Race Weekend Central

One Step At A Time: Three Small Teams Who Have Made One Giant Step Forward in 2013

They include a two-time champion car owner, and drivers who have won some of the most prestigious races NASCAR has to offer. One driver is a former Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year, another has that honor in the Nationwide Series. They have seen what the view from the top looks like.

And now they’re trying to get back there the hard way.

NASCAR isn’t a sport where past accomplishments are a guarantee of future success. It is a sport where the haves and have nots are obvious to fans, just from the way they run week to week. It’s not kind to teams who don’t have thousands, if not millions, of dollars to lose. And yet it’s a sport on which dreams can be built. But the building isn’t easy and it doesn’t always happen. For NASCAR’s single-car teams, it’s a constant struggle to compete, and for some, simply to make it to the track with a car good enough to make the race.

They have to do everything the big teams do, but they have to do it with less money, fewer people, and often with equipment that’s far from top of the line. Many fail. But for those who persevere, the rewards can be sweet. And it is possible to make it, one step at a time, sometimes with a step backwards to make the next one forward happen. This year, three single-car teams, in particular, have taken a giant step forward.

For tiny upstart Circle Sport, that step is to simply finish races. For Germain Racing, a team that has finally found stability, that step is finish consistently in the top 20. For Phoenix Racing, it’s a step toward being competitive with the big teams every week. They’re three teams on the rise, though at three very different places.

Phoenix Racing will have three different drivers this season by design but so far this small team is making it work and flexing some muscle.

Phoenix Racing has enjoyed a great run out of the gate in 2013. They’re currently 11th in owner points, ahead of some of the sport’s most powerful teams. That’s a great start, but what makes it truly remarkable is that they’ve done it with three different drivers. Regan Smith kicked off the year with a top 10 run at Daytona, finishing seventh. AJ Allmendinger has finished no worse than 16th in three races and young Austin Dillon kept it together admirably at Las Vegas, just missing the top 20. Most recently, Smith drove the No. 51 to a hard-fought 22nd at Martinsville, a decent run that was the team’s worst of the year.

Owner James Finch is no stranger to having a variety of drivers in the seat. It’s been said in the past that Finch changes drivers more often than underwear, but this year that’s by design. And so far, the team has carried it off without a hitch. In fact, they plan to use that to their advantage.

“With the three different drivers, we’re trying to take them to their strengths,” said team General Manager Steve Barkdoll at Martinsville, “so if we can continue to have good racing luck and not have failures or accidents, I think we can stay somewhere around here (in points).”

The team is also no stranger to Victory Lane, winning 13 times in the Nationwide Series to date and breaking through in Sprint Cup in 2009 with Brad Keselowski’s Talladega win. Smith also has a victory to his credit, winning the 2011 Southern 500 at Darlington, one of NASCAR’s most difficult tracks. It’s clear that this team has learned how to run competitively during their time in the sport, which spans over a decade, and while they’re not a Chase-level team yet, they could well be a top-20 team this year in owner standings…and that’s something more than half of the teams in the garage can’t say.

Germain Racing is entering its fifth year in the Sprint Cup Series, and for the first time, will not only enter all 36 races but plans to finish them all as well, after sponsor GEICO stepped up with more funding, and owner Bob Germain made a commitment to be running at the end every week. That alone has made a huge difference to the team, which had already been showing signs of improvement in 2012.

“That’s a huge weight off,” said driver Casey Mears in an interview at Martinsville last weekend. “Last year, we’d have two or three good runs and then have to start and park. We didn’t really realize how tough that was to rebound from and how frustrating. The start and parks just killed us last year, just deflated the team and it was really hard to rebound from. The guys would get frustrated—it was like, ‘wait a minute, we’re working hard yet, what for? We’re going to have to park.’ So, I think mentally, that was a tough process to get through. So having that weight lifted off our shoulders and knowing we’re going to go run all the races definitely set a new tone in the shop.”

That’s clear from the way the team is running. In 2012, they finished in the top 20 just three times and were unable to crack the top 15. This year, Mears and the No. 13 have four top 20 runs in six races, including a trio of top 15 finishes. Mears drove through the field to 16th at Martinsville, passing a lot of cars that have higher price tags attached. And the 2007 Coca-Cola 600 winner says that in some ways, he’s the best he’s ever been.

