Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Are Small-Time NASCAR Drivers Damaged Goods?

Think Small

It’s an easy mistake to make: falling into the trap of thinking most of the drivers racing for NASCAR’s smaller teams are damaged goods.  Sadly, it’s one that even team owners often fall into.  How often have young, talented drivers taken rides in this group hoping for some exposure only to be overlooked?  Sure, a few of them had a shot with a larger team, but others have never had an opportunity come along.  Even the drivers who had elite rides weren’t necessarily dismissed because they weren’t able to get the job done; a couple of them were solid top-15 performers.

The frustrating part is that most in this group probably won’t get the opportunity they’re hoping for, which is a shame because they are very good drivers. Landon Cassill and Matt DiBenedetto, in particular, have hinted at loads of talent beyond what their equipment is capable of.  Michael McDowell falls into that group as well, along with Cole Whitt.

Yet they’re often overlooked, even for good XFINITY or Truck rides.  It’s likely that most of the younger drivers in the group would take a championship-contending opportunity there, but even those seem to be recycled among other drivers as well.  It would be great to see a team owner look long and hard at this bunch, giving somebody a chance to break the stereotype.

Top of the Class: Martinsville II

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)
Michael McDowell had another impressive run at Martinsville despite feeling under the weather. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Another week, another top 10 for AJ Allmendinger.  The No. 47 team posted their eighth top 10 of the season Sunday, the most the driver has had since he had ten in 2011.  Allmendinger was fast all weekend at Martinsville, starting fourth and running with the leaders all day. Michael McDowell brought home a top 20, finishing 18th despite battling pneumonia and strep throat as well as heat exhaustion and burns to his feet during the race. He was taken to the infield care center on a stretcher after the race but was released later that night.

Allmendinger and Michael Annett also made visits to the infield care center after the race. For Allmendinger, it was dehydration that reared its ugly head while Annett got treated for carbon monoxide inhalation.

Back to the on-track results. Ryan Blaney also cracked the top 20 on Sunday as well, finishing 19th after battling for position in the mid-teens all day long.  It was another strong effort for Blaney who is having a more than respectable rookie season. Finally, while he didn’t have a top 20 (21st) add Casey Mears to this group as well. He had a top-15 car, then was working his way forward when he had a tire go down.

That issue for Mears was later diagnosed by Goodyear as a manufacturer defect, so the issue was in no way the No. 13 team’s fault. Mears passed every car he could have passed after his issue, including running down Chaser Kurt Busch in the closing laps.

Passing Grades

One aspect of short track racing that makes racing difficult is that cars are lapped quickly and often, even if they’re decent cars, and it’s not uncommon to see a driver on a lap with maybe one or two others, making it hard to gain position. That was the case for Chris Buescher (27th) and Clint Bowyer (28th) at Martinsville Sunday. Bowyer was another driver who had a good run going early but had problems later in the race that cost him a better finish. Landon Cassill (29th) and Regan Smith (30th) also wound up on a lap of their own but squeezed inside the top 30 by race’s end.

Needs Improvement

BK Racing has fielded a third car at times this season if there’s sponsorship, and that was the case this week with Dylan Lupton, who ran 31stMatt DiBenedetto finished behind Lupton in 32nd, while David Ragan, who had a great start to the weekend, qualifying 12th, had mechanical problems which dropped him to 38th.  It’s worth wondering if the third car puts a undue strain on the other two.

Jeffrey Earnhardt finished 32nd Sunday.  Earnhardt has struggled in his equipment but his detailed communication to the team continues to be outstanding; that’s not something every driver can do when frustrated by his stuff, so it’s worth noting.  Also struggling Sunday were Reed Sorenson in 38th and Michael Annett in 35th (who wasn’t feeling well after damage to his car allowed for some carbon monoxide getting into his cockpit; it sounds like an XFINITY Series ride could be in the cards for him, and that might be a good move).  Persistent gear problems sent Gray Gaulding in and out of the garage several times in his Cup debut, but Gaulding did a good job of racing the track when he could in the No. 30 The Motorsports Group Chevrolet. He wound up 39th.

In The News

As noted above, McDowell, Allmendinger and Annett were treated and released from the infield care center after Sunday’s race.  McDowell, who had to be taken to the care center on a stretcher, suffered burns to his feet but is not expected to miss any seat time.

Add David Ragan to the list of drivers unsure of what 2017 will hold.  Ragan said last week that he currently has no Cup plans for next season, though he would not rule out a competitive XFINITY or Truck ride if one came along.  Other potential free agents in this group include Regan Smith, Landon Cassill, McDowell, Annett, Earnhardt, Sorenson and Cole Whitt.  Casey Mears has a contract through 2018 but could end up looking as well if Ty Dillon takes over the No. 13.

Say Anything

Good attitude from a driver just starting out.

That’s quite a ride, there.

Can anyone else say it better about that 29-lap caution for NASCAR to set the running order?

Short track – long day.


About the author

Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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I always enjoy reading your articles. I know it’s “the chase”, but as an AJ fan I feel like if you’re not in the chase you hardly get a mention. This goes for most of the independent teams. Wouldn’t the sponsers love to see the car they are sponsoring at least once on TV? After running out of gas, we never saw AJ’s car again, although he did finish 10th. Thank you for giving the underdogs a place in the media!

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