(Photo: Logan Whitton/NKP)

The Underdog House: Tracking NASCAR’s Small Teams from Pocono to Watkins Glen

Tommy Badwin Racing
Regan Smith, No. 7 APC Chevrolet

Looking back: Chris Buescher wasn’t the only small-team driver who scored a top finish Monday. Smith’s third-place run ties his organization’s best finish ever and marks TBR’s top finish not on a restrictor-plate track.  Sound strategy played into the team’s hands and Smith walked away with his best Sprint Cup finish since Indianapolis in 2011.  It was an exceptional day for the organization – they played a strategy that nearly everyone in the field could have also capitalized on, but chose not to.  In other words, it was brains that won the day for the team.  Smith remains 32nd in points, nine behind Chris Buescher.

Looking ahead: Despite a top-10 run in five races, Smith’s average finish at Watkins Glen is 28th.  A finish in that vicinity wouldn’t be a bad day, and a finish a few spots better, say, 25th, would be a decent one. He’ll be running another special paint scheme this weekend, too, this time a tribute to Modified standout Donald “Dutch” Hoag.

Tweets of the Week:

Germain Racing
Casey Mears, No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet

Looking back: Mears said his car was too loose in the first half of the race, but it was fairly fast, and he raced his way into the top 20 after starting 20th and dropping back a bit early.  Late in the race, Mears reported that he thought something broke on the car as the handling changed drastically. The change in the car and the early call relegated Mears to a 21st-place finish, a few spots below what the team thought they could manage. Part of that is good news, because the team has struggled to find handling this summer.  Mears remains 28th in points, 23 behind Tony Stewart.

Looking ahead: Mears is not considered a road course ace, but he’s a steady, solid driver at turning both ways.  His team has fought some terrible luck, so a finish on his average at the Glen (18.5) would be a good day.  A great one would be if he can add a second career top 10 to his Watkins Glen resume.

Tweets of the Week:

Because nothing says creepy like making your crew chief look like a character in a horror movie.  And we won’t even mention the faceless guy in the background…

HScott Motorsports
Clint Bowyer, No. 15 5-hour Energy Chevrolet
Michael Annett, No. 46 Allstate Peterbilt Group Chevrolet

Looking back: Bowyer’s group has been improving this season and have had some solid finishes.  This week’s 26th place wasn’t bad for a team that doesn’t have the horsepower that a lot of the competition does, and perhaps the more important piece to the puzzle is that Annett also finished in the top 30, in 29th with new crew chief Mike Hillman, Sr.  The teams have been closer to each other in recent weeks, something that could indicate overall improvement is beginning to take place.  With Bowyer moving on at the end of the season, the more the team can learn now, the better off they are. Bowyer took a spot from Aric Almirola in points, moving up to 25th, while Annett remained in 37th spot.

Looking ahead: Bowyer’s not quite as stellar at Watkins Glen as he is at Sonoma, but he’s got a top 5 and four top 10s in 10 races, so it’s safe to expect a solid finish in the No. 15 camp.  Annett has struggled at the road course in two previous starts, averaging 31st place, so if he can beat his average by a couple of spots, it’ll show growth.

Tweets of the Week:

Bowyer, he speaks the truth.

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

Looking back: Blaney had some early contact with rookie rival Chase Elliott, but got away from real trouble.  He ran in the top 15 for most of the day, and it looked as though he’d earn Rookie of the Race honors until Chris Buescher stole his thunder.  Blaney finished a respectable 11th, moving into 19th in points, tied with 18th-place Trevor Bayne, who gets the tiebreaker.  The current Chase cutoff is 15th-place Kyle Larson, and Blaney’s 28 points behind Larson, leaving a Chase berth is iffy, at best.

