(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

The Underdog House: Putting A Wrap On 2016

Think Small

It’s hard to believe the 2016 season is over—it seems like just yesterday that it began, full of promise and hope.  For some of the teams on this page, it’s been, by all counts, a good season—one of accomplishment and improvement.  For others it’s been a struggle, financial or performance, often both as they so may times go hand in hand. It’s been a season worth watching, though often, there isn’t much opportunity to watch these teams who go too often unnoticed on race day. In many ways, holding them to the same standards as teams with many times more money or personnel is short-sighted.  Get to know them, embrace them for who and what they are, and you will not be disappointed in what you find out.

It’s admittedly hard to watch these teams overshadowed by the bigger teams each week only to have those big teams play a role in undoing some of the things the smaller ones have built.  It would be interesting to see what Front Row Motorsports could do with continued, increased support form Roush Fenway, and if Buscher goes ot the main RFR stable next year, it could happen if the team and RFR decide to groom another of the RFR development drivers. But it could also go the other way, with FRM being left on an island to swim for themselves, and that’s an upstream swim.

It would also seem that Ty Dillon’s Cup plans will end up hurting a team and driver who don’t deserve it.  If the satellite teams really at Richard Childress Racing’s mercy on this one because they get equipment fro RCR, shame on the big team for taking advantage of the deal and using one of those teams (at the expense of a class individual either way) as a stepping stone instead of building a team of their own around Dillon or working with Circle Sport in that regard.  Whether it’s Casey Mears or Michael McDowell out of a ride or taking a big step backwards getting in the 33 car, it hardly seems fair to a pair of drivers who have brought their teams so far, starting with little more than nothing to do it.  They’ve both performed admirably, and one, at least, maybe both, will be shown the door as a result.  It doesn’t sit well.

Top of the Class: 2016

JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger: This team finished exactly where they should have in 2016, with a solid top-20 points finish for Allmendinger.  They didn’t find Victory Lane, but racked up a couple of top 5s and nine top 10s—more than two Chase drivers had. Allmendinger has been considered a road course specialist, but he was strong on ovals of all sizes this year as well.  The big question mark for 2017 will be whether a second car helps or hurts the team’s efforts.  All in all, 2016 was a great year for this team.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)
Best in Class: AL Allmendinger finished 19th in driver points, best among the small-team drivers. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Wood Brothers Racing; Ryan Blaney: There were undeniably some growing pains for the team as it returned to full time competition and some for the rookie Blaney as well, but they flirted with the Chase and looked like they could have stolen a win a time or two.  Blaney grabbed the team three top 5s and nine top 10s this year and with few changes on the horizon other than a new shop near technical partner Team Penske, next season should only build on this one.

Front Row Motorsports; Chris Buescher and Landon Cassill: This team really took advantage of the new Chase rules, landing a spot on Buescher’s Pocono win in August. Buescher, whose cars are prepared by Roush Fenway Racing, led that organization as well as FRM with his 16th-place points finish.  Buescher was also the only Cup rookie to win a race in 2016.  Cassill’s team didn’t have the level of partnership with RFR that the No. 34 team had, but he got the most out of his cars most weeks and had his best Cup season to date.  Buescher’s future is a bit of a question mark with Greg Biffle moving on from RFR, because he has to be a leading candidate for that ride, and Cassill hasn’t signed on yet, but the team would do well to keep him around.  There will be a couple of interesting drivers available if Buescher does move on, so this team is in a good spot. The key will be to build and to look for some top 15 finishes and the stray top 10 or two.

HScott Motorsports; Clint Bowyer: Bowyer has elevated his team to the next level, giving them their best points finish for a driver (27th) and grabbing some very nice finishes, considering the equipment.  While it wasn’t a year Bowyer will count among his best, he did a great job of taking the team a big step forward and showcasing his talent in that way.  He’ll take over the No. 14 from Tony Stewart next year, and look for him to remind everyone that he never really left.

Passing Grades

Germain Racing, Casey Mears: On paper, Mears should have had a season that mirrored Allmendinger’s—this team was poised to be a top-20 team a year ago, but while Mears did a credible job helping his team to improve their cars, they fell behind where they were last season. Mears’ strong finish to the season (he ran a solid 18th to finish the year at Homestead) wasn’t enough, though, as he’ll reportedly lose this ride to Ty Dillon despite signing a contract extension a year ago through 2018 along with Sponsor GEICO. Still, Mears should hold his head high; he brought the team from a start-and-park to one of the stronger teams in this group over the last five seasons.

Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell and Ty Dillon: This organization took a huge step forward in 2016, with McDowell having several career-best finishes for himself and the team.  Dillon also contributed a few decent runs to the cause and all in all, this was the most improved team of the year.  They didn’t quite match the performance of the top teams in this group, but they could in 2016 if they continue to move forward; The No. 95 will split from Circle Sport for next year and if they have the same technical alliance as this season with Richard Childress Racing, they’ll be fine.  Circle Sport will presumably run the No. 33 next season as its own entity.  McDowell’s future with the team has not been solidified; Mears has been rumored to be taking over the seat, but nothing has been announced.  Either way, Dillon’s arrival will leave a deserving driver out of his ride next year.

BK Racing; David Ragan and Matt Dibenedetto (Ryan Ellis, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Dylan Lupton, Michael Waltrip, Robert Richardson, Jr.): BK has definitely shown moments of real strength this season, perhaps most notable with DiBenedetto’s sixth-place run at Bristol in the spring.  The team had some very good finishes and improved a big step over 2015.  2016 is a question mark, though.  No plans have been announced, though Ragan has said he’s looking for a ride next year.

Needed Improvement

Tommy Baldwin Racing; Regan Smith: The Cup Series takes its toll on teams.  It’s financially draining, and there’s a point where no amount of talent or hard work can consistently overcome the reality of operating on a shoestring.  Smith drove a good season and brought the team a few good finishes—he’s a veteran driver who will no doubt be valuable to a team in the future.  TBR sold its charter at the end of the year and announced that they will not compete full time next season.  With a couple of teams expanding, the car count hasn’t changed yet, but this team should give pause about the real state of the sport.

HScott Motorsports; Michael Annett: Annett also showed improvement this season, but didn’t put together the season he was hoping for, even while teammate Bowyer was getting stronger.  Annett returns to the XFINITY Series fill time next year for title contender JR Motosports, so he’ll have good cars and a chance to race at the front.  Sometimes a step back isn’t really a step back…for Annett it could be a big step forward.  He’s a decent driver who lacks experience in good cars.  He’ll have that next year, and he should improve.

Premium Motorsports; Reed Sorenson and Cole Whitt (Ryan Ellis, Timmy Hill, Alex Kennedy, DJ Kennington): Realistically, owner Jay Robinson would have been better off keepinghis teams in the XFINITY Series, where they had slightly better results than they got at the Cup level.  Sorenson and Whitt put forth a valiant effort, and both are talented, but the team never had what it took to compete or even really improve.  Next year, with the return of a leased charter, the team could either have a bit less pressure to qualify each week and concentrate on race day, or they could see an influx of cast through the sale of the charter.

The Motorsports Group; Josh Wise (Gray Gaulding): Give it to this team, they joined the party late—they ran in 2015 but were a last-minute addition to the 2016 lineup.  At times they looked like there was going to be some improvement, especially with Wise earlier in the season, but they never had the funding to take things to the next level.  That’s the common denominator with all the teams who couldn’t quite eke out a passing grade, and as a result, futures aren’t on solid ground for anyone.

Go FAS Racing; Jeffrey Earnhardt (Jeb Burton, Patrick Carpentier, Joey Gase, Bobby Labonte, Dylan Lupton, Eddie MacDonald, Boris Said): Like the others in this category, this team was hampered more by lack of money than anything else.  There were some bright moments, and Jeffrey Earnhardt, in particular, shows promise in that he’s obviously dedicated to learning the Cup Series and communicating with his team.  Still, the team as a whole didn’t show improvement over 2015, and that’s troubling.  The team hasn’t made an announcement regarding next season yet, but they have said they’ll consider selling their charter.

In the News: Silly Season got underway before the dust settled at Homestead, with Greg Biffle announcing his departure from Roush Fenway Racing, the team he’s raced with for 19 years.  While Biffle hasn’t formally announced his plans, there’s been wide speculation that he’ll land in the second car at JTG Daugherty Racing as teammate to AJ Allmendinger.  Biffle, the olderst full-time Cup driver, would certainly bring a wealth of veteran knowledge to the team if that is where he lands.

Say Anything

Nice:

What it’s all about:

When it’s been a difficult year but your best friend won the championship (again):

At the end of the day, everyone should be able to say it’s been fun:

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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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One comment

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    How about Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson’s current relationship…a lot of rumors out there, wonder what is true and what is not. Jimmie was vocal about HMS not sharing info; Stew-Haas goes to Ford; obviously Chicagoland incident 2015 still lingers in the minds of some. Harv didn’t really comment on 7x other than a congrats tweet which was more about the #4 season. Seems like a storyline heading into Vegas and of course 2017 season??