Commentary

Give start-up teams a fighting chance

Updated: April 7, 2009, 3:45 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Few things in sports are more difficult than starting a new team at the Sprint Cup level.

Tommy Baldwin and Jeremy Mayfield knew that going in, but many of their fans are finding out just how tough it can be.

Lots of people had high hopes for Baldwin and Mayfield, two longtime NASCAR competitors, this year.

[+] EnlargeScott Riggs
AP Photo/Steve HelberRobby Gordon (7) hasn't been the only obstacle facing Scott Riggs (36) and start-up Tommy Baldwin Racing.

Baldwin was a Cup crew chief for 11 seasons, but lost his job when Bill Davis Racing folded after last season.

Mayfield raced in Cup for 12 seasons, has five victories and made the Chase twice while driving for Ray Evernham, but Mayfield hadn't raced full-time since 2006.

Both Baldwin and Mayfield took a chance this year in a down economy and started their own teams. Baldwin hired Scott Riggs as his driver, and Mayfield is trying to make it work as an owner/driver.

NASCAR officials saw this as a positive sign that the cost-containment qualities of the new car were making it possible for start-up teams to compete.

Competing is one thing. Being competitive is something else. For now, just getting in the race is the goal.

Baldwin's No. 36 Toyota and Mayfield's No. 41 Camry each have qualified for only three of seven races this season. Baldwin is 40th in owners' points and Mayfield is 44th, meaning both still have to qualify on time at each event.

It's a daunting task just to stay afloat while trying to convince sponsors you can make it work.

The new team of Kevin Buckler has done remarkably well with David Gilliland as the driver. Gilliland has qualified the No. 71 Chevy in the past six races after the team failed to make the Daytona 500 with Mike Wallace as the driver.

But the No. 71 team doesn't have a sponsor and needs to find one soon, or the Phoenix race in two weeks could be its last.

These teams aren't trying to contend at this point. They're just trying to hold things together and stay in the game.

It doesn't help things when field fillers like Dave Blaney and Mike Bliss, driving for teams that have no intention of running the entire schedule, qualify and race a few laps just to get the purse money: the so-called start-and-park entries.

Joe Nemechek falls somewhere in between. He is owner/driver in the No. 87 Toyota, but has yet to complete half the laps in any of the five events he competed.

A few people might read this and say, "What about Tony Stewart? He's making it work."

Not the same thing. Stewart's success at Stewart-Haas Racing this season is remarkable, but it wasn't a start-up team.

Stewart inherited an existing team with all the foundation in place: shop, equipment, personnel, etc. He made it better by adding big-money sponsors, which enabled him to hire top people, but he wasn't building a house from the slab up.

It would be a shame if legitimate start-up teams shut down later this season because they couldn't overcome the enormous obstacles that confront them.

NASCAR should explore ways to change the system and give independent new teams a fighting chance at competing in Cup.

Competition rules

As is pointed out with struggling start-up teams, NASCAR is a long way from reaching parity at the Cup level. But overall competition is as good as it has been in several years.

Five different drivers from four teams have gone to Victory Lane in the first seven races. Two drivers -- Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth -- have won after failing to win all last season. All four manufacturers have won a race.

If the Chase started today, eight teams would have a driver in the 10-race playoff. Only four teams -- Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing -- were represented in the Chase last season.

Stewart-Haas Racing (Tony Stewart), Michael Waltrip Racing (David Reutimann), Penske Racing (Kurt Busch) and Richard Petty Motorsports (Kasey Kahne) all have a driver in the top 12 after seven events this year.

And Juan Pablo Montoya is one spot outside the Chase cutoff for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, meaning nine organizations rank in the top 13.

Big crowd at Texas

Give credit where credit is due: Texas Motor Speedway had a huge crowd for the Samsung 500.

The announced crowd of 176,300 was a ridiculous overestimate, as is the case at most Cup facilities. Nevertheless, this was an impressive turnout.

TMS eliminated 20,000 seats on the backstretch this year, and added platform viewing for RVs. But most of the remaining seats were filled.

The enormous frontstretch grandstand (which seats 125,000) had only small pockets of empty seats on the ends.

Most of the suites were filled and the infield camping area was full. So a conservative estimate of the attendance was 150,000.

Any sports event that can draw 150,000 people in this economy is quite an accomplishment.

TMS and Bristol officials deserve credit for keeping fans in the seats during hard economic times.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter