Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Would-Be Winners and Hangers-On

(We’re changing things up a little this week; instead of focusing on races past, we’ll take a look ahead at our small teams and the outlook down the stretch.  Hate it and want to see more on how they fared in the races? Let me know.  Want to see more like this? Let me know!  The Underdog House is still a work in progress.)

Heading into the final ten races of 2016, the road diverges a bit for teams. (And in reality, it’s never quite the same path; not all teams are racing for a Chase berth in the first place) For those in the Chase, it’s go time.  There is no next week, no experimenting, no playing catch-up. It’s all or nothing.

For the rest of the field, it becomes about a couple of things.  For a few teams, it’s about playing the spoiler and trying to take a win or two away from the Chase drivers.  For most of the teams in the small team bracket, though, it’s about looking down the road at 2017 and doing what’s necessary to improve heading into the new year.

Taking a look at the teams on our small teams list this year, there are definitely a couple who could steal an upset, but there are also some that need wholesale changes and they need to start now.

Hoping to Crash the Party:

In the team’s first year of full-time racing since 2007, Wood Brothers Racing has been impressive.  Thanks in part to a technical alliance with Team Penske that has reaped more rewards than a previous relationship with Roush Fenway Racing and in part to a very talented youngster behind the wheel in Ryan Blaney, they’ve shown plenty of speed and have a handful of top 10s to show for it. At times, they have looked like a win was entirely possible, and it could well be.  It may be too late to make the Chase, but the team can still earn a place in next year’s All-Star Race before this season is out

JTG Daugherty Racing’s best chance at a win may have been Watkins Glen, but they’ve had some strong runs on ovals this year on ovals as well—AJ Allmendinger has top 10s at two Chase tracks this year, Kansas and Martinsville (he finished second at Martinsville this spring) and has run well at Charlotte, Phoenix and Talladega this season as well.  A couple of top 5s is more likely than a win, but they can definitely steal some good finishes from the Chase boys.

Need to make some tweaks:

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)
2016 might not be the best reflection of how Germain Racing can perform…would a crew chief change make a difference? (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Germain Racing is perhaps the most difficult to place—they could be in the first group as Casey Mears is probably the best plate racer in this group of drivers, but they could also be in the bottom group as they’ve definitely struggled this season. What’s needed? When Darian Grubb left Joe Gibbs Racing after last season, I thought he’d have been a great fit with the No. 13 bunch; he and Mears have worked together (and won together) before. It’s a little hard to say a new cre chief is the answer, because Mears and Bootie Barker communicate very well, but a change somewhere is needed.

Yes, rookie Chris Buescher made the Chase this year, and Front Row Motorsports has made major improvements overall this year, but there’s disparity between Buescher, whose No. 34 cars are built by Roush Fenway Racing, and teammate Landon Cassill, whose equipment is in-house. Perhaps a stronger alliance with RFR would be just what they need—there is strength in numbers, and if Cassill can get just a little closer to Buescher in terms of equipment, it would only benefit them both.

BK Racing has made some big steps this season, and they’re working on building some newer and better cars to make sure that continues.  David Ragan is a proven commodity, and Matt DiBenedetto is a very talented young driver who is an asset to any team; they also have experienced crew chiefs in Patrick Donohue and Doug Richert.  The scenario is a frustrating one because like the other teams in this category, just a little bit of speed, a little more experience in the pits, a little more something and they could make a giant step forward, but those pieces cost money most of these teams don’t have.

Circle Sport Leavine Family Racing has also taken major steps this season, forming an alliance with Richard Childress Racing similar to the ones JTG Daugherty Racing and Germain Racing have, and it’s paid off; a year ago, Leavine Family Racing was a part-time organization who often fell out of races early, and Circle Sport was running used parts to make ends meet.  Michael McDowell has some chops behind the wheel, and Ty Dillon has don well in his handful of races.  The only way to go is up, and for this team, it’s not about any big changes, just little ones to keep the forward momentum on track.

Need some big changes:

HScott Motorsports has made some steps this season, but whether that’s real improvement or the effect of having a proven winner in Clint Bowyer behind the wheel in the No. 15.  It seems more likely that it’s the latter, and with Bowyer moving to Stewart-Haas Racing next year, and while Michael Annett brings sponsorship to the table, he hasn’t shown much growth as a driver.  If HSM continues as a two-car organization for 2017(and with just one charter, they may not), they need to speed the fall looking for either an alliance or some major personnel changes, maybe both.  They have more resources than some in this group, but a driver who brings a little sponsorship would go a long way…if it’s the right driver.

Tommy Baldwin Racing has made some steps this year, and really, they’re the strongest they’ve ever been.  They’ve had so far to come in the last few years that they aren’t at the next level yet.  Regan Smith was an excellent addition, because he’s a solid veteran who knows what he needs in a car, and Tommy Baldwin is a veteran crew chief.  They’re on the right track, moreso than the others in this group, but they still need to strengthen the program overall.

GoFAS Racing might be better off settling for one driver and working to build the team around him.  Bobby Labonte runs the restrictor plate races for the team now, but they’ve had fiver drivers this year overall. Jeffrey Earnhardt lacks experience, particularly in good equipment (and I think that’s a huge asset for these teams, because the driver does know what a fast, competitive car feels like and better guide his team in that direction), but he is a thoughtful and thorough communicator who is anxious to learn how to be a better driver, and he’s an asset to the team.  Building for the future around him is possibly the biggest and best step they can take between now and next year.

The Motorsports Group and Premium Motorsports are in similar boats; they’re making races because nobody else is showing up (and are getting outqualified by raw rookies in slightly better equipment when there are more cars than positions). Josh Wise and Cole Witt are decent young drivers and Reed Sorenson brings a veteran’s experience to the table, but with bigger teams potentially expanding next season, if both teams and all three cars stick around, expect a string of DNQ’s.  The best move these two teams could make might be to switch to the XFINITY Series, where they have a chance at being somewhat more competitive.  They don’t necessarily lack talent, but they lack so much in terms of resources that they’re playing a constant game of catch-up.

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About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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