Basketball Cinderellas may dance onto our radar screen this week in the form of the NCAA Tournament… but they’ve been visible in the NASCAR world all along. Nationwide and Truck drivers look for some small scraps of attention every week, trying to establish (or maintain) their careers in the face of Danica-Mania, Cupwhackers and an economy that’s made unemployment the rule and not the exception. Yet through it all, they’ve maintained a smile and a sense of quiet determination that puts a select few in position to reach the pinnacle of their division – and if they’re lucky, get another chance to race at NASCAR’s top level.
How have some of these “other” stars performed as Spring approaches? Well, my friends, that’s why we have a little column called Who’s Hot… and Who’s Not, taking a look this week at drivers you might not be paying attention to.
You better start soon…
Timothy Peters: Say who? You better get to know this name, because this driver’s sitting on top of his game after a shocking Truck Series win at Daytona. The 29-year-old from Providence, N.C. is the total package on-track and off it – aggressive but not overzealous, well-respected by his peers, and a personality so quiet and humble, he makes Kasey Kahne look like Simon Cowell from American Idol. Second in points after a seventh at Atlanta, it’s not a matter of if Peters challenges for this year’s Truck championship… it’s whether he can win it.
Justin Allgaier: Turns out Brad Keselowski’s going to have a run for his money for this year’s Nationwide title… from his own teammate. Fourth in points, the driver of the No. 12 Dodge is small in stature but looming large in the rearview mirror of some of the biggest Cup stars, running fourth, ninth and seventh the first three weeks while threatening to win races at Daytona and Las Vegas. Dialing up a recipe for long-term success, the Verizon car has actually benefited from an extra cell phone tower in the form of Keselowski himself. See, in between scoring 37.5 on the Wonderlic test and causing national controversies, he’s actually a pretty nice guy with a knack for running these Nationwide cars at a consistent top-five level. That knowledge has to rub off on his teammate poised to have the same type of breakout year BK had in 2008. Can you say, “Fourth Penske Cup team no later than 2012?” I thought you could.
Steve Wallace: Remember when this guy was Steve Wreck-a-holic? Somewhere when we weren’t looking, he went to rehab, got whipped into shape by Rusty, and came out as one heck of a decent driver. With three straight top-10 finishes, the word “consistency” has suddenly been added to the repertoire of the No. 66, pushing its driver to sixth in the standings – just 82 points behind Carl Edwards. The only thing that’s still bothersome is zero trips to victory lane, and that’s not going to change as long as you’re only leading one lap per race (totaling three for 2010 to date). But if there’s a bright side, Bristol’s up next, a short track where’s he scored four straight top-20 finishes. What better place to get your first win of the season – or your first wreck?
Scott Riggs: The last time we saw Riggs, he was refusing to run a start-and-park program, keeping his integrity in favor of a trip to the unemployment line. But what he discovered was a difficult lesson in racing these days: “Out of sight, out of mind,” leaving him but a small blip on the radar during 2009’s modest Silly Season. Signing with unsponsored RAB Racing to start 2010, expectations were low for a Nationwide team that didn’t even crack the top 15 with former rookie driver John Wes Townley.
But wouldn’t you know… seems like the driver was 100% of the problem there! I know, you’re shocked, but let’s look on the bright side: three top-16 finishes have suddenly given Riggs’s long-suffering career a bit of a pulse. There’s still plenty of marketing work to go, but if the right sponsor comes ‘round willing to take a chance, this team could be the type that gives its driver a new lease on life. For a man who’s given his heart and soul to this sport, that would be one heck of a heartwarming story.
Mike Wallace: If Scott needs a role model, Mike’s proof positive of how performance can attract long-term sponsorship. In February, JD Motorsports signed Monster Diesel to a two-race deal to back Wallace’s No. 01 ride on the Nationwide circuit. Two weeks later, on the strength of 12th- and 11th-place finishes, they inked an extension that lasts through Bristol and Nashville. For the 51-year-old middle member of the Wallace clan, it’s a short-term gift he hopes can turn into a long-term partnership that salvages his career.
Jason Leffler: There’s a poster in Great Clips that asks who has the better hair: Leffler or Kahne? The answer is Leffler, hands down… but you wonder if Leffler would choose the better career instead. While Kahne’s winning races at a Cup level Leffler will likely never reach again, the lovable Californian is feeling the blues of three straight races without a top-10 finish. Remember, this was the same guy that challenged for the title in the first half of 2009 before finishing a strong fourth in points. But after already falling 193 points behind the leader, I think Leffler might have “clipped” off more of a deficit than he could chew.
David Starr: A former Frontstretch Driver Diary participant, Starr is beloved as a person on this website. But as a driver, you wonder how much longer until he wears out his welcome. His two-race stint with Randy Moss Motorsports hasn’t gone as well as expected, with runs of 19th and 15th leaving him a disappointing 14th in the standings. But it’s the laps led column that really makes you wonder – just seven since mid-May 2008, a span of 46 races where Starr has only racked up six top-five finishes. With a victory drought fast approaching four years in length, the 42-year-old is rapidly approaching a make-or-break year – and the glass is going to shatter if he’s not careful.
Morgan Shepherd: I love Jesus as much as the next Catholic, but I think Shepherd’s prayer magic is slowly running out of steam. Two straight DNQs have left him 45th in points, almost 100 behind a locked in spot in the field and, at 68, finally looking his age after defying logic for oh so long. What I find ironic about Shepherd’s plight is he’ll end his career torn apart by the very start-and-park craze he helped create; after all, it was in the late 1990s (once an insurance company pulled out) a desperate Shepherd bought a truck and started the practice that’s become a means of survival during NASCAR: The 21st Century.
Ron Hornaday: I don’t know what black cat he ticked off this offseason, but the reigning Truck Series champ has confused the start of the year with his local Demolition Derby. Two starts, two wrecks, and suddenly he’s 28th in the standings, 192 out of first place. The stats are astounding, with the man who won five straight races last year completing just 70 of a possible 230 laps. While neither crash was completely his fault, management has already shuffled, with new crew chief Dave Fuge replaced after just one week in a Donald Trump-like maneuver. Replacement head wrench Doug George won’t have a long leash, either; for when your Cup Series car owner has 47 more points than his championship truck (on the strength of one less Truck Series start) you know things have hit rock bottom.
Chad McCumbee: The man who rose to stardom by playing Dale in the movie 3 now has a problem competing more than three laps. Yes, a man who spent the past few years challenging for a slot in Cup now is the latest profiteer… er, victim of the start-and-park brigade. How do you think this acting job would go?
“Sorry, Teresa… I have no choice.”
“What, Dale? Tell me, what do we need to do?”
“I’m going to have to qualify a car… run slowly around the track on the apron, and park it sometime around lap 10.”
Teresa: “We’ll do what we have to do, Dale. We’ll do what we have to do.”
(sees $3,000/week check for starting-and-parking)
“On second thought… you can make a living doing that? Who cares about the Daytona 500! Let’s go buy ourselves a mansion.”
Dale: The Sequel, A Lifetime of Starting-and-Parking, Coming Soon To A Theater Near You