All-Star week is an interesting time to reflect on the small teams in the sport, because it’s not typically a weekend where they get much of the spotlight. That’s okay; the race is about recent winners and it’s rare that an underdog can crack that threshold, though Chris Buescher earned his way in with a win last summer and Ryan Blaney raced his way in in the Open, a last chance race to fill the field.
There are a couple of very different things the race brings to light, though. First, the competition in the Open shows just how deep the field is on any given weekend. Remember, these are teams who haven’t won in the last two seasons (and aren’t former All-Star winners or series champions), and the sport’s elite teams were represented with Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Furniture Row Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing among the organizations with teams not in the All-Star field. Add solid mid-tier organizations Roush Fenway racing and Richard Childress Racing to the mix, and the mountain the smaller teams had to climb was still daunting, and in the end, it was the larger organizations who were able to snatch up those last three spots and the fan-voted place as well.
It puts into perspective what the small teams are up against. If teams like the No. 24 of Chase Elliott or the No. 19 of Daniel Suarez aren’t winning races, it’s even more unlikely that an underfunded or single-car organization is going to compete for wins regularly. One thing about racing is that you can never count anyone out, so drivers can take advantage of any situation and win, but competition is so tight these days that even some of the wealthy teams aren’t visiting Victory Lane.
On the other hand, it was refreshing to see a lot of fans rally behind some of the small teams in the fan vote. Matt DiBenedetto in particular got a lot of attention by reaching out to fans, and he’ll keep a lot of those fans in his corner going forward—which may in turn help him attract more sponsorship. It was a lot of fun to see the teams and drivers show so much personality and gain so much support.
Of course the hard part is keeping that going. There are several drivers in this group, like DiBenedetto, who should by any estimation be hugely popular; so it’s a bit disheartening not to see them with a larger following at the track or on social media (that’s in terms of fans openly rooting for that driver on race day, not in terms of the number of social media followers). As I’ve said before, the race broadcasts and other media do share a little of the blame for not giving these drivers enough spotlight sometimes.
On another note altogether, I’m not sure that many fans realize how important having small teams that can grow and move up the ranks is to the sport as a whole. The sudden closing of Red Horse Racing highlights the struggle so many have—and they were a team that’s won a share of races. Most of the independent teams in the Xfinity Series have been replaced by Cup-affiliated teams, either development teams or teams split but their Cup drivers, often both. It’s not a bad thing for those teams to have development programs, but there needs to be room for strong independents as well. The series was full of them 15 or 20 years ago, and they were not only competitive, they were often dominant. Teams like ppc Racing, Fitz-Bradshaw, Stringer Performance, Cici-Welliver Racing, and Biagi Bros. Racing were strong, competitive teams who filled some of the development roles for the larger Cup teams by bringing up talented drivers and running for titles. The influx of Cup drivers running for those titles with their Cup teams decimated the independents. Of these teams, only the Biagi organization, now Biagi-DenBeste Racing, remains.
Interestingly enough, they’re still competitive, having won twice in the last two seasons, including the Xfinity race at Talladega a couple of weeks ago. But the Cup teams get the money these days, so the independents drift away. It’s been happening in the Truck Series as well. What’s left is races with short fields and competition that’s not as deep as it should be and often not deep enough to hold fans’ attention.
When all is said and done, the sport needs these independent organizations, particularly in the Truck and Xfinity Series but also at the Cup level to remain healthy, and the weakening of those lower series is a warning sign that needs to be taken seriously.
Front Row Motorsports announced a partnership with Shriners Hospitals for Children this week. The hospitals, which treat children for serious burns and injuries like spinal cord injuries and birth defects such as cleft palate, will be the primary sponsor on David Ragan’s No. 38 at Michigan and Sonoma in June. Ragan will visit children at the hospitals this summer (something he’s done in the past) and speak with kids about summer safety.
If we don't make the All-Star race today I might cry. If we do make it I might cry as well. So either way I'm gonna be a little girl 😭😭😂😂
— Matt DiBenedetto (@mattdracing) May 20, 2017
“No, AJ, you can’t take it for a hot lap to see what it’s got under the hood”
— JTG Daugherty Racing (@JTGRacing) May 18, 2017
And you can’t race Chris in the peanutmobile, either…
— AJ Allmendinger (@AJDinger) May 18, 2017
But they can spell “DiBenedetto”?
— landon cassill (@landoncassill) May 19, 2017
— Ryan Blaney (@Blaney) May 18, 2017