“I’ve heard guys say when they’re later in their careers that they’re the best they’ve ever been. You’re sometimes fortunate to get good opportunities, but probably a little too early, you know? Through Bootie and a lot of these guys, we have worked so hard together that I have learned more about the sport and these cars than I ever have in the past couple of years just because of how hard we’ve had to work to make it happen,” Mears says.

Hard work is a common vein running through the small teams; it has to be. These teams have to do as much work as the big teams do to make their race cars go fast…but they have to do it with less. It’s not that they don’t know how to put winning racecars on the track; Germain Racing has a pair of NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship trophies in the shop. Mears has won in two NASCAR national touring series, ARCA, Indy Lights and Grand Am. They know how to win, which only makes them hungrier. And, like Phoenix, it’s not out of the realm of imagination that they could find Victory Lane in 2013; they were in contention at every restrictor plate race in 2012 and Mears led most of his Gatorade Duel before getting caught in a crash in the Daytona 500.

For tiny Circle Sport, winning isn’t yet on the radar. For this team, simply being able to run the distance most weeks is a big step forward. In 20 races in 2012, the No. 33 was running at the end after just seven. The team did see Stephen Leicht win Rookie of the Year honors, but that was really by default. This year, the team signed Landon Cassill to run their car, and owner Joe Falk believes in Cassill’s talent behind the wheel.

The team gets chassis from Richard Childress Racing but doesn’t enjoy the level of alliance that Furniture Row Racing, which considers itself basically a fourth RCR team, does. They do have an agreement to run RCR driver Austin Dillon in a handful of races, and the sponsorship money and technical help from those races will help keep Cassill on track each week.

While many fans malign small teams for starting and parking, Falk says that for most owners entering the Cup Series, it’s a necessity in NASCAR today.

“The thing is that if we weren’t able to start and park, we wouldn’t be able to be here,” said Falk on Sunday at Martinsville. “You have to do that to build your team. It’s a lot easier to figure how to make the car run for one lap to qualify for the race and then ride around at the back and pull in. If you start and you’re going to run the race, that’s a whole other game, and you’ve got to really be elevated and you can’t do that overnight unless you’ve got tens of millions of dollars. Most guys who are back here who do that, they really want to race. They love to race. Most everybody runs a few races a year the whole race to do the best they can. They have to start and park those other races to make that work.”

While many have called for penalties for those teams, it’s not so simple. They do want to race. Germain racing, for example, used every lap of the races that they had to end early to gather information for the day when they could go the distance…and there’s no doubt that’s paying off. Mears says that parking early was agonizing for him.

“The first time I had to do that was probably one of the hardest things I ever did,” says Mears, and the truth of it is obvious in his voice. “I mean, I grasped the concept. I understood that as a whole, it was better for our team and for our program, but the first time I ever did that, I just thought, ‘What am I doing? What are we doing here?’”

Cassill was a bit more matter-of-fact about it, but he echoed Mears’ sentiment. No driver wants to do that; but they have to understand why they do.

“It’s hard, but if you’re smart and you understand the big picture, it’s not that hard,” Cassill said in the Martinsville garage on Friday. “If you’re narrow-minded and you don’t understand how this business operates, then you can get easily discouraged—and I’ve been there before. I’ve been in the Cup Series since I was 20 years old, and I felt that way before when I didn’t know about start and parking, but now I do, and it’s gotten me into good opportunities. It’s kind of a necessary evil in certain situations.

“These guys, they don’t want to, they want to race. We’ve gone into races this year, thinking we were going to start and park, but we had the opportunity to run better and made the midrace decision to run the whole thing. That shows me that they’re making a legitimate effort to run this team and turn it into a full-time racing team.”

And they are.

“I think we’ll run the whole year,” says Falk. “The only race we haven’t finished was Las Vegas, and we had an engine problem, but our plan was to run that whole race. We’re going to run every race and when Austin’s driving the car, it will be a full-blown deal with a big sponsor and we have the money to run. That helps us pay for Landon to run. Today we’re testing some stuff for RCR on our car that they don’t want to run on the other cars. We have a really good relationship and that’s working out good for us. We’re going to run this race today and go as hard as we can. There will be other races where we’ll have to not run as hard, but we’ll run the whole day.”

Falk adds that NASCAR’s change in purse structure didn’t make a difference in the team’s decision, but the change in how teams are locked into races did.

