Heading into the first Nationwide Series night race ever at the Texas Motor Speedway, two teams synonymous with success in NASCAR’s AAA division are in the headlines, but not for reasons consummate with their place in the sport’s recent history. For two teams, a historic trip that would ordinarily see their Fords storming to the front of the field is just the latest week in a struggle to stay viable, if you can call it that, shells of their former selves on and off the race track.
One is Team Rensi Motorsports. The team whose No. 25 car came within a few mere points of scoring the 2003 series championship with Bobby Hamilton Jr. behind the wheel started this season as a two-car start-and-park operation, without a top 10 finish since Boris Said finished fifth at Montreal way back in 2008. That didn’t last long; thanks to a wreck in practice at Bristol, that same No. 25 that the team fielded as a race winning car the better part of the last decade has now been withdrawn from two consecutive entry lists. A team that was already short on race cars after former driver Eric McClure endured a few late season wrecks a year ago is apparently even shorter now, with only Kevin Lepage driving the team’s No. 24 this weekend.
Making even more news off the track this weekend is another one of those trademark entries, the No. 27 of Baker/Curb Racing. First reports earlier this week had a Toronto businessman buying the team as a whole, with plans to put JR Fitzpatrick in the ride for a number of races later in 2011 (Fitzpatrick has run two races for Baker/Curb already this season). A few days and more than a few reports later, the story is that a Toronto businessman did buy cars and a transporter from Baker/Curb to put JR Fitzpatrick in later after the season, but that will be a new operation. Baker/Curb Racing still exists, according to ownership, but fans at Texas would be forgiven for thinking otherwise…because the No. 27 team is off the Nationwide Series entry list for the first time this century.
These two teams were among the cream of the crop for years. But now, in this new era of the Nationwide Series with the new Nationwide Series car, two former powerhouses will take no part in this first of its kind race at Texas; what’s left of the No. 27 team is still at the shop in Nashville, while the No. 24 car will be back on the hauler after only a handful of laps Friday…assuming Lepage races his way into the show in the first place.
It’s a bit sobering to consider the situation that each of these organizations is in, especially on a weekend that the Nationwide ranks are doing something new. Baker/Curb has publicly stated that they will not be taking to the racetrack again until sponsorship is secured, while after two stable years with Eric McClure’s Hefty sponsorship the Rensi camp is learning the hard way just how hard those dollars are to find.
Now, to handle that daunting challenge, the two operations are taking decidedly different tacks. Rensi looks to continue start-and-parking their No. 24 car, trying to stay relevant and in the collective vision of the garage area, while Baker/Curb has apparently had enough of the parking early game, instead hoping to secure sponsorship with efforts away from the track. The sad thing is, for the difference in practice, for the different paths the two teams are now pursuing in their quest to stay a presence in the new Nationwide Series, the future looks very much the same…bleak.
The number of organizations in recent years that have tried to start-and-park their way to success in the Nationwide Series and failed reads like a shopping list. Specialty Racing, Mac Hill Motorsports, K-Automotive, Stott Classic Racing…its been proven with overwhelming frequency that showing up to run a few laps instead of a race does not translate into dollars that allow a team to race.
That being said, choosing to wait it out on the sidelines, putting in work off the track to facilitate a return has proven to be difficult as well. Fact is, those dollars just don’t appear to be out there right now. Tri-Star Motorsports not only raced their way from upstart and multiple DNQs to a top 30, locked in organization over the course of 2010, and now in 2011 have Mike Bliss in the top 10 in points, but their quarterpanels are as bare as Jason Keller’s all white No. 35 was last year, sans the new car started for Eric McClure this season. The No. 99 entry of Pastrana-Waltrip Racing, a machine owned by sponsor guru Michael Waltrip and that was phenom Trevor Bayne’s home for most of last season has been sponsorless for nearly the entire 2011 season, despite having Waltrip and the series’ lead rookie behind the wheel.
This story is nothing new. it’s become a modus operandi for nearly every non Cup-affiliated organization contesting NASCAR’s AAA. But as the Nationwide Series breaks new ground at Texas this Friday night, fans ought to remember just who’s fighting this fight these days. Losing teams like PPC Racing, CJM Racing, Lewis Motorsports and others have all taken a toll on the health and character of this series. Seeing names like Baker/Curb and Rensi in that same existential struggle, being that close to being lost, will be just as big a blow.
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