Can a single car operation win in the Sprint Cup Series?By Roger Holtsclaw
In the good ole’ days, as many people that follow this sport like to say, most Sprint Cup teams (formerly known as Grand National), were single car operations. Of course there were a few, teams that occasionally had multiple cars. Larger teams such as Petty Enterprises would often field a second car. However, for the most part single car teams were the norm.
In the mid 1980’s, Junior Johnson put forth a successful effort with a two car team. Johnson fielded a pair of Budweiser sponsored Chevrolets for Darrell Waltrip and Neil Bonnett. The duo claimed a combined 16 wins during the three year stretch they were teamed up together.
This time period also saw the birth of another team in NASCAR that would eventually leave a mark on the sport. Hendrick Motorsports (first known as All-star racing) debuted in 1984 with driver Geoff Bodine. Just two years later, Rick Hendrick saw the benefits of a multi-car operation. He then added driver Tim Richmond to the line-up, driving the #25 Folgers Chevrolet. This two car team was very successful, scoring nine wins in that first season. The next year unfortunately contracted an illness and had to leave the sport. Rick Hendrick hired Benny Parsons to fill the seat, but only after making a start himself on the road course at Riverside.
As time progressed, more and more teams began to realize that by fielding multi-car teams they could increase the amount of sponsorship money that was coming in, and share many of the resources between the teams, thereby reducing expenses. There was also the added benefit of being able to obtain more data during test sessions. The era of the multi-car teams had begun.
During the 1990’s NASCAR’s mega-teams began to form. Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Racing were first teams to begin expansion with Richard Childress Racing following suit in the later 90’s. In 1999, these three “mega-teams” alone accounted for over half the wins (19), with the balance of the wins coming from two car operations.
Multi-car teams dominated the series throughout the 2000’s. Recently, however, a few single car operations have popped up. The most notable of which is Furniture Row Racing. Not only was this team a single car operation, it was based in Denver, CO. The vast majority of teams are based in and around the Charlotte, NC area. In addition to these dis-advantages, the team was virtually self-sponsored. Team owner, Barney Visser, also owns Furniture row, the team’s primary sponsor. Many people told Visser that he must move the team to Charlotte to be successful. Visser, however, was determined to make it work in Denver.
In 2011, lightning struck. Driver Regan Smith gave the team their first win in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. That seemed to reignite the thought that a single car operation could succeed in this sport. Several other single car teams were trying to make it as well. Germain Racing, JTG/Daugherty Racing were fielding full time single car operations. The high hopes were short lived however. Additional wins, however, did not come for Furniture Row, in fact results did not meet expectations. Near the end of 2012, Smith was released in favor of driver and former series champion, Kurt Busch.
In 2013, the thought of a successful single car operation competing in the top level of NASCAR has returned. Germain Racing with driver Casey Mears has definitely shown some improvement. As of the Spring Pocono race, the team had an average finish of 23.9, with five top-20 finishes, with three of those inside the top-15. The team that has sparked the debate, however, is Visser’s Denver based operation. After 14 races in 2013, the team has scored an impressive five top-10’s with three top-5’s. The team also has a pole at Darlington. Busch has also been near the top of the speed charts in most practices at a wide variety of tracks. Small problems have plagued them however, such as loose wheels and other mistakes on pit road. Small details that larger, well-staffed teams do not usually have. Small, self-created, problems are another of the issues with being a smaller operation. As the old saying goes, to finish first, first you must finish.
There is one unique variable however, that makes this team’s success different. Visser entered into an agreement with Richard Childress Racing to buy components and share technology and information. Kurt Busch even commented at Michigan that RCR considers #78 team a “fourth team car”
This leads us to a question. Is the #78 team a single car operation? Legally, as far we know, it is. In reality, however, they are vastly different from true single car teams like Germain and JTG – teams that are true single operations. Todd Berrier was hired as the team’s crew chief. Berrier had been a winning crew chief at RCR. This permitted him to bring a vast amount of experience an information to the #78 team. Additional wind tunnel time, on track data analysis, and a well built, highly researched engine program are just some of the major benefits of having an affiliation with a “mega-team”. There are also many small details that may not be as visible, but are equally as crucial. Minor things such as a more efficient way to perform an operation for example. In a sport where tenths of a second can make the difference between a win or just an average day and simple mistakes can easily lead to a DNF, these minor details make all the difference in the world. It can also make you the center of attention instead of an also ran. That could lead to more sponsorship dollars.
There are now several teams that are struggling. Many enter a car, or sometimes multiple cars, and just run a few laps then head to the garage. These “start and park” teams have caused a huge debate in the fan base and in the media on whether or not this practice should be allowed.
Tommy Baldwin Racing is proof, however, that start and park can lead to sponsorship and full time operations. Baldwin’s team now competes full time basically as a single car operation, but does however, bring a second car to start and park in an effort to earn more prize money to help offset expenses. Of course this also gives the team another car to try to sell sponsorship for, and could eventually lead to having a second full time car.
As we see there are several different approaches to attempt to “make it” in the Sprint Cup Series. Some are successful, some are not. Furniture Row Racing has obviously found a recipe that works. Tommy Baldwin Racing is successful in the fact that he is now racing full time, but is that enough?
There is probably no true way to quantify how much an affiliation is worth. It’s obviously the key to success. Though we have seen some results that give us hope, I do not believe a single car operation can win consistently in the Sprint Cup Series without the assistance of a larger entity.