NASCAR’s small teams…a group that makes up close to half the field on any given Sunday and yet they might as well be invisible most of the time for all you see them on the race broadcasts. It’s a shame that fans don’t get the opportunity to get to know these teams and drivers to the same extent as the bigger names. There are some great stories and fantastic people on both sides of the garage.
Let’s talk about how these teams are classified for this column, because there’s not a concrete definition to go on, and everyone’s list will vary a bit. I go by a couple of criteria: money (which translates into equipment) and week-to-week performance. For the sake of consistency, I’m not going to drop teams (or add them) week to week; the teams on the list will remain there—we’ll take stock midseason and make any adjustments then, but the purpose here is for fans of these teams to have a place to look every week where you know you will see your teams covered.
The first concern here is budget. For the most part, the small teams have a much smaller budget—a third to a half and sometimes much less—of what the bigger teams have to operate with. Those numbers aren’t released, of course, so it’s a bit subjective, but think of it like this: nobody runs inferior equipment if they have the money to run something better. Speed, in racing, has always been for sale, and the more money you have to spend on it, the faster you can go.
That leads to performance. For the most part, the small teams run in the 20’s or lower on a weekly basis. That’s not to say that anyone on the team, including (and maybe especially) the drivers, are not capable of more, but the equipment may not be. They’ll grab the occasional top 20 when the opportunity presents itself; some will do better than that. Teams that wholly belong in this category on a weekly basis can win and have won races, but on a weekly basis, they aren’t there. Even a playoff bid alone won’t change a team’s status (you will most certainly see the No. 34 team on this list, for example), but sustained excellence can and will (three or four years ago, Furniture Row Racing was most certainly among these teams; now they’re among NASCAR’s elite).
There is disparity even among these teams — some have a lot more to work with than others. There are a couple capable of a win and the layoff berth that comes with it, and others who would need a miracle to pull it off. That’s not necessarily reflective of the talent on any given team. Money does most certainly not equal talent. That’s something you will hear a lot in this column. You can buy speed. You can’t buy ability to that extent. Sure, money will get you Jimmie Johnson. But remember, there was a time when Johnson also drove for a team that was far from elite. He didn’t suddenly get more talented when he joined Hendrick Motorsports’ he got better cars to show it in.
By that token, while sometimes circumstances toss a curveball in the works, calling a surprise performance a fluke doesn’t sit quite right. Take Chris Buescher’s win at Pocono last year. The circumstances were far from normal (I don’t remember a fog-out in recent history), and it’s probably the truth to say that without the wacky weather, Buescher would not have won. But he and his team played their cards perfectly, something every other team had the same opportunity to do…and didn’t. Shame on them, but the circumstances should not make Buescher’s win somehow less than any other. Wins and top finishes are about playing the game the best on any one day. Anyone can do that, though the top teams will do it ost of the time simply because of the cost of speed. Don’t mistake underfunded for untalented; that’s rarely the case. Sometimes a top-15 by one of these teams is more impressive than a top-10 by the elite. It’s a matter of perspective.
So, who’s on the list for 2017?
Top of the Class: These are teams to keep an eye on because they have the best opportunity to move off this list—a couple have an outside shot at pointing their way into the playoffs, or sneaking in with a win. All have a strong affiliation with a bigger team but still have yet to prove themselves on a regular basis.
Wood Brothers Racing: No. 21 Ford, Ryan Blaney
JTG Daugherty Racing: No. 37 Chevy, Chris Buescher (new team for 2017) and No. 47 Chevy, AJ Allmendinger
Leavine Family Racing: No. 95 Chevy, Michael McDowell
Germain Racing: No. 13 Chevy, Ty Dillon
Richard Petty Motorsports: No. 43 Ford, Aric Almirola
Looking for More: For now, we’ll put the rest of the teams here; with off-season changes, it’s hard to tell who will show improvement this year and who will stay static or get stuck in a rut. On a weekly basis, we’ll sort them out more in depth. These are full-time teams (or at least those who have declared full-time intentions); we’ll certainly look at the part-timers in the race every week as well.
Tri-Star Motorsports: No. 72 Ford, Cole Whitt
Premium Motorsports: No. 55 Chevy (Toyotas on restrictor-plate tracks), Reed Sorenson and possibly others depending on sponsorship and No. 15 Chevy, Michael Waltrip (Daytona 500) and driver TBA (this is Premium Motorsports’ chartered team, replacing the No. 98)
Go FAS Racing: No. 32 Ford, Matt DiBenedetto
Circle Sport/TMG: No. 33 Chevy, Jeffrey Earnhardt and possibly others depending on sponsorship
Rick Ware Racing: No. 51 Chevy, Timmy Hill