(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

The Underdog House: Tracking NASCAR’s Small Teams from Loudon to Indy

NASCAR has a few tracks that are fairly unique in layout.  Among those are both new Hampshire Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway-a flat one-mile oval with long straights and tight turns – think big Martinsville – and a huge, flat, rectangular behemoth with four separate corners and four straights to match.  These tracks are exceptionally hard on these teams, because there just isn’t as much information to process.  There isn’t always money for expensive equipment and wind tunnel time that larger teams take for granted. Sunday was an uphill battle for many on this list, and next week will bring more of the same, making the race within the race that these teams run against one another that much more important.

On a positive note, lack of money does not equal lack of talent, and former Tommy Baldwin Racing driver Alex Bowman gave viewers a reminder of that on Sunday at NHMS.  Filling in for the injured Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Bowman ran inside the top 10 for much of the day and looked ready to grab a top finish before a cut tire shuffled him back. His result was a reminder that no matter how talented the people are, if the equipment is limited, so too will be the results.

Tommy Baldwin Racing
Regan Smith, No. 7 APC Chevrolet

Looking back: Like many at New Hampshire this week, the team searched for ways to make the car turn better for Smith with limited success.  On one hand, it wasn’t a terrible day; Smith didn’t have mechanical trouble, wasn’t involved in any incidents on track, but they never made headway, running near their 32nd-place result all day.  On the plus side, the paint scheme honoring champion Modified team owner Mario Fiore, who passed away last month, made the car stand out in a great way. Smith remains 32nd in points but gained a few markers on 31st-place Brian Scott to sit just one point behind.

Looking ahead: As noted, Indianapolis is one of the unkindest tracks on the circuit for may teams, especially the ones with fewer resources to prepare.  Smith has been solid at Indy in the past though he hasn’t raced a Cup car there since 2012.  His best finish of third came with Furniture Row Racing, a team which was nowhere near the elite organization it has since become, so he’s capable of a good finish if the chips fall right.

Tweets of the week:
That paint scheme, though…

Germain Racing
Casey Mears, No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet

Looking back: New Hampshire was a race this team would probably like to forget.  Battling an ill-handling car all race, Mears at one point told his team “we need a miracle.” The team made massive changes during the race, but in a change from recent weeks, probably finished better than they should have in 27th. 27 was the number of the week for Mears, as that’s also the position he’s in in driver points, just six ahead of Tony Stewart.

Looking ahead: The positive for this team in 2016 is that they’ve improved drastically in qualifying, and if they can keep the momentum all weekend, they’ll get good finishes. Mears is one driver who truly appreciates the opportunity to race at Indy, where his family name is one of the biggest in track history.  He’s had some success there, with a pole and a top 10, and he’s never failed to finish a race at the big track.  He scored a top 20 last year, and if he can repeat that, it’ll be a good weekend.

Tweets of the week:

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

Looking back: This team has had some good runs in recent weeks, but this week was more difficult.  Bowyer’s 24th place was a good one for the team, though difficult for the driver, who sits 26th in points.  Annett, like most of the drivers on the list this week, was left searching for speed and never found much, finishing 33rd.  He sits 37th in driver points, last among drivers who’ve run every race this season.  Again, there has to be a question mark next to Annett: does he have the chops to take his team to the next level?  Justin Allgaier moved the team forward last year; Bowyer has done the same, but Annett hasn’t seen much improvement.  He brings sponsorship, and that’s a very important piece in today’s NASCAR, but will that be enough to sustain him long-term?

Looking ahead: In two Cup races at Indy, Annett has a 30.5 average finish, which would be a decent weekend for him if he can finish 30th or so this week.  Bowyer’s 12th-place average is among the top drivers in the series, and he’s got a pair of top 5s to go with it, so if the team can give him a competitive car, he could be among the top finishers in this group.

