Race Weekend Central

David vs. Goliath: Magic Mile Stingy with NASCAR’s Little Guys

The 1-mile oval up in Loudon, N.H. is often referred to as the “Magic Mile.” Problem for the underdogs is, that magic typically only applies to them when the rain starts to fall (rookies Ryan Newman and Joey Logano both owe their first career Cup victories to Mother Nature cutting the venue’s 300-lappers short).

While bright and sunny conditions were great news after a week of dismal forecasts threatened to make Cup racing another Monday affair, they also proved to create a challenging, slick racing surface. Coupled with long green-flag runs and a general lack of attrition, Sunday (Sept. 25) was a hard-fought event for those at the back of the Cup garage.

Score One for David

Had Trevor Bayne not come out of nowhere to win the Daytona 500 back in February, Regan Smith‘s unlikely Southern 500 triumph would have easily gone down as the underdog win of the 2011 season, one that has seen the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team reach levels of competitiveness that it’s never come close to at the Nationwide or Cup level.

Documented early in the race broadcast as Smith was moving into the top 20, ESPN noted that the No. 78 bunch had circled this race and their flat-track program in general as a place to target improvement as they wound down the campaign. And just like any other part of their racing program, Furniture Row took dramatic steps forward at Loudon with their underdog, single-car operation.

Smith scored the 10th finishing position coming to the checkers, his fifth top-10 result of the season and in team history; it was also their first such finish since Indianapolis. What more can be said? It’s truly been a historic season for both driver and team, each of whom toiled a long time to get here … and it just keeps going.

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JJ Yeley came to Front Row Motorsports earlier this year both to run a start-and-park car to raise money and test for the team, as well as to assist the fledgling organization in attracting sponsorship beyond the pockets of team owner and restauranteur Bob Jenkins. But with Travis Kvapil‘s continued struggles in 2011 and the No. 38 team battling a rapidly ending schedule to try and get back into the Top 35, Yeley has now gotten to race the distance in three of the last four Cup races, including this weekend at Loudon.

More importantly, Yeley both gained owner points on Andy Lally and the No. 71 TRG operation, and in finishing 27th carried the flag for Front Row Motorsports (David Gilliland ended up 32nd, Kvapil dead last after parking the No. 55 10 laps in). Yeley’s continued time behind the wheel of the No. 38 can’t help but bode well for a driver that’s spent the better part of two seasons looking for a full-time home.

The duo of Kvapil and Gilliland has worked for Ford Racing since their days at Yates back in 2008, but with the No. 38 lagging as the No. 34 has enjoyed its strongest season yet on the Cup tour, the iron is hot for Yeley should the results keep coming.

Score One for Goliath

As mentioned above, Lally and the No. 71 team saw their grasp on the last locked-in spot in the Cup field cut down to 38 points after a 34th-place result Sunday. While 34th wasn’t too far removed from the 28th-place effort Lally posted at the track in July, the lap count tells a more distressing story. Lally was one lap off the pace at race’s end this summer; this time, he was 16 laps off.

Germain Racing endured a rough weekend on the Cup side, for sure. Any doubts that money is short in that camp, take a look at the stat sheet. Despite being on the East Coast and only a week off a race that the primary sponsor of the team’s No. 13 machine, GEICO, sponsored both driver Casey Mears and the race itself, the same No. 13 finished 42nd as the second start-and-park machine out of the event.

The No. 60 that Mike Skinner has driven for much of 2011 didn’t even make the trip to Loudon, leaving the only other round for the team in the chamber of the No. 50 of TJ Bell (no, they’re not under the Germain Racing banner or the same ownership name, but take a quick walk around their Cup car, the Germain presence is hard to miss).

Unfortunately, that car missed the field setting up a weekend of financial ruin for the organization. With the team’s truck program already in iffy shape with two-time champion Todd Bodine on loan after the No. 30 team shut down and driver Brendan Gaughan reportedly unhappy with his home at Germain, the mountain is looking ever taller for an organization that was once amongst Toyota’s flagship operations.

Richmond seems like eons ago for Tommy Baldwin Racing, who struggled through another disappointing weekend at Loudon. For the second week in a row, the team’s No. 35 entry failed to make the show (this time with longtime veteran Steve Park behind the wheel).

As for regular Dave Blaney and the No. 36 bunch, the day was over fairly quickly. Blaney’s highlights of the day were proving a tough pass for Newman to make as lapped traffic around lap 50, only to bring out the yellow when oil was reported coming from his machine on lap 87.

The team was never able to fully fix the oil leak, then ended up parked for the day after completing only 80 circuits. The 35th-place result was the worst for any team that didn’t start-and-park, and Blaney’s fourth result outside the top 30 in the last five Cup races.

Landon Cassill has demonstrated significant progress in becoming a full-time Cup driver with the No. 51 team this year, Sunday’s spin and damage on lap 156 notwithstanding (Cassill ended up finishing six laps down in 33rd, his worst finish since Kansas way back in June). Problem is, now can’t be the time for Cassill to have an “aw shucks, we’ll get them next week” kind of weekend … because the 2012 prospects for this team are far from certain.

Considering that the Thank a Teacher Today sponsorship the car has been sporting for much of 2011 is worth $100,000 a race, according to Frontstretch sources, there’s really no conceivable way the team is making money. Hey, it’s the R&D car; who cares, right?

The problem, going forward is simple: with Red Bull Racing suddenly in limbo and a bevy of personnel with previous ties to the Hendrick camp already over there (Brian Vickers, Robin Pemberton, the fact that Kasey Kahne has been working with the bunch for a year now), there’s suddenly a much more attractive farm team for Hendrick Motorsports to put its R&D dollars behind.

Keeping Phoenix Racing afloat made sense as long as the team had nowhere to put Mark Martin in 2012, but with Kahne taking the No. 5 next year and Red Bull being an established two-car team that’s going to be a far easier sponsor sell than a one-car team with an unproven driver … just how many R&D cars can even NASCAR’s biggest superteam justify?

There’s also the whole thing about Kevin Harvick questioning whether or not Cassill’s spin was intentional to help Dale Earnhardt Jr. get back on the lead lap, but that’s gotta be sour grapes coming from an RCR driver … right?

The Winner: Push

Smith was the brightest spot for Cup’s underdogs as FRM, Germain Racing and even Tommy Baldwin Racing failed to impress, but a top 10 does weigh well against days that didn’t tear up cars for the backmarkers.

The Standings

David: 0-1-1
Goliath: 1-0-1

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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