Looking ahead: Blaney’s a rookie, but that goes double for Watkins Glen. He hasn’t raced the track in any NASCAR series, so this weekend will be a learning experience compared to his fellow rookies, both of whom have raced WGI in the XFINITY Series (Buescher has a Cup start as well).  Blaney’s no slouch on a road course, though, with one win in two road races in the Camping World Truck Series and a top 5 in his only NXS road course run.

Tweets of the Week:

How about that Darlington paint scheme?  This team can go retro because this team is retro in a good way!

Fans get excited to meet drivers, but drivers have some fan moments too:

BK Racing
David Ragan, No. 23 USA Network Toyota
Matt DiBenedetto, No 83 EJ Wade Construction Toyota

Looking back: Pocono was not particularly friendly to this team.  DiBenedetto’s 28th-place run was the team’s top performance, and it’s not bad, given the current level of competition. But the team has shown they’re capable of putting both car inside the top 30, and at least one in the top 25.  This week, with Ragan’s 32nd-place run, wasn’t one to remember, but a year ago, it was difficult to expect better. So in that light, the team has come quite far this season. Ragan sits 30th in points, six ahead of Chris Buescher, while DiBenedetto remains 36th.

Looking ahead: This weekend will be a challenge for Ragan and DiBenedetto, but not an insurmountable one.  In nine trips to upstate New York, Ragan has not scored a top 10 and has an average finish of 24.9.  In his first trip to the track last year, DiBenedetto finished 26th.  Matching those numbers is definitely an attainable goal this weekend, but there is a lot of good competition for those low 20s finishing slots.

Tweets of the Week:

Surprise!

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

Looking back: Even while trying to take advantage of attrition, Wise struggled at Pocono, running off the pace all day and finishing six laps behind the leaders on a day where 28 cars finishe on the lead lap.  This team does the best they can with what they’ve got, but they’ll be one of the open teams affected by a possible additional team at Furniture Row Racing next year, which will add a team to the field, either directly, or by buying a charter from someone else.  Either way, the No. 30 is one of the teams that will likely miss a few races with increased competition in qualifying. Thanks to Reed Sorenson’s early exit, Wise did gain a spot in points, moving into 38th.

Looking ahead: To be fair, it’s hard to say what Wise is really capable of. He has a 38th-place average in two races at WGI, but he’s been in some of the most underfunded equipment in the garage in the process.  Given this team’s struggles this season, a top 35 not due to attrition would be a fair day, and somewhere in the 35th – 40th range if there are not a lot of dropouts is realistic.

Tweet of the Week:

Go FAS Racing
Jeb Burton, No 32 Erie Insurance Ford

Looking back: Burton also struggled this weekend, running in the mid 30s even before contact with Aric Almirola damaged his Ford and sent him in for lengthy repairs.  Burton was running at the end, a testament to his team’s hard work, but he was managed only a 36th place finish. Burton is ineligible for Cup points.  He’s a talented driver, despite the result, and this team would do well to put him in the seat more often.

Looking ahead: Road course specialist Boris Said takes the wheel this weekend, so this team could be in for one of its better finishes on the year.  Said’s Cup numbers at the Glen aren’t as stellar as many people think, with just one top 5 and two top 10s in 15 races, but he knows his way around the track.

Tweet of the Week:

Front Row Motorsports
Chris Buescher, No 34 Dockside Logistics Ford
Landon Cassill, No. 38 MDS Transport Ford

Looking back: Buescher had a smoking tire after contact on a late restart, but it was fog that put his name in the record books.  With the possibility of foul weather a constant threat Monday, veteran crew chief Bob Osborne played a fuel strategy that had Buescher in the lead when heavy fog rolled in, and the lead was where he would stay.  When the race was called, he had the win.  And there are no cheap wins at this level.

