Monday, October 18, 2010

NASCAR's Battle at the Back

~You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it. ~ Margaret Thatcher

At the front of the field lies fame and fortune. At the back lies heartbreak and broken dreams.

The last 10 races of the NASCAR season are called "The Chase." The top 12 drivers are put into a special points segment and race for the coveted NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. With that Championship comes trophies, accolades, and the bragging rights of the drivers, the teams, the sponsors and their fans.

There is another race happening at the back of the field. Several team owners are competing for the goal of Top 35 in Owner's Points. The Top 35 is required if an owner wants to insure that their cars will make the race, even if they have issues during qualifying. Those teams are not racing just for that guaranteed spot, but are also racing for their futures.

On the back side of the garage, away from the media spotlight, there is an air of desperation for four teams trying to end the year on a positive note. A top 35 spot gives a team something to present to potential sponsors, to sell the primary advertising on their cars. A potential sponsor wants to know their dollars will give a return, and a guaranteed spot in the race is valued. The teams that are the 'contenders' for the Top 35 all appear to walk a very narrow path, one that may provide a reward at the end, but where one misstep can lead to a disastrous fall.

Latitude 43 Motorsports - Bill Jenkins purchased the #26 team from Roush Fenway Racing, when that organization was forced to drop one team by NASCAR. With that purchase came Top 35 owners points, and a 'technical alliance.' For a first year team, Latitude 43 showed moderate results, with finishes that SHOULD have kept them in the Top 35. Their Achilles Heel has been in qualifying, as the team failed to make the field in 8 races. There have been multiple driver changes: Boris Said, David Stremme, Jeff Green, Patrick Carpentier. Kenny Schrader is set to drive at Martinsville. At 177 points away from the Top 35, their hopes are diminishing for a recovery.

Front Row Motorsports - Bob Jenkins (not related to the above Bill Jenkins) is a restaurant entrepreneur who first brought teams to NASCAR in 2005. While never a front runner, he has shown a commitment to the sport by not resorting to the dreaded 'Start and Park' practice, even though it would be less costly than running full races. In 2010, Jenkins had a commitment with driver Travis Kvapil when he was approached by Kevin Conway and sponsor Biotab Nutraceuticals. Conway and the Biotab product ExtenZe wanted to make a run for Rookie of the Year, and according to sources, required that Conway remain in the Top 35. Front Row Motorsports agreed, and hired David Gilliland to be driver of the 3rd team, an arrangement made solely to support the Rookie title run by Conway.

After Bristol, Conway's points dropped within 9 points of falling out of the Top 35, and he changed to another FRM car. His car number was changed two more times to keep him as a locked-in driver. Disaster struck for the team after the first Pocono race, when the 38 team was assessed a fine of 150 points for illegal parts. This fine dropped them from the Top 35 into 37th. After Michigan, the team severed their contract with Kevin Conway, citing a lack of money owed, resulting in a lawsuit that has yet to be resolved.

Front Row has since brought in Tony Raines and Dave Blaney to drive the third car, while having primary drivers Gilliland and Kvapil take part in qualifying the 38. Several steady finishes have closed the gap considerably. The 38 has gained 139 points on the Top 35 since Bristol, and is now only 5 points away from the #7 car of Robby Gordon Motorsports.

Robby Gordon Motorsports - Robby Gordon has been cited as being one of the last of the owners/drivers in NASCAR. Known for his fiery temper, Robby has divided his passions into running a variety of races in both Off-road, Indy and NASCAR, and hoped to compete in Monster trucks. At the beginning of the year, Robby spoke with pride on how his team was building some of the finest of cars. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, mainly at road courses, that pride has not shown equal results on the track, with Robby's season needing his Top 35 spot to be able to race in 2 of the first 3 races. As the year progresses, Robby was outspoken on how Front Row Motorsports was moving their drivers around to help Kevin Conway, and he allowed his sponsor,, to post an unflattering video of the (then) RGM crew chief Gene Nead's opinion of the "Stiffiemobile" efforts. Robby has other commitments for certain races, and brought in PJ Jones and Bobby Labonte to fill the seat.

When Conway was released from FRM, Robby and Kevin partnered, and Conway proceeded to drive the 7 car. In six races, Conway had four "Start & Parks" and a blown engine. Robby stepped back into the 7, but was unable to catch or pass the 38. There has been a free-fall of 139 points to FRM since Bristol. There were hopes that RGM would catch the 34th place spot from TRG Motorsports, but has only gained a spot each in the last few races. The 7 is now 5 points ahead of FRM in the 35th spot, and 15 points behind TRG.

TRG Motorsports - Owner Kevin Buckler is in his second year of NASCAR Cup ownership. Placing hope that popular past champion Bobby Labonte would be able to pull in the sponsors, Buckler committed to running full races with Labonte. By Dover, the funding was getting sparse, and Buckler had to renege on the promise, starting the "Start and Park" dance. Labonte has since moved to the 09 car of James Finch for the majority of the races, with the 71 being filled in by Mike Bliss, Landon Cassill, Tony Raines and Andy Lally. Hermie Sadler is slated to drive for TRG at Martinsville. The 71 is currently 15 points ahead of the 7, and 20 points ahead of the 38.

With few exceptions, there is very little media coverage for these teams. (One notable exception is Brock Beard's weekly Bubble Breakdown from The Both MRN & PRN radio reduced their qualifying coverage for races, a point where most drivers were interviewed. A television interview with any of the so called Bubble Teams is rare, and quite often their qualifying runs are reduced to a mention after a commercial break. Most of these cars get few mentions during a race, leaving their fans to surf the internet to discover information.

Every week, these underfunded teams plan their battles, hoping to end the year with a Top 35 banner. When they complete one battle, the plans for the next start immediately. For them, it IS war. It is also survival.