With just one race to go in 2017, it’s been a mixed bag of a season for the sport’s smaller teams. Furniture Row Racing has set the gold standard for them. It’s taken a one-car, outsider organization to the top echelon of NASCAR’s elite teams within five years. That’s a model others can follow. Thanks to a playoff berth, don’t be surprised if Wood Brothers Racing is absent from the small team list next year; they’ve stepped up a level and earned it.
But the reality of it all is most small teams will be mid-tier organizations at best. There’s no shame in that, either. There are teams on this list consistently competing with the bigger ones, such as Richard Childress Racing, on a weekly basis.
For a small team, it’s the small victories that are significant. If they’re racing for 25th place with a driver whose budget is five times what theirs is, that’s an achievement all its own. It’s a disservice to minimize that accomplishment. But, time and again, NASCAR and television ignore these quality performances during a playoff run where only championship drivers are featured.
Running inside the top 10, when there are probably 15 drivers from the sport’s top organizations vying for the same spot — that’s a big deal. Don’t overlook that or shrug it off. It says a lot about a driver’s talent if he can outrace those whose spend more in one race than his does in six.
Lack of money and lack of talent are two vastly different things. As 2017 fades into the sunset, there are a lot of very talented people who will not be honored in Las Vegas that deserve the respect of every competitor, every media member, and every fan.
Top of the Class: Phoenix
You have to wonder what kind of season Aric Almirola might have had if not for that Kansas injury in May. The fractured vertebrae cost him several weeks out of the seat and a few more to adjust once he was back in it. The No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports bunch then struggled to find consistency with their “lame duck” driver heading into the fall.
But suddenly, in the last five weeks, they’ve found it.
Almirola has finished no worse than 18th in that time span with three top 10s and a top-five run as well. The top five came at Talladega, no surprise for plate standout Almirola, but he finished ninth at Kansas and again this weekend at Phoenix. Moving to the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 is a step up for this 33-year-old. But the way he’s run lately, it’s a step up for the No. 10, too.
Ty Dillon tied his career-best 11th-place result at Phoenix. The jury is still out on whether the upswing in performance at Germain Racing matches the upswing in equipment. Either way, it was a good run for the No. 13 group.
Ryan Blaney was the third driver in this bunch to score a top-20 result, finishing 17th. Unfortunately, a Championship 4 bid was not in the cards for a Wood Brothers team that plummeted from the pole at Phoenix. But Blaney has a lot to be excited about for 2018. He moves into a full-fledged Team Penske ride next year after going deep in this year’s playoffs.
Among those finishing where they should be were Michael McDowell (22nd) and AJ Allmendinger (23rd). But that’s where the similarity ends. McDowell has been consistently strong for most of this season while Allmendinger hasn’t been able to ride any wave for more than a week or two. The finish is where he should be running most weeks, while McDowell has shown he can outshine expectations on occasion.
Landon Cassill finished 24th, but like Allmendinger, he hasn’t run where he should be nearly enough in 2017. As a result, Cassill’s looking for a job for next year, along with McDowell. Several teams would be making an upgrade to hire either one of them.
DJ Kennington overachieved in the No. 15 Premium Motorsports machine, finishing 26th. For this team, a top-30 run is a decent one and should be applauded.
Add Matt DiBenedetto to the group that ran about where he should have. He finished 27th with a solid day running for Go FAS Racing. David Starr (28th), Jeffrey Earnhardt (29th), and Joey Gase (30th) finished at about the top of their teams’ capabilities, so it was an OK day for them.
Corey Lajoie (31st) and Derrike Cope (32nd) realistically finished near the top of their teams’ ability as well. However, BK Racing and the new StarCom No. 00 need to step up their games if they stay in the series in 2018.
David Ragan (33rd) and Kyle Weatherman (34th) also struggled but were running at the finish, respectively. That’s still more than some others, including top-tier drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson, could say.
Longtime NASCAR favorite STP announced Monday they’ll serve as primary sponsor for the Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 of Darrell Wallace Jr. in 2018. They’ll back Wallace in at least two races while serving as a major associate in all the others.
Germain Racing announced last week that longtime crew chief Robert “Bootie” Barker will not return to the No. 13 team in 2018. A new head wrench has not been named. Ty Dillon is finishing up his rookie season in the car but both he and sponsor GEICO are signed to long-term deals.
Always looked up to Matt. My dad told me he was the best racer in the garage when I️ was a kid. True statement. https://t.co/xZPXsb7ouF
— Ryan Blaney (@Blaney) November 13, 2017
This disappointment right now is making me stronger and stronger. We are about to flip this script. Soon enough we will be standing on top of the world like King Kong! #Fightfortheglory
— Ty Dillon (@tydillon) November 11, 2017
Raising them right pic.twitter.com/sg77skbliM
— landon cassill (@landoncassill) November 14, 2017
— David Ragan (@DavidRagan) November 10, 2017
Getting to drive in the @MonsterEnergy series is fun but getting to say thank you to Veterans and families of lost loved ones by far made my day way more than a racecar again thank u to those who served, are serving, and those who made the ultimate sacrifice #ProudAmerican 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/3iqOpokMY7
— Jeffrey Earnhardt (@JEarnhardt1) November 12, 2017