Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway, with its shift from day to night after an hours-long rain delay, did do one thing well: it showed a clear disparity between the elite teams and those striving to reach that mark one day.
The intermediate tracks are plentiful on the Cup schedule simply because most of them sit in the larger markets for the sport. They were built so that these areas could host several different races, including NASCAR, open-wheeled IndyCar or (at the time many were built) Champ Cars, even sports cars on infield road courses or Legends and Bandolero divisions on quarter-mile tracks built into the frontstretches.
It’s a great business plan if you’re a track owner, but it does no favors to anyone else, including race teams and fans.
The saying “money buys speed” is never more apparent than at these tracks. Elsewhere, the restrictor plate tracks bring the closest thing to equality. Teams can be competitive at the short tracks and road courses if they have a talented driver and make the right decisions. But hit the ovals from a mile and up? It becomes more about making do and hanging on for NASCAR’s smaller teams.
So much comes together to make a racecar fast beyond the driver and crew — information, equipment and support, and a lot of that comes before the haulers even leave for the track. The bigger teams have more of all of it, and when there’s a big change on race day, like a major time shift, they have everything they need to adjust from day-racing trim to night-racing trim without losing much. Sure, some organizations will cope better than others, and it could change the face in Victory Lane, but it can also destroy a smaller team. Several cars who ran well in practice and qualifying couldn’t find the magic when night fell on the race and the track got cooler and fuller of grip, taking the racing further from the drivers’ hands than it already is. Repaving tracks like Texas will only make the disparity worse.
Top of the Class: AAA Texas 500
Only two drivers in the small-team group made the top 20 Sunday. Ryan Blaney ran a respectable 12th after qualifying eighth for the Wood Brothers. AJ Allmendinger, who had hopes of setting a team record for JTG Daugherty Racing with four straight top-10 finishes, started 14th but was never able to find what he needed, winding up 17th. That’s not a bad finish for the No. 47 at Texas; it was still a downer, though for the team after hopes of another great finish heading toward the season finale in two weeks.
From this group, a top-30 run was passable on Sunday after the rain delay. Chris Buescher was strong at his home track, racing forward from a 30th-place start to finish 21st. His result was in line with the Roush Fenway Racing bunch, and RFR prepares Buescher’s cars. So in that context, it was about where he should have finished.
Michael McDowell also had a strong run with his 23rd-place result. His No. 95 team has been the most improved in this group in 2016, impressive for a group that has never run a full schedule and was a start-and-park operation just a couple of years ago. Even with question marks about his future, McDowell had a good enough run at a track where he survived the scariest crash of his career.
Clint Bowyer gave his HScott Motorsports car another top 25 even as the team’s future has become a big question mark. Regan Smith (26th) and Landon Cassill (29th) also scored passing grades this week.
Among the teams finishing 30th or worse this week were a pair who get a bit of a bye, but for the most part, this group ran about where they should have. Michael Annett (32nd), David Ragan (33rd), Reed Sorenson (35th), Joey Gase (36th), Ryan Ellis (38th) and Josh Wise (40th) didn’t show that they were capable of better throughout the weekend, but they’re all held back by their equipment each week. Jeffrey Earnhardt could fall under that umbrella as well, but he was a last minute-fill in for Matt DiBenedetto after DiBenedetto suffered a concussion in the XFINITY Series race on Saturday. That left Earnhardt with the challenge of driving a car set up for someone else as well as a new crew, so while the team might need improvement overall, Earnhardt is exonerated this week.
Finally, Casey Mears had a top-15 car… for the day race. He faded to the mid-20s under the lights, but his 39th-place finish came about after a chain reaction to a crash in front of him that was no way Mears’ fault. What still would have been a decent finish instead ended up being the second time in three races that Mears finished at the bottom of the score sheet through no fault of his own.
In the News
DiBenedetto sat out the Cup event at Texas after medical personnel didn’t clear him to race following a crash during Saturday’s XFINITY 300-miler that left the youngster visibly shaken. 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski was vocal about that after DiBenedetto stated on his Twitter account that he felt fine. However, the medical personnel made the right call for the safety of all involved, as post-concussion symptoms such as confusion or even blackouts are a concern even after the initial injury. DiBenedetto will have to undergo an evaluation from a qualified neurologist before being cleared to race at Phoenix this weekend.
HScott Motorsports becomes the latest team to admit that its future is in jeopardy. Bowyer will leave the team for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2017, a move that was planned from the start, and this week Annett announced that he will drive full-time in the XFINITY Series for JR Motorsports next year, joining former HSM teammate Justin Allgaier. Team officials have not confirmed the team’s status for 2017.
Some one got paid 3 million dollars to do this? WTF pic.twitter.com/8XBUYf5dZM
— Clint Bowyer (@ClintBowyer) November 2, 2016
Yeah, what he said.
Very excited for the future! https://t.co/WJpCWXyC2d
— Michael Annett (@MichaelAnnett) November 4, 2016
As he should be.
I was intimidated. pic.twitter.com/DBzU6LK8z0
— Ryan Blaney (@Blaney) November 6, 2016
With good reason. That guy can kick some butt.
When crew guys have time to think about stuff during rain delays.
👀 you safety wire my car right?? https://t.co/tZiXdH5enp
— Casey Mears (@CJMearsGang) November 6, 2016