By Mike Davis
The laps were winding down in the Southern 500 and the finish set to be epic.
The chaser -- on new tires -- was in rapid pursuit of the rabbit. The rabbit -- on old tires -- had the no more grip than a pair of roller skates and, because so, was a second slower than the field. But thanks to pit strategy and circumstance the rabbit had more than a half-lap lead on the chaser with 40 to go and tons of traffic in between. If the chaser was going to win, he was going to have to make up swaths of ground every time by. Time, though, was running out.
It should be noted these two had been engaged in a race-long cat-and-mouse game, particularly with tires. While they had swapped positions nearly all night, the general feeling was the chaser had sticker tires (new tires) for the final stage while the rabbit had nothing but scuffs (used tires). Now it was merely a question of exactly how much giddy-up exists in a fresh set of Goodyears.
The rabbit ran. The chaser chased. Time dwindled. Twenty to go… 15… 10… 5, 4, 3, 2, white flag. The chaser found himself on the back bumper of the rabbit. Madness! He had climbed out of a three-quarter-mile hole at Darlington Raceway, the track too tough to tame. Now with one lap to go, the chaser had to make his move. He started low – ah, the setup. He switched lanes, bolted to the top of treacherous turn four, caught a wind of momentum, and…
Triumph! The chaser, Ross Chastain, won. And by won, I mean he finished 29th. The rabbit, J.J. Yeley, was relegated to 30th, tires worn to the hub.
This was the only race that mattered, at least for these two teams.
EVERY WEEK WHEN NASCAR IS ON THE TRACK, there is more than one race going on. You just don’t see them. That’s not an indictment on the broadcast partner – they have to prioritize. The truth is even if you were sitting in the grandstands, these micro races would be hard to spot and almost impossible to follow without information, context and access to team communications.
Think of it like this: in the same way there are four different classes of cars that compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, there are just as many classes competing in a NASCAR race. It just happens to be, you know, unofficial. I like to think of it this way:
A Class – Weekly contenders; regularly finish inside the top-15.
B Class – Racers who have a top-five or two in them throughout the year, but for the most part they fight for 13th-25th.
C Class – You won’t find them on the lead lap. They fight for 25th-35th and operate off a different business model.
D Class – Start-and-parkers
Sunday night’s epic race between Chastain in the No. 77 Spire Motorsports car and Yeley in the No. 27 Premium Motorsports car was tense because there’s money at stake. Not race purse money, per se, but rather end-of-the-year payout. You see, the difference between 32nd and 34th in the NASCAR Cup owners’ standings can be upwards of $200,000. It just so happens that Spire Motorsports, Premium Motorsports and Rick Ware Racing are all fighting for that money.
Imagine what you could do with $200,000. If you’re answer is, “Not much in the Cup Series” then you don’t know the reality of C Class teams.
THERE IS AN OLD ADAGE that says a wealthy person only appreciates the fullness of their wealth if they know what it’s like to be broke. And a broke person only feels the emptiness of their lacking if they know what it’s like to have everything.
There are only a few in the world who fit into either of those categories. Everyone else? They learn to adapt, live within their means, and define success on their terms, not someone else’s.
The reality of C Class teams in NASCAR is that they may be lacking when compared to the Joe Gibbs Racings or Stewart-Haas Racings of the world, but they’re not trying to compete with JGR or SHR– at least not for now. If anything, C Class teams try to form alliances with A Class teams that will kick down used assets like scuffed tires, rebuilt motors and personnel assistance to help them beat the teams they race against on a weekly basis for 25th to 35th.
My point is they may not be lacking nearly as much as you might assume because, like everything in life, it’s all relative.
On Sunday night the No. 77 Spire Motorsports team (33rd in owners’ points) felt they had an advantage. Read that again -- the team five laps down and considerably slower than anything you saw on television felt they had an advantage. Why? Because the only cars that mattered on that race track were the No. 15 of Brendan Poole (32nd in owners’ points) and the No. 27 of J.J. Yeley (34th in owners’ points) and it was questionable whether Poole and Yeley had sticker tires for the ever-crucial final stage. Spire, on the other hand, knew they were coming in with a full boat of rubber thanks in large part to late sponsorship money by Dirty Mo Media and Plan B Sales.
So, to be clear the goal for the 77 was not to end up in Victory Lane, nor was it to stay on the lead lap although both those things are nice when they happen. The three goals were to gain points on the 15, widen the margin from the 27, and not tear up the car in the process. It didn’t bother anyone to be lapped by the leaders so long as Poole and Yeley got lapped, too.
As it turns out, Poole got a break in the third stage. Just after Chastain and Yeley were lapped for the fifth time, the leader was about to do the same to Poole when the yellow flag flew for a wreck on the front-stretch. That kept Poole a lap ahead of his two biggest threats, and he would eventually finish 28th. The race for 29th was between Chastain and Yeley.
THE SPONSORSHIP BETWEEN DIRTY MO MEDIA AND SPIRE allowed for a vantage point I admittedly never experienced, and it changed my entire racing worldview. Before the weekend I thought I knew the totality of racing when in truth I knew only the totality of racing in A Class. Turns out what’s going on up front is only half the story and it may not even be the most interesting half.
Going to a track with no expectation of winning doesn’t translate to lacking purpose – quite the contrary. With specificity in goals comes purpose, and from purpose comes the motivation to seize it. My worldview got re-shaped when I realized there was just as much specificity, purpose and motivation in the back as there was in the front. Only in the front they are racing for trophies and championships. In the back they’re racing for their lives.
What does that look like? I’d imagine not too dissimilar than any other survival situation. Don’t spend more than you make. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Build relationships. Compete smartly. Do whatever it takes. Find value in places where the big dogs are too lazy to look.
Oh, and don’t expect a whole lot of sympathy or respect because there’s not much of either to go around. Even Sunday during pre-race ceremonies Chastain was introduced by the Darlington public address announcer as Reed Sorenson.
COMING OFF TURN FOUR AND WITH THE CHECKERED FLAG IN SIGHT, Chastain drew door-to-door with Yeley and with the high-groove speed he found just enough momentum to put a nose out front. The chaser had reeled in the rabbit. The tires had done their job. This was the finish people pay to see if only they knew to watch it.
The team radio channel crackled with the voice of crew chief Peter Sospenzo: "Great job Ross... P29." The exhausted but exuberant driver replied, “Whooo! My heart was racing more tonight than it did all day yesterday!”
Oh right, about yesterday. That was the day Chastain competed in the Xfinity Series race and nearly won.
Hardly the experience of a heart-pounding 29th.
-- Dirty Mo --