Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Small Teams Impress at Talladega

Think Small

This past weekend’s action at Talladega illustrated again what can happen when the racing is more in the hands of the drivers. There were several different names at the top eager to display their talent.  Aric Almirola nearly pulled off the weekend double, and David Ragan overcame crash damage to finish in the top 10.

But did most fans know about it?

Almirola did get mention during the broadcast, in part because he had already won the XFINITY Series race Saturday, and was gunning for a weekend double and was running near the front.  Cole Whitt, who had another good finish for his underfunded team, got some mention.  Ragan, not so much in the closing laps.

This lack of attention illustrates part of a vicious cycle for many NASCAR teams, not always just the small ones. Teams need sponsors to be competitive.  Sponsors want to work with a team that can perform well and get some television airtime.  Unless they’re running in the top three or are part of a handful of the sport’s most popular drivers, though, most teams don’t get that airtime.  And without much hope of any broadcast mention, sponsors balk at backing the sport’s smaller teams, who can’t be competitive enough to demand airtime without sponsor dollars.

At the end of the day, the fans are getting cheated, too.

Fans choose drivers to follow often because they’re people they imagine they’d like to hang out with and have a beer and talk racing.  Except with many of the drivers, fans don’t get a chance to know them enough to decide to like them.  By all standards, drivers like Landon Cassill and Matt DiBenedetto should be wildly popular.  They’re personable, interact with fans often, have a healthy sense of humor.  But unless they’re introduced to fans by the media, and particularly on television, the fans don’t see that.  Not all race fans follow drivers on social media and rely on television for most of their race coverage, including feature stories.  And too often, the networks are letting fans down by not featuring some drivers and teams who they might discover they’d love to pull for.

I’m not suggesting that television needs to give everyone equal time since that’s unrealistic, if not impossible.  But a few full-field rundowns and some in-depth pre-race features on drivers and teams outside the usual suspects?  That’s a reasonable request for these teams and race fans alike to make, and it’s not being met.

Top of the Class: Talladega

If it’s possible for a driver to be in two categories at once, then put Almirola both at the top of the class for his stellar fourth-place run Sunday and at the bottom for his Richard Petty Motorsports car failing laser inspection afterward. Without knowing the exact infraction, it’s hard to say whether there was a competitive advantage for Almirola, and if there was, how big.  What can be said with certainty is that Almirola can drive with anyone on a restrictor plate track.  He won the XFINITY Series race on Saturday, driving for Biagi-DenBeste Racing, a team without a Cup Series affiliation. The victory marked the second win in three races for Almirola in the No. 98 NXS car.  He also has a Cup win at Daytona, so you can’t say his finish came solely (or possibly at all) from an illegal advantage.

Also in the top 10, despite damage from a multi-car crash, was Ragan in the Front Row Motorsports No. 38.  Ragan is a previous winner at both Daytona and Talladega, so his finish shouldn’t surprise anyone, except for the damage that could have sidelined his day. Ragan is one of those drivers who has struggled to find a top ride since leaving Roush Fenway Racing, despite his winning record, and there are plenty more like him.

The best part about Talladega is that it’s a place where a driver can shine in equipment that doesn’t always garner much attention.  Usually, we spotlight a couple of drivers in the top 20 at the top of this group.  This week, in addition to Almirola and Ragan, who both grabbed top 10s, add Ty Dillon (13th) and Chris Buescher (15th) in the top 15, and several drivers came home in the top half of the field.

From 15th to 20th in the rundown were several small teams with stellar runs.  Whitt and Tri-Star Motorsports overachieved once again, finishing an impressive 16th despite damage.  Part-time Tommy Baldwin Racing put Elliott Sadler in the top 20 with a 17th-place run. DiBenedetto finished 18th, making his 2017 restrictor-plate average a solid 14th place. Despite damage from the lap 170 multi-car crash, young rookie Gray Gaulding rounded out the top 20 for BK Racing, a team which badly needed a boost. Eight finishers inside the top 20 is an impressive feat for a group of drivers who so often go unnoticed.

Passing Grades

Joey Gase scored the best finish of his young career for Premium Motorsports, finishing 21st.  Gase finished on the lead lap and ran a solid race.  That’s really all you can ask for from a rookie at any track, and it makes him the lone driver in this category after Talladega.

Needs Improvement

Usually, a top-30 run will land a driver in the passing grades category, but at Talladega, finishing off the lead lap means something went really wrong. Whether it meant getting involved in a crash, a mechanical issue or simply not being fast enough to hold onto the draft, it wasn’t a good day.  For Brendan Gaughan, it was an overheating car that caused a less-than-great day.  Gaughan’s team was able to fix the issue and finish the day in 26th.

Corey Lajoie is learning to avoid trouble, but trouble found him at Talladega.  He got enough damage in the Big One to spend several laps making repairs, but was able to finish the day running in 27th. Jeffrey Earnhardt wasn’t involved in the crash but struggled nonetheless, suffering an engine failure just a handful of laps from the finish and coming in 28th.  Earnhardt had issues even before the mechanical problem, losing laps early in the race after not being able to hang onto the draft.

Also in the DNF club this week was Cassill, whose transmission failed just a few laps from the end, relegating him to 29th.

A passel of cars saw their day ended in a late-race pile-up that involved 15 cars.  From this group, the list includes AJ Allmendingerwho triggered the melee trying to bump draft with Chase Elliott, in 31st and Michael McDowell in 34thRyan Blaney lost a tire and as a result, scored his third straight finish outside the top 30, picking up 39th .  Reed Sorenson retired after a hard hit in a single-car incident, completing just 72 laps and finishing 40th.


Almirola and the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports team face stiff penalties after failing post-race laser inspection Sunday at Talladega.  Penalties are typically announced Wednesdays, and Almirola faces a points fine while crew chief Drew Blickensderfer could be suspended for up to three races with monetary fines.  Brad Keselowski was penalized earlier this season for a similar LIS failure and was docked 35 points with crew chief Paul Wolfe given a three-race suspension.  NASCAR looks at each situation independently, so whether Almirola faces the same fate will depend on the severity of the infraction found.

Dibenedetto will have sponsorship from Reddit again for the 2017 All-Star Race later this month at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  The online community is inviting fans to post their paint scheme designs and is also urging members to vote for DiBenedetto for the fan vote.  If he were to get the vote, it wouldn’t be the first time the fan vote was influenced by an online campaign.  Josh Wise won the fan vote in 2015 after Dogecoin users got behind him in the voting.

Say anything

Some weeks, you’re the fly, some weeks, well…

But conveniently enough…


Just another Talladega pit stop

The glamorous life of a NASCAR driver

Congratulations to the expanding Dillon family!




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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