NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

The Underdog House: Tracking NASCAR’s Small Teams from Daytona to Kentucky

What makes a small team? I’m frequently asked how to categorize NASCAR’s teams. I look at a couple of things when I make the list each spring: budget and performance.  Small teams simply don’t have the budgets of the larger ones, even middle-tier organizations.  They may have alliances with bigger teams, but that doesn’t mean everything gets handed to them; they still buy their own equipment, though they may buy it from bigger teams rather than building every piece from scratch.  It’s not free, contrary to what some people may believe.

While Wood Brothers Racing gets equipment from Team Penske, they still have to work within a much smaller budget.  That’s the same for those who work with Richard Childress Racing; information is shared, parts and pieces are bought, but they’re ultimately in control of their own destiny. They have a lot less money to control it with and little-to-no factory support from the car manufacturers.

From a performance aspect, for the most part, these are teams for whom a top 20 is a good week and a top 15 is a great one.  Consistent finishes inside the top 20 are generally the mark of a mid-tier team, such as Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports.  While the Nos. 21 and 47 are making their case to be elevated to that group, just as Furniture Row Racing elevated itself from small team status last year, you won’t see teams added or subtracted from the list midseason.  It takes time to grow in the sport and to sustain that growth.

With that definition in mind, here’s how NASCAR’s Underdog House fared during the weekend at Daytona.

Tommy Baldwin Racing
Regan Smith, No. 7 Golden Corral Chevrolet

Looking back: Smith started dead last in Daytona and was able to work his way forward; at halfway, the No. 7 was inside the top 20 and looking for a repeat of the top-10 run the team had in the Daytona 500.  Unfortunately, just inside the top 20 became the eye of the storm 10 laps later, and Smith suffered heavy damage to his car when collected in a crash that, all told, had 22 cars involved to some degree.  That left the team unable to finish the race with a 38th-place result, costing Smith a spot in points as well. The driver dropped to 32nd spot, sitting six points behind Brian Scott.

Looking ahead: The Cup Series returns to Kentucky Speedway for the sixth time this weekend.  Smith has participated in just two of those races, with an average finish of 25th, but he also has a pole and two top-5 runs there in XFINITY Series competition.  The intermediate tracks are generally the least kind to the smaller teams, so a finish on par with his average would make a good night for Smith.

Tweet of the week:

Germain Racing
Casey Mears, No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet

Looking back: As the old saying goes, if it weren’t for bad luck, Mears and the No. 13 bunch would have no luck at all.  Going into Saturday night’s race, Mears was optimistic that this event would be a turning point, and it almost was.  With one of the fastest cars in the field and a driver who’s been excellent on plate tracks throughout his career, the No. 13 was near the front most of the night, leading a pair of laps and looking like a top-5 car.  He was simply biding his time with 30 laps to go when Tony Stewart had an issue just in front of the No. 13, collecting Mears as collateral damage.  The team did solid pit work, keeping Mears on the lead lap, and he was able to pick up 10 spots on the final overtime run to come home 12th.  It’s Mears’ best finish of 2016, moving him up a spot in points to 27th, but the team was capable of more this week, and they know it.

Looking ahead: Mears’ 20.8 Kentucky average is the best in this group outside of Clint Bowyer’s, which was earned in top-level equipment, so Mears should be in good shape if the team can keep a little momentum from Daytona.  The No. 13 has improved by leaps and bounds in qualifying, so if Mears can get a good start and the team can tap into the speed it’s had this year, a top 20 is a realistic goal.

Tweets of the week:

HScott Motorsports
Clint Bowyer, No. 15 5-Hour Energy Chevrolet
Michael Annett, No. 46 Pilot Flying J Chevrolet

Looking back: Daytona brought much-needed strong results for the HSM group.  Bowyer showed the kind of performance he’s capable of when equipment isn’t as much of a factor, bringing home his third top-10 finish of the year. Bowyer led once along the way, reminding fans why he’s been tapped to take over the No. 14 for the retiring Tony Stewart next year. He also gained a pair of spots in points, moving up to 24th.  Annett’s night wasn’t quite so smooth, as he was another of the 22 cars involved in the lap-90 incident, but managed to make it through with minimal damage. The end result was still a top 20, a morale booster that Annett and his team badly needed and the driver’s best finish of 2016.  He remains 37th in points.

