In 2016, Tommy Joe Martins solidified his spot in NASCAR after an outburst on Twitter regarding the economics of the sport. On Oct. 9, 2017, he was at it again, displaying how it’s almost impossible for small teams to compete in NASCAR due to the distribution of prize money.
Of course, he had plenty of insight on the matter as throughout Martins’ NASCAR career, he has been the driver on a small team, often a family-run company. His story has continued into 2017, with Martins fielding rides in the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series via his own team.
However, during this season, BJ McLeod gave him an opportunity of a “lifetime.”
Martins was scheduled to compete in nine XFINITY events for his own team, Martins Motorsports. But after missing the first two events the team attempted to qualify for, at Bristol Motor Speedway and Richmond Raceway, it was time to re-assess the direction of the company, solely focusing on the Truck Series.
But Martins wasn’t done with the XFINITY Series, jumping to BJ McLeod Motorsports.
“BJ gave me an opportunity to step into his car and not having to spend our own money to do it,” Martins told Frontstretch via phone. “That’s the best opportunity I’ve ever had. BJ definitely runs a small team, but we were able to get the best finish in the history of the team in 11th. That was pretty good, and we’re pretty proud of it.”
Indeed, at Iowa Speedway in late June, Martins survived a few late race incidents, one that came during a cycle of green-flag pit stops, to finish 11th. To date, it’s his career-best NASCAR finish.
McLeod has put Martins in one of his cars for eight other races this season, having earned a next-best finish of 26th at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. During his time in the Nos. 8 and 78 cars, the driver has a 27th-place average finish.
But Martins was coming off a season in which he had eight DNFs in the Truck Series, so why did McLeod offer to put him into a car?
“Nobody was calling and nobody was going to call at all,” Martins said. “BJ was the one that reached out and said, ‘Actually, I think you outperformed your equipment, and you had a lot of bad luck. I don’t think it was your fault.’ He could have called 100 people, but he called me.
“He said he really based it off a qualifying lap I did at Martinsville [Speedway] in the spring race. You never know who is watching and where this thing could go. I can’t thank the guy enough. He basically resurrected my career that was heading on the outs because my family was just about out of money.”
When Martins strapped behind the wheel at Pocono Raceway in June for McLeod, it was the first time he had competed behind on a team outside of his own in the XFINITY Series. The driver couldn’t have been happier.
“It’s a relief for me,” Martins said. “All of his crew members were told there is a new guy coming in, and I knew a couple of the guys, I didn’t know everybody. The first day I got there they said, ‘This guy is going to turn it around for us’. That’s kind of a crazy thing, because it was me. That was just a weird feeling that I had, but they immediately had a lot of confidence in me.”
Driving the No. 78 came with a lot of personal challenges. As alluded to some of his blog posts over the years, Martins realizes that when competing with small teams, you must cut corners to try and survive — like buying used tires at a discounted price from other teams or having one pit crew pit two racecars. But McLeod told the driver he didn’t care what happened as long as he raced hard. According to the Mississippi native, he’d never heard that in his racing career.
While Martins admitted he tore up a lot of equipment in 2016 driving for his company, he didn’t have to worry about that this season with McLeod. With the no-extra-pressure mentality, he’s only got one DNF to his name, and that’s because the lower control arm broke at Bristol in August.
With four races left in the XFINITY Series season, Martins is unsure of whether or not he will be back in the series this season. There are internal talks within the organization that he might get the green light at Phoenix International Raceway in the penultimate race of the season.
“They want to bring me back, but at the same time BJ also wants to make money, and as a team owner I get it,” Martins said. This is a sport dependent on one or two things – you’ve either got to sell sponsors or you’ve got to sell rides. That’s the only way you can make this a business and make it work.
“When you have a guy like me who isn’t bringing money, well, of course that’s not like people who can. I’m not offended by it at all, and they’ve had some pretty good drivers in that No. 78 car at times. It’s not like he’s just been putting bums in there every week, that’s not what’s going on. Absolutely that’s part of the deal, and I knew that going into it.”
