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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Beside the Rising Tide: Feels Like the First Time 

Rather unexpectedly, NASCAR’s top three touring divisions have welcomed some first-time winning drivers and teams lately. 

On Thursday night (July 11) at Kentucky Speedway, Tyler Ankrum drove his David Gilliland-owned Toyota to victory, a first for both the rookie driver and the team. It was only Ankrum’s 12th start in the Truck Series, as he was wasn’t old enough to race on the big tracks when this season started (he turned 18, the minimum age to compete on the big ovals, in early March).

Prior to Thursday, Ankrum had managed only one top-five result this season, a third-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway in June, largely overshadowed by Greg Biffle’s wiping-away-the-cobwebs win after having not competed in a truck event in 15 years.

Prior to Ankrum’s win, the last series regular (and he’s a little irregular at that) in the Truck Series was Ross Chastain at Kansas in May. Of the 13 truck races run to date this year, Cup interloper Kyle Busch has won five of them, Chastain two, and defending series titlist Brett Moffitt two. Throw in Ankrum’s win on Thursday, that unexpected win by Biffle, Johnny Sauter’s win at Dover, and Austin Hill’s first career first truck series race win at Daytona way back when and you’ve accounted for all 13 victors in the series this year. It’s hard to believe, but there are only three more truck races before that series playoffs start. 

The five series regulars who have won this year have basically locked up playoff spots (Biffle and Busch are not eligible to compete in the Truck Series title chase), leaving three spots up for grabs with those three races left to run in the regular season. It’s going to take another race winner(s) or a monumental meltdown by Matt Crafton, Stewart Friesen and Grant Enfinger to allow anyone currently outside the playoff bubble in, meaning there’s a high likelihood that Busch’s KBM squads will find themselves locked out of driver title contention while it’s still the Dog Days of August. 

On the Xfinity side of the garage, there hasn’t been a first-time winner since Michael Annett won the season-opening NXS race at Daytona in February. Once again, Busch moonlighting from his day job has had a good deal of success in NASCAR’s AAA series again this year with three wins in four starts and a total of 345 laps led. New rules in both the NXS and Truck Series have limited the amount of races Busch (or any other Cup interloper) can run in a season. 

The argument against limiting the amount of races Cup regulars could drive in the development series always had been that in order to improve, up and coming drivers had to race against the big boys and learn from them. Fans, it was claimed, wouldn’t show up to see the NXS races unless there were some Cup stars to cheer for. Those “experts,” it would seem, were wrong on both counts. While he hasn’t been the only Cup driver to enter NXS races this season, Busch has been the only one to win any, and most of them were dreadfully boring affairs akin to watching a bully beat up a smaller kid for his lunch money. 

Absent the Cup regulars grabbing up all the top finishing positions, something unexpected has happened. Three young drivers have emerged from the pack, the so called “Big 3” of Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell. Happily enough, given NASCAR’s alleged interest in parity, those three drivers compete in different makes of cars: Custer in a SHR Ford, Bell in a JGR Toyota and Reddick in an RCR Chevy. 

Custer scored his fifth win of the season at Kentucky. Call me a pessimist, but my guess is if Busch was still competing nearly weekly in the NXS as in days of yore, it’s unlikely Custer would have those same five victories (though to be fair, in the one NXS start Busch didn’t win this year, he finished second to Custer at Fontana). The “Big 3” are garnering some headlines and attention in a way no drivers were ever going to manage if their claim to fame was “I finish second to KyBu sometimes.”

Having a set of series regulars compete successfully is exactly what the NXS series has needed since Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth left the series to compete in Cup racing. In addition, the sponsors of the winning and front-running NXS drivers are finally getting some TV time and mentions, which is vital to keeping them involved with the sport. And those sponsors’ continued support is essential to not only the quality of the racing, but the sport’s long term health and survival. We haven’t seen a NASCAR race vehicle adorned with “Will race for food” sponsorship decals yet, but it might not be too far in the offing.

Custer has five wins (including two of the last three races). Bell has won four times this year and Reddick has taken three NXS checkered flags in the opening 17 races. I’ve got to be careful with the semantics here. As of late, taking the checkered flag no longer automatically equates to a race win as NASCAR cracks down on rulebook desperadoes.

