NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

The Underdog House: Exposing the NASCAR Competition Gap at Texas

Think Small

Martinsville Speedway sure feels like a long time ago for the underdogs of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Following what was an uplifting weekend for some at the half-mile, the back half of the series came to Texas Motor Speedway. The 1.5-miler gave us the best non-plate race for the underdogs all season earlier this season, as nine underdogs finished between eighth and 20th.

The return visit, however, failed to give the small teams opportunity to reach the top 10, or 15… or nearly the top 20 at the end of 500 miles. With little attrition compared to the spring event, the AAA Texas 500 came down to speed and speed only.

This is where small teams tend to struggle. And it’s understandable in the Cup Series. The pace Kevin Harvick set with his No. 4 Ford was outstanding and produced a challenge even for the likes of Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing. So, realistically, how would a Germain Racing or a Leavine Family Racing possibly match that pace even for one run, let alone an entire 337-lap race?

Well, they just don’t. Gaunt Brothers Racing was among those off the pace of the leaders on Sunday (Nov. 4), and its driver, Parker Kligerman, outlined his frustration via Instagram following the race.

“We were roughly [0.200 seconds] per lap off from being a top-25 car but could not catch a break,” Kligerman posted. “Then again, it’s insane how much faster the big teams have gotten compared to the smaller teams. Has to be the largest separation in speed we have ever seen in this sport. Will be interesting to see where things go in 2019.”

Now, Kligerman is more than just a struggling racecar driver speaking out of frustration. The lifelong car enthusiast has broadened his horizons the past few years, working with NBC Sports as a pit reporter to offer driver-centric knowledge for the common race fan.

Kligerman’s post stood out as one of the most important social media comments of 2018 regarding the small side of the garage. And it’s no coincidence it came following a race like Texas.

Top of the Class

For a season-high 10th time, AJ Allmendinger was the Frontstretch Underdog of the Race, doing so from the 20th spot this weekend at Texas.

Continuing a streak of four races where the top underdog has come from JTG Daugherty Racing, the two-car organization is no doubt the best small team in the Cup Series.

That said, Sunday wasn’t much and didn’t give the No. 47 Chevrolet team too much to be happy about. Qualifying 25th, Allmendinger stayed just shy of the top 20 most of the afternoon. A tire violation on lap 88 pushed him back to kick off stage two, and a small improvement saw him just slip into the top 20 in 20th.

The strong performance of JTG is more than just its top finisher, though; consider Chris Buescher. Despite finishing 23rd and two laps down, the No. 37 was often seen in the top 15 and showed some potential to stay there near the end. A crash with Bubba Wallace injured his night late, however, and he was unable to bring a strong finish at his home track.

The last of the top dogs Sunday was Ty Dillon. The No. 13 team received some TV time during practice on Friday, with NBC analyst Jeff Burton taking notice of its apparent improvement in the month of October. Indeed, with two 15th-place finishes in the last four races and now a 22nd at an aero track like Texas (his best finish on a 1.5-mile track since the Coca-Cola 600 in May), this could be a surge in time for the offseason.

It’s also worth noting that Dillon finished 11th at ISM Raceway, the track next on the schedule, in 2017.

Underdogs of the Race So Far in 2018:

Daytona: Bubba Wallace (second)
Atlanta: Kasey Kahne (21st)
Las Vegas: Chris Buescher (15th)
ISM: AJ Allmendinger (21st)
Auto Club: Bubba Wallace (20th)
Martinsville: AJ Allmendinger (seventh)
Texas: Bubba Wallace (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: Bubba Wallace (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)
Charlotte ROVAL: AJ Allmendinger (seventh)
Dover: Regan Smith (21st)
Talladega: AJ Allmendinger (sixth)
Kansas: Chris Buescher (16th)
Martinsville: Chris Buescher (13th)
Texas: AJ Allmendinger (20th)

Looking for More

Sunday wasn’t all good news. In fact, for some, it downright sucked. In between pit road penalties, no outer groove, a hard Goodyear tire, long green-flag runs, it was a difficult day to manage.

David Ragan was 24th from the Front Row Motorsports group. Oftentimes, 2018 has brought good fortune for the No. 38 team, but the postseason has seen it sink. But only for a few weeks.

