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Go, Go, Front Row Joe: Owner/Driver Progressing During Tough Economic Times

Two weeks ago at Sonoma, I was walking around turn 2 when I came across a group of fans who had made their own t-shirts for race day. Right away, one of their shirts caught my eye and reminded me of an interview I did earlier in the weekend. The shirt bore a photo of a blue-and-gold Toyota, No. 87 and bold yellow text shouting, “Go, Go, Front Row Joe!”

There was much for fans of “Front Row” Joe Nemechek to cheer about that day: the veteran owner/driver’s Cup ride had primary sponsorship for just the fifth time in 2010. The sponsor’s source? None other than Rick Hendrick, for whom Nemechek drove the team’s No. 25 car in 2002 and 2003. In 57 starts with Hendrick, Nemechek picked up eight top-10 finishes, including a dominant victory at Richmond in 2003. Seven years later, thanks to the friendship the two have shared ever since, HendrickCars.com logos covered Nemechek’s Toyota – netting the Floridian two sets of scuffed tires and a shot at running all 110 laps around Infineon Raceway.

“I have a lot of friends in this sport and a lot of people are trying to help us find [sponsorship],” Joe told me that Friday. “It’s neat [to] have these relationships with folks that I drove for. All the folks I drove for in the past I’m friends with, and it means a lot.”

THE NEMCO TRADITION

Just as important to Nemechek is his team, NEMCO Motorsports, which has been in operation ever since the veteran came to NASCAR. Just three years after he made his Nationwide Series debut at Rockingham in 1989, Nemechek drove NEMCO to the 1992 series title. It was during his championship season that he racked up his first two NASCAR victories, including another career highlight: a thrilling door-to-door victory over Dale Earnhardt at New Hampshire.

Over time, NEMCO has continued to grow with the sport. Even while Nemechek drove for eight other Cup owners – Larry Hedrick, Felix Sabates, Andy Petree, Rick Hendrick, Nelson Bowers, Bobby Ginn and Barney Visser – he has never strayed far from his owner/driver roots. In 310 Nationwide Series starts, only once – when he drove for Ed Evans at New Hampshire in 2003 – has Nemechek not raced in his own equipment, and all 16 checkered flags he collected in that series came while driving his familiar No. 87.

“I’ve been fortunate,” he said, reflecting fondly on his team’s two-decade run. “I’ve won 16 Nationwide races… and that’s a lot of accomplishment; there’s not a lot of guys that can say that. It shows that we’ve always put our money back into our racecars, tried to make them as fast as we can make them all the time, and I’m proud of that.”

Nemechek’s pride in his organization is well-founded. Following a solid first Cup season during one of the most heated rookie battles in history, Nemechek had put enough money back into his cars and secured a strong enough sponsor in Burger King to allow NEMCO to go Cup racing in 1995. Through 58 races, Nemechek and his NEMCO Chevrolets scored six top-10 finishes and a then-career-best fourth at Dover, attracting the attention of Felix Sabates following the 1996 season. During a three-year stint with the No. 42 team, he then snagged Nemechek his first Cup win at New Hampshire in 1999.

All the while, NEMCO continued to make even more of a name for itself even without a full-time driver in place. Scaling back its schedule with Nemechek employed elsewhere, the team was instrumental in making Ron Fellows one of the most sought-after “road course ringers” in NASCAR. It was with NEMCO equipment that the Canadian racked up three of his four Nationwide Series wins, a victory in the Truck Series and a runner-up finish in the 1999 Cup race at Watkins Glen.

PARKING FOR A REASON

Although NEMCO has been a labor of love, Nemechek’s decision last season to return his No. 87 cars to full-time Cup competition was also a necessary one that showcased the resourcefulness of his team. Without a ride following his departure from Furniture Row Racing, Nemechek quickly revamped the organization with a handful of Cup cars for his underdog crew to prepare. Despite a lack of sponsorship, NEMCO’s herculean effort yielded almost instant results – Nemechek’s Toyota came just one car length short of racing into the 2009 Daytona 500, then finished 14th two months later in the Cup race at Talladega.

But the challenge of running an entire season in both Nationwide and Cup with limited resources and reduced purses has proved to be a more daunting task. Back in the ‘90s, even start-up teams without NEMCO’s pedigree could field competitive cars by building their organizations around one of the many big-money sponsors that were eager to enter the sport. However, in today’s tough economic climate, sponsors are scarce at a time where the cost of racing has continued to increase.

“The cost has gone up four or five times,” said Nemechek. “We’re always trying to race within our means, but it doesn’t matter how much money you get, you’re gonna spend it.”

Throughout NASCAR history, the struggle to race within one’s means has been the biggest burden for owner-drivers and other underfunded teams. Knowing they must attempt the entire grueling 36-race season to battle for the Top 35 or, failing that, accumulate enough attempts to secure one of the final eight starting spots, today’s teams in this situation can only choose between four undesirable options just to survive. Some teams merge, others shut down or scale back to a part-time schedule, but still others, not wanting to close up shop, end with no choice but to park their cars.