A few weeks ago at Daytona, Kaulig Racing had apparently claimed the top three finishing positions in the NXS race, with Ross Chastain leading Justin Haley and AJ Allmendinger to the checkered flag, though Allmendinger was later disqualified. 

There’s a slightly more manageable seven events left until the NXS series starts its playoff races. Of the 17 NXS races run this season, the “Big 3” have won 12 of them and Busch another three. Annett won the season opener at Daytona, and Chastain won the NXS race at Daytona last week. Neither Chastain nor Busch are eligible to compete for the NXS title, which leaves just four drivers pretty much locked into the playoffs with those eight races left to run in the 2019 regular season. 

Twelve drivers in total will advance to the playoffs. Currently, Brandon Jones sits 12th in the standings with a nearly insurmountable 95-point lead over Gray Gaulding. In order to clinch a spot in the playoffs, drivers currently outside the top 12 in the standings will likely need to win a race to wriggle their way in. 

On the Cup side of the garage, first-time winners scored their victories at Chicago and Daytona, but in very different ways. Prior to those two races, the last new face in a NASCAR Cup victory lane was Chase Elliott at Watkins Glen International last August (though the event was somewhat overshadowed by Brian France’s DUI arrest the same evening). 

It’s a sign of how much things have changed that any win by a Hendrick Motorsports driver can be considered a bit of an upset. When Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were both in the primes of their respective careers, it was almost an upset when anyone else won. Add in an occasional win by Dale Jr. and there was no question which was the dominant team in the Cup series. Whether it was the teams themselves or the mounts they chose, the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas and Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske Fords have since claimed top dog honors. SHR has been off a bit this season so to date, but JGR and Penske have won 16 of 19 points paying Cup races. HMS has scored two wins, one at Talladega with Elliott and the other that inaugural win for Alex Bowman at Chicago. 

I was a bit surprised and even taken aback by the vehemence of some people’s reaction to Justin Haley’s “bolt out of the blue” win at Daytona a couple weeks back. Very few fans, especially the ones who traveled long distances to the track and spent a lot of money to sit in the rain-soaked grandstands, like to see a race called early for weather reasons, especially after the rain has stopped at a race track equipped with lights. Yes, they’ll clear the players from the field for a lightning strike within eight miles at a little league game, but nobody paid $500 to watch kids play baseball. If a weather delay allows a fan’s favorite driver to win, they’ll probably laud NASCAR’s wisdom in ending the race and letting everyone go somewhere else and get dry. Everyone but fans of that surprise winner will likely not be happy with the turn of events. And apparently Xfinity regular Haley hasn’t developed too big a fan club just yet. 

Normally, a first-time winner is warmly received. There’s equal parts David and Goliath and Horatio Alger in a young driver getting his first win. But the way some fans and media members (even on this site) reacted to Haley and Spire Racing’s  win, you’d have thought Haley stole their pickup truck, cussed their mamas, kicked their dogs and bogarted a joint. The team wasn’t for real. There was an obvious conflict of interest. They had no intentions of fielding a competitive team now or anytime in the foreseeable future. The win was not only tainted it was “stolen.”

Here’s a few things I know. “Start and Park” teams are hardly a new phenomenon. You could say the Founding Father of Start and Parks was Herman “The Turtle” Beam, who gamely entered 194 races at what is now the Cup level and managed just three top-five finishes. For his efforts, Beam collected $42,161 despite never finishing on the lead lap in any of those 194 events. Back in that era, $42K could buy you a brand new house in the suburbs on a half-acre lot with a brand new Caddy convertible in the garage. Beam is perhaps best recalled for being black-flagged on the first lap of the 1959 Daytona 500. It seems in his excitement to get the race started, Beam had simply forgotten to put on a crash helmet. 

Spire Motorsports bought the former Front Row Motorsports charter for $6 million, not a small amount of cash, at least in my book. They did so after Barney Visser found out even fielding a championship winning Cup team isn’t a viable financial model anymore, which is more of an indictment of NASCAR than Visser or Spire. 

