For the teams in this group, there is a bit of a race within the race each weekend, with bragging rights among their true peers on the line. It’s also a better gauge of how they’re doing to compare themselves with others on similar budgets than to compare numbers with Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing and their much deeper pockets. Another measure for these teams is to look at year-to-year improvement. That’s especially true for newer teams in the series, though it’s also a measure for established teams like the Wood Brothers, who have only recently returned to full-time competition. With that in mind, there are a few teams to keep an eye on in 2017, because they should show marked improvement for various reasons. We’ll take a closer look at these teams throughout the season, to see how much improvement they really show.
Five to watch:
Wood Brothers Racing: The Woods strengthened their alliance with Team Penske this offseason, moving to a new, larger shop closer to the Penske campus to facilitate the partnership. Ryan Blaney has his rookie year in the rearview, and the team is in its second year back as a full-time team. The team enters 2017 a big step ahead of 2016 because of that. In the first three races of 2016, Blaney finished 19th, 25th and sixth, for an average of 16.7. This season, he’s finished second, 18th, and seventh for an average of ninth. Additionally, Blaney sits sixth in points, ahead of the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. Consistency was an issue last year at times, though, so whether the No. 21 bunch will find it this year remains to be seen, but they’re off to a great start.
Germain Racing: Anyone think that Richard Childress isn’t going to throw more at this team with his grandson Ty Dillon behind the wheel? This team showed in the last couple of years that it could get good finishes, but struggled to do so consistently. The unknown is Dillon, in his first season. Casey Mears was a proven top-15 driver, Dillon has potential but will take time to learn. So far, Dillon’s finishes of 30th, 15th and 21st and average of 22nd is a fraction better than Mears’ 32nd, 14th and 23rd with a 23rd-place average. Given that both got wrecked at Daytona, the difference is, so far, negligible, but with additional support, that should change.
Leavine Family Racing: Moving to full-time agreed with this team, and an increased alliance with RCR as the team ran Ty Dillon for a few races last year certainly helped as well, but they have held their own so far in 2017. McDowell is an underrated talent. To this point last year, Dillon and McDowell combined for 25th, 33rd and 29th-place finishes, while McDowell has kicked off 2017 with a 15th, 29th and 18th, a marked improvement. They should compete with teams like Germain and JTG Daugherty Racing this year.
Go FAS Racing: I wrote last year that this team would be better off going with a full-time driver instead of driver-by-committee, and this year, they’re looking stronger. Matt DiBenedetto finished ninth, 28th and 26th in his three starts this season, compared to 24th, 38th and 33rd for Bobby Labonte and Jeffrey Earnhardt last season. Teams don’t go from finishing 35th to 20th overnight, and this team’s improvement so far, with the highly talented DiBenedetto behind the wheel, is impressive.
Richard Petty Motorsports: This organization dropped from two cars to one this year after a big slide in 2016. Aric Almirola made the playoffs for this team a couple of years ago but struggled mightily last year. Whether dropping to one car (and allocating personnel and money all to one place) will make a difference for Almirola and The King remains to be seen, but I like their chances for a bounce in the right direction. This year’s start is close to last year’s 12th, 15th and 24th (17th-place average), with a fourth, 27th and 14th (15th average), but already a bit better.
Top of the Class: Las Vegas
Ryan Blaney had a stellar weekend for the Wood Brothers, qualifying third and scoring points in each of the two stages before finishing seventh on the day. Aric Almirola also grabbed a top 15 with his 14th-place result in the No. 43, and Michael McDowell finished a strong 18th for the Leavine Family organization. This is why these are among the teams to watch this season… all are capable of this type of finish on a weekly basis, but they’ll have to work harder for it than some other teams.
Ty Dillon just missed the top 20 this week, finishing 21st. Last week, I said that teams finishing consistently together was a good indication that they’re on the right track as far as getting the most out of their cars, and this week JTG Daugherty Racing did that, with Chris Buescher finishing 23rd and AJ Allmendinger 24th. I think this team is capable of a little more, but the leap to two cars is a significant one, so it could take a little time to get them on their feet and running full bore. Go FAS Racing had another great week, with Matt DiBenedetto finishing 26th. A full-time driver was a big step in the right direction. Another team finishing right together again was Front Row Motorsports, where Landon Cassill and David Ragan finished 27th and 29th. That’s a tick lower than they should be capable of, but all in all, a decent enough day. Cole Whitt split up the FRM party, finishing 28th, a more realistic finish for his team this week. His strength continues to be a story to follow.
The rest of the small teams struggled in Sin City. Reed Sorenson brought the No. 15 Premium Motorsports machine home 31st, while teammate Derrike Cope (who is living proof that a Daytona 500 win pretty much gets you rides forever) went for a spin to finish 35th. This is a team that has shown flashes of better days but seems to fall into the 30’s more often than not. Jeffrey Earnhardt finished 32nd in the No. 33 Circle Sport entry. The team’s choice of Earnhardt over a more experienced driver was a bit of a surprise in the offseason, but it’s hard to say that the choice has hurt them… it’s just also hard to say it has helped them. Gray Gaulding finished 34th for BK Racing, who continues to stumble. Corey Lajoie finished 39th and last after a crash. The team is meeting expecations this year, but that’s not really a good thing, since they could be expected to finish several places better just a couple of years ago. Joining Lajoie in the DNF category was Timmy Hill in the No. 51, and given that the reason for his departure was suspension issues, it looks a lot like an intentional early parking, something we haven’t seen in the series in a few years.
A few teams will sport a different look this weekend in Phoenix. Gray Gaulding will have SinFrog.com on the No. 23. The Starkey Hearing Foundation will be on the hood of the No. 34 for Landon Cassill. Chris Beuscher will carry the Jacob Companies’ colors this weekend, and Standard Plumbing Supply is on board with Cole Whitt.
I'm also proud we are proving everyone wrong that said we would run 39th all year with my new team. We are 22nd in owners points so far 💪🏻
— Matt DiBenedetto (@mattdracing) March 13, 2017
😂 @mattdracing complains that the AC is broken…CC Gene Nead responds, "quit being a sissy!"
— Go Fas Racing (@GoFasRacing32) March 12, 2017
— LeavineFamilyRacing (@LFR95) March 12, 2017
— Chris Buescher (@Chris_Buescher) March 7, 2017
Hey @DaleJr is that a banana and mayonnaise sandwich in your spandex or are you just happy to see me
— landon cassill (@landoncassill) March 13, 2017