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(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

The Underdog House: Small Teams See Toughest NASCAR Race of 2018 at Richmond

Think Small

This weekend at Richmond Raceway stood in stark contrast to the previous weekend in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, where 12 cautions flew at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

This time, the 0.750-mile track in Saturday night’s (Sep. 23) Federated Auto Parts 400 came out quiet with only one non-stage caution flying on the night. A surprising occurrence considering it was the track’s first playoff feature.

More than that, however, it came as a negative for the small teams, wh received little to no help with track position, restarts, attrition or free passes. Due to the three green-flag runs of more than 90 laps, they all fell back quick and stayed there through the night.

When drivers were asked after the race how or why a race like this would go so silently into the night (at least in terms of “chaos” or “destruction”) Joey Logano pointed his finger toward the small teams. It was another high-level driver mentioning underdogs’ effect on the racing… this time, in a more positive manner.

“There are not as many, for lack of better words, junker cars out there that used to blow up, blow tires,” Logano said. “Those cars aren’t out there anymore. That’s where a lot of your cautions used to be generated from. That’s the nature of the beast. I don’t think it’s wrong.”

It sure isn’t wrong from the perspective of the small end of the garage, who in fact, survived one of the circuit’s short tracks in nearly perfect fashion. Gray Gaulding was the only DNF on the night, giving nearly all the small teams a full race to manage their equipment to the end.

Considering how the opening 22 races of 2018 saw only five full 40-car fields, small second-car teams have shown up at a higher rate, filling a 40-car field for now seven consecutive races.

Top of the Class

For only the fourth time in 2018, the Frontstretch “Underdog of the Race” did not come from the top 20. In fact, Richmond’s top underdog scored the lowest finish of any race in 2018 in 23rd place, the previous low being 21st on three occasions.

This result came from David Ragan, who was the top finisher for the sixth time in 2018. His No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford started the night dead-last on the field after failing to post a qualifying time on Friday.

And after mirroring his average finish on the season (23.0) with a 23rd-place finish, this is a tough performance to hail as “Top of the Class.” However, we must give credit to the teams who top the rest.

More then just Ragan, it was a night for Front Row to claim both of the top spots on the night. With teammate Michael McDowell following Ragan in the 24th spot, it was just what the doctor ordered for the Ford organization.

You see, they had a nightmare hit them one week back at Las Vegas. Not only did Ragan tip the rear of McDowell’s No. 34 to wreck both cars, but at the time of the contact, they were both running in the top 15… coming to the white flag. Instead, they were both out of contention for anything more than a top 25.

To turn around and top their side of the garage, there is something to that with two veterans behind the wheels of your cars.

Underdogs of the Race So Far in 2018

Daytona: Darrell Wallace Jr. (second)
Atlanta: Kasey Kahne (21st)
Las Vegas: Chris Buescher (15th)
ISM: AJ Allmendinger (21st)
Auto Club: Darrell Wallace Jr. (20th)
Martinsville: AJ Allmendinger (seventh)
Texas: Darrell Wallace Jr. (eighth)
Bristol: David Ragan (12th)
Richmond: Matt DiBenedetto (16th)
Talladega: David Ragan (sixth)
Dover: Kasey Kahne (17th)
Kansas: David Ragan (13th)
All-Star Race: AJ Allmendinger (eighth)
Charlotte: Darrell Wallace Jr. (16th)
Pocono: David Ragan (16th)
Michigan: AJ Allmendinger (17th)
Sonoma: Chis Buescher (12th)
Chicagoland: Michael McDowell (21st)
Daytona: AJ Allmendinger (third)
Kentucky: David Ragan (18th)
New Hampshire: Kasey Kahne (19th)
Pocono: AJ Allmendinger (14th)
Watkins Glen: AJ Allmendinger (15th)
Michigan: Chris Buescher (20th)
Bristol: Kasey Kahne (15th)
Darlington: Chris Buescher (13th)
Indianapolis: Michael McDowell (17th)
Las Vegas: Regan Smith (12th)
Richmond: David Ragan (23rd)

Looking for More

Behind the Front Row duo was a lengthy list of underdogs who followed the 16 playoff drivers and non-playoff teams, who still manage to crack the top 20 more than not.

Cole Custer started the weekend in good shape, ending 13th and 11th in the practice sessions while qualifying a career-best 10th for the race.

With backing from Stewart-Haas Racing, the effort was the first-ever top-25 Cup start for Rick Ware Racing and their best start across the three national NASCAR series since 2010 in the Camping World Truck Series.

With an XFINITY winner behind the wheel, Custer was thrown into only his third Cup start from the top 10. This made for a hairy opening stage, which saw the No. 51 fall outside the top 20. He ended the night 26th.

Behind was Darrell Wallace Jr., who again had a disappointing night from the 27th spot. This time, fortunately, did not include a traumatic mechanical failure for the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports camp.

In terms of disappointment for the underdogs, Ty Dillon may be near the top. Usually, this No. 13 Germain Racing team can barely hit the top 20, however, this weekend was looking higher from the start with Dillon finishing fourth quickest in both practice sessions on Fast Friday.

Qualifying far off in 29th, the race did not end up in their hands, struggling on the long runs to keep up with the pace. Dillon finished 28th.

AJ Allmendinger and Chris Buescher were back-to-back for JTG Daugherty Racing, finishing 29th and 30th. Allmendinger was busted for two different pit road penalties on the night, further cementing himself at the back half of the field.

Regan Smith had his worst finish for Leavine Family Racing from the 31st spot. Making his third start in place of Kasey Kahne, Smith did what Kahne was able to do just once all season; put together consecutive top 20s. However, Saturday was not a threepeat for Super Sub.

Corey Lajoie was one spot back in 32nd for TriStar Motorsports while Ross Chastain was 33rd for Premium Motorsports. Matt DiBenedetto was 34th ahead of the StarCom Racing duo of Joey Gase and Landon Cassill in 35th and 36th.

Jeffrey Earnhardt was the cause of the night’s only caution, spinning in Turn 2 with 73 laps remaining. His No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota stayed clear of the wall, finishing 37th.

Israeli Alon Day made his first start of 2018 and finishing 38th in the Bob Jenkins No. 23 Toyota. Timmy Hill was 39th while Gray Gaulding was the only DNF in the 40th spot.

Otherdogs

The XFINITY Series kicked off the weekend on Friday night with their running of the Go Bowling 250. And similar to the Cup side, no underdogs made quite an impact on race day.

Ryan Truex and Spencer Gallagher have been two of the top teams this year and finished the night 11th and 12th. As the season winds down to only two months, both GMS Racing and Kaluig Racing will make the jump from “underdog” to “front-runner” in 2019.

One driver who hopes to make that big jump in this column soon is Jeremy Clements. The No. 51 scored a top 10 last time out at Richmond and backed it up with a decent 16th place.

The result for Clements tied his worst since Mid-Ohio in August, however, continued a streak of 11 straight top-20 finishes, by far a career-high through 293 starts.

With Ryan Sieg in 17th, Mason Diaz impressed in his XFINITY debut DGM Racing’s No. 90 Chevrolet, finishing on the lead lap in 19th spot.

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About Zach Catanzareti

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Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.

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