(Photo: Logan Whitton/NKP)

The Underdog House: Tracking NASCAR’s Small Teams From Indy to Pocono

Indianapolis represented a mixed bag for the small teams this week, with finishes ranging from 14th for rookie Chris Buescher to 40th for Matt DiBenedetto, thanks to an untimely engine expiration.  Indy is a tough track for teams that are a step or two behind the elite teams in both handling and horsepower, and next week at Pocono will be more of the same.  That’s not to say that an organization with a forward-thinking strategy who can avoid trouble can’t grab a good finish, because it certainly can.  It’s just more difficult than at a track where things are more equal.

As time ticks away before the Chase, there are still a couple of teams in this group who could sneak in a win. Ryan Blaney has looked strong enough at times that he could sneak one by the competition, and AJ Allmendinger is a perennial favorite at Watkins Glen, but for the most part, the Chase isn’t the end goal of the season, and making it so would be a mistake.  It’s not that these teams lack talent, because they don’t, but they do lack the resources that separate teams at this level of racing.

Tommy Baldwin Racing
Regan Smith, No. 7 Nikko / Toy State Chevrolet

Looking back: Smith’s race didn’t start particularly auspiciously, with his 37th-place qualifying effort, however, he was about to work his way forward throughout the day, up to about 25th.  Smith stalled briefly after a late restart, out of fuel, but his team got him back on track to finish 26th.  While that may not sound impressive, consider that Smith is one of just eight drivers who gained 10 or more positions during the race, a group that includes some of the top competitors in the sport.  It’s not easy to gain that much throughout a race.  Smith remains 32nd in driver points, three markers behind Buescher.

Looking ahead: In this group of drivers, only Clint Bowyer has a better Pocono average than Smith’s 20.8. He’s also got a top 10 at the Tricky Triangle in the 2012 summer race.  Don’t expect him to repeat either performance this weekend; he just doesn’t have the equipment to do it, but he can certainly take advantage of opportunities here.

Tweets of the Week:

Germain Racing
Casey Mears, No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet

Looking back: It’s becoming a bit of a pattern: Mears is fast in practice, but can’t find speed when it counts.   The difference at Indy is that while his qualifying efforts have generally been much improved in 2016, this week represented his worst of the year. On the bright side, Mears did improve during the race, gaining a total of 10 positions from start to finish. By late in the game he was racy enough to be vocally unhappy with the way NASCAR set the running order after a late Trevor Bayne crash.  The race, even with a 24th-place finish, represents perhaps a small gain for the No. 13 team in that they were able to make the car better through the day, but they’re still not getting the finishes they’re capable of. Mears dropped a points position to Tony Stewart and now sits 28th, seven spots lower than he was at this point one year ago.

Looking ahead: If Mears finishes 23rd, just ahead of his 23.5 average, it’d be a good day for a team that’s struggled hard in 2016.  He hasn’t finished better then 24th at a non-restrictor-plate track since Kansas in May, and the team needs to stop the bleeding.

Tweets of the Week:

HScott Motorsports
Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Accu-Doc Solutions Chevrolet
Michael Annett, No. 46 Allstate Peterbilt Group Chevrolet

Looking back: Overall, Indy was a very good weekend for this team as a whole.  While they didn’t put a car in the top 20, both drivers were inside the top 30 and both improved by a number of positions throughout the day.  Often, while Bowyer has run well, Annett as continued to struggle. In order for the team to really make gains, the two cars need to be closer, and that happened this week. Boywer endured a late lugnut penalty and took a slide in the grass with a spinning Bayne on a late restart, but rebounded to finish 21st while Annett came home 28th. Neither saw a change in points this week, with Bowyer in 26th and Annett in 37th.

Looking ahead: Bowyer is strong at Pocono, with a 14.5 average finish that’s good for ninth place among all active drivers with five or more starts.  He finished 18th in the first race at the triangle this summer, and a repeat performance would be a great day for the No. 15 group.  Annett’s 28th-place average may not seem like much, but it’s better than quite a few others in this group.  His crash in the spring race was his only DNF at the track. If he can driver a similar setup to Bowyer this weekend, he could finish higher in this group than he usually does.

Tweets of the Week:

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

Looking back: Blaney was the top qualifier in this group in 17th; he was competitive for a top-15 spot, despite some minor contact with Jeff Gordon that caused no damage.  However, the No. 21 car was collected in in Carl Edwards’ late crash, causing terminal damage.  Blaney was uninjured, but ended up 36th on the day, and the 20 points or so he missed out on also hurt. He drops from hovering near Chase contention on points to 19th, 22 markers behind Kyle Larson in the current cutoff spot. He’s now in a spot where he has to not only finish well every week to make the Chase, but also needs to see at least four other drivers falter.  He’s not in control of his Chase destiny right now.

Looking ahead: Blaney has just one Pocono Cup start, and he made the most of it, finishing 10th.  It should be a good place for him to make up some of the points he needs for a last-ditch Chase bid…or even the surprise win that puts him in for sure.

Tweets of the Week:

BK Racing
David Ragan, No. 23 Brandeis Machinery Toyota
Matt DiBenedetto, No 83 Science Logic Toyota
Ryan Ellis, No. 93 Science Logic Toyota

Looking back: It was a tough week for this organization.  Ellis qualified for the race in a third car and finished 32nd, but that was about as good as it got.  DiBenedetto went to the garage with an engine failure after just two laps to finish 40th, and Ragan hit the wall after a tire failure with 39 laps to go, ending his day in 37th.  The day is not indicative of the team’s 2016 performance and shouldn’t be construed as such. It was just one of those days all race teams experience over a season. The good news is, it didn’t cost either driver points position—Ragan sits 30th and DiBenedetto 36th.

