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NASCAR's Start and Park teams at all-time high

by Dave Grayson
Thursday, November 19, 2009

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Chris Cook and his start and park No. 47
At the beginning of last Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series race, at the Phoenix International Raceway, driver Chris Cook received a black flag and was ordered by race officials to take his #47 JTG-Daugherty Racing Toyota to the garage area. That action was based on the fact that the team did not have a proper pit area. In this case this particular pit stall was completely devoid of the personnel and equipment needed by the driver and the car. In the final results of the race Chris Cook was credited with running one lap, finished 43d and earned $26,183 in winnings.

The results also stated that Cook left the race due to an overheated engine. How does something like this happen? It's because this operation is one of many start and park teams currently running NASCAR races.

We've heard a lot about NASCAR start and park teams over the past few seasons. Start and parkers are teams that, in the name of financial restraints, enters a NASCAR race, runs a few laps, and then parks the car in the garage area. They are required to inform NASCAR officials why they are out of the race. A random sampling of recent race results sheets indicates that vibrations, electrical and transmission are common reasons.

The same financial restraints that forces a team to race on a start and park basis has in turn created a business administration formula that allows them to make the races on a week to week basis. These team owners know to the exact penny how much it's going to cost to transport personnel and equipment to and from a race track and they know exactly how much they're going to need to travel to the next stop on the circuit the following week. Based on those expense sheets the start and park team owners determine exactly what finish they will need to secure enough funding to make their next race.

JTG Daugherty Racing has a pre entry for next Saturday's Nationwide Series at the Homestead Miami Speedway. That indicates that there's enough left over from the $26,000 plus earned by Chris Cook last weekend in Phoenix for the team to make the commute from their North Carolina home base to Florida this week.

This motorsports group actually began the 2009 season with both a NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series team with each displaying a great deal of potential. On the Cup side they have driver Marcus Ambrose in a well sponsored Toyota that has turned in some very good finishes.

On the Nationwide Series side of the operation drivers Michael McDowell, Coleman Pressley, Chase Miller, Kelly Bires, Chris Cook and Ambrose have taken turns driving the car. Ambrose, doing an extra Nationwide Series stint last August, used his road racing skills to put the team in victory lane at Watkins Glen. He also presented the team with a second place finish at the road course event in Montreal. McDowell helped the cause with three top ten finishes.

However sponsorship concerns turned into a huge issue by mid summer for the Nationwide Series team. By the conclusion of the July event at Daytona team sponsorship dried up and the team had to put together funding on a race to race basis. Construction Jobs Dot Com put their company logo on the hood of the car for some of the late summer events but there were other events when there was no sponsor on the car at all. Sadly, the team was reduced to its present start and park status in September and finishes ranging from 39th to 43d became standard operating procedure. Despite that this team has managed to start 34 races and has compiled an average finish ratio of 26.4. However that proverbial writing is on the wall and there are now reports that state if the team cannot turn their sponsor situation around soon then they may not be operational at all next year.

These financial concerns led to last Saturday's very embarrassing episode surrounding the empty pit stall and a one lap race at Phoenix. Was there a way to avoid this? Actually there was and the answer lies in recruiting volunteers from the Phoenix regional area. Racing is huge in Arizona and there are a lot of teams who likely would have been thrilled to help out just to soak up the environment that comes with one of NASCAR's national touring series. The bragging and story telling rights alone would have made many teams want to volunteer their services.

While we have heard a lot of commentary regarding the presence of these start and park teams this year, the fact is it's really not a new concept. I can recall NASCAR start and park teams going all the way back to the 1960's. On the positive side their presence does guarantee NASCAR's long running policy of starting 43 cars in their Nationwide Series races. You certainly can't blame these start and park team owners for chasing their great American dreams.

But to entice the possibility of future sponsorship packages, these teams are going to have to do whatever's necessary to maintain some level of positive presence. That's never going to happen when a team gets a black flag for an empty pit stall. NASCAR made a good call last Saturday regarding the JTG Daugherty Racing effort at Phoenix. Perhaps it's time for the sanctioning body to address the start and park teams and inform that they will be required to operate at a certain minimum level of performance if they want to continue collecting the pay checks for running a handful of laps.

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