Do teams that have technical alliances with the sport’s top teams still qualify as small teams? That’s been the debate as drivers like Martin Truex, Jr. and more recently, Ryan Blaney, have taken their small teams to the winner’s circle. Furniture Row Racing earned their way off this list and it’s likely that Wood Brothers Racing won’t be included for 2018 because they’ll have earned their way, if to to the elite level, at least to middle-tier status.
But alliances, while almost a requirement for success even among the other small teams, are not guaranteed tickets to great finishes, nor are they the sole reason for a great finish.
Part of that has to do with the teams the affiliations are with. Furniture Row did well with Richard Childress Racing but became an elite team after partnering with Joe Gibbs Racing (and getting Toyota factory backing in the process). Wood Brothers Racing is tied in with Team Penske, a perpetual title favorite. Leavine Family Racing, JTG Daugherty Racing and Germain Racing are aligned with RCR and haven’t fared as well. But RCR isn’t at the level of JGR or Penske, either, so that makes sense.
But are alliances the only way for a small team to make a name for itself? Not necessarily. Front Row Motorsports has had a small alliance with Roush Fenway, as has Richard Petty Motorsports, but it’s hard to say that the wins those teams have came solely from those ties. In fact, it’s short-sighted to think the success of any team comes only from the success of the team they get information and equipment from.
When push comes to shove, the team preparing the car is a smaller team with fewer employees. The strategy is called by the team’s crew chief, not another owner with deep pockets. The driver, whether it’s Martin Truex, Jr., David Ragan, Chris Buescher, or Ryan Blaney is the one driving the car and holding off the competition. So while it’s easy to say that an alliance is the reason for a team’s success, it’s only one part of it. The rest comes from within the walls of a much smaller race shop.
Top of the Class: Pocono
Last week, this column posed a simple question: can NASCAR’s small teams win races? This week, the answer was yes, as Ryan Blaney drove the Wood Brothers Racing ford to Victory Lane for the first time since 2011. The win wasn’t exactly a surprise; it’s been obvious that the No. 21 team has been on the brink for a few weeks. That it came at Pocono was a bit more surprising, but Blaney has a win there in the Truck Series, so while he’d not scored a top five in his two previous Cup runs there, he’s no stranger to the Tricky Triangle.
Blaney’s race was impressive for two reasons: he held off veteran Kevin Harvick, who looked like he had a slightly faster car, in the closing laps, and he did it like a veteran, anticipating Harvick’s every move. Each time Harvick made a run, Blaney was able to parry, and it made for a nail-biting green flag finish at a track that’s often criticized for strung out fields and little excitement. Also of note is that Blaney wasn’t able to communicate with his team due to a radio malfunction. Not being able to communicate with his crew should have been an impediment, but Blaney turned it into a positive, saying he was able to focus on his driving.
Does the win make Blaney a title contender? Not yet. The team has struggled at times to be consistent from week to week, and that’s something they will need to focus on this summer. If they can, then they can be eyed as a longshot pick.
Nobody else in the underdog group had an unexpectedly great day. Ty Dillon and Chris Buescher finished in the top 20, finishing 18th and 19th, but neither really had the kind of race to write home about. AJ Allmendinger came home 22nd Sunday, which is just above his career average, a solid run. While Sunday wasn’t their best day, the JTG Daugherty Racing pair is starting to gel and has shown dramatic improvement as a whole this season after expanding to two cars in the offseason.
The next group of drivers has settled into a pattern of mid-20’s finishes this year, and those are for the most part, on par for them Michael McDowell (24th), David Ragan (25th) and Landon Cassill (27th) have shown that they can run well most weeks, and realistically, they’re finishing where they should most weeks. Not so say they aren’t capable of better finishes now and then, but on a regular basis, they’re where they should be.
The last driver to score a passing grade this week is Darrell Wallace, Jr., who made his first Cup start this weekend. Wallace wasn’t happy with his result, but he certainly has nothing to be ashamed of. He was named interim driver of the No. 43 last week, just as Roush Fenway Racing announced it was shuttering his Xfinity Series team effective this week. Wallace did an admirable job Sunday, running his first race in a Cup car at a very demanding track. He stayed out of trouble and while he finished one lap down, he did what a rookie needs to do: log laps and learn the cars and the competition. Was the No. 43 car capable of a better finish? Maybe; they’ve had a few this year, but they’re still rebuilding after a couple years of struggles and Sunday was another step for both driver and team, both of whom are under some stress, the team in the loss of regular driver Almirola and Wallace in losing his regular ride.
Pocono is often a track that produces a lot of attrition, and Sunday was no exception. Some teams, like BK Racing with Corey Lajoie and Gray Gaulding, were able to take advantage of that and grab finishes that were perhaps better than they might have otherwise gotten. They finished 28th and 29th in what were not really top-30 cars, and that’s exactly what every team in the field should be doing—using the situation at hand to get the best finish possible. No shame in that at all, though they didn’t necessarily run as well as they finished. Cole Whitt was on the receiving end of the attrition, losing his engine in the closing laps and finishing 30th; on the other hand, he still finished 30th because he made it further than several others, so, again, taking advantage of every opportunity.
Reed Sorenson finished 31st, back in the seat at Premium Motorsports this week. Sorenson is a puzzling driver, obviously talented but never quite living up to his potential. He’s had some strong finishes for this team in 2017, but never thriving, even in some of the better rides he had earlier in his career.
A broken drive shaft ended what had been a much stronger run for Matt DiBenedetto. The No. 32 team has had some bad luck lately, and adding insult to injury this week, DiBenedetto spent some time in infield care after the race after dehydration led to cramps and nausea.
Derrike Cope was running at the end, finishing 33rd, but he was so far off the pace, he finished behind two teams who failed to finish the race. Would Premium Motorsports be better off as a single-car team? While a second car can help organizations, it can also use up resources that this team may not have enough of to go around.
Bringing up the rear for the small teams this week were Jeffrey Earnhardt, who finished 34th after a brake failure, and Cody Ware, who completed just 35 laps before suffering a mechanical failure.
We did it!! Such a great privilege to driver for the Wood Brothers. Good times with good friends is all I can ask for. Let's go for win 100! pic.twitter.com/3joF2o2uAe
— Ryan Blaney (@Blaney) June 12, 2017
IT HAPPENED !!! IT HAPPENED!!! PLAYOFFS !!! WE DONE IT
— Wood Brothers Racing (@woodbrothers21) June 11, 2017
— Kyle Rickey (@KyleRRickey) June 11, 2017
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) June 12, 2017