NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Never Fear, the Underdogs are Here: Fontana Edition

Never Fear, the Underdogs are Here: Fontana Edition by Amy Henderson

Editor’s Note: This year, we’re going to switch things up a little bit. Instead of just focusing upon one underdog (or underreported) car in the Secret Star section, we will point out three smaller teams that put up good finishes each week.

Underdog Selection No. 1: Kurt Busch for Furniture Row Racing; started 10th, finished 5th

How much of a difference is having Busch in the driver’s seat, coupled with a strong alliance with Richard Childress Racing, making for Furniture Row Racing? Well, in just five races so far this year, Busch has a pair of top-5 finishes. That’s nearly half of the team’s total top-5 tally of five…ever. And Busch wasn’t satisfied to bring home a top 5 in California; he made a bold move for the lead on a late restart, but fell just short of being able to make it stick.

Still, Busch bested his pseudo-teammates from RCR on Sunday again. Part of that is stability. Kevin Harvick has already announced his departure from RCR at the end of the year, and Jeff Burton’s job may be in jeopardy as well. Part of that is talent, too—though Paul Menard sits highest in points for the RCR trio, Busch is without question a more talented driver. Busch’s dominance over the main RCR stable does bear keeping an eye on for a couple of reasons. One, will owner Childress allow the satellite operation to continue to best the drivers racing under his own name? Also, could Childress be eyeing Busch to fill the seat in the No. 31 next year if sponsors are unhappy with Burton’s performance. It might be a less-than-perfect situation as far as having a made-to-order mentor for Austin Dillon, who will move into a (most likely) renumbered No. 29 next year. Busch isn’t exactly the first name that pops to mind when thinking of the best guy to show a youngster the ropes, but RCR needs to elevate their performance, and Busch can do that. Busch is definitely worth watching in context with RCR as the year progresses

Underdog Selection No. 2: Casey Mears for Germain Racing; started 11th, finished 15th

Whether having GEICO on board 100% this year, funding the entire schedule, has made a bigger difference because of the increase in budget or the increase in the team’s self-esteem is hard to gauge, but something has clicked so far with the No. 13 bunch. Mears qualified 11th this weekend but quickly fell back to the mid-20’s during the race with an ill-handling car, and it looked like shades of 2012, when the team struggled mightily on the intermediate tracks. At Fontana last year, Mears started 33rd and finished 23rd. But this week, the team found a little something more, using late-race strategy to climb back for a 15th-place finish.

Mears finished in the top 15 just once in all of 2013, at Sonoma. This year, he’s done it three times in five weeks. Perhaps the most telling was Mears’ postrace tweet that the team had hoped for better—they were disappointed in a finish that a year ago they would have given their eye teeth for. That speaks volumes about how much this team has improved. Another possibility for the improvement? How about the team’s faith in Mears? The driver spent several seasons before joining Germain Racing bouncing from team to team, crew chief to crew chief, sometimes within the same organizations, sometimes to a new one, even though he did win a a race and grab some top finishes. Now, Mears has a team and sponsor who believe in him, a crew chief with whom he’s had time to build a strong relationship, and it’s paying off.

Underdog Selection No. 3: AJ Allmendinger for Phoenix Racing; started 26th, finished 16th

Talk about the Little Engine that Could. Phoenix Racing continues to surprise in 2013, holding onto a top-10 spot in owner points thanks to the efforts of three different drivers. This week, everybody knew Allmendinger was there as he was near the top of the practice charts on Friday and Saturday. Even a disappointing 26th-place starting spot and tough going early didn’t deter Allmendinger from being there at the end with a 16th-place finish.

That this is Allmendinger’s worst finish this year, and the teams second-worst says a lot. Think about it. Prior to the start of this season the team hadn’t finished better than 21st since Atlanta last September. Now, that’s the worst they’ve done while racing with two castoff drivers and one rookie who needs seat time. It seems that owner James Finch has a pretty good eye for talent, and he isn’t afraid of giving second chances.

Is your favorite driver among NASCAR’s underdogs? Are you frustrated with the lack of coverage they receive during the race broadcasts? Amy has all the small teams covered each and every week in The Big Six (THIS WEEK’S LINK: www.frontstretch.com/ahenderson/42588/). Be sure to check it out to see how your favorites fared!

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