Race Weekend Central

Never Fear, the Underdogs are Here: Martinsville I Edition

Never Fear, the Underdogs are Here: Martinsville I Edition by Amy Henderson

Editor’s Note: This year, we’re going to switch things up a little bit. Instead of just focusing upon one underdog (or underreported) car in the Secret Star section, we will point out three smaller teams that put up good finishes each week.

Underdog Selection No. 1: Casey Mears for Germain Racing; started 41st, finished 16th

His back ached.

He had a terrible qualifying lap.

He was penalized twice for speeding on pit road and two more times lost several positions on pit stops.

But Casey Mears shone on Sunday nonetheless. He was easily the class of the small team field, racing his way as high as 13th before finishing 16th. Mears flat earned every position he gained, and he was able to outrace some very good drivers on Sunday, including Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Mears said on Friday that he’s the best he’s ever been, and his season to date backs that up. If he wasn’t shown on the broadcast, that’s a shame, because it was quite a show. Mears is now 17th in driver points, up four spots from last week; The last time he was in the top 20 in points, he was racing for perennial powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. Now he’s doing that with a team with less of everything.

This is a team that wants to win, and they do know how—they have two Camping World Truck Series titles. Their struggles at the Cup level illustrate how hard it is to be competitive at that level, but they are slowly but surely making gains toward that end. With both Mears and GEICO signed on through 2014 and the stability that gives them, can they engineer a trip to Victory Lane?

Underdog Selection No. 2: Bobby Labonte for JTG-Daugherty Racing; started 31st, finished 21st

This team was the best of the small teams in 2012 on the strength of Labonte’s consistency: If he couldn’t bring it home in front, he brought it home in one piece. For a team lacking funds to build a fleet of shiny new cars on a whim, that’s a big deal. Labonte did it again this week, gaining ten spots over where he started. The car wasn’t pristine (whose is after 500 laps at Martinsville?), but it won’t require extensive repairs, either.

This team has stagnated a bit in the last year. When 2012 began, it looked as though they were poised to take a step forward, but it hasn’t quite panned out, especially when they’re compared to Phoenix Racing or Germain Racing. They’re as solid as ever, but that’s both the blessing and the problem.

Underdog Selection No. 3: Regan Smith for Phoenix Racing; started 18th, finished 22nd

Smith ran just his second Sprint Cup race on the year on Sunday, and while the team never quite found the speed they needed on Sunday. They were one of just three single-car teams to finish in the top 25, but the only one of the three to finish lower than they started, losing four spots between the green flag and the checkered.

The team fell out of the top 10 in owner points for the first time this year; they’re now 11th. But a little perspective here: among single car teams, they’re nine spots above Germain Racing, and among all teams, they’re still ahead of heavyweights like the Nos. 20, 55, 24 and 29, all of which are owned by the wealthiest owners in the sport. And they’re still in direct competition with an independent that doesn’t even have outside sponsorship many weeks. That says a lot for owner James Finch and for the group of people both behind the wall and in the driver’s seat.

Is your favorite driver among NASCAR’s underdogs? Are you frustrated with the lack of coverage they receive during the race broadcasts? Amy has all the small teams covered each and every week in The Big Six (THIS WEEK’S LINK: www.frontstretch.com/ahenderson/42588/). Be sure to check it out to see how your favorites fared!

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