Tweets of the week:

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

Looking back: Despite being the lone driver busted for speeding on pit road this weekend and serving a pass-through penalty as a result, Blaney finished a solid 11th and took home the week’s rookie honors.  Blaney has done an admirable job of putting the No. 21 back on the map as it returns to full-time competition this season, and in a week when most other small teams struggled, this one quietly got stronger. The finish moves Blaney one step closer to Chase eligibility as he takes over 17th in points, just 16 behind 15th-place Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who’s currently the last driver with a provisional spot on points.

Looking ahead: Blaney finished 12th at the Brickyard last year, and there is no reason to think that he can’t repeat that, if not improve on it, this season.  He’s been strong on the bigger tracks, and could be mixing it up near the front on Sunday.

Tweets of the week:
Happy birthday, Glenn Wood!

BK Racing
David Ragan, No. 23 Flaming Leprechaun Toyota
Matt DiBenedetto, No 83 Cosmo Motors Toyota

Looking back: The weekend began with an excellent 16th-place qualifying effort by DiBenedetto, but the team wasn’t able to hang onto the speed. He slid back through the field all day long, losing a couple of laps to the leaders and coming home 31st. Ragan finished just a spot better on Sunday.  But in the big picture, it’s hard to say that this team isn’t getting better; on a bad day, Ragan still tied the team’s best NHMS finish in 2015.  In last year’s summer event, BK’s top car finished 35th.  That’s been the case for much of the year – the gains aren’t huge, but they’re there. Ragan dropped a spot in points as Tony Stewart grabbed two positions, while DiBenedetto remains 36th. One thing of note: Ragan mentioned on Twitter that the team brought cars that were built in-house this weekend, which is progress for an organization that’s been running old MWR cars.

Looking ahead: Ragan is another driver with some good Indy results: a top 10 and seven lead lap finishes in nine races, something that’s harder to do than it sounds.  Ragan’s experience will serve his team well this weekend, especially since DiBenedetto has just one previous start at the track.  They will need to work together to find the speed they need this week.  The team will race a third car, the No. 93 with Science Logic sponsorship, for driver Ryan Ellis this week as well; it will be Ellis’ Indianapolis Cup debut.

Tweets of the week:

Wait, there are people who don’t do this?:

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

Looking back: Wise barely got started in New Hampshire.  He qualified just 39th and an encounter with the wall ended his day as the team didn’t have the resources to get him back on track.  In the current NASCAR environment, it’s hard to say that the team isn’t benefiting at least somewhat from simply showing up as they make the show, but they’re not competitive even among most of the small teams. Wise sits 38th in points, the lowest position of any driver with 16 or more starts this season.

Looking ahead: This team will need to concentrate on making the race at the Brickyard as there are 41 entries this week, meaning someone will not compete.  Wise has fallen victim to qualifying a couple of times this year, so just getting into the race will be the team’s first priority.

Tweet of the week:

Um…ouch:

Go FAS Racing
Eddie MacDonald, No 32 Bentley’s Saloon Ford

Looking back: MacDonald was a good choice to race in a one-off this week since he’s run at New Hampshire for years in various divisions and has three wins there in K&N Pro Series East competition.  Unfortunately, his struggles at a track where he should have been able to outrace some of the immediate competition highlight the team’s overall weaknesses. The team has good people in place, making the results frustrating, but they operate on a shoestring, something the talent has not been able to overcome.

Looking ahead: The team will have an Indianapolis veteran in the car in the form of former IndyCar driver Patrick Carpentier.  Like MacDonald at NHMS, it’s not a bad choice as Carpentier knows the track well.  He’s only raced a Cup car at the track once, but he finished on the lead lap in 18th, a result that would be huge for this team.  Don’t expect that kind of run for Carpentier, but a top 30 isn’t out of the question if things fall the right way.

