is more than their Nationwide team alone, a full-service race shop that has in the past worked with ARCA operations and others to keep their crew at work.
And as admirable as Specialty’s commitment and performance has been racing as an underfunded, unsponsored Nationwide Series team, there are other squads out there whose belts are even tighter, especially those who instead of building their own cars rely on being able to buy used machines. For those teams who are filling spots in the field week in and week out and competing while doing it, the CoT roll-out plan could very well prove unsustainable.
But, whatever is to come of the CoT’s implementation in the Nationwide ranks, I as a writer will openly admit that Taylor’s stance on the matter is one that has opened my eyes. As a writer who as early as last week questioned NASCAR’s judgment regarding the roll-out of this new car, I’m definitely starting to re-evaluate my stance.
The views of Doug Taylor and his Specialty Racing crew are those that I put a great deal of stock in. I believe them when they say they’re going to stick with their drivers and crew, because they have. I believe them when they say they’re going to show up and race, sponsor or no sponsor, because they have.
And thus, I believe them when they say that there is some way for this new car to come into the Nationwide ranks and do what its supposed to: save teams money and encourage more competitive racing.