(Photo: Tony Lumbis Sr.)

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

So… what makes a small team? Yep, I addressed this last week, but again, we’ll give it one more time for those race fans who missed the last edition. I’m frequently asked how I categorize NASCAR’s teams, and I’m sure lots of people have a different definition, but 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 mid-tier teams.  They may have alliances with bigger teams, but that doesn’t mean they get everything 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 the teams who work with Richard Childress Racing; information is shared and parts and pieces are bought, but they’re ultimately in control of their own destiny, and 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, to me, the mark of a mid-tier team, such as Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports.  While the No. 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, jumping into the sport’s elite top 10 ranks, you won’t see teams added or subtracted from the list midseason.  It takes time to grow in the sport and sustain that growth.  Next year could see those team move of the list, and possibly others, like RPM, move onto it.

Tommy Baldwin Racing
Regan Smith, No. 7 Advance Auto Parts / Quaker State Chevrolet

Looking back: Smith started 33rd but moved up as the race went on before he endured a hard crash in the second half which relegated him to a 34th-place finish, and it did likely cost him some spots in the end.  Smith had been running in the mid-20s before the incident.  While 26th to 34th may not look like much on paper, Smith came out of the race just seven markers behind Brian Scott in points, so those eight points or so could have meant a spot in points.  Smith leaves Kentucky in 32nd, the same spot he came in.

Looking ahead: New Hampshire could represent an opportunity for teams this week.  Part short track, part speedway, it’s a track where if the car has speed, a driver can really capitalize.  In 11 Cup races at the Magic Mile, Smith has a top 10 and an average finish if 25.6.  If he can finish at that average, it would be a day to build on.

Tweet of the week:

Germain Racing
Casey Mears, No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet

Looking back: The hits just keep on coming for a team which entered the year looking ready to take a step forward.  What’s frustrating for the team and their fans is that it’s hard to say they’re not a better team than a year ago—Mears has very good speed in practices and ahs been qualifying better than a year ago…but then the race starts, and the team seems snakebit.  At Kentucky, Mears was forces behind the wall with a cracked left rear brake rotor.  The team replaced it and sent him back out, only to have a similar issue with the right rear rotor.  All in all the double part failure cost Mears 20 laps and while the 30th-place finish wasn’t as bad as it could have been thanks to even worse luck for several others, it certainly wasn’t a reflection of the team’s hopes going in.  Mears remains 27th in points but now has a difficult hill to climb to gain more spots this season.

Looking ahead: Mears is capable of running well and leading laps at Loudon, but it’s been feast of famine for him, with a couple of top tens but lead lap finishes in just half of his races.  He needs to finish better than his 25.3 average if he has any hope of making up ground in points.

Tweets of the week:

HScott Motorsports
Clint Bowyer, No. 15 AccuDoc Chevrolet
Michael Annett, No. 46 Pilot Flying J Chevrolet

Looking back: Kentucky was actually just what the doctor ordered for this team in the big picture. While Bowyer might have finished higher than 23rd if not for a flat tire, he also made a great save to keep the day from going South.  Annett followed up a season-best 20th-place at Daytona with a second-best 26th a week later.  Those kinds of steps which would seem insignificant to a larger team, are invaluable to this one, and if they can creep forward a spot or two each race for the remainder of the year, it’ll be an improvement over last year, which was an improvement over the year before. Bowyer dropped a couple of spots in points as Danica Patrick moved up, and is currently 25th…an improvement over last year for the team.  Annett still sits 37th and has a steeper climb ahead, but has shown he can claim some better finishes.

Looking ahead: Bowyer has been outstanding at NHMS in the past with a pole, two wins and more than 500 laps led on his Loudon resume. While those numbers came with richer teams, they’re a reminder of the talent Bowyer possesses and that, with a little luck and a car that’s decent, he can grab a great finish and solidify his points position. He’s got a 16th-place average, on par with some big names, and while a longshot, he’s worth keeping an eye on, because this might be his best shot at an upset. Annett has just four starts at NHMS, with an average of 31.5, so he’s got some work to do…but he has the perfect situation with Bowyer in the next hauler to learn from.

Tweets of the week:

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

Looking back: Kentucky was not kind to rookies Saturday night.  Blaney started in the top 15 but tangled with tangled with fellow rookie Chase Elliott just before the 100-lap mark.  The good news is that the team worked feverishly and got Blaney back on track, but at that point, all he could salvage was the designation of running at the end and a 35th-place result.  Overall, the bad news for Blaney is that the three spots he dropped in points after the crash cost him a provisional Chase berth, 24 markers behind Jamie McMurray, who currently holds the final points position as teams enter the final stretch of summer races before the Chase. While a top-20 points season would still be outstanding, Blaney will likely need a win to make the sport’s playoffs.

Looking ahead: Blaney has just one start at New Hampshire, and he finished 23rd.  He’s looking bounce back after a rough outing at Kentucky and he does have a top 10 at Loudon in trucks, so it could be a good weekend to find his mojo.

Tweets of the week:

BK Racing
David Ragan, No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota
Matt DiBenedetto, No 83 Inest Iwata Toyota

Looking back: Ragan had a solid weekend, finishing 22nd and leading a couple of laps along the way. DiBenedetto didn’t fare quite as well, with a tire failure sending him into the wall and out of the race on lap 81.  DiBenedetto dropped a spot in points after the incident, falling to 36th, while Ragan remained in 29th.  A top 30 points spot this late in the season is a big deal for BK Racing, and if Ragan can finish 30th or better, it would be a first for the team to score that high in driver points.  Remember, for these teams, it’s all about small steps.

