Racing, like any professional sport, builds a season around the successes and the failures. The unsurprising joys from the headliners and the scratching and clawing for every inch from the underdogs.
Comers and goers, contenders and pretenders, the have and the have nots. Take your pick; you’ve most likely heard them all. Rarely is there any middle ground, drivers will be categorized to either end of the spectrum based on their performance any given weekend.
It’s easy to get lost in the glitz and glamour found at the front of the field. The superstars with their gleaming cars adorned with major sponsors. Fans pay to see them, wearing their name and merchandise like riches.
Then there’s the other race. The struggle to not only show up but to get on track is one rarely highlighted. Mostly because more energy is spent putting forth such a ferocious reaction towards those just trying to survive week to week. Especially the rise of start-and-park teams which has been met with anything but compassion.
These are the drivers who start a race, but before seemingly getting up to speed they call it quits. Culprits listed for the early departure are more than likely brakes, transmission, engine, and vibrations. Purse money collected goes back to the shop where they hope it’s enough to pay some bills with whatever is leftover to prepare the car for another week.
That’s not the story fans care about every week. Hearing how most teams are down 20 horsepower because they only have two engines they rotate week after week, that are years old, is a minor footnote. The fact that it’s the 20 horsepower causing them to be in the leaders’ way or lapped every few circuits doesn’t bring compassion.
The battle scars become evident the closer you get to it. The dirt, bumps, and bruises aren’t pretty because these aren’t the pretty cars found at the top of the leaderboard.
Last Friday’s Nationwide Series race at Texas could have been a re-run of the many events before it. The superstars played their role at the front of the field. Young gun and championship contender Chase Elliott won his first career race. Five of the six Cup drivers finished in the top six. The rest of the top 10 consisted of drivers who will one day be – or dream of having been – Cup drivers.
Continue down the list. Just more of the consistent contenders with a talented driver who just missed out on that top 10 finish. But when you keep going you come across a few results that stand out in name and team. With the lack of money sitting underneath David Starr, J.J. Yeley, Ryan Seig, Jeremy Clements and Jeffrey Earnhardt, their top 20 finishes were overachievements.
It was Starr and his TriStar Motorsports crew finishing 15th that led the way for the underfunded Nationwide brigade. A top-15 finish equates to a win considering Starr earned his career best finish for a team who had one of their other cars, Blake Koch’s, finish dead last.
TriStar has been here before though, yet this time around it’s in a much different position. Mark Smith established the company in 1989 when they went Cup racing. Success came throughout the 90s with the late Bobby Hamilton and Loy Allen Jr. just to name a few.
They company earned nine top-10 finishes and three career poles. Never pulling off the ultimate upset however in a win, and after 1997 they stopped gracing theNASCAR Cup tracks. But in 2012 and 2013 they made a few rare appearances.
Which isn’t all that that surprising as Smith caught the racing bug again before the 2010 season, this time fielding cars in the Nationwide Series with drivers like Starr, Eric McClure, Jeff Green and a slew of others. At Texas they had four cars entered with Starr debuting the Whataburger sponsorship.
Everything is bigger in Texas, as was Starr’s performance and its importance for the team. To start, his 12th place qualifying effort meant Starr advanced through every round of knockout qualifying – an accomplishment in itself – and it was one of the best starts for the company of the season.
The finish was a career best for Starr, who ran top-20 all night and it was the second best performance this year for the company. Mike Bliss finished 14th in Las Vegas last month. Starr also led two laps, which is the first for TriStar this season.
Those statistics and performance won’t excite some outsiders. Yet what they did a week ago provides them internally with a boost of confidence and excitement heading to the next week, the next track, the next challenge. For TriStar, Texas was a successful weekend in every way. All four cars had sponsorship and all four came home in one piece.
In just five years they already have better Nationwide statistics than they had in 11 years of Cup competition. That’s 13 top-10 finishes and one top-5. TriStar is just a part of the story within the bigger story fans see every weekend. Grabbing headlines and adding to their numbers won’t happen every weekend. It doesn’t come as easy as Kyle Busch winning a Nationwide race.
But when they do add another notch, it’ll be a hard fought one. They’ll be racing with re-used tires, with the nerve center of the team operating from the spot in the parking lot they had to set up camp because they aren’t high enough in points to warrant a garage stall. If it rains, they put up makeshift tents and hope they hold.
No, they aren’t the stars. But they have just enough of a dream and just enough to make to the track that if looked at closely, like Texas, they will surprise you. And that should be just enough to earn a little respect and admiration from those who are always quick to point out what they aren’t capable of doing.