During the course of the last few weeks, the dominant topic of conversation in just about any motorsports medium has been NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup. Only two races remaining before points are reset and NASCAR’s version of a bracketed playoff series begins, with drivers currently ranked fifth and ninth in points likely being seeded first and second. To compound matters, once the Chase starts, the main focus will be on the 12 drivers who made the championship cut-off, while the rest of the 31 drivers in the field are paid about as much attention these days as an Iranian nuclear reactor and cruise missile factory.
That being said, there are some compelling stories beyond the top 12, and we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge their accomplishments or burgeoning success. There are a handful of teams and drivers that seem just on the cusp of becoming weekly newsmakers.
Richard Petty Motorsports – This organization is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of an enigma, topped with a Charlie 1 Horse and a seven-time champion belt buckle. From the ashes of Gillett-Evernham Motorsports and Petty Enterprises emerged RPM – a team that is perpetually teetering on the brink of success and utter financial ruin.
Stung by the loss-to-be of marquee driver Kasey Kahne and sponsor Budweiser, RPM still has a couple of promising pilots in its midst, with AJ Allmendinger driving The King’s flagship No. 43, and Marcos Ambrose taking over what was Kahne’s No. 9 machine next season. Both of these drivers have strong road-racing credentials and are improving on ovals consistently.
Perhaps the main reason that Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth are Chase-bound is Roush Fenway’s alliance with RPM. After a year and a half of chasing their collective tail with flawed race simulation and data-mining programs, it was the RPM cars that came to the rescue, offering both clarity and revised front-suspension geometry that has been the key to the speed seen within the Blue Oval brigade the last month and a half.
Allmendinger certainly took the road less traveled to get to this point – literally. During his rookie year with Red Bull Racing, the No. 84 team with no owner points and a freshman driver failed to qualify for 19 races. After missing the first three races of the season in 2008, Allmendinger was ultimately benched for Mike Skinner, who came in as a consultant of sorts – and a last ditch effort to try and get the car in the show.
Allmendinger was ultimately dismissed in favor of former Red Bull Formula 1 driver Scott Speed, and joined RPM for the ’09 season. He went so far as to drive sans paycheck, just to get some experience, log some laps, and build some semblance of consistency. His program this year has showed steady improvement, building a foundation nearly as strong as his hair gel while adding another Ford entry to a field dominated by Chevrolets and Toyotas.
Ambrose, meanwhile, appears to be the second coming of Robby Gordon. Nails on a road course, he has come agonizingly close to winning each year in the Sprint Cup Series, and with a team a bit more established than the JTG-Daugherty entry he currently pilots, he just may have the missing key to get to victory lane. He may also help buoy the No. 9 machine, which will have a new driver for the first time since Kahne’s rookie season of 2004. A return to Ford, the brand he established himself with and drove to much success in Australia prior to coming into our hemisphere, makes for a great story and sets the stage for the next most likely first time winner in the Sprint Cup ranks.
Fearless prediction? He will get that first win in 2011, and much like fellow road racer Gordon, it will come on an oval, not the switchbacks.
Red Bull Racing – A team that many would have figured to be on top by now due to its name being plastered across anything motorized that is entered in competition, Red Bull Racing is still a comparatively small team by Cup standards. While Red Bull runs roughshod through F1 with Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, its Cup program has been a work in progress in the stocks of America.
Last year saw the upstart team capture its first win, at Michigan in August, with founding driver Brian Vickers, and then qualify for its first Chase berth just a month later. 2010 was slow going at first for both teams, and just as they seemed to be getting their wits about them, it was announced that Vickers would be sidelined for the rest of the season with recurring blood clots. This life-threatening condition later turned out to be precipitated by a hole in his heart, which required surgery. Vickers has declared he will return in January, which should provide some needed stability for the team that had just seemed to be cresting the hill before Vickers’s unforeseen health issues arose.
While teammate Speed has continued to struggle in Sprint Cup after being fast right out of the box in the ARCA and Camping World Truck series, further relief may be just around the corner. In January 2011, Kahne joins the fold, albeit for just a single season, before assuming the seat of the No. 5 Hendrick Chevrolet currently piloted by Mark Martin. While some find this arrangement convoluted and silly, so is signing a contract to drive something two years in advance, with nothing doing for the year in between your current and future deals. What works in F1 is shunned in NASCAR, but will prove to be a boon to Red Bull’s efforts.
It remains to be seen if Kahne will be in the No. 82 Toyota currently occupied by Speed or a third entry. Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis will not sit idly for a year to just make laps and will use this time to prepare for whatever 2012 may bring, and to try and win races, which will benefit the RBR program as a whole.
It should be noted that the principles at Red Bull Racing – Vice President Jay Frye and crew chief Ryan Pemberton – were instrumental in the success of what was the former MB2/MBV Motorsports outfit, as well as the ill-fated Ginn Racing venture the first half of 2007. They are masters of overachieving and doing the most with less than anyone in the garage area. In 2011 they will get a boost with having their premier driver back, along with one of the hottest properties in the garage area in Kahne joining the fold – even if it is just for a year.
Michael Waltrip Racing – The only thing that flies lower under the radar than a MWR car is something black built by Lockheed or Northrop.
David Reutimann now has two wins to his credit in the Cup Series, and is a bit of a throwback driver himself. A second-generation racer, Reutimann is far from the tired and trite “Young Guy/Pretty Boy” phenomenon that plagued the sport the first half of this decade. The double-zero hero was picked by many preseason prognosticators to be a challenger for a Chase berth this year, but some mid-season stumbles prevented that from happening. A convincing full-distance win in Chicago was followed up by some generally uninspired performances, but his runner-up effort at Bristol while battling food poisoning was the sort of man-up performance that fans appreciate and teams rally around.
Martin Truex Jr. has had a bit of struggle this season in the No. 56 NAPA Toyota, as he and crew chief Pat Tryson battle to find consistency – and speed. Early-season stumbles left them in a bit of a hole, with the lone bright spot being a pole at Dover in June. Truex has finished in the top 11 three times in the past six races, and may be about to tap into what his teammate has found of late.
If there is one combination that should produce results it would be this one. Truex, having won the 2004 and ’05 Nationwide titles, and veteran crew chief Tryson, who has Cup wins with the Wood Brothers, Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing, has guided his drivers into the Chase five of the past six seasons. With Toyota backing and another year of building an operation that just a few years ago was the laughing stock of the motorsports world, MWR looks to establish themselves as being a familiar face up front for many years to come.
So while everybody frets over the Chase, the championship, and who’s in and who’s out, it is good to remember that there are other drivers and teams in the field. There are plenty of interesting stories from 13th on back, and that is usually where the action is the most harried and hotly contested anyway.
We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge those others in the field, particularly if we are going to be talking about them regularly in the not-too-distant future.
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