Smaller teams have big goals, too

2/7/2011 - NASCAR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Depending on where you fall in the NASCAR food chain, your outlook on a season's success can be drastically different.

If you're Denny Hamlin, finishing a close second to Jimmie Johnson in the 2010 Sprint Cup standings is a bit of a downer.

If you're the TRG Motorsports team of owner Kevin Buckler, making the top 35 in the 2010 Sprint Cup standings was like winning the lottery.

"We are a small, single-car team and our funding is tight," Buckler said last month during the NASCAR Media Tour. "Our big goal last year was to finish in the top 35. We did it. We hit our marks."

And they did it despite having to start-and-park a few times. The No. 71 Chevrolet team started the season with Bobby Labonte in the driver's seat, but used eight different drivers over the course of the year.

Buckler's team competed in all 36 events, but posted only two top-20 finishes, including a ninth-place showing by Mike Bliss at Daytona in July.

Nevertheless, it was good enough to finish 35th in the owner's standings. The top 35 cars in points have a guaranteed spot in the first five races this season.

However, a convoluted points swap involving Richard Petty Motorsports means TRG will use points from the former No. 98 car at RPM and have Petty as a financial partner. The points from the 71 car will go to Paul Menard at Richard Childress Racing.

The ridiculous points swapping in Cup is a major loophole in NASCAR's top-35 system, but it doesn't change the fact that finishing in the top 35 was a big milestone for Buckler's operation.

"Last year there were about 20 of us who raced around in the back," said Buckler, who owns the Adobe Roads Winery in California. "We had our own race going on. In Cup, you have the monster teams, you have the little teams and a few in the middle.

"That's kind of our goal to find that middle ground, pull off a couple of top-10s and be a little annoyance for the front guys."

But Buckler still is trying to determine who will drive the car most of the 2011 season, but Andy Lally will be behind the wheel at Daytona.

Buckler, 52, has been successful for years in sports car racing. His team won the GT class last month in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

But Buckler said he's trying to start a "new paradigm" in NASCAR for what he believes will be a major financial shift downward coming soon for Cup.

"There's going to be blood in the streets these next couple of years with sponsorship," Buckler predicted. "A lot of the big teams are going to have to adapt to a new cost structure. It's not going to be easy, but we're trying to position ourselves to be ready for all that."

Mark McArdle, director of competition for Furniture Row Racing, hopes the No. 78 Chevy team is ready to prove the Denver-based operation can compete with the rest of the NASCAR universe based in North Carolina.

"I think we have the perspective of what a race team can accomplish," McArdle said during the media tour. "We are going forward, and we have everything in place to take the team to the next level of competition."

Driver Regan Smith posted 12 top-20s for FRR last season, including two 12th-place showings and a 13th-place result in three of the last seven races.

"If we can continue to build on the way we finished last year, we can make the same level of progression this year and step up,'' Smith said. "I think the team can run in the top 10 consistently. That's exciting for us.

"I have been here three years now and saw where we came from to where it is today. It's been a lot of hard work. It's been kind of neat to see this whole program grow."

FRR, which is co-owned by Furniture Row owner Barney Visser and Richard Childress, will use a pit crew supplied from Stewart-Haas Racing.

Front Row Motorsports (not to be confused with Furniture Row Racing) also hopes to improve this season with its two-car Ford team for owners Bob Jenkins and Doug Yates.

Travis Kvapil will drive the No. 34 Ford for the team again while also racing full-time in the Camping World Truck Series. David Gilliland also returns to drive the No. 38 Ford, which was the No. 37 car last season.

One legendary NASCAR team should be fun to watch this season with young phenom Trevor Bayne driving for Wood Brothers Racing. I will go ahead and predict now that Bayne will win Rookie of the Year honors in Cup.

Bayne is a talented young driver who plans to compete in half the Cup races this season in the famous No. 21 Ford. Picking him as the ROY winner is an easy choice since he won't have much competition.

But Bayne, who turns 20 one day before the Daytona 500, is a guy worth watching. This season is the first step to bigger and better things in the future.

And it will be fun to see the car in the retro-theme design this year as an honor to Hall of Fame racer David Pearson, who won 43 races and 51 poles while driving the Wood Brothers machine.

It isn't like the good old days for the Wood Brothers, but perspectives change, depending on where you are in the NASCAR food chain.

The Wood Brothers are down with the little guys now, no longer competing for championships, but still racing with goals to achieve.

Terry Blount is a senior writer 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.