While four-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was cashing in his chips in Las Vegas after a second win of the 2010 season for one of NASCAR’s wealthiest teams, beating his four-time champion teammate in the process, there was another race going on at LVMS – one the sport would seemingly rather bury under the rug. Not that the television broadcast showed them very often, but there were cars in the field scrapping for every position they could get in the running order, run by drivers who do not fit the current mold of stock car success but give it their best effort just the same.
Unlike the Hendrick and Roushes of the world, these small-time organizations don’t come to the track for a Sprint Cup or Nationwide series race with money to spare. Heck, sometimes they can’t afford enough tires to finish a race. You rarely see them on TV, and you rarely read about them in the major media the next day – that’s reserved for guys like Johnson or current Nationwide media darling Danica Patrick, who made more news in one week for finishing 36th than some of these small teams make in an entire season. In fact, the broadcast media like to pretend that, like the great unwashed, these teams don’t really exist and certainly don’t need to be seen on their airwaves.
But they couldn’t be more wrong. At a time where NASCAR is struggling to survive a barrage of criticism and a mass exodus of race fans, they need the small teams to be in their corner. They need them on the track, and more importantly, they need them to succeed.
Why, you might ask? They aren’t winning, or even contending for top-10 or top-15 finishes. They’re just logging laps, right?
Some of them are. The start-and-park teams that came into the sport a few years ago after the last of the provisional qualifying rules gave them a better shot at making the field have become a virus within the sport, and those teams who are only pocketing that money and not using it to improve or to run more and longer races should be ashamed. This isn’t about those teams, though. It’s about the ones trying desperately to make races and to run the distance against teams with five and 10 times as much money, personnel and equipment. These cars are important for a variety of reasons, and NASCAR and the media need to sit up, take notice and do everything they can to ensure their success in both the Cup and Nationwide series. Here’s why:
Like it or not, NASCAR needs full fields. This has nothing to do with TV contracts and everything to do with the health of the sport. If there are not enough cars in the field to fill the entry card, it has to be worrisome to sponsors of not only teams, but of races, tracks and the sanctioning body.
This does not mean that the fields should be filled with start-and-park cars. Until there are incentives for these teams to finish races (no money unless they can either run a certain percentage of laps or prove the failure that took them out is legitimate?) they will continue to permeate the sport. Their presence casts a pall on the lower-tier teams as a whole – there is a condescending attitude among a faction of fans and media that the small teams simply have no business trying to race the likes of Johnson, Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Because of that, it’s been suggested that NASCAR reduce the field size of Cup and Nationwide races to 36 in an effort to eliminate the non-competitive teams in the field. That would be a step backward for the sport; instead, what they need to do is find a way to help the teams being squashed by the start-and-parkers become competitive. Do I profess to know how to do that in one fell swoop? No. But there are several things that could be tried, and NASCAR and the media need to start experimenting one way or another. In my view, the sport getting directly involved in sponsorship searches would be a good start. Perhaps NASCAR should be telling companies to put their dollars on teams instead of becoming the “Official Whatchamacallit of NASCAR,” and networks should be giving all teams race coverage and feature pieces on air as often as possible so that someone might actually get a return on sponsorship. These single-car, underfunded efforts need to survive, or the sport might as well have franchises instead of independent teams – and nobody likes the f-word.
People like to root for an underdog. The underdog has always been a part of NASCAR, and until recently, the underdog had a shot on any given Sunday (or Saturday). Drivers like Alan Kulwicki capitalized on the parity back then, peaking with his 1992 championship season in which he removed the first two letters of the Thunderbird logo from his Fords – letting it be known that the “Underbird” was a contender. Killed in a plane crash the following year, Kulwicki remains symbolic of what the independent teams have tried to do, and where they once, not so terribly long ago, succeeded.
In the late 1990s, there was still the illusion, if nothing more, that an independent team could sneak in and win a race by knocking the big guys down a notch. This phenomenon was especially prevalent in the Nationwide Series, where many drivers graced the record books with a win or two. Even before that series was dominated by the Cup teams, there were Nationwide Series powerhouses, with owners like Greg Pollex, Bill Baumgardner and Bob Labonte winning six titles between them from 1991-2000. But there were always the smaller teams looking to grab some glory, and they often did. Drivers like Tim Fedewa, Andy Santerre, Johnny Rumley, Tracy Leslie and even a long-shot named Johnson won races and sit in the record books alongside Mark Martin, Jeff Green, Steve Grissom and Sam Ard. That made watching those races exciting; on any given weekend, people knew anything could happen and anyone could win. But with the emergence of multi-car giants, the sport’s just not like that anymore – and stock car racing has suffered greatly for that.
Smaller teams can provide opportunities for up-and-coming young drivers. This is particularly true in the Nationwide Series, as it should be. While the big-name Cup teams mostly run their Cup drivers at the beck and call of their big-money sponsors, there are several smaller teams running young talent, showcasing these drivers for a possible future with a bigger, better funded team, as underfunded Herzog Motorsports did for a young Johnson.
While many of these young drivers are not ready for a Cup ride or even a top Nationwide Series ride yet, they are gaining valuable experience on a national stage. A few still remain in NASCAR’s second-tier division: Rusty Wallace Inc. sits in the top 10 in points with driver Steve Wallace, Josh Wise races for Doug Taylor’s team and Michael Annett drives for Bob Germain. It remains to be seen if these drivers become successful at the upper levels, but while posting modest results to date, they need continued exposure to have any chance.
Sadly, the media fails to give them the publicity needed nowadays, leaving their futures on life support. With rides for young drivers drying up like hotcakes, that’s a short-term illness threatening to become a long-term problem. Solidly developed drivers are necessary to the future of the sport as its top stars get older; eventually, someone will need to fill the seats, and for the racing to be good then, there must be others getting the experience now. The independent programs used to give that to them – but they can’t if they all become extinct.
Smaller teams can provide opportunities for veteran racers. This is true in both the Cup and Nationwide ranks. Some veterans, though past their racing primes, still have large fanbases. Bobby Labonte, who won the 2000 Cup title with Joe Gibbs Racing, is a prime example; he’s still an immensely popular driver with the ability to win races if his team, TRG Motorsports, had the money to put him in competitive equipment. The history books are being written every week, and fans want to see names like Labonte’s in them. On the Nationwide side, veterans such as three-time Most Popular Driver Kenny Wallace, Mark Green, former champion Joe Nemechek and Mike Wallace are among the top drivers in series history. Fans won’t have the chance to see them forever, and they should be showcased now.
Veteran drivers are important in any racing series – no simulator can teach a young driver how to race as effectively as a veteran can take him to school. Not only is their presence important in driver development, but it’s fun to watch them battle with the up-and-coming youngsters – an emotion fans say NASCAR doesn’t inspire these days more often than not.
Sometimes, perception is as important as reality. This goes back to earlier points on field size and underdogs, as well as many other aspects of racing. The perception of NASCAR as an elitist sport where only money can play flies in the face of everything the sport is based on – the days when the poor farmboy, the wealthy banker and the bootlegger could all build a car, race and win against anyone and everyone on any given Sunday.
That NASCAR is perceived increasingly as an elitist sport should be worrisome to the sanctioning body. It was racing’s appeal as a blue-collar sport that gained so many fans in the early days, many of whom have remained loyal fans to this day. Officials should be saddened and scared that those fans are leaving, along with those who only ever enjoyed the sport as a trend and not a passion in and of itself.
So in an era where NASCAR has put such importance in its roots, it’s time to make sure that the small teams survive and thrive. Independent teams are the roots of the sport. Perhaps there should be no other reason than that to help them out in their time of need.