Friday, March 25, 2016

OPINION: Catch-36: Many chartered teams grew by "start-and-parking"

Tommy Baldwin Racing, 2009
Five races into the Sprint Cup season and already the RTA’s new Charter system has taken its toll.  Only three Open teams returned from Daytona, and they'll perhaps remain the only three next Sunday at Martinsville for yet another short field.  Regardless, earlier this month at Las Vegas, Darrell Waltrip beamed that this year’s field “is the strongest we’ve ever had.”

This sentiment has been shared by other media members and fans alike.  Many are repeating the RTA’s line that the Charters have successfully prohibited the act of “start-and-parking,” forcing the entire field to run full races and full seasons.  What’s curious about this is how many of the Chartered 36 were “start-and-park” teams as recently as 2014, and may not even exist today had the practice been off the table.  Let’s crack open the LASTCAR yearbook and see which teams had the most pimples:

Front Row Motorsports, which today holds two medallions for Chris Buescher and Landon Cassill, joined the Sprint Cup Series in 2005 as an underfunded single-car team which changed its number on a near-weekly basis.  They never made the field for the Daytona 500 until 2008, when John Andretti raced his way in as a “go-or-go-homer” in the final corner of his qualifying race.  The team never ran a full season until 2009, and only then was able to because they bought a spot in the Top 35 from DEI’s closed #15 team.  Even then, Front Row fielded a second “start-and-park” car, #37, which scored six last-place finishes that year alone.  This parking expansion team returned in 2011, when it exited early 15 times as car #55, and another 29 times in 2012 as #26 with then-rookie Josh Wise.

Germain Racing, which holds a medallion for Casey Mears, also benefitted from the “start-and-park” method.  A fixture in the Camping World Truck Series since 2004, Germain debuted in the Cup Series as a part-time team at Las Vegas in 2009, where Max Papis finished 36th.  The next year, the team eyed their first full-season run, but sponsorship from GEICO wasn’t enough to get them through the year.  The solution was to have Papis park in at least nine races during the season to supplement his remaining full-race attempts.  In 2011, when Mears took over for Papis in the #13, Germain added a full-time “start-and-park” entry to fund it.  Four different drivers parked Germain’s backup #60 in all 20 of its starts, allowing the #13 to run full races weekly.  The #60 disappeared in 2012, when Germain switched from Toyota to Ford.

HScott Motorsports has two medallions for drivers Clint Bowyer and Michael Annett.  One was acquired from Premium Motorsports, the conglomerate of several teams including Phil Parsons Racing and NEMCO Motorsports, teams which from 2009 through 2013 amassed a combined 64 Sprint Cup last-place finishes.  The other came through the efforts of James Finch, who sold his decades-old Sprint Cup and XFINITY effort to HScott owner Harry Scott, Jr. in late 2013.  Like Front Row, Finch’s team was a prolific part-time effort for years, and like Germain, was a team that in 2004 and again in 2009 chose to “start-and-park” in several races in order to build itself into a full-time team, which it accomplished in 2011.  Even in the eight races before Brad Keselowski’s breakout win at Talladega in April 2009, Finch's program failed to qualify four times, parked in another three, and crashed the week before at Phoenix.

Tommy Baldwin Racing, which has Regan Smith’s medallion, stands as perhaps the last of the latest crop of Sprint Cup start-up teams.  In 2009, Baldwin brought his XFINITY Series program to Cup, joining start-ups like PRISM Motorsports, NEMCO Motorsports, Max Q Racing, and Mayfield Motorsports which acquired cars and crews from teams that folded over the offseason.  Baldwin’s #36 was among the slowest in the lead-up to that year’s Daytona qualifying races, but veteran Scott Riggs latched onto the lead pack and raced the car into the show.  Despite a 25th-place finish in the 500, sponsorship woes and DNQ’s forced Riggs to “start-and-park” beginning that spring at Richmond.  Like Germain, Baldwin enlisted a second car #35 that was parked to fund the #36 in 2010, and when that deal fell through, the #36 parked in its place.  It wasn’t until 2011, during Dave Blaney’s breakout performance in the Daytona 500, that Baldwin’s team ran full races on a consistent basis.  Even so, Baldwin’s team has enlisted the aid of a “start-and-park” teammate as recently as late 2014, when his #37 Chevrolet finished 43rd due to early exits in five of its ten starts.

