Ironically (or perhaps not surprisingly), it’s the two NASCAR national touring series that don’t have a Chase system that are currently enjoying tight races atop the standings as the 2012 season hits the summer stretch. The Nationwide ranks is playing host to Sadler vs. Stenouse Redux, featuring Austin Dillon, while the Truck ranks see four regulars all within nine markers of each other heading into Iowa.
The commonalities between the two are numerous. Richard Childress Racing has a presence in both. Both feature a Dillon brother. And both now have a second-place driver facing the first major uncertainties of their respective seasons. When Austin Dillon takes to the track this Saturday at Loudon, it will be without crew chief Danny Stockman, who has been suspended after his No. 3 team was penalized for rules violations each of the last two race weekends. And when Justin Lofton leaves Iowa, the No. 6 team faces an uncertain sponsorship situation, following the announcement this week that backer CollegeComplete.com was departing.
For the No. 3 team, it’s the first drastic change to a roster that’s been on an uninterrupted tear of success. Fresh off the 2011 Truck Series crown, the No. 3 Truck team moved up to the Nationwide ranks, and picked up right where they left off. Now, on the strength of a red-hot two weeks that saw the No. 3 obliterate the field at Kentucky and score a top-5, pole winning result as an encore at Daytona, they’ve gone from feel-good story to contender, even in driver Austin’s rookie season. Problem is, they’ve all but obliterated the NASCAR rulebook in doing so, losing 12 of the points they earned in these performances and the presence of crew chief Stockman and car chief Robert Stimska.
True, in this modern era of social media, cell phones and wi-fi, chances are Stockman and Stimska’s absence will be physical only. But that being said, there is something to be said about having long-time team members present in person at the track. Especially at a track that has been kind to rival Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (top 5 in 2011, top 20 in 2010 during the early stages of his recovery from a treacherous start), even the slightest change in personnel could well prove a big deal. If the No. 3 car is off-the-mark in the heat on a flat track, or involved in an incident, who knows how this team, or any team for that matter, will react.
Purely hypothetical? Sure. And RCR has no shortage of talented personnel to sub for suspended team members. But the one constant that has been going for Austin Dillon and the return of the No. 3 has been continuity of the team surrounding him. In a points race as tight as 2012’s, even the slightest deviation can and will make a difference. Furthermore, having pushed the envelope for two weeks straight now, is there enough aggression in the tank to keep going all the way to the ragged edge? Or will the No. 3 team tone it down a bit to get off NASCAR’s radar screen? It’s hardly ‘Dinger-esque adversity, but its adversity nonetheless.
Over in the Truck Series garage, Justin Lofton’s facing the same type of question mark…not one that poses an existential threat, but a change nonetheless that has the potential to shake his No. 6 team up during a critical stretch of the season. Sponsor CollegeComplete.com is leaving the team, and though Eddie Sharp Racing has already announced a one-race deal to cover the team at Iowa (J.D. Heiskell and Company), the remaining 12 races of the season appear to be a question mark. Granted, Lofton’s family business (Lofton Cattle) has past history of stepping up to pay the bills, having done so during his tenure in the ARCA Racing Series with the same Eddie Sharp organization.
That being said, this is the worst possible time for any type of concern off the track to surface for Lofton and team No. 6. After a scorching start to the season that produced a win and a 5.0 average finish, the last three races have resulted in no finishes better than ninth and an average finish of 11.0, worst among the top four drivers battling for the points lead. Looking at the competition, sponsorship is a concern only in the No. 6 camp; Timothy Peters is driving Red Horse Racing’s long-time flagship No. 17, while Ty Dillon and James Buescher both have plentiful backing in their respective camps.
The pressure is on even more than would be usually for a driver that is coming off losing the points lead as Lofton did at Kentucky. With performance on a slide and the other three drivers he’s competing with all coming off top 5 results, if this team wants to stay in the picture, and find some more backing, Lofton is in a must-perform situation at Iowa this weekend.
The best takeaway heading for this weekend? Even if the leaders run away from the pack, just as James Buescher and Austin Dillon did back at Kentucky the last weekend both series raced, just take a look one position back.
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