You see, Ragan has had a terribly inconsistent season in terms of finishes in 2018. For two, maybe three weeks, he’ll be in the top 20, and then for the next three-or-so weeks, he’ll barely be top 25. That’s been the story of the year for Ragan, and it’s kept him from making significant gains in points.

Whether bad breaks, accidents or something else, Texas was another one of those days for the Georgia native, who spun his car through the infield grass on his qualifying run. Raceday just didn’t have it.

Bubba Wallace was involved in a late wreck with Buescher, which had a similar effect on his car through the end. And though his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet was held a lap by NASCAR for pitting out of the assigned pit box, ending up 25th, Wallace was still upbeat after the day.

Wallace led two laps under pit cycle, the second time he’s led in the last three races.

Regan Smith battled a tough-handling No. 95 LFR chassis, starting 28th and managing just 27th at the checkered flag. His feedback during the race spoke of his troubles.

“It’s so violent over the bumps now that it feels like it’s shearing the tires off,” Smith said over the radio during the race. “So all over the place that I can’t hold the line. Nothing’s helping with security.”

Michael McDowell was also unhappy with his car throughout the day, finishing right where he qualified in 29th. He ended the day six laps off the pace in his No. 34 Front Row Ford.

Kligerman gave us an honest look from the driver’s seat regarding competition. And it came after a tough night in his fourth start for GBR. Finishing 31st, he was lucky to even see the checkered flag after sliding his No. 96 sideways off Turn 2 mid-race after a nudge from Ross Chastain, who finished one spot behind in 32nd.

Reed Sorenson was 33rd for Premium Motorsports, followed by Kyle Weatherman, who finished 34th, ahead of StarCom Racing teammate Landon Cassill for the fourth time in six starts this season.

JJ Yeley was 36th in his No. 23 Toyota, ahead of Joey Gase, who was spun by Allmendinger to bring out the day’s final caution flag in Turn 1. His first start with Rick Ware Racing ended 37th, while Matt DiBenedetto’s day ended even earlier after a head-on crash on the backstretch.

David Starr started the first Cup race for Obaika Racing, the No. 97 team that has raced part-time in the XFINITY Series since 2015. The Texan finished 39th after a garage visit and a late-race spin. Corey LaJoie was 40th, last place for TriStar Motorsports and first-time sponsor Gas Monkey Garage.

Otherdogs

It was a triple-header weekend in Texas, and XFINITY and the Camping World Truck Series brought the heat on Friday and Saturday.

In Friday’s (Nov. 2) JAG Metals 350, Austin Hill scored his first-career top-five finish in the fifth spot, benefiting from an out-of-gas Grant Enfinger to score the spot. Jesse Little grabbed his fifth top 10 in eight starts this year for his family-owned No. 97 truck.

On the XFINITY side, Saturday’s (Nov. 3) O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 saw Spencer Gallagher score another top 10 in the second half of 2018 for GMS Racing from the ninth spot. Chastain just missed the top 10 from the 11th position for JD Motorsports, while Jeremy Clements and Yeley earned lead-lap top-15 finishes in 14th and 15th, respectively.

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About Zach Catanzareti

Avatar
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.

3 comments

  1. Avatar

    “Then again, it’s insane how much faster the big teams have gotten compared to the smaller teams. Has to be the largest separation in speed we have ever seen in this sport.”

    Parker might be right, but “ever seen in this sport” covers a lot of ground – I have to wonder if anyone has the teams’ speed differential for the days when Richard Petty, David Pearson, or Cale Yarborough were one of the two or three cars on the lead lap (or, if I read correctly, in more than one race in 1974, those were the only three on the lead lap at the end of the race).

    • Avatar

      Don’t forget that back then it was a LOT harder to get the lap back once you were passed. There was no free pass or wave-around to get it back. If it was an unscheduled pit stop it had to be earned by passing him back under green or on a restart when the lapped cars were on the inside row. Now I’m feeling nostalgic.

      • Avatar

        That is true but it would still be an interesting comparison for say the average speed of the top 5 vs. the 20-25 positions for say the past 5 years and looking at a similar period from the past maybe even do a 5 year in the 60’s, 5 yr in the 70’s, etc. Just for reference. I would be very careful to not cherry pick the years though. maybe see if there are periods of car changes that could be used or something.