Everyone loves a good Cinderella story, and NASCAR is no exception. With a poor economy creating sponsorship problems for even the sport's multi-car giants, this was the year David was supposed to come back out of the woodwork and challenge Goliath on the track. With over half-a-dozen cars cutting back or closing shop, unsponsored, independent entries emerged hoping to take NASCAR back to its blue collar roots of the 1970s and '80s. With over 20 new teams attempting the Daytona 500, David was very much alive.
But two months into a difficult 2009, he's trying not to end up dead.
No one knows more about that price tag to play with the big boys than TRG Motorsports. As the sport's best-performing new team to start from scratch in the offseason, they're working hard to remain viable six races into a Cup season littered with failures. Just look at the numbers: a robust 57 cars on the entry list at Daytona has been trimmed down significantly in recent weeks, with just 44 full-time teams left on the docket. To remain one of them, this one-car organization founded by Kevin Buckler needs money to stay afloat.
"We're down to the wire right now," says Buckler of his No. 71 Chevy, which has a best finish of 14th through five starts. "We've got to raise sponsorship to make this work."
You'd think if there's anyone who has a chance to do that, it's this one-car team who's raised eyebrows with their early season performance. After missing Daytona, the team made each of the next four races with new driver David Gilliland and charged up into the top 35 in owner points. That assured the No. 71 a starting spot at Martinsville last week, beating out fully-funded organizations at Earnhardt Ganassi and Yates Racing in the process. A flat tire caused a dropback to 36th this weekend -- forcing them to qualify on speed at Texas -- but the team remains an overachiever after coming together in just two short months.
"The CoT situation is working pretty good," says Buckler of his team's ability to contend right off the bat. "The cars and teams are a lot closer together than maybe they were in the old days. The testing ban gave us a nice little opportunity, too, to try and not fall behind with the teams that did all the testing."
"I think the economy opened up a door. I saw it as a little bit of an opportunity, because I think some of the big teams are actually throttling back a little bit on some of the expenses that they could afford to do. And we had parts, pieces, available people, really good personnel available.
So I said, 'You know what? Let's take a shot at it.' "
Key to the team's early success has been Gilliland, picked up off the scrap heap after being dumped by Yates in the offseason. Add in crew chief "Slugger" Labbe -- another victim of NASCAR's big-team downsizing -- and you have three men focused and passionate about working their way to the top.
"It's a much smaller group of people with a lot of heart and with a lot of ambition to make this deal happen," says Gilliland, who built a Cup career himself as the underdog -- winning his lone Busch Series race in 2006 with an unsponsored car. "And that's how it was with our Busch team, too, when we won Kentucky. We had a small group of people, but everybody was there because they wanted to win -- they weren't there because of how much they were getting paid."
"Here, it's the same thing. We don't have the budget to pay people what Hendrick are paying people and the like. The people that are here are here because they want to be here. They're here because they want to win."
While heart can only go so far in this business, it's gone a long way so far for TRG. Employing just 10 full-time crewmen, they're successfully competing against teams in Hendrick, Roush, Gibbs, and Childress that have just as many engineers -- along with hundreds more men working back at their race shops in North Carolina. The sport's big teams have professionally trained pit crews; TRG saves some cash by renting one from a low-budget team or a training facility each week.
The low-end budget means that Gilliland also has to employ a different type of driving style. After years of running aggressively with Yates -- he tore up plenty of equipment as a rookie back in '06 and '07 -- the primary goal now becomes simply to bring home the car in one piece. That's not exactly the type of racing fans enjoy; but in this environment, to beat the rich the poor do what they have to do.
"If you wreck with five laps to go and you're five laps down at the end of the race, you can go from 5th to finishing 36th, you know?" said Gillliland, whose backup car at Fontana, Vegas, and Atlanta was a specialized one that wouldn't work on intermediates. "You gotta be careful every lap and really think about it. Anytime a situation came up where we're three-wide, you just can't take those chances."
"You have to think about how we have to race that same car the week after. But I think we've been doing a good job with that, trying to conserve but racing hard. You have to be able to race hard to get up and have a top 15 finish."
Still, all the cost-cutting and conservatism to get a place on the grid just isn't enough. Even with a bare bones operation, Buckler is learning the hard way a big difference between the independent, underdog era of the 1970s and now is that the cost to compete has far outpaced the growth of the sport.
"You cannot break even with just the Cup race purse," he explains. "You look at your biggest expenses on your line items and for us, it's engine costs every week. These engines are highly tuned, sophisticated machines, even though they're running with carburetors -- it costs a lot of money every week to run an engine. We have 36 races, and that's a lot of money every week to run an engine."
Those motors come from Earnhardt Childress Racing as part of a technical alliance formed between Richard Childress and TRG. One of the "Big Four" car owners who swept all 12 Chase spots in 2008, Childress and the "haves" are so far ahead the "have nots" can't even buy equipment without their help. But Buckler claims an expensive latch-on to a larger team is needed to survive in the short run.
"A lot of people come over here and say, 'Oh, I'm going to reinvent the wheel.' And they get in big trouble," he said. "I think it was way better for us to come over and take a humble approach and really learn, learn, learn. To not partner with a bigger mother ship would have been crazy.
"And to be able to do it as a two way street, right away we were trying things on our car that maybe they didn't try. They occasionally wanted to come over and peek at our notebook, which is an honor."
As their passion for competing shines through, TRG has proven a role model for others looking to establish themselves in the sport, making themselves a crucial component in a future that's seen NASCAR's Country Club of owners struggle to let in new members. Success could lead to the groundwork laid for finally curtailing costs among them that have spiraled out of control. But if they fail ... you wonder how, if ever, new teams can break through in this environment.
"Our costs to do this are going to be less than most of the big teams," says Buckler, putting on his sales hat for potential sponsors. "We can probably race for half as much. So we can find a sponsor that had maybe looked at Sprint Cup before and said, I can't get what I want there because I can only get a quarterpanel and now they can get a primary with someone like us."
So, while their future hangs in the balance, these underdogs pledge to keep their passion intact. After all, it's easy to stay loose and relaxed when you're constantly exceeding expectations. "I've had a great time the last month or so over here," says Gilliland. "I think we all understand, each and every person here is a big piece to the puzzle, and without any one piece it's not going to work."
"It's a cute little Cinderella story," Buckler adds. "I'm glad to be part of it."
Now, the key for everyone is to keep that glass slipper from breaking apart.