The most recent Nationwide Series race at Richmond saw the Specialty Racing team involved in its worst on-track incident since Kevin Lepage merged into oncoming traffic at Talladega last April. With start-and-parker Johnny Chapman quickly dropping through the field, the accordion effect kicked in, triggering a crash that collected both the team’s No. 61 car and the No. 78 of none other than Lepage, the team’s former driver. The wreck appeared nasty on the TV broadcast, with the entire left side of the car badly mishapen.
Not good news for a team that is cycling between two racecars as its stable. But fortunately, the wreck wasn’t as bad as the televised images made it out to be.
Said crew chief and co-owner Doug Taylor, “all it ended up needing was a new left clip, $600 of parts and labor… the body work needed to be redone anyway, it had 34 races on it… it’s well on its way to coming back.”
Still, the fact that one of the team’s two primary racecars was out of commission wasn’t lost on driver Matt Carter as the team arrived at Dover this past weekend. His goal was simple for the weekend: Stay out of wrecks.
“I can’t afford to wreck this one,” said Carter of his car.
That said though, part of the problem that the team’s goals for the weekend resembled Talladega more than Dover was simply because the No. 61 car lacked speed the entire weekend (Carter was near the bottom of both practice charts and ended up finishing the race in 26th, nine laps down.) Taylor was blunt, noting “the car is just slow” when questioned following Friday’s happy hour practice.
But that’s hardly surprising, given how resources are still at a premium for a team that’s now been back on the Nationwide circuit for nearly two full seasons. Despite being an established team now, it’s no secret that the No. 61 bunch is lacking race cars, tire data, significant manufacturer support, just about everything needed to make today’s cars go fast.
Not even setup data to compare notes to is readily available: Says Carter, “everyone is so hush-hush these days.”
As a result, this unsponsored team with a young driver is “taking two steps forward, three steps back” it seems as the year progresses according to Carter.
“We had some good luck [that] got us some good finishes,” says Carter, who even in his limited time with the team delivered a 14th-place finish at Daytona in July and a 12th at Bristol in August. “We’re a top-35 car right now, and we’re racing to get a top 25.”
“Part of that is me, part of that is the car.”
Though the cars may not be as competitive as what he was used to last season in ARCA (Carter was the driver who replaced nine-time ARCA champ Frank Kimmel in the No. 46 car in that series), his time in the No. 61 has introduced him firsthand to big-time NASCAR. The biggest difference between there and here, according to Carter, is a combination of both intensity of competition and the importance of the car.
“The biggest difference between there [ARCA] and here is that everyone here is really really good, and the driver can’t make too much of a difference. In ARCA, you can take a 10th-place car and finish third or fourth. Not so here.”
Yet despite not having the cars to run up front, in a series that the driver has to have that type of car to run up front, Carter continues to get what he can out of his ride. Despite the competitive frustration (Carter appeared all but exasperated climbing from his car following a happy hour session that saw him 40th of 42 on the charts,) what has come from his time driving in the Nationwide Series is not lost on a driver who sat on the sidelines for months after his ARCA ride closed due to lack of funding. Carter is aware that this opportunity has exposed him to the level of competition that is the norm in NASCAR. And he’s looking forward to getting to tackle Phoenix and Homestead for the first time as a driver.
The same can be said for crew chief Taylor, whose realistic outlook on his team and what they can do with their limited resources has not tempered his desire to “beat those guys,” a remark he made while gesturing to the front of the garage. Being a fiery competitor, his team’s struggles have also frustrated him. Even though his car was multiple laps down when making a green-flag pit stop halfway through the race, Taylor was livid after his gas man was late going over the wall, jumping off the pit box to send a strong message to his crew about their sub-par stop.
But, just like his driver, Carter is aware of the opportunity that Specialty Racing presents to its veterans and younger racers alike. All season long, the No. 61 has managed to maintain its spot in the Top 30 in owner points. Plans are all systems go to return full-time in 2010. And, despite the lack of resources currently facing the team, this organization actually stands to make up some ground when the new Nationwide CoT starts appearing next season.
“We were actually going to attempt some Cup CoT races before getting involved in the Nationwide Series,” recalls Carter, whose team had actually made progress on their own Cup CoT prior to showing up for the Nationwide race at Daytona in February of last year. That chassis experience is something that the team plans to play off of, having acquired the basics needed to start building a Nationwide CoT of their own following the season finale at Homestead next month.
Still, it’s tough for any racer to go out every weekend knowing they’re running for 25th.
Both of these competitors continue to persevere through a tough year in a tough situation because both know full well the benefit of being in the right place at the right time. It’s what got Carter his ride in the No. 61 midway through this year (Specialty Racing is operating out of a shop owned by Matt’s father Travis.)
According to Carter’s recollection of how he landed his seat, he “came into the shop on Monday and saw Brandon [Whitt]. He said he was packing his stuff up because he quit. I called Doug about running the car… later that afternoon, he called me back.”
And the same can be said for Taylor, whose decision to run his cars full-time has allowed the team to experience shining moments at a variety of tracks, be it Lepage’s 17th-place run at Las Vegas last season, the return of Stan Barrett to competition on the road courses in 2008 or Carter’s top-15 run at Daytona.
For all the hardship, both Carter and Taylor are in the right place in the right time. Racing within their means, racing the distance, racing with everything they can muster.
That’s the right place to be, when the right sponsor eventually comes calling.