“Start-and-park.” Never since “Car of Tomorrow” have three words been given such a questionable stigma by fans and commentators alike. What’s most frustrating about today’s “start-and-park” scorn to teams like NEMCO is that it has created a label that obscures the difference between teams who park as a means from those who allegedly do so as an end.

Unlike PRISM Motorsports, NEMCO continues to maintain just one full-time Cup team in 2010, ensuring that the funding of his No. 87 remains a top priority. In fact, only once, during February’s Gatorade Duels, has Nemechek fielded a second car: an unsponsored No. 97 driven by Jeff Fuller. The decision to park Fuller early in the Duels may have benefited NEMCO financially, some critics say, but others note it did not take away from the weekend’s competition. Nemechek was already locked into the Daytona 500 field that day and had secured sufficient sponsorship from England’s Stove Works to run the whole race.

Without sponsorship, however, Nemechek is forced to make more difficult decisions about how long his car can stay on the racetrack. Most of this concern centers around the cost of preparing and maintaining his Triad Racing Technology-built engines, whose repair costs increase exponentially the longer No. 87 stays on the track. Without any sponsorship to offset this cost, Nemechek has no choice but to pull behind the wall. To do otherwise, Nemechek explained, would jeopardize the longevity of the NEMCO organization:

“You’ve gotta put everything in perspective, and you have budgets you allot for each thing and from engines, tires, to payroll, to travel, to everything,” said Nemechek. “When that’s gone, you’ve gotta stop. I mean, if you don’t, you’re not gonna be here very long… The racer in me says ‘Keep going’ and the owner [says], ‘You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do and when you can’t do it anymore, you’ve gotta stop.’ ”

What’s worse is that NASCAR’s new rule instituting mandatory post-race inspections of the lowest-finishing car not taken out by an accident has done nothing but make it harder for NEMCO to keep their engine costs down. Not only are teams like his forced to run their equipment longer, increasing the maintenance cost, but money is also lost from the inspection process itself.

“It adds expense to our program, so that’s kind of a frustrating deal, but, you know, that’s part of it,” said Nemechek. “NASCAR went to that this year, not sure why they did it, I mean, it just adds extra expense on. You know, with NASCAR cutting the purse, it already put a hurt on all of us guys in the back that are trying to get these teams up and running. Now, with them, if you’re the first car out, they do take your motor and tear it apart and do all that, so there are some other expenses that are added to it that do hurt.”

Despite all this adversity, Nemechek made plain that the NEMCO tradition of putting as much money back into the team is not only still in place, but has paid dividends on the racetrack this season. Recalling his run at Michigan in June, where the No. 87 had to call it a day after 66 laps, Nemechek points out the car was much better than its 37th-place finish showed:

“Last week at Michigan, I had a great racecar,” he said. “We were only a couple tenths off of what the leader was running, and we did that without running much practice. It was cool to be able to go out and run like that, I think a lot of the teams saw how fast we were, but I mean, when you’re out of miles on the engine, you just, you’ve gotta stop.”

One thing that has contributed to NEMCO’s success has been Nemechek’s ability to work his many connections, leaving his team at the ready even if a sponsor were to sign on at the last minute. In doing so, the tried-and-true methods of JD McDuffie, Buddy Arrington and other resourceful owner/drivers of NASCAR’s past are alive and well through NEMCO’s example:

“The biggest issue we would have for someone coming up last-minute is putting a pit crew together,” he said. “But… there’s enough guys at the track that we know from all these different teams that they usually bring spare guys out. So, we are able to put our pit crew together and are able to go.”

Last Friday, I could only imagine how excited that fan at Sonoma was when Nemechek turned in the seventh-quickest lap at New Hampshire. “Can you imagine, if they could get financial help, how fast they would be?” chimed Larry MacReynolds during the SPEED broadcast.

We won’t have to imagine for long – NEMCO has just landed a multi-race Nationwide Series sponsor in HostGator.com, who will also fund Nemechek’s run in Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. And as NEMCO prepares for the second half of the 2010 season, Nemechek assures prospective sponsors that his Toyotas are just one phone call, e-mail or knock on the door away from running any race flag-to-flag the rest of this year.

“We’re equipped each week to be able to race,” said Joe. “The cars and motors and everything in there’s ready to go, and that’s why we have a lot more expenses than these other teams, just because of how we have it set up.”

Even in times like these, there is no shortage of support for NEMCO Motorsports on both sides of the catchfence. Fans, owners and drivers alike have long admired Nemechek’s silent determination and steadfast resolve in the face of adversity. Although it has been a few years since “Front Row Joe” last went to victory lane, both Joe and team have been in this position before, knowing they are one sponsorship, one race, one moment away from returning to competitive form.

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