Looking ahead: Both BK drivers have struggled at Loudon.  Ragan has one top 10 finish, in 2011, but has just seven lead lap finishes in 18 starts. DiBenedetto had a top finish of 32nd last season in two races.  The team has improved in a year, but this week will be a test.

Tweets of the week:

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

Looking back: A week ago, the No. 30 team packed up early after failing to qualify at Daytona, but this week brought a top-25 showing as Wise finished a season-best 24th and moved up a spot in points to 38th as well.  It was a showing that the team badly needed, and it showed the value of avoiding trouble, something that’s been largely forgotten in the sport in recent years as attrition is not usually a story as it was Saturday night.

Looking ahead: Wise is a driver who probably needs a race like Kentucky in order to capitialize on attrition.  He’s had a rough go at NHMS, posting 33.7 average in seven races.  While those have all come with underfunded teams, it would be difficult to predict more this time around.

Tweet of the week:

Go FAS Racing
Jeffrey Earnhardt, No. 32 Keen Parts / Visone RV Ford

Looking back: Earnhardt and Co. also showed that there’s a lot to be said for avoiding trouble on a night where trouble is waiting in every corner.  Earnhardt earned Rookie of the Race honors after his steady approach paid off as team after team encountered problems. If NASCAR gets back to a place where there’s more uncertainty on a weekly basis (which makes the racing more exciting for fans), it’s only a good thing for these teams, bringing them back to a place where the occasional strong finish isn’t such a rarity.

Looking ahead: K&N East veteran Eddie MacDonald will be behind the wheel this weekend for the No. 32.  In K&N East races dating back to the old Busch North days, MacDonald has amassed three wins and 14 top 10’s at Loudon, so he’s a good choice to bring the car home in one piece and maybe get a better finish than it would otherwise.  Changing the driver isn’t going to produce earth-shattering results, but it allows the team to evaluate its performance with a veteran.

Tweets of the week:

Front Row Motorsports
Chris Buescher, No 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford
Landon Cassill, No. 38 MDS Transport Ford

Looking back: Buescher was one of eight drivers who got a piece of a lap 93 crash that appeared to be triggered by Kyle Larson, and unfortunately for Buescher, it was a big piece. Buescher went to the garage scored in 34th for the night after running in the top 20 prior to the accident.  Despite a disastrous night Buescher gained a spot in points, taking over 33rd from Michael McDowell, who did not race. Cassill got some airtime later in the race for an impressive save with 80 or so to go, but that he had to make the save was an indicator of bigger problems, and Cassill got into the wall a few laps later, bringing out the 11th and final caution of the night and winding up finishing 29th.  Cassill held on to 28th in points, eight behind Casey Mears and eight ahead of David Ragan.

Looking ahead: Making his NHMS Cup debut this weekend, Buescher has a solid record at the track in XFINITY competition, with a top-5 finish and 9.5 average in two races.  It could be an opportunity for the rookie to get a great finish.  Cassill’s 31.8 Cup average comes with underfunded teams and if he and Buescher can work together this weekend, it could mean better numbers for Cassill as well.

Tweets of the week:

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

Looking back: Allmendinger was another of the eight drivers aught in an apparent Kyle LarsonBrian Scott scuffle; he got back on track but crashed again with just under 100 to go, ending his night and injuring his hand in the process.  Allmendinger was visibly very frustrated afterwards, throwing his gloves and steering wheel angrily, and he should be frustrated—he was inside the Chase cutoff on points a few weeks ago, but this week dropped to 20th.  Perhaps that’s more in line with expectations going into the season but it’s a bitter pill after a hot start.

Looking ahead: Allmendinger has a single top 10 at Loudon, but finds himself in a position where he needs a strong finish as he hasn’t finished in the top 10 since Kansas in May.  Perhaps where he’s running this summer is a better indicator of expectations for his team, but he showed they’re capable of more.

Tweet of the week:

Premium Motorsports
Reed Sorenson, No. 55 Chevrolet
Cole Whitt, No. 98 Speed Stick Chevrolet

Looking back: Whitt backed up a strong finish at Daytona with a strong finish at Kentucky, narrowly avoiding an eight-car incident and bringing his car home an impressive 21st, no small feat for this team on an intermediate track. He moves up to 35th in driver points, and perhaps more importantly, showed teams what he can do if given the right circumstances to work in. At just 25, Whitt still has plenty of years left and could be an asset to a bigger team.  Sorenson also had a top-30 night, finishing 27th, the first time that’s happened for this team on an intermediate track in 2016.  Sorenson is in a different situation than Whitt as he’s now 30 and has had a shot with a bigger team that he was unable to capitalize on, but he’s still a talented enough driver to be an asset to this team.  He sits 40th in points after Kentucky.

Looking ahead: Both Sorenson and Whitt have surprisingly good averages at NHMS with Sorenson’s 24.5 leading the way. If either driver can finish on his average it will be a good weekend for this group.

Tweet of the week:

Circle Sport Leavine Family Racing
Ty Dillon, No. 95 Chevy Summer Selldown Chevrolet

Looking back: Dillon took the wheel of the No. 95 this weekend, and while he was also listed with some involvement in the lap 93 dustup, he actually finished about where he’d ben running all night long.  So far, Dillon and McDowell have shown to be about equal in skill, and that’s a good thing for the team as it looks to remain consistent with two different drivers throughout the season. Dillon is ineligible for Sprint Cup points.

Looking ahead: McDowell is back in the car this weekend, but his past at NHMS isn’t pretty, without a single finish on the lead lap.  Nobody would like to improve those numbers more than McDowell, though, and between the team’s gains this year and his talent behind the wheel, expect a better finish than the numbers might suggest.

Tweet of the week:

Small team photo of the week:

Even from a distance and still in his helmet, the frustration in a night cut short is evident.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/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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