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We are living in the age of the underdog.
At least from a NASCAR perspective, and the era to date has been bookended by a pair of surprising outcomes at the same track -- Talladega Superspeedway, where an unknown Brad Keselowski driving for underfunded Phoenix Racing literally crashed the party in 2009, and where David Ragan and his Front Row Motorsports team pulled a similar upset four years later. There was no such shocker at the big Alabama track this past Sunday, but the potential for one continues to brew, like those first storm clouds forming out on the horizon.
Make no mistake, though -- it's coming, and when it hits the impact will be bigger than ever, given that a race victory now very likely translates into a berth to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. This past weekend Ragan guaranteed it, saying some smaller team would "absolutely" steal a playoff bid. That's not hubris or optimism speaking -- he has recent history on his side. Had this current Chase system existed the past few years, a host of smaller teams might have had their destinies altered by unexpected runs at the title.
And there's plenty of reason to believe it will happen for real this year, some lesser light seizing a surprise victory that ultimately leaves a more decorated driver on the outside looking in. Yes, Sunday at Talladega may in retrospect seem a missed opportunity, given that drivers like AJ Allmendinger, Josh Wise and Landon Cassill were all in the thick of it in the final laps. But the capricious high banks of the 2.66-mile track is hardly the only place where underdogs can bite.
Just look at the past four years, a span where rule changes have helped to level the competitive playing field, and where smaller teams struck with surprising regularity. There was Keselowski at Talladega in 2009, scoring what would go down as the lone victory of owner James Finch's tenure. There was Trevor Bayne and the Wood Brothers stunning the world in the Daytona 500, Regan Smith making a gamble pay off for Furniture Row Racing at Darlington, and Marcos Ambrose breaking through for Richard Petty Motorsports at Watkins Glen -- all in 2011 alone.
Ambrose repeated the feat at the same track in 2012. And 2013 saw Ragan's jaw-dropper at Talladega, not to mention Kurt Busch making history by carrying single-car Furniture Row into the Chase for the first time, and doing it the hard way -- on points. To put all that in the proper context, consider that before Keselowski's stunner in 2009, you had to go back five more years to find another race winner that qualified as a real surprise. And Joe Nemechek had full-season sponsorship on the hood of his MB2 Motorsports car which won unexpectedly in 2004 at Kansas, the same track the circuit visits this week.
That was a different time, and the definition of a surprise winner was different as well. What else qualified as a shocker in 2004? Jeremy Mayfield winning the regular-season finale in a fully-funded Ray Evernham car. In 2005, it was Dale Jarrett winning at Talladega when there were TV commercials about him about driving the UPS truck -- instead of his classic No. 88. In 2006, it was Brian Vickers in Hendrick Motorsports equipment accidently taking out the leaders at Talladega. In 2007, it was Casey Mears winning a fuel-mileage race at Charlotte in Hendrick's fourth car, or Juan Pablo Montoya taking Sonoma in a fully-sponsored Ganassi machine. In 2008, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. breaking a long winless streak at Michigan.
Today, the notion that any of those triumphs could be classified as surprises seems downright laughable. The dynamic has completely changed, to the point where some drivers who missed races back in the flush days of the middle 2000s -- like Todd Bodine, Kenny Wallace and Kyle Petty -- would today probably harbor hopes of stealing a victory somewhere along the way. When it comes down to who can win the title, the status quo will likely remain. But rule changes have added so much more depth to the competitive field, leading more teams to believe they can make the Chase.
Allmendinger stands as a textbook case. "Right now, it's a week-to-week thing," the JTG Daugherty Racing driver said after finishing fifth Sunday at Talladega. "We only have four or five primary race cars right now. The guys keep doing a good job and I'm doing everything I can to make sure I bring them home in one piece each weekend. We're slowly getting there."
Allmendinger said his No. 47 team has 35 employees -- compare that to the several hundreds who work at the powerhouse shops -- and yet here he is, 15th in Sprint Cup points and completely capable of picking off a race victory. No question, the former open-wheel driver has helped elevate the organization on his own since taking over the seat from Bobby Labonte prior to this year. An alliance with Richard Childress Racing has also certainly played a large part. JTG is trying to do what Furniture Row did last year, and ride a driver upgrade and an RCR technical alliance to a surprise berth in NASCAR's postseason.
It could very well be in position, given that two road course races still loom on the schedule this summer, and Allmendinger has a pair of road-course victories in the Nationwide Series.
Then there's Ambrose, who is showing vastly improved results for RPM and will be a favorite the moment the gates open at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. There's Mears, whose No. 13 car has been hanging around all season. There's Furniture Row, which has a very capable driver in Martin Truex Jr. if it can get a few things to go right. There's Ragan, who lurks deep in the points, but could absolutely be a factor when the circuit returns to Daytona and the restrictor plates are bolted back into place.
All those drivers, and certainly more, are convinced they can win and potentially secure a Chase bid given the right set of circumstances. And why shouldn't they? Over the past decade the definition of an upset has been completely altered, to the point where Smith or Ragan would certainly laugh at the idea of victories by Mayfield or Vickers being uttered in the same sentence. Those latter drivers were only considered underdogs because no true underdogs were around.
Well, now they are, and there's a pack of them. And sooner or later, one is going to bite.
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