The four races at what were formerly called the “plate tracks” offered a tempting gamble for smaller teams, particularly the start-and-parkers. The strategy, and again it’s hardly new, was to run around in the back of the pack at reduced speeds hoping to avoid the Big One(s). Once those huge smoking pig piles of wrecks eliminated a great deal of the field, a driver could find himself running in the top 10 or even the top five. Or in this case, find himself in victory lane. 

Was Haley’s win “hard-earned?” Did he drive the best race of his career? Negatory on both counts. But it’s not like he stole the win, either. Haley did not make it rain. Every other team running ahead of him could see the same weather radar maps and listen to the varying opinions of meteorological “experts” concerning the likelihood the race would resume. There was no predicting how long NASCAR was willing to wait out the rain at a track with lights. Once upon a time (2015), NASCAR restarted a Firecracker 400 at close to midnight and let the race drag on until almost 3 in the morning East Coast time. That move was not universally embraced.  It had been a tough weekend already weather-wise, both for sodden fans in the stands and the thoroughly bored, slack-jawed, glazed-eyed fans at home in their recliners. The decision to terminate the event can be seen at some level as a mercy killing. 

What happened to Kurt Busch that day in Daytona was a travesty, but Haley didn’t make that call. And I very much doubt that NASCAR decided on that call to take the win from Busch and hand it gift-wrapped to Haley. Likely, they’d have preferred that the win go to a name driver, not someone a lot of fans had never even heard of. 

I’d compare it to some people’s reaction when one of the lottery prizes swells to over $100 million as they do a couple times per year. Serious lottery players buy hundreds of tickets based on their “fail-safe” strategies. Co-workers often pool large sums of money in hopes that having dozens of tickets increases their chances of winning. But it only takes one ticket to win the prize. So the guy who wandered into the 7-11 for a Big Gulp and a pack of smokes then sees the advertising signs about that night’s big potential jackpot and buys a single ticket on a whim is sometimes going to win a jackpot. And likely, when the winner is announced, someone holding several hundreds of now worthless tickets that didn’t even earn him a fin is going to be pissed off about it. The fact is, the winner played the game and overcame incredible odds to claim the prize. 

No, this year’s Firecracker 400 wasn’t a jackpot in my opinion. But I choose to still celebrate a first-time winner. Cup racing has been heading in the same direction as Formula One racing for a while now. Both forms of motorsports are too damn expensive and technically advanced for their own good. In the instance of both forms of racing, their best days are likely behind them. For years at every race, there’s a clear favorite in F1 (in this era Lewis Hamilton) and two teams (Mercedes and Ferrari) consisting of two drivers who have any realistic chance of winning. In NASCAR, we haven’t quite yet hit that level of domination yet, but if you look at the combined success of JGR and Penske-owned teams this year, we’re not far from that same fate. In the meantime, I welcome any new first-time winners as a welcome change of pace whether they get that win by hook or by crook.

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About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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5 comments

  1. Avatar

    People seem focused on complaining about the sport. Everyone followed their rules and processes. Haley was on the lead lap. Spire has fielded an entry no less honorable than the lauded ‘Independents’ of yesteryear.
    Justin Haley drove a careful race, the crew chief made the right call for his team given the conditions and so did Kurt Busch’s crew chief.

  2. Avatar

    Bell and Custer are waging a great battle in xfinity. The dreaded Toyota juggernaut vs the American brand.

    Going to Bristol for the first time, can’t wait to see them battle.

  3. Avatar

    I think a no-name driver lucking into a win is more legitimate than a popular driver who wins because Nascar continued to red-flag a race at every drop of rain until a name driver is up front when the rain comes and crowning him the victor. Especially when that popular, vanilla-flavored driver is driving a car sponsored by the same company that has naming rights to the track.

  4. Avatar

    I’m continually amused with Nascar’s “Names are made here” publicity for the Xfinity series, when Cup drivers (Kyle Bush) steal all the attention…along with the trophy and prize money…whenever they run with the ‘little dogs’. Hard to get famous when youare continually overlooked. The racing since Busch ‘qualified out’ of the division really HAS made some drivers names. I wonder if Nascar is paying attention?