In late August, NASCAR announced it was reducing the NASCAR XFINITY Series field to 38 cars per race in 2019, reallocating the purse money previously awarded to the 39th- and 40th-place finishers to the rest of the field. But that has some teams on pins and needles.
Mike Harmon and Morgan Shepherd are two veteran NASCAR drivers who have combined to own XFINITY teams for more than 33 seasons despite working with the bare minimum. This new rule potentially affects the way their teams will be run in 2019 and beyond the most.
“We could not even have a team,” Harmon told Frontstretch of the field being reduced to 38 cars. “It might put us out of business, depending on what we can come up with between sponsorship and equipment with all the winnings. It very well could put us out of business because we depend on the purse to survive.”
Harmon, 60, has competed in 17 races this season in his No. 74 car. BJ McLeod, Cody Ware, Ray Black Jr and Stephen Leicht have all made at least one start in the car as well, totaling 23 out of 30 events. The No. 74 team has failed to qualify for seven races, six of which Harmon was behind the wheel. At Watkins Glen International, Leicht didn’t turn a quick enough lap in qualifying to make the race.
Despite the lack of speed in qualifying trim, the No. 74 team usually runs the whole race. The same can’t be said about Shepherd, who is on a streak of 87 consecutive DNFs (start-and-park) dating back to the fall Dover International Speedway race in 2013.
Harmon believes NASCAR should crack down on the start-and-park teams moving forward, as the sanctioning body said its goal is to “ensure that each race features the strongest field and best racing for our fans.”
“I think that some of those bona fide start-and-park cars is part of the reason that caused this,” Harmon said. “I told some of them, ‘What all y’all is doing is hurting the field.’ They don’t care. They’ll go out, run two or three laps and park it.
“I’ve done that when I couldn’t do any better. I’ve actually done it and had a pretty good car, and I tell you what, I pretty much had damn near tears in the eyes when I pulled off the racetrack. You get it there, do all the work, you make the race and get to take the green, then you can’t race because you can’t afford it. It really sucks.”
Since Shepherd began start-and-parking every week, the highest amount of laps he’s turned in a single race was 72 (Atlanta Motor Speedway, 2014). But the reduced field hurts the four-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winner, too.
“As a real independent team with no guys, no engineers, just a couple us, and when they cut the field back, we’re the ones it’s really going to affect,” Shepherd said. “We can’t buy the engines that it takes to run up front. It will make it a lot tougher for us.
“We’ve just got to see if we can get our cars good enough to qualify into the field because we’re probably 40 horsepower down from those top guys. There’s not a whole lot you can do about that unless you can get some money.”
If Harmon is surviving with the bare minimum, Shepherd is running with even less, having just one employee. The 77-year-old claims he has been broke four times this season alone, which is part of the reason why he hasn’t brought the No. 89 car to a handful of races (Daytona International Speedway, Watkins Glen, Road America, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL).
“I thought we were finished, but some of our friends — we don’t have big sponsors, but they will step up and help us,” Shepherd said. “Usually, when we’re gone [away from the track], it takes at least $10,000 to get us back in, and that’s happened four times this year — our friends have stepped up. I let them know what’s going on. They’ll ask me what I need, and most of the time, each one of them that I’ve asked, they put in $10,000.”
In addition to not making the trip to Daytona, Watkins Glen, Road America, Vegas and Charlotte, Shepherd has failed to qualify for seven races this season. When the No. 89 has made the field based on speed, Shepherd’s starts have ranged from 28th to 40th position.
For someone who has been racing in some sort of fashion since the late 1960s, the reduced fields could potentially shut down Shepherd’s team and end his career prematurely.
“It’s according to the people that we know and how much they can step up and help,” Shepherd said. “At the end of the season, I’m going to sit down and figure it out. I don’t have a Daytona car now because they are going to a composite car. I would say I’m between $50,000-75,000 that we will have to come up with. As soon as the season ends, I’m going to be working on all the new stuff. I’ll send letters out, call friends, and we’ll see what we can come up with.”
On the other hand, Harmon plans on giving the 2019 season a go. But for a team that has to move away from Dodge in 2019, that, too, will be cost effective.
Since NASCAR will evenly distribute the prize money throughout the field from what would have been the 39th- and 40th- place starters, that will obviously affect smaller teams — especially ones that run up to “80 percent” of its operation on said money.
Ultimately, Harmon is going to have to spend more money just to qualify inside the top 38. When the rule comes into play at Daytona in February, the top 33 speeds will be locked into the race, with the final five provisional positions based off points.
“It’s going to force me to have to build a car just for qualifying that I can’t race,” Harmon said. “It’s going to be the same for some other people that they haven’t thought about — horsepower that you can’t use in the race. I’m going to have to build a qualifying car and not even think about the race. There is a difference.
“You can even run a qualifying engine, as long as you know you can’t race it… That’s where the people making these decisions don’t realize for every action, there’s a reaction.”
Even though the plan is to run the full 2019 season, it’s possible Harmon’s team can’t make it to every stop on the schedule.
“There’s a good chance that we might have to step back for a little while and regroup,” Harmon said. “There’s a good possibility of that. I’m not into giving up, but I have to wear my business hat before I wear my racing hat.”
When the No. 74 car has raced this season, it’s been competitive for what Harmon considers the “third pack” of a given field. Between the five drivers who have run in at least one race, the team has an average finish of 29.9 and even has two lead lap finishes.
But as for NASCAR, Harmon is having a hard time accepting the rule change.
“I think the people that are making the decisions didn’t even know what a race car was when we’re at the racetrack,” Harmon said. “I don’t think they realize how it affects everything as a whole. Just like I told one of them, it’s like lining 40 people up, and you have a truck load of food, and you give all the people up front too much food before you get to the last three or four in that 40-people line — you have nothing to give them. That’s exactly the way it is.”
- Last Friday at Kansas Speedway, Spencer Gallagher announced he would retire from NASCAR competition following the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The Las Vegas native will take on a managerial role at GMS Racing. In 117 career starts among the top three national touring series, Gallagher has six top-five finishes and 25 top 10s, including a pair of poles in the Camping World Truck Series and an XFINITY win at Talladega Superspeedway.
- Prior to John Hunter Nemechek‘s win at Kansas, reports began to swirl that Ross Chastain was the leading candidate to drive the No. 42 full-time in 2019. In three races for Chip Ganassi Racing, Chastain has a pair of top-two finishes, including a win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
- After dominating at Kansas last weekend and finishing second, Daniel Hemric was penalized 10 points for being too low in the rear suspension. The No. 21 car now sits second in the points, 13 points above the cut-line. Meanwhile, Elliott Sadler is leading the points, +14 on the bubble. Tyler Reddick is +11 and Christopher Bell +1. Matt Tifft is the first driver outside the top four, one point behind Bell. Justin Allgaier is five points back, while Cole Custer is -23 and Austin Cindric -43.