Late season uncertainty and calm in the Nationwide garage
There was a quiet in the Kentucky air, even as 40 stock cars in NASCAR's second-highest series prepared to fill the atmosphere with that guttural roar that they make about three-dozen weekends a year. Often times these racing faithful - some looking to make their names big in the Sprint Cup Series and others that are just looking to hang on in the sport they love - are part of the bigger Cup weekend or sandwiched between their big brother series and the feisty Camping World Truck Series the day before. But this past weekend saw the Nationwide Series stand only with its cousins in the ARCA Series at Kentucky Speedway in front of a smaller crowd and fainter buzz. And uncertainty about the future permeated the garage area as much, if not more than did the prospect of getting to run a race without any Cup stars in it.
I made my first trip to the 1.5-mile Sparta, Kentucky track not far south of Cincinnati this past weekend. PRN invited me up to be in the booth with lead anchor Doug Rice and fellow fill-in Charles Krall, as its being in New Hampshire to broadcast the Sprint Cup race spread the staff thin. This awarded me my first time being at a race where the Nationwide Series was the biggest show - and it was totally different.
There was maybe 10% of the amount of media covering the VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300 and the bulk of that contingency didn't arrive until mid-afternoon Saturday for the 7:30 p.m. race. I showed up around noon to get my bearings and walk the garage. Just strolling through the workplace of these teams and talking to team members, crew chiefs, and the occasional driver offers great perspective and insight that doing on-record interviews doesn't always give. It's in these drive-by conversations that the real feelings and strategies of the gear-turners of a race series become known.
The race being a standalone event meant that a Sprint Cup driver would not dominate the race - sort of. Michael McDowell, who runs a partial schedule in Cup, is who Team Penske chose to pilot the No. 22 Ford and Landon Cassill is a full-time Cup driver running mostly full-time in the NNS for small-time JD Motorsports. But their being there and getting a chance to score their first Nationwide win was a storyline. As was Sam Hornish Jr.'s chance to drive the No. 54 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing - an entry in which Kyle Busch has an eye-popping average running position of 3rd. The Busch's, Kevin Harvick's, Brad Keselowski's, and Joey Logano's not running the race also awards a chance for full-time series regulars to run up front and grab a highly coveted trophy.
The 2014 NNS season started with promise - with the idea that so many fully-funded teams would be able to pounce out of the gate and allow young drivers to get more exposure and chances to win. That certainly has been the case for rookie Chase Elliott, who leads the Nationwide standings over his JR Motorsports teammate Regan Smith and has three wins. But other teams have struggled, as the Penske 22 and the Gibbs 54 have dominated races and are well ahead in the owner's points. Harvick is more than a threat to win each time he sits in the No. 5 JR Motorsports entry that he pilots off and on. And a lot of drivers with big sponsorship backing at big teams have not cracked Victory Lane: Trevor Bayne, Elliott Sadler, James Buescher, Brian Scott. Their seasons haven't gone as planned at all.
Saturday's race would guarantee a first-time NNS Kentucky race winner and certainly would till up a less common name to Victory Lane. Rookie and 3rd-in-points Ty Dillon, who won a race earlier this season at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, took the pole and dominated most of the race, losing the top spot twice in the late going, including on the final restart. His Richard Childress Racing teammate Brendan Gaughan led some early, got shuffled back on the first pit stop, but drove late into the top 5 and made a pass with just six laps to go to win. Elliott also got the lead late, but ended the race 4th. Another RCR car driven by Brian Scott looked super strong and ran in the top 3 most of the race, passing Dillon in the closing laps to finish 2nd. McDowell had a top 5 car all night, but was never great on restarts and fell to 8th. Hornish Jr. also ran near the front most of the race, but faded outside of the top 10 on the last long green flag run and then got wrecked on a restart, finishing 30th. Bayne scraped the wall in the opening laps, got it repaired and drove into the top 10, but then got caught up in Hornish Jr.'s wreck and finished 15th.
Despite the extra attention during the race broadcast itself, the NNS race weekend seemed to float in near anonymity in the Bluegrass State. The attention pie for NASCAR has gotten smaller and most is directed toward the Sprint Cup Series Chase for the Cup championship battles. Drivers could walk through the NNS garage area with few or no autograph seekers. There was almost no media in the Media Center or in the garage. It was quiet, but there still was a race to be had.
Another characteristic of the Nationwide Series that also holds true to the Camping World Truck Series is the sheer uncertainty many seem to have about their jobs in 2015. Sponsorship dollars dictate who does what and most teams did not know without a doubt if they would have their doors open and the team members I talked to had no idea what the plans were.
One mechanic told me they don't know if their under-performing driver is returning to the team or not, but they hoped he would, so they can get more experience together and run better. Another crew member told me they have no idea what Roush Fenway Racing's plan for the future is. For now, they run three NNS teams and one mostly out of pocket - Chris Buescher's No. 60. With Bayne moving with sponsor Advocare to the Sprint Cup Series next year and pairing with the No. 99 team Carl Edwards is leaving (switching to No. 6), the remaining crews haven't a clue with whom they'll be paired or if they have a job.
That's just two teams I talked to. Another driver told me he doesn't know if his small team will be able to make it on the track next season - he hopes so, but that all depends on money. And these are A and B-level teams. The teams that make up the back third of the pack don't know from week to week who'll be driving in many cases.
And then there's free agent drivers that also are seeking a home. JGR's Sadler and Hornish Jr. are unsure of their 2015 status and may not have any options if the team doesn't re-sign them. There are also plenty of drivers who carry that helmet and many times a sponsor with them from team to team, essentially buying their way into rides and often times not sticking there or running well.
There are also young drivers with a cloudy developmental future. Cale Conley's family was in the lobby of my hotel eating pizza together at about midnight after Saturday's race. The 22-year-old Conley, who hails from West Virginia, had just placed 6th in the race in a thrilling drag race finish with Chris Buescher. He was the fourth RCR driver to finish in the top 10 that night and that was his first top 10 finish of his career, which has been nine 2014 starts. His family was stoked, but told me they have no idea what the plan is for him development-wise. They are trying to help find him sponsors that will keep him in good rides like that RCR No. 33 Chevy. The getting's tough.
Remember as you watch these last few races of the NASCAR season that so many jobs and people are pouring their energy in the fruitless operations that offer little security or certainty. They are doing it because they love it and are trying to make a living in their dream jobs. When a race "sucks" and is "boring," those that put it on are working just as hard as they do in the barn burner events. If Saturday's NNS race at Kentucky taught me anything, it's that the show still goes on and still matters, even with a far dimmer spotlight and far less money.