Looking ahead: Bowyer’s 19.2 Kentucky average tops this group, and he’s got a top 5 there as well, but the question is how far the HSM cars can take him at a track like Kentucky, where teams like Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports have a decided advantage.  Bowyer has been frustrated at the team’s lack of ability to run with those cars, and while it’s unrealistic to expect those finishes, he’s hungry for more.  Annett falls in the middle of the spectrum at Kentucky with his 24th-place average, and if he can score a top 30 it would be an excellent weekend for his team, though a top 35 is more likely.

Tweets of the week:

Wood Brothers Racing
Ryan Blaney, No. 21 Motorcraft / Quick Lane Ford

Looking back: Blaney’s weekend kicked off with a 12th-place qualifying effort, putting the rookie in solid position for the race. The youngster was equally solid throughout the event, running inside the top 15 and making a brief appearance in the top 5 before taking the checkers in 14th place after narrowly escaping serious problems in a lap-149 dust-up. It was good for Rookie of the Race honors and – at least for now – a provisional Chase spot as he’s currently 15th in points.

Looking ahead: Blaney makes his Cup debut at Kentucky this weekend.  He has two wins at the track in five XFINITY Series races, so it’s not like he’s going in sight unseen. The No. 21 has been the strongest car on this list at intermediates; given Blaney’s record at the speedway, a top 15 is easily obtainable.

Tweets of the week:

BK Racing
David Ragan, No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota
Matt DiBenedetto, No 83 Dustless Blasting Toyota

Looking back: Ragan led the BK pack with a 16th-place result after getting shuffled a bit in the closing laps. He led a lap early on and showed why the Georgian is considered one of the top plate racers in the game, no matter how underfunded a team for which he’s driving.  He’s 29th in points.

DiBenedetto’s night was marred by the lap-90 crash.  It didn’t end his race, but he spent much of the second half in the garage for front-end repairs, relegating him to 33rd, though running, at the end.  Prior to the incident, DiBenedetto had been running respectably in the low 20s. The damage also cost him a spot in points, falling to 35th.

Looking ahead: Like most on this list, BK has struggled at the intermediates, and the recently resurfaced Kentucky will be a challenge. Ragan’s numbers there aren’t terrible; he’s got a top 10 and a 22nd-place average, which would be an excellent finish for him this week.  DiBenedetto has just one appearance at the track, and he wound up 42nd after a crash.  Anest Iwata, the company that sponsored his run last year, is back for another go-round, and additional sponsorship is always welcome news for the team.

Tweets of the week:

The Motorsports Group
Josh Wise, No. 30 Curtis Key Plumbing Chevrolet

Looking back: The team doesn’t have a charter to fall back on, and as a result had an early exit from Daytona as Wise failed to qualify for the event.

Looking ahead: With just 40 on the entry list this week at press time, making the race won’t be an issue, but this team has been around for a couple of years and needs to show some improvement.  Wise’s 37th-place average at Kentucky suggests that this week will be a struggle for the team.  The goal should be to avoid trouble and learn to understand the track to help with future improvement, rather than a single good finish as that’s what will make this single-car effort stronger in the long run.

Tweet of the week:

Go FAS Racing
Bobby Labonte, No. 32 Ford

Looking back: This team has a driver-by-committee approach, with former Cup champ Labonte in the seat for restrictor-plate races.  The team has struggled even in the more equalizing plate races with its underfunded equipment, and Labonte’s top-25 run was a decent result.  Labonte scored a 24th-place finish despite being collected in a lap-155 accident; he limped to the finish line.  The driver provides the team with a veteran presence at the plate tracks that it needs, but overall, it’s a stopgap measure.

Looking ahead: Rookie Jeffrey Earnhardt returns to the seat this week with sponsorship from Keen and Visone RV.  Much like the No. 30 team, this group needs to finish the race with its rookie driver, bring home a clean racecar and gather information that will help it improve.  Whether the multiple-driver approach is the right one is a discussion for another time, but for now, a finish of 30th – 35th with a clean car is a realistic expectation.

Tweet of the week:

Front Row Motorsports
Chris Buescher, No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford
David Gilliland, No. 35 Shaw’s Southern Bell Frozen Foods Ford
Landon Cassill, No. 38 Taco Bell Ford

Looking back: Daytona can be the small teams’ best friend or their biggest enemy, as multi-car crashes collect as many innocent bystanders as combatants.  As far as the FRM group goes, the track was kindest to Gilliland, who suffered minor damage in the lap-90 melee, but recovered for a 19th-place result.