Circle Sport - Leavine Family Racing, which has Michael McDowell and Ty Dillon share a medallion, debuted as a part-timer at Texas in the spring of 2011 with Truck Series veteran David Starr, who came home 38th.  When Scott Speed replaced Starr for their return to Texas in 2012, he parked after 13 laps, earning the first of five last-place finishes in at least 19 “start-and-park” efforts over the next two seasons.  It wasn’t until 2014, when McDowell signed with the team, that the car finished under power on a consistent basis.  But it was not until this year, when they merged with Joe Falk’s team Circle Sport, that the team will now make a bid at their first full Sprint Cup season.  Curiously, 2015 was also the first time - and the last - that Falk’s car qualified for every Cup race run that season since he joined the circuit in 1997.

JTG-Daugherty Racing, its charter securing A.J. Allmendinger’s spot in the field, has never been a “start-and-park” team in the 258 races dating back to Marcos Ambrose’s 17th-place finish in JTG’s Cup debut at the 2009 Daytona 500.  However, just five months after that 500, Kelly Bires parked their XFINITY Series ride after 2 laps at Chicago, the first of 16 early exits that season, yielding two last-place finishes.  Following two more one-off starts with Ambrose, including a victory at Watkins Glen, the XFINITY program parked for good, and the team has only run Cup since.

BK Racing, which has two medallions for David Ragan and Matt DiBenedetto, also didn’t join the Sprint Cup Series as a “start-and-park” team.  When Ron Devine and Wayne Press acquired the assets of Team Red Bull’s two-car team over the 2011-2012 offseason, they qualified two cars in the Daytona 500 with Landon Cassill and David Reutimann, their 22nd and 26th-place finishes beginning a full-season, full-race two-car run.  However, just two years later, BK entered a third car, #93, as a “start-and-park” entry.  That third team made six starts in 2014 and finished last in five of them with four different drivers.  The next year, the car became a fully-funded third team with then-rookie Jeb Burton.

The list goes on and on.  Brad Keselowski’s first 20 XFINITY Series starts came driving for Brad Coleman in a #23 Chevrolet that finished last twice, including a Lap 1 exit at Mexico City.  Danica Patrick’s team at Stewart-Haas Racing came about because Tommy Baldwin volunteered the owner points to his primary team in 2012 while he parked a second car part-time.  Even Richard Childress’ 285th and final Cup start as a driver in 1981 came driving a backup #41 Mountain Dew Buick for Junior Johnson at Riverside, a car he parked after Darrell Waltrip’s matching #11 fired up, allowing Waltrip to secure his first Winston Cup.

One would be quick to point out that none of these teams or drivers “start-and-park” anymore.  But if that matters, this should, too: in 2015, there were no more Sprint Cup “start-and-parks.”  None.  From 2009 through 2013, Phil Parsons Racing scored more last-place finishes in Cup than anyone else, but last year they trailed just one field because of an actual race-ending crash at Kentucky.  Twice in 2015, Premium Motorsports fielded a car that couldn’t start the race, and both times they got it to fire and rejoin the event, even when they were too many laps down to improve even one position.  And the only three last-place finishes by a team without a Charter in 2016 were by Hillman Racing, which lost three engines in three fully-funded cars.  Yet still, "start-and-park" teams are viewed as some kind of threat to the sport.  It's a clear attempt to stifle competition from programs looking to rise through the ranks as they have.

NASCAR, the media, and especially the RTA need to stop using “start-and-park” teams as some kind of boogeyman to justify the Charter system.  Small teams are the victims of this decision, not the cause.  NASCAR has always been a sport of haves and have nots, but for decades there was always a chance of upward mobility - no matter how slim - for those who stuck it out.  What the RTA has done with its charters is created an artificial barrier to prevent stories like those listed above from ever happening again.  And I believe both the quality of the field and the culture in the garage will suffer for it.  In fact, it already has.

Remember this: more likely than not, the team in victory lane today was the same one that pulled behind the wall on Lap 3 only a few years ago.  And if today’s Charter system had been around back then, you may have never known the driver behind the wheel.

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