Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question … feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll and also in the comments section below!
This Week’s Question: It’s been nearly two seasons since a single-car team was able to break into Victory Lane at NASCAR’s highest level, though a few have flirted with a win. Could we see a single-car team get back there this year?
Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: You Could See It This Week in Talladega, As a Matter of Fact
While several of NASCAR’s smaller teams got off to a fast start in 2013, wins by those organizations are few and far between. It isn’t a lack of talent or ambition that keeps them out of Victory Lane; it’s one thing and one thing only: money, or the lack thereof. Money buys speed, or to be more accurate, money buys chassis and parts, wind tunnel time, seven-post shaker rigs, dynamometers for engines and shocks, and more. The small teams are at a massive disadvantage before they even get to the track, especially if they don’t have a close technical alliance with a large team.
Can one of them ever break through with a win? Well, in a nutshell, yes.
It’s not going to happen just anywhere. It’s extremely unlikely on an intermediate track where all those expensive things play the biggest role; unless it’s a fuel mileage win, you probably won’t see it. It’s more of a possibility at a short track or a flat mile, where the driver still plays a bigger role than at the longer, faster speedways.
And then, there are Daytona and Talladega, where the draft allows almost anyone to contend for the win. Add in the roulette wheel that is the Big One, a major wreck which can alter a race in a second and you have the recipe for a possible upset.
Look at last Fall’s race at Talladega: had Tony Stewart not thrown an ill-conceived block on the final lap, either part-time fill-in Michael Waltrip or underfunded Casey Mears was going to win that race. They had a head of steam and were headed to the front before Stewart’s move took them out. Both Waltrip and Mears backed it up at Daytona in February; Waltrip had a solid run going in the underfunded No. 26 (now No. 30) car, running in the top 10 in the Daytona 500 for single-car Swan Racing before issues forced him to settle for a finish that belies the way he ran. Mears dominated much of his Gatorade Duel race before getting collected in a crash not of his making during the big race itself.
And it’s not as though a single-car team hasn’t won a plate race in recent memory. Trevor Bayne, running for storied Wood Brothers Racing won the 2011 Daytona 500. When Brad Keselowski won the spring Talladega race in 2009, he was driving for Phoenix Racing. So, while it doesn’t happen often, it does happen.
Could one of these teams break through on Sunday? Absolutely. While Michael Waltrip isn’t driving for a small operation, he is running a very limited schedule, so he does count as an underdog, though not as much as some others. Put Kurt Busch in the not-quite-an-underdog category, too because his equipment is equal to that of the RCR teams. Aric Almirola falls into this group as well. A win by any of these would be a minor upset — just not of the same magnitude of some others who could break through.
Phoenix Racing has Regan Smith in the No. 51 this weekend, and not only does Phoenix have that 2009 win, Smith did cross the finish line first at ‘Dega in the Fall of 2008 …only to have the win stripped when it was determined by NASCAR that he had raced below the yellow line. Bayne will be in the No. 21 for the Woods, and we know he can win. Casey Mears has shown time and again he can run up front at restrictor plate tracks; only bad luck has kept him from Victory Lane. Add David Ragan to this group, too. He drives for a three-car organization, but they’re at the level of the others here in terms of being a complete underdog … except for these events. Ragan won at Daytona in 2011, as well so he’s strong in plate races. A win from any in this group at Talladega shouldn’t be a complete shock to anybody who’s been paying attention, but it would be a huge coup for any of them, because they certainly aren’t expected to be a favorite.
Can a single-car team (or a driver from any other underfunded team) win a race? If things happen just the right way, yes, they can. Will it happen this year? There is always that possibility, especially given how some of the underdog teams or drivers have performed in the past at certain tracks. If you want the best chance of a different face in Victory Lane, though tune in this weekend … because, while it could happen anywhere if the planets align, it would only take the moon and stars at ‘Dega … and we’ve seen that happen before.
Mike Neff, Senior Writer/Short Track Editor: An Underdog In Victory Lane? Yeah, Right…
The early years of NASCAR Cup racing were filled with people who would drive their family sedan to the track, race it and then drive home. Those days of teams trying to find an edge eventually led to purpose-built race cars that still were more stock than custom machine. Once Winston came into the series as title sponsor, in 1972 and the money began to ratchet up, more and more “teams” began to dot the landscape of NASCAR. The economies of scale, spent to run a full-fledged organization led to more success for multi-car operations over time. Ultimately, having more than one car became the norm and, since 1995, the drivers who have won the championship in the Cup Series have had at least one teammate. The shared knowledge and pooled abilities of those larger programs just leads to more success.
In addition to the greater array of knowledge available to the teams under a single roof of a multi-car team, there is also the ability to attract more money and spend it more efficiently. Multi-car operations offer sponsors more than one avenue for their product name to hit the track, offering a diversity of faces and voices to pitch their products. As more money comes to the teams, they are able to invest in better infrastructure that affords them the chance to make more cars and parts that cost less per piece because they make so many. That abundance of resources allows the teams of a multi-car organization greater flexibility in adapting to situations and conditions. When the green flag flies, they are more prepared than their single-car counterparts simply because they are far more flexible.
The research and development behind the wheels of multi-car teams greatly outpaces the effort of any others due to those advantages. In the end, they attract the drivers with the greatest talent, which further puts up the roadblock to keep a single car team from winning a Cup race in this century. While there are some decent drivers running for single-car teams in the Cup Series, the better drivers are all under contract with the big one. More personnel, more resources, more knowledge all leads to one thing: there simply isn’t a single car team out there who can win at the level of the Cup Series.
While some people might point to Kurt Busch as possibly winning for the “single-car” team of Furniture Row, they really are just an extension of Richard Childress Racing. The competition director for Furniture Row is also working at RCR half of his workweek. The engines, chassis and other integral parts of the team are also exactly the same as the RCR cars have at their disposal. So, try as you might to call Furniture Row a single-car team, they simply aren’t.
The bottom line is the modern world of NASCAR is all about the Benjamins, and the multi-car teams have them while the single-car teams don’t have nearly as many. That imbalance of money makes it impossible for an underdog of that degree to win in the modern world of NASCAR.
Connect with Amy!
Contact Amy Henderson
Connect with Mike!
Contact Mike Neff