(Photo: John K. Harrelson/Harrelson Photography Inc.)

The Underdog House: The Invisible NASCAR Season

Think Small

Ah, fall.  Race fans can welcome cooler temperatures, cheer for their favorites in the playoffs…and kiss the chance of seeing the smaller teams mentioned during the broadcast goodbye.

With the exception of Ryan Blaney, who made the postseason, all other underdogs will fade into the background of championship talk. That goes for any other team missing the postseason, too, except for the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

To an extent, of course, that’s expected.  The teams in the title hunt have earned their spots and that’s where the focus is as the season winds down.  Still, there are still 40 cars on track any given week and their sponsors are paying for some kind of return.  Not to mention, the fans of those drivers are getting shortchanged by never seeing them during a race. TV time declines precipitously for these organizations during the playoffs.

I’m surprised at this point that more sponsorship deals have not gone to a different model. For the bigger teams, there would be a certain number of regular season races only, plus an option for the playoffs. For the smaller teams, well, they’re just lucky to manage to find backers at all for these races.  That’s not a knock on those teams, but when your brand isn’t seen once during a broadcast, it’s a legitimate question.

To an extent, airtime is airtime, so underdogs get a little as they’re racing the leaders from a laps-down position. But that’s about all. In those cases, if they’re mentioned by name, the drivers are often mentioned in a tone similar to the one that might be used when discussing pond scum or some other, equally undesirable item.

Race fans deserve better, but race fans aren’t the ones paying the bills to the networks. So unless your favorite small team driver is having an extraordinary day or involved in an incident, well, don’t expect to see them much going forward.

Top of the Class: Richmond

While it would have been great to see a small team squeak into the top 10 at Richmond, the trio who finished best in class this week were exactly the ones you’d expect to be at the top in this group.  Michael McDowell finished 16th, a dozen spots better than he started.  He and Leavine Family Racing are easily the most improved team in this group for 2017.

Aric Almirola (17th) and Richard Petty Motorsports have also had solid improvement.  Almirola’s year was derailed somewhat by injury, but RPM has been on a good path this season.  With sponsorship problems, the future is uncertain, but the team is still seeking a strong finish.

Ryan Blaney has struggled since winning at Pocono in June; he’s failed to register a top-five finish since.  This weekend was decent for the No. 21 team, earning an 18th-place result. But overall, they haven’t shown the speed they did earlier in the season. As the Wood Brothers roll into the playoffs, they’ll need to rekindle some magic to advance.

Passing Grades

Ty Dillon had a solid run Saturday night, finishing 22nd.  He’s had some good races this year, but maybe a notch below expectations for what should be an improved Germain Racing team.

AJ Allmendinger struggled for much of the weekend and his 26th-place finish was indicative of that. He’s another driver who’s not quite running where expected on a regular basis this year. However, some of that is likely due to adding a second car at JTG Daugherty Racing, a move which is paying dividends overall and is a good one for the long run.

In the “not quite living up to potential for 2017” category is Front Row Motorsports. They had a lone top-30 result with David Ragan this weekend, who finished 27th.

Also scoring top-30 performances were Corey LaJoie (29th) and Reed Sorenson (30th).  For both drivers, that’s not a bad finish; they’ve worked hard to crack the top 30.  BK Racing and Premium Motorsports are a big step below the other teams in terms of budget and equipment, so what’s a disappointing finish for some isn’t terrible for them.

Needs Improvement

A lot of teams from this group struggled at Richmond.  It was a bit surprising that Matt DiBenedetto (31st) and Chris Buescher (32nd) finished in the bottom nine as both have had good short track runs this year. Neither one showed the speed all night long to be competitive.

The rest of the group is mostly the usual suspects. Cole Whitt (33rd) has had some really good runs this year, but overall, he just doesn’t have the equipment to run well regularly. TriStar Motorsports did, however, pick up a last-minute sponsor in Zello to help the cause.

Jeffrey Earnhardt (34th), Gray Gaulding (35th) and Derrike Cope (37th) finished about where expected, though Cope made waves when his late scrape of the outside wall ultimately changed the outcome of the race.

Two drivers in this group simply failed to finish. BJ McLeod suffered a transmission failure after 318 of 400 scheduled laps, ending his day in 38thLandon Cassill barely had a chance to get started before damage from a lap 33 crash ended his weekend.

Newsworthy

Premium Motorsports and Derrike Cope have parted ways, effective immediately. Cope thanked the team for the opportunity but did not give a reason for his departure. His No. 15 Chevy, of course was the cause of that caution which forced NASCAR Overtime at Richmond. In a release, the 1990 Daytona 500 winner said plans for the rest of 2017 and next season would be announced “in future weeks.”

The future of Richard Petty Motorsports is up in the air after Smithfield officially pulled out of contract negotiations Tuesday. The sponsor will be headed to Stewart-Haas Racing next season; it appears at this point Almirola will join them.

On the heels of this news, it’s unclear whether RPM will even race in 2018.  It had been speculated Darrell Wallace Jr. would join the single-car operation as driver of the No. 43 Ford next year. However, without sponsorship, the team’s plans are in question.

WOLKIN: Danica Patrick Reveals Departure From Stewart-Haas Racing After 2017 Season Following Smithfield Announcement

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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

  1. Avatar

    And 23 cars disappear from the TV coverage, like every year since the chase was The Brian’s brilliant idea, one of his many.