Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: The Hidden Race to Just Survive, Revisited

A few months ago, we took a look at a hidden drive to survive.

No, this is not an ode to a widely successful Netflix documentary about Formula 1. Rather, it’s about an under the radar look at one of the NASCAR Cup Series’ smallest teams and its literal drive to survive.

In April, we told you about Rick Ware Racing’s charter situation. One of its two charters, the No. 51 entry, was in jeopardy of being revoked. Per NASCAR policy, the sanctioning body has the option to take back a charter if it finishes below 33rd for three consecutive years. In April, the No. 51 Ford sat in a desperate 34th place following two finishes outside the top 33 the prior two seasons.

As the season has progressed into the summer, let’s see where we are now.

The good news is that RWR would not be at risk of losing its charter if the season ended today. Unlike in April, the No. 51 has positioned itself above the below-33rd threshold, albeit barely.

Nineteen races into the 36-race season, the No. 51 is ranked 33rd, a mere two points above the 34th-place entry, Legacy Motor Club’s No. 42 Chevrolet.

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RWR is one of a very few teams left that uses a rotation of drivers instead of one driver who competes in every race. It is a strategy often employed by under-resourced teams to put different drivers in their seats throughout the year who will hopefully bring more money to the team. On top of this, these teams can interchange drivers at different tracks based upon a driver’s specialties to hopefully produce a better result than the car would normally produce on a specific track.

While most of the teams below the top 33 club use this strategy, it often does not work out as well; they’re still below 33rd.

But somewhat surprisingly, RWR has actually made this strategy work for both of its teams, not just the charter in peril. Veteran JJ Yeley has been somewhat of a catalyst to its rise in performance.

Yeley has provided a substantial amount of funding to RWR this year through his agreement with the motorsports marketing company AMG Sport. This relationship has put Yeley in an RWR car several times this years.

Since the last check-in, the Arizona native has given the belabored No. 51 four respectable runs in the top 30. He’s also given its sister car, the No. 15 (which sits 32nd in points), some even better runs: a 16th at Charlotte Motor Speedway and a very strong seventh-place outing at Atlanta Motor Speedway, marking Yeley’s best finish since 2008.

Road course specialist Andy Lally also gave the No. 51 another respectable outing on the Chicago street course by finishing 26th, while Ryan Newman successfully brought home the car 28th at Darlington Raceway in his return to the sport.

RWR has also benefited down the summer stretch from a relatively new trend, too: receiving help from established teams. These days, more and more smaller teams are using their points and charter security to help bigger team field their contracted drivers. These partnership often come with cars prepared by the more robust teams, which usually drives up performance.

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For example, Live Fast Motorsports just launched an agreement with Richard Childress Racing to help RCR’s NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Sheldon Creed make his first Cup start later this year.

RWR has a pre-standing relationship with Stewart-Haas Racing. This allowed Jenson Button to make starts in the No. 15, while Cole Custer is set for some races in the No. 51, including this weekend’s contest at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It is certainly plausible that Custer could give RWR some strong runs thanks to the SHR partnership.

RWR also entered into a technical partnership with RFK Racing this year. This has helped Todd Gilliland get the seat a few times this year while on loan from RFK’s satellite team Front Row Motorsports. Gilliland gave the team some much-needed points at Sonoma Raceway by finishing 24th.

However, RWR’s competition has been just as big of a factor in its race to survive. Since April, the one change in the bottom three has been Legacy’s No. 42 with full-time driver Noah Gragson. It has been a dismal summer for the 24-year-old, best summed up by his performance at Chicago where he crash into the same tire barrier a whopping four times during the rain-shortened event.

Performances like a crash at Atlanta and a last-place result at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway have allowed the No. 51 to surge past the No. 42.

But can the No. 51 maintain its run to save its charter?

The answer seems pretty simple: try to beat Gragson in every race. The two entries below Gragson are well behind and have not any glimpses of improvement this year. Thus, with just two points separating the No. 51 and Gragson, it is shaping up to be one epic battle between two unlikely competitors at the bottom of the grid for survival.

There is reason to be hopeful. RWR’s rotation of drivers has a lot of strong racetracks coming up as the season transitions from summer to fall. Lally is slated to finish out all the road courses. Custer will continue to drive cars with significant RWR support. Yeley has momentum on his side from his Atlanta outing. Xfinity driver Riley Herbst’s remaining Cup starts this year are at superspeedways, which are some of his best tracks. And Newman is a monster on short tracks.

It is an epic yet unusual hidden battle playing out at the back of the grid. If RWR’s charter can survive, it will likely be thanks to a driver on a different team. But if Gragson can somehow get his season going in the right direction, RWR will need a lot of help going forward.

About the author

Never at a loss for words, Zach Gillispie is a young, talented marketing professional from North Carolina who talks and writes on the side about his first love: racing! Since joining Frontstretch in 2018, Zach has served in numerous roles where he currently pens the NASCAR 101 column, a weekly piece delving into the basic nuts and bolts of the sport. Additionally, his unabashedly bold takes meshed with that trademarked dry wit of his have made Zach a fan favorite on the weekly Friday Faceoff panel. In his free time, he can be found in the great outdoors, actively involved in his church, cheering on his beloved Atlanta Braves or ruthlessly pestering his colleagues with completely useless statistics about Delma Cowart.

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I’ve followed the 15 car closely, this season, & I’ve been pleased with their success so far, Also happy to see JJ having some very good outings as well.

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