Cassill avoided crash damage but an electrical problem sent him to the garage for a new master switch at the cost of 42 laps.  Once the issue was fixed, he was able to run with the leaders, which was both satisfying and frustrating for the team as it had good speed; Cassill dropped a spot in points to 28th.

Buescher suffered from heavy damage in the lap-90 accident and finished 40th after running inside the top 5 for a number of laps early on.  He also dropped a spot in points to 34th.

Looking ahead: The two full-time FRM cars head to Kentucky this week.  Buescher has two top 10s in four XFINITY races at the track, making his Cup debut in the Love’s car this weekend. Cassill, who will sport MDS Transport as primary sponsor, has more experience, with a 28.8 average finish and a couple of laps led.  It’s reasonable to look for both FRM cars in the top 30 this week, and one in the top 25 would mark a decent day for a team that is showing improvement after a new alliance with an also-improving Roush Fenway Racing.

Tweets of the week:

JTG Daugherty Racing
AJ Allmendinger, No. 47 Kroger / Drumstick / Outshine Chevrolet

Looking back: Allmendinger has made no bones about his dislike of plate racing in the past, but perhaps a solid run at Daytona will sway his opinion a bit. Allmendinger did a good job of avoiding trouble nearly all night and was in contention for a top 10 if not for some involvement in a four-car incident on lap 155.  He still got a top 15 out of the deal, coming home 13th, and while he falls to 19th in points this week, it’s hard to count him out of Chase contention just yet. Even without a win – and the ‘Dinger is  the favorite to get one at Watkins Glen International next month – he’s only 16 points behind the last cutoff spot.

Looking ahead: The No. 47 has been consistently one of the two top teams on this list, running inside the top 20 in points and sitting just a smidge behind the Chase cutoff.  Like the No. 21 team, it’s in position to put itself firmly in the middle-tier camp along with organizations like Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports. As for Kentucky, Allmendinger has a 21.4 average finish and a top 10 in the bargain.  His team has run well at the intermediates this season, so a top 15 is definitely an obtainable goal, which would help keep the team in the Chase hunt.

Tweets of the week:

Yes, Allmendinger’s cat has his own Twitter.

Premium Motorsports
Reed Sorenson, No. 55 Royal Teak Collection Toyota
Cole Whitt, No. 98 RTIC Coolers Toyota

Looking back: It was a banner night for a team that desperately needed a good run, because it got two of them.  Whitt showed the talent that brought him to the Cup Series, finishing a career-best 11th despite minor damage from that lap-90 mess. He remains 36th in points but closed to just six markers behind DiBenedetto. Sorenson grabbed a season-high 22nd-place run in the No. 55 machine and moves up a place in points to 40th.  The team’s Twitter feed lit up after the race with congratulatory messages from friends and fans who understood what an accomplishment the night was, particularly for Whitt.

Looking ahead: Don’t expect a repeat of Daytona.  Both Sorenson and Whitt have Kentucky averages below 30th place, with Sorenson edging Whitt by one position, and this team has been far behind even the better small teams this season.  Both drivers completing the entire race inside the top 35 would be a decent goal for the team and its fans.

Tweets of the week:

Circle Sport Leavine Family Racing
Michael McDowell, No. 95 K-LOVE Radio Chevrolet

Looking back: McDowell is another driver who always does well when the plate tracks equalize the competition.  He was one of just a handful of drivers not listed in an accident report, and his skill in avoiding trouble along with Earnhardt Childress power under the hood paid off with the team’s first top-10 run of the year.  McDowell’s 10th-place finish was good for a two-spot pickup in points as he moves up to 33rd.

Looking ahead: This team has shown marked improvement this year, and while it’s struggled at Kentucky in the past (McDowell’s average there is 39th), it has better equipment thanks to its alliance with Richard Childress Racing. RCR will also put extra effort into the car this week with Ty Dillon behind the wheel and backing from Chevrolet. Look for Dillon inside the top 25; anything less, barring an incident not of Dillon’s doing, would be a disappointment.

Tweets of the week:

Small Team Photo of the Week:

A pair of childhood friends racing side-by-side on NASCAR’s biggest stage.

(Photo: John Harrelson/NKP)
(Photo: John Harrelson/NKP)
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About Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson
Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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