NASCAR Cup Series race teams never stand still for very long. Last season brought a flurry of changes to the Cup garage with the introduction of the Next Gen car. Since then, nearly every organization on the grid has made a change to its driver lineup or management personnel.
Some teams have made big free agent acquisitions or taken the opportunity to elevate prospects to NASCAR’s highest level. Others have brought on new partners and investors, among them former drivers, athletes from other sports or other celebrities from the entertainment industry.
As negotiations for the next TV deal loom over the sport, the teams have also been testing their collective power to negotiate with NASCAR for a bigger piece of the pie.
If any Cup team seems content on sticking with business as usual, it is Front Row Motorsports.
Founded near the end of NASCAR’s boom years in the mid-2000s, FRM, led by restaurant magnate Bob Jenkins, initially struggled just to get its cars in the field. Those seasons of toil paid off with the team’s first win by David Ragan at Talladega Superspeedway in 2013. Ragan and teammate David Gilliland bested the field by drafting their way to a one-two finish on the final lap.
In the 10 years since Ragan’s victory, FRM’s identity as the scrappy underdogs of the Cup Series has changed little. The team has earned two more wins: one by Chris Buescher at Pocono Raceway in 2016 and the other via Michael McDowell’s triumph in the 2021 Daytona 500.
McDowell has been with the team since 2018, piloting the No. 34 car full time. Ragan left FRM very early in the 2015 season, only to come back in 2017 and race for a few more years. Since Ragan stepped away from full-time competition, the No. 38 has had a revolving door of young racers, usually ones who have brought sponsorship with them.
Compared to some of the other mid-pack teams, it feels like FRM’s growth has slowed in recent years. The organization has experimented with running more than two chartered cars as recently as 2019, though FRM has since sold its third charter. It could be argued that the charter system and cost saving measures of the Next Gen car have given FRM more stability than it has enjoyed in the past. But it would be harder to prove that the team has truly become more competitive than it was 10 years ago.
In the No. 34 team’s case, McDowell has put together his two best seasons in the last two years. Although he did not win in 2022, McDowell did score 12 top 10s, smashing his previous single-season record of five in 2021. Road courses and superspeedways remain his bread and butter, but he also showed more speed on intermediates and short tracks than he ever had before.
Unfortunately for McDowell, crew chief Blake Harris departed for Hendrick Motorsports before 2023; the No. 34 had to start fresh this year with Travis Peterson calling the shots. The duo got off to a rocky start but has since clawed its way to finishes of 12th or better in the last three races.
Most recently, McDowell provided some great highlight material at the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track, spinning in front of the field twice before righting his car without any serious damage. He is currently 17th in overall points, below the postseason cutoff by a single point.
The No. 38 team has been more chaotic. Todd Gilliland, David’s son, raced the car last year and was all set to run full time in 2023. Then, less than a month before the Daytona 500, FRM announced that Zane Smith would drive the car for six races. The change was due to Smith bringing his own sponsorship deal, but the news no doubt came as a shock to Gilliland. He had to cobble together a backup plan with Rick Ware Racing and FRM, the latter via a third entry, to remain full-time in the Cup Series.
Yet there is much more to Smith’s deal with FRM than just a trial run. Smith also drives for the team in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, where he is the reigning champion. Furthermore, Smith is Ford’s top NASCAR prospect. He is a potential candidate to take the seat that Kevin Harvick will vacate at Stewart-Haas Racing. Team Penske and Wood Brothers Racing may also have their eye on Smith if they decide to replace the struggling Harrison Burton in the No. 21. Even RFK Racing could make a play for Smith, although the team would likely need another charter to do so. All the Ford teams should be looking at Smith for a Cup ride in 2024.
This is where things get tricky for FRM. What happens if Smith gets away and goes Cup racing for another organization? If Smith continues to develop and becomes a Cup star, FRM could watch him win races with another team for years to come. Additionally, Smith’s departure would throw the future of the No. 38 car into question. It’s not impossible that Gilliland could return in 2024, but he and FRM would have some fences to mend. Not to mention that dad David’s Truck team, TRICON Garage, switched from Ford to Toyota, a move that could lead Todd back to the Toyota camp.
Even McDowell’s contracts with FRM have typically been year-to-year deals. The most likely scenario at this point would see him return to the team next year. But what happens if McDowell regresses back to his form from 2018-2020, when he had only seven total top 10s? Could his relatively strong 2022 season simply be a flash in the pan, a product of parity created by the new car? It’s too early to say for sure which direction McDowell’s season will go or if he and Peterson can recapture the magic he had with Harris.
FRM has undeniably improved from its first few seasons in the Cup Series, but it feels like the team’s growth has since plateaued. McDowell may have hit his ceiling as a Cup driver last year. Gilliland has done a respectable job with the No. 38 car, but the team seems to be lacking overall direction. Smith could be the spark that ignites new growth from FRM, but can the team hold onto him if Smith is in high demand this silly season?
The best way forward could be for FRM to either bring on additional investors or secure more technical support from Ford. In other words, the team could use more funding so that Jenkins doesn’t have to shoulder such a heavy load.
As the Cup team owners continue to work with NASCAR on improving the sport’s business model, keep an eye on what happens with FRM. With the team ownership landscape continuously shifting, it may be the next organization in need of a shakeup.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.
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