“The point structure, you’ve got to run more so you’re guaranteed in,” Falk says. “That was a big plus in NASCAR’s favor. Last year, if you were in the top 35, you were in, and for everybody out of that, nothing mattered. So now you want to get all the points you can get. For example, the last two cars this week, the 44 and the 19, they were tied for that last spot, but the 44 had a better finish and they’re racing today—over one point. Two weeks ago , had those 19 guys thought about that, they’d have run for one more spot. It takes so much to figure this out.”

And he’s figuring it out with just five people. That means that there isn’t time for things like testing in a wind tunnel or on a seven-post rig. While the big teams are running new parts all weekend and sometimes going through more than one batch of them, Circle Sport doesn’t have that luxury.

“We have good chassis and bodies, that’s fairly new stuff, but we don’t have new components,” explains Cassill. “So one thing we’re struggling with right now at Martinsville is we have a really good racecar, it handles well, but we have pretty old brakes on the car, so we’re at risk of blowing out a tire because we don’t have fresh stuff. We need somebody to jump onboard that would sponsor us for a race or even sponsor our components so we can buy new parts for our cars. There’s probably 50 or 100 thousand dollars’ worth of components that we need to make our cars lighter and newer and fresher. A step after that is to upgrade to where we can lease better engines.”

There’s no doubt that each of these three teams has made a giant step forward in 2013, but they aren’t done yet. For Phoenix Racing, the next step is to maintain their newfound success—but that will take money.

“It’s really nice being up here,” says Barkdoll. “There’s some advantages to being here, and we think with our three drivers we deserve to be up here. Last year with Kurt, we kind of learned what we needed to work on as a team and we did that, and Kurt and Phoenix helped each other and we’re both up here in points right now… It’s a small org, there’s 11 of us who travel and work seven days a week. But we know that. We’re fortunate enough to have an owner who’s willing to spend his own money on this. Being up here (in points), we’d sure like to be able to get a sponsor to save him some cash. That’s what we’re hoping for. One thing you can do with 18 people instead of 300, 400, 600 employees is we can race a lot cheaper but still be competitive. We’re looking for like a third of what they are, so we’re hoping to find a company that will help us do that.”

Smith adds that the team’s fast start makes it easier to keep the momentum rolling.

“When you’re a small team, that’s even more important and even more critical. You’ve got a lot more to worry about if you start tearing up race cars and things like that,” Smith says. “The smaller the team, the more of a burden that puts on the guys where they have more to have to worry about fixing stuff than making stuff better. We had a little bit of bad luck in the duel at Daytona, but everything else went pretty smooth, and I think that helped when AJ got in the car to not have to worry about digging out of a hole, but instead about maintaining the points position. Hopefully that’s helped us some,” said Smith on Sunday.

Germain Racing, as well, has to prove they have the staying power to maintain their fast start. Mears is confident that with a little luck, they can.

“We’ve taken a big leap, and we need to show that we can maintain that,” he says. “The biggest thing that’s difficult throughout the year is that everybody improves. So, by staying the same (in points) you’re actually improving as well. If we can just continue to make small improvements, continue to be as competitive as we are now, we’re going to have those days when we’re a top 10, top 5 contender. We just have to keep knocking down those top 15, top 20’s. If we hone in on that, we’re going to run better than that at times. We just have to keep that in mind and stay within that wheelhouse.”

For Circle Sport, moving forward means getting to the end of every race and keeping the car in one piece so they can race it again in a week or two.

But whatever the goal, the common bond these three teams, at very different places in their respective evolutions, share is how hard everyone works, from the owners to the drivers and every person in the shop.

“We don’t have near as many people—we have basically about five people and everybody’s worked like crazy,” says Falk. “I guess a good example of that is after Bristol two weeks ago, we tore this car up that we have here today, I was at the shop that Tuesday, and they were tryong to get loaded to go to California, so myself and one other guy started taking this car apart so we could get it back to RCR to get it repaired. Everybody does everything in this deal.”

They have winners and champions among their ranks. And in 2013 these three small teams are showing just how far a group of people who want to make something with next to nothing can go. The odds be damned, Phoenix Racing, Germain Racing, and even tiny Circle Sport are making it in NASCAR’s elite division, one step at a time. This time, for these teams, it’s been a big step. It means racing on old brakes and used tires. It means driving a cranky race car while battling the flu or an aching body. It means taking less and somehow making it more. In some ways, they’re a bigger story than their mega-team competition will ever be, simply because of the odds they must overcome.

These teams are living proof it can be done. And what a story that is.

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