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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: Daytona, Talladega Become Place to Be for One-Offs

OK, picture this: a NASCAR national series where you don’t really know who’s going to show up each week. Entries vary by track, whether it’s by type of speedway or from a regional standpoint, with, say, Michigan drivers building a car and saddling up for a race in their home state, or a Southwest-based team dropping by those events in a few-state radius.

Years ago that wasn’t such a distant memory, especially in a series like the XFINITY or Camping World Truck series. Yes, you still had a plethora of full-time drivers or teams that showed up to every track, or even the part-timers that appear around half the season. But then someone like Brandon Ash might come out just for the Sprint Cup Series’ West Coast races, or old competitors in one of the regional series below even the XFINITY or Truck circuits might drive their car in the upper series if they attended a companion race at a track like Nazareth Speedway.

Fast forward to 2016, and really, all three series are characterized by their uniformity. The Sprint Cup Series rarely even see an entry list large enough to send a team home these days; with 41 entered at Daytona International Speedway this weekend, it’s fifth time all year that the series has exceeded the 40-car count and will send someone packing before race day. And while the other two national series have often had car and truck counts large enough to send at least one home most weeks, it’s often fairly easy to predict who’s going to show up each week. Blame part of that on the Internet; before, we got that sort of news through publications like NASCAR Scene, if they wrote about them at all. Nowadays? Fire up Jayski.com, or even head over to your team’s Facebook or Twitter page and the answer is laid out for you.

Well, maybe except for the superspeedways.

It’s arguable that Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway are the last bastion in NASCAR’s national series as they currently stand when it comes to surprise entries. The same can be said for teams who only show up for a few races a year; by now, there’s a specific brand of part-time superspeedway teams and drivers who may or may not be part of the entry list the two to four times a year a given series races on them.

Take Joe Nemechek, for instance. The former XFINITY champion and multi-time Cup winner has been a part-time fixture in the sport the last few years, generally driving his own No. 87. In more recent times, even that has taken a backseat to helping progress the career of his son, John Hunter Nemechek, who drives the family-owned operation’s No. 8 in the Truck Series. But Nemechek still comes out for the Daytona races in the XFINITY Series especially; in 2015, he did not qualify for the season-opening race, while he ran 19th at the track earlier this year. He’s once again on the entry list this weekend after skipping all other events in between.

Or there’s Bobby Gerhart. The longtime ARCA competitor has become a mainstay on the XFINITY restrictor plate circuit, bringing his No. 85 to all three every year since 2013. The 57-year-old has made both superspeedway starts this year, finishing 39th and 33rd. He’s even stretched into the Truck Series as of last year and ran earlier this season at Daytona with a 12th-place result.

John Wes Townley, a full-time Truck Series driver, only races the restrictor plate races in XFINITY these days in his family-owned No. 05. He was entered in this weekend’s race before withdrawing earlier in the week, with no reason currently cited, though his $15,000 fine from last weekend’s scuffle with Spencer Gallagher probably didn’t help matters.

The Cup events have become a place for the extra cars of a given full-time team to make a rare appearance. In all three restrictor plate races this season, David Gilliland has attempted to qualify Front Row Motorsports’ No. 35. He made Talladega, finishing 17th but running near the front even toward race’s end.

Meanwhile, the Truck Series has seen drivers like Chris Fontaine flood its ranks whenever the circuit makes its two stops a season at one of the big tracks. Fontaine, often driving for his own team (whether he’s using another team’s points or not), is often a threat there, with three top-10 finishes since 2012. After a brief foray into running a larger balance of the schedule, since 2013 he’s been mostly present at Daytona and Talladega, with the occasional track like Eldora or Martinsville thrown in for good measure.

Besides Fontaine and Gerhart in the Truck Series, an argument could also be made for Clay Greenfield, whose No. 68 often arrives for Daytona and Talladega, though he’ll also make surprise starts at other tracks, like last year at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Sure, there will be other instances of one-offs (or two-offs… three-offs… whatever) showing up to the Cup, XFINITY and Truck races, especially at a place like, say, Eldora, but where else is it more prevalent these days than the superspeedways? And it’s not surprising, either; at this point in NASCAR, there’s really no other tracks (again, except Eldora) where a have-not can compete with a definitely-has for an entire race, possibly even challenging for a win. It almost makes more sense, as long as the cost can be met, for a fledgling, part-time team to put its eggs in the superspeedway basket, because while the risk is great, the potential reward is greater.

Because OK, yeah, you bought a car and you decided to run it at Darlington Speedway in the Cup Series. Cool stuff and all, but even if you make the race, chances are your budget isn’t even remotely where it needs to be in order to finish inside the top 30. A solid debut, but unspectacular.

But let’s say you bought a car and fine-tuned it to restrictor plate-racing perfection. Suddenly, you’re in the lead draft at Daytona, and your little-race-team-that-could is very much accomplishing what others could only dream of doing. Even if you end up shuffled toward the rear by race’s end (which, let’s be honest, is likelier than a fluke win or even top 5), hey, you were up there, sniffing out the checkered flag with some of NASCAR’s best.

Guess it’s no wonder this is where all the one-offs have gone.

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