Over the years, Martins has been very public about where he sees the direction of NASCAR heading. He doesn’t like the current state, primarily due to the lack of money the teams (especially in the Truck and XFINITY series) receive from the television deal.
In a correction from his article with JeffGluck.com, Martins said he found out the tracks actually receive 90 percent of the television money but distribute 25 percent back to the teams among the three series. Of that 25 percent, Cup teams are receiving roughly 90 percent of that money, leaving the other 10 for the XFINITY and Truck series to split.
But there could be light at the end of the tunnel.
“Teams that are trying to do everything right to run well, they would be able to profit as long as they are trying to keep their overhead kind of small,” Martins elaborated. “If they are able to turn a profit, then what are they going to do? They are going to go out and get the best drivers that they know. As soon as we start doing that a sport, I think the sport corrects itself.”
Prior to the 2017 season, Ryan Preece announced that he would not return to JD Motorsports while later on announcing he had signed a deal to compete in a pair of races for Joe Gibbs Racing, bringing his own sponsorship. The Connecticut native went on to finish runner-up in his first event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, only to win at Iowa Speedway two weeks later. JGR signed him on for an additional race at Kentucky Speedway, but he still doesn’t have a ride, though he’s now a proven winner.
For drivers like Martins, that’s tough to watch.
“No, it’s really disheartening,” Martins said. “Here’s a guy, Ryan Preece, I don’t know how much money he had behind it, Any success that he has, he deserves it, the guy is one of the hardest working guys in the sport. He’s an unbelievably talented driver. A guy like Ryan Preece is the type of the guy that ought to be a superstar in NASCAR. He ought to be a superstar.
“He ran for a small team in the XFINITY Series, everybody agreed that he absolutely outperformed his equipment, so why is he not a superstar? Instead, the very next year he has to wrangle up all the money that he’s raised, give it to a major team, run three races, and that’s all he gets. Then it’s a pat on the back, you did a great job and we won. What are they looking for? They are looking for more money next year. That’s it. What did it really get him? It got him a checkered flag, a lot of admiration, but it’s not getting him a ride. It’s not getting him a ride, and he’s back in the exact same spot.”
In all other sports, you can’t buy your position, but it’s come to a time in NASCAR where that’s just about the only way a driver is getting on the track. Bring funding or bust.
While Martins is happy to run in the XFINITY Series and it’s more profitable for a smaller team, he plans to keep his team in the Truck Series. However, Martins the driver is a free agent looking for work anywhere, and knows that funding is likely the only way to move up the rankings.
“It just tells me the only way I’m ever going to advance my career is if I’m lucky enough to win the lottery basically, which is just to find somebody that’s just going to give me a half-million dollars and just say do whatever you want,” Martins said.
Despite how rough the economics get in NASCAR, the driver doesn’t plan on throwing his career away.
“I don’t know what else I would want to do,” he said. “That’s the real issue that I’ve got… what is my skill set? This is what I know and what I like to do. I’ve got to find a way to do this but not quit this and do something else, because that’s me giving up, in a weird way.”
- This weekend’s Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Speedway kicks off the second round of the playoffs. A trio of JR Motorsports teams make up the first three positions on the playoff grid, led by William Byron. Over the next three races, Cole Custer, Brennan Poole, Matt Tifft and Ryan Reed will have to make up points in order to qualify for the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
- One week after announcing he will be joining the series full-time in 2018, Christopher Bell makes his return to the No. 18 car at Kansas. In four races this season, the Oklahoma native has paced the field for 152 circuits while also winning the pole at Iowa. Kansas will be his second start on a 1.5-mile track, the first coming in his series debut at Charlotte Motor Speedway, finishing fourth.
- There are five double-duty drivers this weekend at Kansas, led by Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones, who both have a pair of XFINITY triumphs this season. They will be joined by the Dillon brothers, Austin and Ty, and Gray Gaulding.