_Front Row Motorsports enjoyed the best result in its history to start the 2011 season with a third-place finish in the Daytona 500, courtesy David Gilliland. While the results since Daytona may not show it – their other two cars sit outside the top 35 in owner points – the FRM organization has moved forward in a big way from where they were a year ago, and with pieces in place to ensure consistency and FR9 engines under the hood, the team’s General Manager, Jerry Freeze, expects their upward momentum to continue. Frontstretch caught up with Freeze at Bristol to discuss the direction of the organization and just what it has gotten from Ford Racing in 2011._
Bryan Davis Keith, Frontstretch.com: *The results may not show it, but your cars, especially Gilliland’s, seem to be running a lot better so far this year. How’s the start to 2011 been?*
Jerry Freeze: I think where we’re [running] at the race track is definitely several places up. We’ve been spot on with David’s car, [though we] probably overachieved at Daytona. At Vegas, we had a bad day there with a cut tire that wrecked the car, got a lousy finish of it [a decent run]. Travis Kvapil’s car, we kind of shot ourselves in the foot with some setup decisions that have hurt us in practice, got us way behind at Phoenix and then we got in that colossal wreck. At Daytona, we got in the big wreck there as well. We’ve just had some poor, poor finishes with Travis that have gotten us buried with that car, but with David is where we feel good about things, and we want to keep him in that zone. We need to keep him 20th to 25th, 26th, somewhere in the points [Editor’s Note: David is 26th]. We do that and I think we’ve done a good job.
Keith: *Talk about that. You haven’t dodged the wrecks so far this season like you did last year. What kind of impact have the torn up race cars had on the shop?*
Freeze: They have a lot of impact on our shop. We’ve got really two legitimate body-hangers back at the shop. We did acquire a lot of new inventory this year, but those cars still needed a lot of work to get ready to race. They’re basically new builds from the ground up, with the exception of the bodies and the chassis. We were really slogging trying to get our new inventory ready, and now three races in we’ve got four demolished race cars. We’re going through that inventory pretty quickly. But it does put a big strain on the shop. Though, as we were talking about the other day in a meeting, this is indicative of where we’re running on the track now. We’re in the pack, whereas a year ago we were so far behind the pack we could dodge the wrecks. The good thing is we’re in the pack; Travis was in the top 15 at Phoenix when he wrecked, David was having a great day at Las Vegas before we cut the right front tire there. It’s indicative of where we’re running, though we definitely need to level that off a little bit.
Keith: *What’s the deal with the third car right now? You’ve rotated some drivers in there, running with no decals on the car. What is the plan for the No. 37 team?*
Freeze: The third car, essentially Larry Gunselman, who operated the No. 64 car last year, is going to take over operating that team. At some point, he and Bob [Jenkins] will become partners in it. [As of Bristol] it’s still a Front Row Motorsports entry, it’s being prepared at our shop, they’re using our truck and everything. We really didn’t have plans to run a third car after Daytona, but then Larry came to us and said what if I take over running this team for you, and taking over the expense of running this team for you? He needed some help to bridge some time before he could get a facility and equipment up and going. That was a great opportunity for us, because it meant he could take some of the guys that we had from the third car last year and keep them working, keep Tony Raines working. It’s been a pretty good scenario for us. At some point, it’ll break off… I say that it’s going to break off at some point, it might not. It’s been working well so far. We’ll see how it goes. We just want to get through the first five or six races. Larry’s got a shop, he’s got equipment and everything, and those cars will transition over to his shop in the next few weeks.
Keith: *Talking about motors, you all got to make the switch to the FR9 this year. How big of a change has that been?*
Freeze: I think that’s had the biggest impact on the way we’ve been running by far, even more than our new cars. I don’t want to sell anybody short, but even compared to the folks that we brought in, the motors have put us in a good place. That said, it takes everything. Our cars are now newer cars, they’re lighter cars. We got some good people that came on board to work with us on the team. Plus, David and Peter [Sospenzo] having another year to work together, they’re starting this year with a lot of setups. All those things come together, that has risen Front Row Motorsports up on the grid. And David’s running better because he’s had some continuity with that team. With Travis’ team, we really started it over from scratch, so it’s been more of a learning curve there to get that team to gel right. But the motors have been such a huge factor. We can even see that difference visually watching our cars on the race track.
Keith: *Just as David’s team is, Ford Racing as a whole is on a real upswing. What has the manufacturer done right to make themselves the real player on the circuit right now?*
Freeze: I think, in just this one guy’s opinion… those engines are the biggest factor. Doug [Yates] introduced that FR9 last year and it was a definite improvement over where they were. But they’ve had six months now to figure it out. And even by the end of last year, Carl Edwards was as strong as can be. That’s not a product of Edwards suddenly remembering how to drive a race car or Bob Osborne suddenly remembering how to set one up, that’s their whole package coming together.
Ford’s got some good stuff going on. They’ve invested in some engineering and development services that are becoming privy to all the teams now that, from our perspective, has taken things to a whole other level in terms of simulation processes. The motors are big, for sure, and there’s really good communication between the Ford teams. Roush and Richard Petty Motorsports are linked together, of course, and we’re kind of out here, not contractually linked, but we’re on a more common platform with those guys right now. Plus, David and Travis have a lot of Ford DNA in them from years back. The Ford camp as a whole is really working well together.
Keith: *This time last year, you had a sponsor on board in addition to the two cars that you were running with David and Travis. That money isn’t there this year. Operationally, what changes have you made to deal with that?*
Freeze: Not a lot really. The sponsorship we had last year was obviously running a third car, and everybody knows our issues there. That went away at some point midseason, and we learned to run three cars on our resources. With the budget that Bob is looking to put into the race team, I’m not going to say we’re comfortable and getting everything that we need. But we’ve got enough that we can be competitive out there. And as long as we keep our dollars and our energies focused on those two cars…we’ve also had a lot of good movement on the sponsorship front, largely based on David’s success at Daytona. TMOne has been with us the last few weeks, we’re talking to them about selling more races. We’ve got a big retailer sponsor we’re going to announce for Texas [Gander Mountain was announced as that sponsor earlier this week] on David’s car as well. There’s some more dollars being flushed into Front Row Motorsports that will hopefully take the burden off of Bob a little bit, maybe allow us to buy some more tools or a body-hanger or two.
Keith: *Front Row’s looking to make the two-car model work. With the struggles of the No. 38 team and the way the No. 37 is in the points, does an owner points swap ever become an option?*
Freeze: I don’t think so. We’re pretty committed in the direction we’re going with our two teams and where the third car is going in terms of aligning with Larry. I can’t imagine this bad luck is going to continue for Travis. I will say I’ve had a lot of guys at the shop ask me that. I’ve told them I don’t even want to think about it.
Keith: *We have seen it before.*
Freeze: We’ve definitely seen it before. Never say never. But I really think all of us, Bob, the drivers, the crew chiefs, we all want to keep some continuity with David and Travis’ teams and kind of see where each of those can go rather than muddying it up with number switches.