The NASCAR Xfinity Series: “Where names are made.”
Over the last several years, Xfinity has been a place for young teens and 20-somethings to get experience on larger tracks and race against top competition. The same goes for NASCAR’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series and the ARCA Menards Series.
Drivers with last names like Cindric, Bell, Nemechek, and Reddick are trying to emulate Elliott, Jones, Hemric, and Buescher’s path to the top pedestal of NASCAR by showcasing their talents on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. Although the field of young drivers wheeling top equipment in the NASCAR Xfinity Series has slimmed down quite a bit with the recent departures of Roush Fenway Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing from the series, multi-million dollar teams continue to put younger and younger drivers in the seats of their top quality equipment, hoping to develop emerging racers into talented wheelmen.
But, it didn’t used to be that way.
In the first decade of the NASCAR Xfinity series (the NASCAR Busch Late Model Sportsman Series as it was called back then until it was re-branded as the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series in 1986), the sportsman was the topic of the conversation.
The sportsman driver was not a teenager driving cars prepped by a pristine and clean shop. No, they were drivers and teams who raced because they loved to do it. To be clear, I’m not saying that current drivers don’t, but there was a unique gleaming passion that many had. While professional engineering and expensive shops started to invade the NASCAR Winston Cup series in the late 80s and early 90s, the Busch cars came out of small shops and garages dotted across the country. The driver was generally the head mechanic too. Blue-collar would be an accurate description.
Prize money helped get you from track to track. Corporate sponsorship was a rarity, and full manufacturer support was nearly nonexistent. If you were a driver, your team was often made up of friends and family. For instance, Larry Pearson won back to back Busch series championship in 1986 and 1987 with father David as his car owner and brother Ricky serving as crew chief.
Jack Ingram drove his own cars to championships in 1982 and 1985. Joe Nemechek did the same in 1992. Bobby Labonte’s father Bob served as his crew chief in his 1991 championship run. The late Rob Moroso and Gadsden, Alabama driver Steve Grissom drove for their fathers as they claimed the 1989 and 1993 championships respectively.
But, by the mid-1990s, the trend of the winning sportsman was dying out. Yes, there have been sportsmen drivers along the way, but checkered flags were becoming extinct. But, wait.
The 2013 Dollar General 200: Who won? Kyle Busch wins an Xfinity race. Shocker.
Few took notice of the driver who finished 21st. Six years ago last weekend, Ryan Sieg entered his first Xfinity race. Sieg, driving for Jeremy Clements Racing, finished two laps off the pace. There’s nothing noteworthy here.
However, since that day at ISM Raceway and 173 starts later, Sieg’s career has emulated that afternoon in Phoenix. Nothing spectacular. Yes, there have been some strong runs at Daytona and a fluke runner-up finish in 2017 at Kentucky via strategy and fuel mileage, but a top 20 is usually a great day for the now 33-year old.
What makes Sieg different is who he is. In all but two of his starts, Sieg has raced under the banner of RSS Racing, a team owned by his father Rod. Operating out of a small shop in Tucker, Georgia with a half dozen full-time employees, RSS Racing has little factory support. Often entering older refurbished race cars, the Siegs don’t have corporate sponsorship. To support the flagship team, Jeff Green and Josh Bilicki wheel other RSS cars, often for only limited portions of events to save money if a sponsor is not found. When sponsors come into the fold, they are often picked up on a race-to-race basis. Does all this sound familiar?
So why is this mid-pack racer a topic of discussion right now? Well, we might want to erase “mid-pack.”
Only three drivers have finished in the top 12 so far in all four events of the NASCAR Xfinity Series this season. They are JR Motorsports drivers Michael Annett and Noah Gragson. The other? Ryan Sieg.
Sieg and RSS Racing might be the modern image of the early sportsmen. But, why are they so good this year? Sure, Ganassi and Roush dropped out. Richard Childress Racing is down to one car. There is more room for better results for Sieg and his fellow counterparts, but that’s not it. Yes, Ross Chastain turned a lot of heads last year for his over-achievements, but Sieg has not been gifted better finishes either. He has raced and beaten teams that have full-manufacturer support, including JR Motorsports, Stewart Haas Racing, and Kaulig Racing drivers.
Again, this blue-collar racer doesn’t have the budgets the big teams have. Yet, he’s leading a group of drivers who are reincarnations of the sportsmen of yesteryear on a charge to reclaim old glory for the style of racer decades ago.
