Tommy Baldwin Racing isn’t used to competing in the top 5. Or the top 10. Or the top 20.
The No. 7 car has been soaked with seven different primary sponsors this year. With an average finish of 28.2, it hasn’t had much exposure in 2016 besides having an eighth-place finish during the season-opener at Daytona International Speedway.
A Hail Mary during the off-season took Alex Bowman out of the car, putting veteran Regan Smith in the ride. With Toy State/Nikko signed as a primary sponsor through 2017, the team gained stability before Smith took to the racetrack.
Come Pocono Raceway, just under seven months later, Smith’s team entered the 2.5-mile track with average expectations. A solid week is a top-25 performance. Usually, the organization excels at restrictor plate tracks, but as seen in the past, weather played a major role in Monday’s race, which was originally scheduled for Sunday afternoon.
Smith qualified 30th for the Pennsylvania 400, one position higher than he practice on Friday morning. The start was slightly above average for the No. 7 team, which has an average start of 31.8. Come Happy Hour on Saturday, he stabilized in the 30th position, running 19 laps as he prepared to run his 12th contest at the ‘Tricky Triangle.’
Seeing an improvement from June’s race, when Smith qualified 35th, the team was cautiously optimistic entering the race.
Throughout the day, Smith had an average run. The highest he ran prior to the final 10 laps was 24th on Lap 70. For the majority of the race, he circled around the 27th position, 1.2 spots ahead of his average on the year.
But with fog invading the Pocono Raceway, Smith’s crew chief and owner, Tommy Baldwin, made the call to stay out for a few extra laps. Being at the tail end of the lead lap, they topped off with fuel during the end of a caution spanning Laps 106 to 109, giving the team a little bit extra in case the rain didn’t end the race prematurely like the rest of the field believe.
Worst case scenario, they would have had to pit a few laps later than everyone else, going from 26th on Lap 120 to possibly a handful of spots back due to Smith’s competitors having fresher tires while he raced on 30-lap old scuffs.
Waiting on pit road in the midst of the fog and mist, Smith couldn’t help but smile and hope the race would be called. While it wouldn’t be a win, a top 5 would be a major triumph for one of NASCAR’s smallest teams.
“We were within five or six laps of having to pit, but it’s a credit to my guys for seeing the opportunity to do that strategy,” Smith said during a post-race press conference. “When you’re a small team working hard to try and go up against some of the bigger teams that we do, you’ve got to take the opportunities when they present themselves. Today, and this weekend in general, just kind of had that feeling to it with the rain on and off all weekend long. We were able to make the most out of it, and it’s something I’m proud of them for doing, and happy for Tommy.”
Smith ended the day in the third position, Tommy Baldwin Racing’s best finish in its 377th Sprint Cup Series race and the team’s first top 5 since Dave Blaney finished fifth at Talladega in Oct. 2011. For Smith, the top 5 is his first since 2012, when he finished fifth at Talladega in October, driving for Furniture Row Racing. On top of the rest of TBR’s big result, the No. 7 car was the highest finishing Chevrolet in the field.
Team effort: driver, spotter, crew chief and every person at-track and at the shop made this possible. https://t.co/yZX44RHQMp
— Tommy Baldwin Racing (@TBR_Racing) August 1, 2016
Smith was unemployed throughout the majority of the offseason, first receiving a call from Baldwin in late January to pilot the No. 7 car. The job was the best he would get after earning five victories in the XFINITY Series for JR Motorsports. The lack of sponsorship hurt his job hunt, but he is comfortable with where he is.
“I mean it’s always important,” Smith said on the importance of the top 5. “We’re building a small team and trying to make the next step and trying to climb a ladder, and that next step for us is just getting higher up on engineering support and trying to be more real time with the partners we have. We work closely with ECR and RCR on stuff, but there’s a lot of stuff that we can’t afford to get. If this can perhaps bring in a company that can take us to that next level, we’ve got great partners on the car as it is, but if we can do something to take it to that next level, then it’s only going to increase our performance.”
For a team with limited funding, every major finish of one that can help add partners. While a Chase berth is not on the team’s minds, it is an eventual goal for TBR.
Now that Smith has a home for at least the immediate future, he says he hopes this victory can build momentum. But more importantly, TBR now has the confidence it has worked for since its inception in 2009.
“Any good run is a big deal, and as I mentioned earlier, we’ve got ‑‑ I think we’ve got like 20 guys, 24 guys total on our team, and we were at a test at Watkins Glen last week, and I saw one team that had 24 engineers there, just to put it in perspective,” Smith said. “If we take 10 guys to the racetrack, we’re leaving 10 at home essentially working on the race cars and trying to get ready, and that means that your people have to do a lot more and work a lot more hours and really grind it out.
“Just for the shop alone to be able to say, hey, we had a good day, and I know everybody is going to say it was fuel mileage, it was rain, it was this, it was that. We had a good day, we stayed on the lead lap, did what we had to do, and we made some huge improvements to our race car from the last time we were at Pocono, and that’s the things I look at. I say, okay we were way more competitive today than we were two months ago, and that’s a gain.”