Osborne, a veteran who has won races with Carl Edwards, knew how to make the most of the day and did it.  Several teams had the same opportunity and failed to take a gamble of their own. It’s no fluke when a team nails a strategy, it’s preparation. Teammate Cassill  got a flat tire in the same lap 95 dustup, losing a lap as a result and finishing 30th.  Buescher isn’t in the Chase yet; he’s six points behind the 30th-place cutoff in 31st, while Cassill is 29th, 29 point ahead of David Ragan and 14 behind Casey Mears. Don’t count Buescher out yet; he’s improved a lot this summer and his results have climbed the ladder in recent weeks.

Looking ahead: Buescher has just one start at the Glen and he finished 37th.  Should fans expect better this time?  Absolutely.  Buescher has a top 5 in his two NXS starts at the track, and he’s shown steady improvement this summer.  He can gain the six points he needs on David Ragan this weekend if he plays his cards right.  Considering his equipment, Cassill also has some decent numbers at the track, averaging inside the top 30 with a 28.8. in four races.  He’s also capable of a strong day, something this team is quietly putting together more often lately.

Tweets of the Week:

JTG Daugherty Racing
AJ Allmendinger, Scott Products Chevrolet

Looking back: Allmendinger ran in the top 10 in the first half on a track that’s a little bit like the road courses where he excels in terms of strategy.  He faded a bit around the halfway point, but grabbed some spots as the race wound down, winding up 14th and with a bonus point for leading a lap.  Allmendinger’s chances of making the Chase on points, for which the team had high hopes after a hot start to 2016, have all but evaporated, but his best track looms.  He’s 21st in points, but a win would give the team its second Chase bid in three years, an impressive feat.

Looking ahead: With a win, four top 10s and 10.1 average in seven races, it’s safe to say that Allmendinger isn’t just a dark horse at the Glen – he’s a bona fide favorite to contend.  Look for this team to do everything in its power to get to Victory Lane Sunday.

Tweets of the Week:

A tribute to an old friend:

Premium Motorsports
Reed Sorenson, No. 55 Vydox Plus Chevrolet
Cole Whitt, No. 98 Chevrolet

Looking back: Sorenson didn’t have enough laps to say whether he’d have a decent day; his engine gave up after just 29 circuits, leaving him last on the score sheet, exactly where he started.  Whitt fared a bit better than his teammate, finishing a lap down in 31st, but the weekend was a bit of a fall back to Earth after a couple of strong weekends this summer.  Whitt sits 35th in points, while Sorenson dropped to 39th after his early engine failure.  This team is another one which will likely suffer from the addition of another open team in 2017;  it could sell its one charter outright (it’s leased this year) if the price is right or use it to keep the team in the game next year as competition for starting spots becomes an issue.

Looking ahead: Sorenson has a 25th-place average at Watkins Glen but will not be in the seat as youngster Alex Kennedy, a strong road racer, will pilot the No. 55 this week.  Whitt has just two races at the track, with an average finish of 32nd.  One car in the top 30 would be a realistic goal for this team as they continue to seek improvement.

Tweets of the Week:

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

Looking back: McDowell has quietly taken some good finishes this year, and Monday at Pocono was another one of those days as McDowell took home a 23rd-place run, even after some mid-race struggles which dropped him back to around 30th for a time.  If anyone still doesn’t think alliances with bigger teams are key for these teams, look no further than this one.  They’ve improved by leaps and bounds over 2015 thanks to help from Richard Childress Racing.  McDowell is 34th in points, but he’s also run four fewer races than the drivers ahead of him – and a few behind him – as Ty Dillon ran the car instead.  He’s only 19 behind Brian Scott, who has run 21 races to McDowell’s 17.

Looking ahead: Allmendinger is the first driver in this group most people think about on a road course, but McDowell is also an outstanding road racer. In stronger equipment in the XFINITY Series, he’s got three top 5s in 12 road course races, along with five top 10s and a couple of poles.  This team has improved this season with RCR equipment, so a top 20 is certainly not out of the question.

Tweets of the Week:

Photo of the Week

Teammates.

2016 Pocono II CUP Chris Buescher Landon CAssill 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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