NASCAR’s undercard series have the most sportsmen in them in years:
Along with Sieg, this group includes Xfinity driver Brandon Brown. Brown has not had a single primary sponsor on his family-owned car this season, but continues to impress onlookers and media alike, gaining large amounts of TV time in the process. Top 15s are now the goal for the blue collar team. Sponsorship woes have put this team in a bind, but the Browns are determined to run a full season and race among the big boys.
An original sportsman in his own right, Bobby Dotter’s small team SS Greenlight Racing has also benefited. Dotter’s group is off to the best start in team history. Drivers Gray Gaulding and Ray Black Jr each got their career-best finishes at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a track that generally does not suit small, less-funded teams. Where did they finish? 25th? 22nd? 18th? 16th? How about 11th and 12th.
DGM Racing driver Josh Williams and MBM Motorsports competitor Timmy Hill are not just drivers. Last weekend, you could find Williams in the garage underneath his race car while Hill was atop the grandstand spotting for his brother Tyler. These racers don’t have their own luxury motor homes as Penske or Gibbs drivers have. Greasy hands and beat up work pants are the name of the game.
At ISM Raceway, JD Motorsports driver Stephen Leicht was on track to have his best finish in over a decade, before mechanical failure struck. Oh, by the way, Leicht is a teammate of Garrett Smithley, BJ McLeod, and Ross Chastain–the same Ross Chastain who gained instant stardom last season after getting a huge break with Chip Ganassi Racing. But sponsorship dried up and Chastain is back with the team that races out of an old industrial warehouse out of Gaffney, South Carolina.
As sponsorship and funding have become the topic of conversation in NASCAR, many larger teams have had to cut corners and even withdraw from the lower tier divisions. Should we be surprised smaller teams are getting top-10s and top-15s on a regular basis? Is this a problem? Is the recent success of old-school “sportsmen” a welcomed trend? Are the days of Cup teams in Xfinity starting to come to a close?
While Sieg, Chastain, Brown, Black, Williams, and others are having the best runs of their careers in unlike venues, they are arguably reincarnations of the original old school competitors. Yet, we can actually go all the way to the back of the field to get a glimpse original sportsmen. Yes, they are still there. Nolan Ryan is still not pitching, Joe Montana is not playing quarterback, and Larry Bird isn’t dropping buckets, but Morgan Shepherd is still racing.
Shepherd has not finished a race since 2012, but he is still a symbol of what used to be. Shepherd was a sportsmen who was discovered and went to Cup. After a lengthy and successful cup career, Shepherd has returned to a blue collar style of racing. The 79-year old has no plans to stop any time soon.
In 2002, Mike Harmon was a name often glanced over on the entry list. But, in August of that year, it all changed. Harmon’s was involved in a vicious crash at Bristol Motorsports. His No. 44 Chevrolet was ripped in half before being struck by another vehicle. Many thought Harmon’s racing days were over, and possibly his life too. But, the Alabaman emerged from his car unhurt. He didn’t climb out of his battered machine, he stood up and walked out.
After his 15 minutes of fame, the legend of Mike Harmon faded into obscurity. But, he’s still out their competing, with the same mentality as the racers decades ago. Sure, the Harmon team just wants to finish races, but they are more than just a team that perseveres. They are a symbol of what was.
We can still find those original sportsmen in other series too. NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Norm Benning fields trucks out of a residential garage in Pennsylvania. Beaver Motorsports often works on their trucks in a small building behind a residence. Veteran ARCA driver Brad Smith often hauls his race car on a small flat-bed equipment trailer. 80 year old army veteran Wayne Peterson still fields aging ARCA cars for casual racers including himself. Last weekend Peterson fielded a machine for a young driver out of Illinois making his first start. This driver wheeled the No. 06 Dodge to a respectable 14th place finish, that is, nine laps off the pace.
Who is this by chance? Tim Richmond. Talk about a name.
Reverting back to the Xfinity Series, there are only 11 full-time drivers who have full manufacturer support at the moment. This means, at least one team without full support of the manufacturer will make the playoffs. A sportsman will run for the championship. That sentence has not been said this century. Is this trend here to stay? JRM, JGR, and SHR aren’t likely to go anywhere soon, but we might need to readdress how we perceive the competition in the series. Independent sportsmen are competing at levels that we have not seen in decades. Could they be contenders for race wins? Unlikely.
However, the reemergence of the independent racer to competitive levels has its benefits and drawbacks. It’s a sign of changing times. The sport is not as big as it once was. Bigger teams are finding difficulties fielding cars in lower series. That does not sound optimistic. But, for long-time race fans and purists alike, the glory days of independent old-school sportsmen just might be reemerging.
Now, lets put them back on the short tracks.