Phil Parsons Racing
Driver: No. 98 Josh Wise
Best Finish: 20th (Talladega I)
Of all the small teams, this one just might be the most improved in 2014. No, Wise didn’t make the Chase or even post a finish better than 20th, but what the team did do deserves recognition. Prior to 2014, the team started-and-parked most weeks, finishing only a handful of races. It was a practice that many fans don’t want to see, and this year, the team committed to running every race.
They failed to qualify at Phoenix in the spring, and had four DNFs for crashes or mechanical failures… but they raced to the end every time they could. That’s not as easy for a team as it appears; it involves a huge monetary investment that may not be returned. The team made it work and even got the fan vote into the All-Star Race thanks to some dedicated fans who came to follow Wise through sponsor Dogecoin.
Going forward, it will be a series of baby steps, but the team already took the first one. If Wise can up his average finish to a top-30 result next year, they will be on the right track.
This team works hard, but the revolving door of drivers does make it hard to find any kind of consistent gains. Some of that change is due to sponsors who want a specific driver, as was the case with Terry Labonte, the veteran and two-time champion who got the team their top finish. It’s hard for a crew to work with different drivers because it’s much harder to tailor cars to several drivers, all of whom like something slightly different in a racecar. That’s held them back from the improvement that some other teams have made in recent seasons.
As a single-car operation, it would be an interesting test to see what one moderately experienced driver could do with a full season in the driver’s seat. Frank Stoddard is a knowledgeable owner who has the potential to move the team up the ladder, and focus on one driver could help move the process along. The team has the potential to get better each year.
Wood Brothers Racing
Driver: No. 21 Trevor Bayne
Best Finish: 19th (Texas I, Michigan I)
This team, one of NASCAR’s legends in itself, takes a different approach to racing than some other small teams. Instead of spreading limited resources and sponsor dollars thin by racing every week on a shoestring, they prefer to select a dozen or so events at tracks where they feel confident they can be competitive and putting full effort into those races. The partial schedule had mixed success in 2014 with Bayne — he actually qualified very well in some of his starts and ran well during many of them as well.
The problem was that the team was plagued with issues — Bayne crashed out of five races and had low finishes for issues in a few others, and on a 12-race schedule, that really hurts. The positive is that they did run better than the results show, and the partial schedule did work for them — their performance in those races was better than some of the other teams in their economic class.
The team will have a new face in 2015 as Ryan Blaney takes over from Bayne, who moves on to full-time Cup competition with Roush Fenway Racing. Blaney, a Team Penske development driver who ran full-time in the Truck Series in 2014, is a young talent who will benefit from this ride and the experience he will gain. He’s also proven to be a solid driver who can give the team good feedback… they could do very well together.
Leavine Family Racing
Driver: No. 95 Michael McDowell
Best Finish: Seventh (Daytona II)
McDowell came to LFR in 2014 after running for start-and-park Phil Parsons Racing in 2013. Like the Wood Brothers, LFR decided to go to a partial schedule of full races this year, where previously they had started and parked in a larger number of events. Their commitment to growing the team paid off in the summer race at Daytona, where McDowell finished seventh, the team’s first-ever top-10 effort. McDowell is a very talented driver, and that shows whenever he’s in a competitive car as he was at Daytona, where the teams are much more equal thanks to the restricted air intake to the engines.
The full effort-partial schedule model has been largely successful for the No. 21 team, and the No. 95 is also making improvements by going all in for a smaller number of weeks. Coupled with the underrated McDowell, who will be in the seat in 2015, the team should continue to make small gains in performance.
Jay Robinson Racing/Identity Ventures Racing
Yet another team who went the driver-by-committee route in 2014, purchased through a buyout of NEMCO Motorsports and working with Michael Waltrip Racing for a handful of races, this team struggled. Robinson has owned some marginally successful (and some much less so) Xfinity Series teams over the years, but none of their performances suggested that Robinson would be suited for the Cup ring, where competition is fiercer. The team struggled mightily in the Cup arena, with both youngsters and veterans behind the wheel, posting a 35th-place average finish.
If they’re to do better in 2015, they’ll need to select a driver who can attract solid backing — this team fought legal and financial battles in 2014 that further distracted them. Currently, plans for 2015 have not been announced, so it’s unclear if this team will build a foundation or crumble away like some other teams before them.
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