Tweet of the week:

Front Row Motorsports
Chris Buescher, No 34 CSX-Play it Safe Ford
Landon Cassill, No. 38 MDS Transport Ford

Looking back: Buescher was working his way forward after starting 35th when he spun on lap 100, fortunately not suffering major damage. Meanwhile, Cassill had a slightly better start but like so many others, struggled with a car that didn’t want to turn.  A missed lug nut on a late stop didn’t help and cost Cassill a lead-lap finish.  He lost a spot in points to a surging Tony Stewart, dropping to 29th, still a spot ahead of where David Gilliland sat with the same car a year ago), while Buescher held steady in 33rd.

Looking ahead: Cassill has a 28.8 average at Indy, and he’s in better equipment this season, so a top 25 certainly isn’t out of the question.  Buescher will make his Cup debut at the Brickyard, where he finished 16th in the XFINITY race last year and has a strong 13.5 average.  All in all, look for this team to be near the top of the class this weekend.

Tweets of the week:

JTG Daugherty Racing
AJ Allmendinger, Bush’s Grillin’ Beans Chevrolet

Looking back: Allmendinger qualified 10th for the weekend, and his run looked promising early as he ran inside the top 15 for 30 laps or so, but then faded as the handling went away. The team skipped a tire test at Indianapolis earlier in the week to focus on their program, and that will pay off down the road, but the die was already cast for Loudon.

“We fought the car being way too tight for AJ all day. We got a little behind on our track position,” crew chief Randall Burnett said in a team release after the race. “We took four tires that first pit stop instead of two, trying to make some bigger changes for him. Obviously, we never got our track position back. We just fought the car all day long – the setup. We’ve got to get the car better than that.”

Allmendinger dropped to 21st in points after NHMS, and it looks as though he’ll need a win to get a Chase bid.

Looking ahead: Allmendinger has run the brickyard in both NASCAR and IndyCar, and he’s got a top 10 in a stock car.  He’ll need a good finish this time around if he’s going to make up any ground on a Chase berth on points alone.  The team had a red-hot start to the year but has struggled in recent weeks.

Tweets of the week:

Premium Motorsports
Reed Sorenson, No. 55 Vydox Plus Chevrolet
Ryan Ellis, No. 98 Superlite Cars Chevrolet

Looking back: Regular No. 98 driver Cole Whitt sat out the weekend in favor of Ellis, who finished 37th, but offered a bit of explanation why in a tweet after the race: the team had only two sets of new tires for the race this weekend, putting them in position to compete on used rubber all weekend with teams making multiple tire changes.  That’s the reality for a few teams in this bracket, and it underscores how difficult it is to succeed in NASCAR’s top series but how hard teams work to try.  Sorenson, in a similar boat in terms of equipment, finished 35th.  He remains 40th in points (Ellis is ineligible for Sprint Cup points).

Looking ahead: with neither car guaranteed a starting spot this weekend, emphasis will be on getting both Whitt, who’s back in the driver’s seat, and Sorenson into the show.  Sorenson does have a solid 23rd-pace average at the track, though that’s largely thanks to his early days in better equipment.  Still, he  knows his way around the place and could pull off a surprise.

Tweets of the week:

Circle Sport Leavine Family Racing
Michael McDowell, No 95 Malwarebytes Radio Chevrolet

Looking back: McDowell qualified 27th and was feeling good about his car early, but an electrical gremlin got into the system, ending their day early in 39th place  The team changed the battery and alternator in an attempt to get the car under power, but in the end were forced to retire from the race.  McDowell remains 34th in points. On a personal note, McDowell’s family shared that they will be adopting a child from China, 3-year-old Lucas, to join their three children, Trace, Emma and Rylie.

Looking ahead: McDowell has struggled in his Indy starts, but with better cars this season, look for improvement this time around.  If he can snag a finish in the 23-17 range, it’ll be a good weekend.

Tweets of the week:

Small team photo of the week

Front Row Motorsports driver Chris Buescher puts on his game face.

(Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)
(Photo: Russell LaBounty/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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