Between the photo finishes decided by mere inches and the fierce competition for position throughout Sprint Cup races this year, the faces at the front have been more or less constant. At the end of the day, there’s Jimmie Johnson’s smiling face in Victory Lane, or someone from a team like his, but the racing has been hot and heavy for those wins.
While that’s been going on, though, there’s another race going on entirely—a race within the race. You won’t see much of it on TV or read much about it on Monday, but it’s been pretty exciting so far, ramped up a step or two from a year ago.
The NASCAR hierarchy can be roughly divided into three groups: the elite teams who are battling every week for wins and who will be the title favorites when the year winds down, the middle-tier teams who are battling for top 15s and top 10s and who will for the most part finish the year in the mid-to-high teens and lower 20s in points, and the smaller teams who might pull off the occasional top 10 and top 15 but for whom a top 20 is generally a good day.
These designations can be fluid to a degree. Furniture Row Racing moved from battling the other smaller teams for 20th place or so to battling the elite for top 5s on a weekly basis. Roush Fenway Racing, which once ruled the NASCAR roost along with other elite teams like Hendrick Motorsports, has slipped to that middle tier, which is occupied by Richard Petty Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing, while Richard Childress Racing teeters between the two. JTG Daugherty Racing is on the verge of jumping to that level as well. Six months from now, the picture could be different.
But while the lion’s share of the attention so far this season has been on the top teams, several of the smaller ones have made quite a statement to open 2016. The low-downforce package has been somewhat of a field leveler, allowing a team with a fast car and a good driver to pass others. At times, there has been so much action in the middle of the pack that listening to radio chatter from those teams sounds like they’re at Bristol or Martinsville.
And while they’re still racing each other, several of the smaller teams have made a statement: They’re coming for anyone they can catch, and sometimes, that’s been teams with bigger budgets and bigger names.
It’s still early in the season, but the improvement for a handful of smaller teams has been marked. Single-car Tommy Baldwin Racing has turned a few heads with veteran driver Regan Smith at the helm. Smith’s average finish so far in 2016 is 23.6. In 2015, Alex Bowman averaged just 31.6 for TBR. And while part of that can be attributed to Smith’s experience, there’s more to it. The team has a new alliance with Richard Childress Racing, something that’s made a big difference for teams like JGT Daugherty Racing and Germain Racing as well as Furniture Row Racing (who has since moved to Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing).
Another team with a new RCR partnership is Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing. It certainly seems to be working for that team as well; Michael McDowell has jumped from a 30.7 average to a 26.8.
A few more teams who have seen big gains so far this season include JTG Daugherty Racing (AJ Allmendinger’s average has gone from 23.1 to 17.4), BK Racing (Matt DiBenedetto has gone from a 32.0 average to a 29.4 and David Ragan has the No. 23 at a 27.8 average over Jeb Burton’s 36.3 in 2015).
Front Row Motorsports, meanwhile, has had mixed results. Landon Cassill’s average of 25.6 is a solid jump over David Gilliland’s 29.4 last year, but Chris Buescher’s 31.2 is down from both his and Brett Moffitt’s averages in the No. 34.
Those numbers may not seem very impressive, but the evolution of a smaller team in NASCAR is a long, slow process. Furniture Row’s success took years, and the team almost folded on the way, electing to drop to part-time status for a couple of seasons to right the ship before trying a full-time run again. Most of them will tell you the same thing: the first goal is to make races each week (the charter system has changed that somewhat). Then it’s to beat a few cars and finish in the top 35. Then it’s top 30s, then top 25s. A top 20 in those first years is worthy of celebration. When they beat a big team that hasn’t had major issues, it’s a coup.
These teams know they’re racing each other for prize money and bragging rights, and not the elite teams for trophies. That doesn’t mean they work any less hard or take what they do any less seriously.
And here’s the thing: if they run well, if they’re competitive with each other and other teams in the middle of the field, it’s to everyone’s benefit. The fans see better racing if the teams in the race are able to be competitive with at least some other teams.
The changes and gains are often subtle. Radio chatter shifts from handling and horsepower woes to what other drivers are talking about: downforce and aero push and clean air and track position. One week, Casey Mears is quietly putting on a show at Atlanta while racing some bigger names, a couple weeks later, it’s Allmendinger demanding attention at Fontana with his top-10 finish. Cassill’s team also surprised people at Auto Club Speedway with a late-race surge to 16th place.
What’s the difference? Perhaps it’s the new package putting the races in the drivers’ hands. Maybe it’s the charter system taking the pressure off in terms of qualifying and allowing teams to work on preparing for the race instead of for getting into it. It could be the increased purse money. It’s probably a combination of all of these factors, but whatever it is, it’s working some minor magic.
An it needs to continue. The more healthy, competitive teams in the sport, the better it is for fans. That’s the bottom line. For the first time in a long time, there’s real optimism for the on-track product in NASCAR, and that comes from all levels of the field. The more battles, the better the race, and a few teams are putting on some fantastic battles this season that they couldn’t a year ago.
That alone is reason for hope.