Looking ahead: Ragan is one of a few in this group of drivers with a solid midpack average at Pocono at 23.2, a finish that would give him and his team a nice boost and one they are certainly capable of getting. DiBenedetto has a lot less experience at Pocono and got into the wall after a tire failure in the spring race. It will be worth keeping an eye on whether he can top his career-best 29th at the Tricky Triangle this week.

Tweets of the Week:

Every driver has fans out there…something television sometimes forgets:

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

Looking back: Wise failed to qualify at Indianapolis, his fourth DNQ of 2016.

Looking ahead: Wise has three straight top-30 runs at Pocono, and another would be a successful weekend for the team coming off the Indy DNQ.  However, in eight races, Wise also has five finishes of 35th or worse, so it’s definitely not a slam dunk.

Tweet of the Week:

Go FAS Racing
Patrick Carpentier, No 32 Can-Am / Kappa Ford

Looking back: Carpentier was an interesting choice to run the car at Indianapolis. He’s certainly got experience there, but mostly in open-wheel cars.  He’s also got stock car experience at a variety of tracks, so all in all, it wasn’t a bad direction for the team to go. At this stage it’s hard to say there’s much more to get out of the team’s equipment.  A technical alliance would go a long way in helping this team take a step forward.

Looking ahead: Jeb Burton will drive the No. 32 at Pocono this weekend.  He finished 29th in the spring race in the No. 32, and that would be a good run to repeat this week.  Burton is a talented youngster, but again, the driver is the team’s lesser concern at this point.

Tweet of the Week:

Front Row Motorsports
Chris Buescher, No 34 Dockside Logistics Ford
Landon Cassill, No. 38 Snap Fitness Ford

Looking back: Buescher had his best qualifying effort since Michigan, starting 22nd.  By the end of the day, he climbed to 14th, a career-best finish, and took rookie honors to boot.  Cassill also scored a top 20 Sunday, finishing 20th, so it was an excellent day overall for the organization, which has shown consistent growth this season.  Buescher grabbed two spots in points after his strong finish, climbing to 31st.  Cassill remains in 29th, just five points behind 28th-place Casey Mears.

Looking ahead: It’s hard to predict where this pair can run at Pocono.  Buescher finished 25th after suffering damage in a crash in the spring race, his first Cup start at the triangle.  Cassill has definitely struggled at Pocono with and average finish of just 31.4, but he’s also in the best equipment he’s ever had this season, so look for him to improve on that number this weekend.

Tweets of the Week:

JTG Daugherty Racing
AJ Allmendinger, Kroger / Kingsford Chevrolet

Looking back: Allmendinger started 35th but was climbing steadily through the field, making it up to 11th before his car had other ideas, after contact with Trevor Bayne damaged the radiator.  An overheated engine sent Allmendinger to the garage after just 71 laps.  The team needed a strong finish in order to resurrect any Chase hopes, but the mechanical failure kept Allmendinger mired in 21st place in points, 28 markers out of the top 20 and 51 out of the last Chase spot.

Looking ahead: Allmendinger needs another strong race to try and gain some momentum in the right direction.  He finished 16th in the spring race at Pocono and seventh in the summer race last year, so it could be the right place for a good finish to give his team a little late summer boost.

Tweets of the Week:

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

Looking back: After sitting out New Hampshire, Whitt snagged a top-30 finish Sunday, his fifth in the last six races.  That’s big for this team, which has struggled under a string of owners for survival in the Cup Series, and it certainly shows the talent Whitt is.  Sorenson battled his way to an overall gain of six positions. Teams have always used attrition to their advantage in this sport, and he was able to avoid trouble en route to 34th place. Whitt remained 35th in driver points after the race; Sorenson climbed two spots to 38th this week.

Looking ahead: Whitt has a top-30 average (27.7) in five races at Pocono, which is not at all bad considering the equipment he’s had there.  Matching that would be a big day for this team.  Sorenson has more experience at the track, with 12 Cup starts under his belt, but has averaged just under 32nd place, so he needs to find a little speed.

Tweets of the Week:

https://twitter.com/Matty_ice_412/status/757291823077490688

Circle Sport Leavine Family Racing
Michael McDowell, No 95 Thrivent Financial Chevrolet

Looking back: Mc Dowell scored a career-best Indy finish of 23rd Sunday, outracing several drivers in similar equipment on the way. Indy races a little like a road course in terms of strategy, and McDowell has done well on that type of track.  The team has shown growth with its technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing as well, and all in all, things are looking positive each week.  McDowell is 34th in driver points, but he’s run just 16 of 20 races (Ty Dillon ran the other four). Plus, he’s ahead of a handful of drivers with more races, so that’s a bit deceiving. On a personal note, the McDowell family grew by one this week with the addition of Lucas, the McDowells’ newly adopted son.

Looking ahead: McDowell’s Pocono average of 36th is also deceiving because of the team’s past struggles.  He finished 27th in the spring, a career best, and the team is certainly capable of a repeat performance.

Tweets of the Week:

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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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