Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCARand produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. In this week’s edition, Amy has five small teams who have something going for them this season – and perhaps beyond.
1. JTG-Daugherty Racing
It’s not easy for the sport’s smaller teams. They’re caught in a vicious cycle: underfunded, they don’t perform at the level of the larger ones. Because of that, they get little, if any television time, and as a result, it’s hard to attract the sponsorship dollars that pay for better equipment and more personnel. That means these potential Cinderellas struggle to get out of the endless ranks of the underfunded. Because they don’t have the equipment to run well, they don’t have volumes of information to improve upon, especially if the team fields just one car.
A couple of these outfits have broken the cycle, in recent years by forming alliances with larger organizations. Furniture Row Racing made the Chase in 2013 a year after teaming up with Richard Childress Racing, and this year, the No. 47 of JTG-Daugherty Racing hopes to become the next team to make it to the next level after forming a similar deal with RCR. In return for engines and chassis, RCR gets additional information to use in the future as well as fees for equipment, so everyone potentially benefits.
Driver AJ Allmendinger started 2014 off a bit slow, finishing 26th at both Daytona and Phoenix, but has picked it up since then, scoring top-11 finishes the last two races. He’s climbed to 16th in driver points, which puts him in possible Chase contention early. Allmendinger hasn’t had a lot of seat time in top-flight equipment, but he’s looking strong in his new ride so far.
2. Germain Racing
Another team who signed a technical deal with RCR, this team started off hot, finishing tenth in the Daytona 500 and 14th at Phoenix, but they’ve faded a bit since. Casey Mears fell from tenth in driver points after Phoenix to 21st after Martinsville. For a team that’s got a pair of championships in the Camping World Truck Series, the performance has been just a bit lackluster this year for Germain.
Still, they finished last year with Mears atop the points amongst his small-team peers, and for this group, that’s a big deal, especially for a team that was starting and parking some races in 2012. They’ve shown flashes of strength, and there’s no reason to think they can’t turn it around this year. The right people remain in place, starting with crew chief “Bootie” Barker and Mears, who communicate very well with each other. Mears is an outstanding restrictor plate racer and he had a car capable of finishing better than 10th. That means Mears could be a surprise threat, at Talladega or Daytona if he can find the luck that’s eluded him recently. This team is capable of a top-20 points finish this year.
3. Swan Racing
This group has had a surprisingly strong start to its fledgling Cup career. Brandon Davis bought the former Inception Motorsports in 2013 and, while he has yet to field a top-10 car, he took a start-and-park organization to a full-time team in a year. Swan has now expanded to a second car for 2014, which will help in information gathering and give the drivers some drafting help.
While it might have been a good idea to put a veteran in one of the seats, youngsters Cole Whitt and Parker Kligerman have put in credible performances since mid-2013, finishing better than the equipment probably deserves. Unfortunately, right now, that means finishing in the 20s instead of the 30s. Adding a second car has set back the performance a little this year compared to 2013, but bad luck has been a huge factor, and the finishes don’t necessarily reflect the team’s capabilities each week. So far, this seems like a new organization that’s truly committed to improving and sticking around this sport for the long haul. In today’s NASCAR, that means baby steps, and this team has shown they can make those. They’re on the right track, with the right personnel and it will be interesting to see if they can continue to grow.
4. Front Row Motorsports
These guys have been around a bit longer than some small teams, and the three-car operation has seen some success — David Ragan won at Talladega last spring while David Gilliland finished second. What’s hurt them has been consistency, or rather the lack of it. Gilliland is slightly more reliable than Ragan in that he has a slightly better average finish and less of a tendency to attract bad luck. They have equipment capable of finishing in the mid-to-low 20s, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, considering how competitive the series really is, but they don’t always get those finishes. Sometimes it’s mechanical, but there are also times then the team simply misses or the drivers make mistakes they should be past making.
FRM’s No. 35 has only qualified twice in 2014, with a potpourri of drivers and perhaps it’s time for the team to consider cutting back. Two teams, with maximum effort towards both may allow them to concentrate on improving. They must find a way to be consistent and to get the finishes they are capable of. Still, they’re worth keeping an eye on because FRM is capable of not only running well, but winning races, at least on the plate tracks. They’ve proven that, and they could do it again. If they can, the resulting Chase berth would bring them notice, which could attract the sponsorship needed to take them to another level.
5. Circle Sport
This one just might be the smallest of the small teams who show up every week to run full races. They run many weeks with parts that have been used and discarded by the bigger organizations. But they run with the intent of finishing every week, and sometimes, they run surprisingly well.
Take Martinsville this week. Finishing on the lead lap is a big step for these teams, and Landon Cassill, who is a surprisingly talented young driver, was able to do that at Martinsville, a tough track for any underfunded team to shine on. He finished 25th, but completed every lap and beat drivers in better equipment.
Perhaps Circle Sport’s another team who expanded to two cars before they were ready, as Cassill has failed to qualify a couple of times this year, and the No. 33 hasn’t settled on a driver. But overall, they’re doing more with less than anyone, and are worth paying closer attention to as the season goes on. They have a lot of talent in Cassill, and they’re grabbing finishes better than expected. Like the others on this list, they know the odds are against them, but they’re defying those odds whenever they get the chance.