MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- In a sport that has been dominated by major multi-car teams with big-time financial backing, Front Row Motorsports is proving that there is still room in NASCAR for the independent operation.
Last season, team owner Bob Jenkins and general manager Jerry Freeze put together a team of David Gilliland, Travis Kvapil and J.J. Yeley and were able to deliver solid efforts for the NASCAR team located in Statesville, N.C.
"We're not in it just to be in it," Freeze said. "We're trying to build our team one step at a time. Our car owner, Bob Jenkins, takes the approach he uses in his restaurant business."
Jenkins is a successful franchisee for Yum! Brands, which is the parent company of Taco Bell, KFC, A&W and Long John Silver's. Last year, those stores served as sponsor on the Front Row Fords.
"He started off with one store, parlayed it into two and has grown from there," Freeze said of his team owner. "It's the same as a race team. We didn't just acquire a 100,000 square-foot building and have all the resources in the world. We have built on it slowly and have a good foundation in place and still have some good people working on the car."
Unlike other teams that are "satellite operations" with an alliance to bigger teams, Front Row is an independent body that purchases its motors from Roush Yates Engines. Tony Stewart is the owner/driver at Stewart-Haas Racing but it has an engineering relationship with Hendrick Motorsports. The cars and engines that Stewart-Haas uses on the track are provided by the Hendrick operation that includes drivers Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and, beginning next season, Kasey Kahne.
Roush Fenway Racing has a relationship with Richard Petty Motorsports and other teams in the sport are able to pair up with smaller teams to create an umbrella operation.
At the opposite end of the track are the start-and-park teams that start the race, run a few laps and then pull the car into the garage area, collecting an appearance fee with no intention of competing for the full race. That allows teams that don't have the budget to fill out the field.
Front Row is a team in between. It has hopes of one day being a competitive force without aid from a larger team and would never dream of starting a race and intentionally dropping out early.
Gilliland drove in all 36 Cup races last year in the No. 34 Taco Bell Ford with one top-five finish -- an impressive third-place in the season-opening Daytona 500 -- and two top-10 finishes. Kvapil competed in 29 races in the No. 38 Long John Silver's car but did not crack the top 10. Yeley ran a limited schedule for the team.
None of the three drivers are under contract for 2012, but Freeze said the team intends to have all three back because they are the type of drivers the team needs at this stage of its development.
"All three drivers have been really good for Front Row Motorsports," Freeze said. "They all fit the same profile. They are drivers with five or six years of Cup experience. They were all champions in another form of racing but haven't made their mark yet in Sprint Cup racing. They are all really hungry to make their mark.
"We aren't quite set to announce our formal driver lineup yet ... but our plan is to run the No. 34 and the No. 38 car along with a third car that will make some other appearances for us."
There are several high-profile drivers without a ride, and Freeze said with their uncertain lineup, Front Row Motorsports has explored the free-agent market.
"We've talked to [David] Ragan and [David] Reutimann," Freeze admitted. "Ragan has been in the Ford family and we talked to him after the season was over out of respect for Ford because they really liked him and wanted to see if there was a fit there. We've talked to David Reutimann, too. If there is a place where he might fit along with a sponsor, we could be an option there. But it's been more casual conversations with those guys and our focus has been on David and J.J. and Travis and [working] on the packages that we have discussed with them.
"This sport is predicated on sponsorship dollars and we are like everybody else. We are trying to put deals together that put Front Row in the best light and sometimes those deals come attached to a driver. Just because we don't have an iron-clad schedule in place with our guys doesn't mean they aren't in favor with us anymore. They are all out there with agents working with them trying to put deals together and we are out there pitching Front Row Motorsports with any one of them. Right now we are taking a flexible approach to our driver schedule for next year so if a driver comes together with a sponsorship for Daytona we want to be able to put that driver in the car."
Freeze doesn't believe Front Row is ready for a driver such as Busch (who signed with Phoenix Racing on Dec. 22), a former Cup champion who is considered a "huge talent" and "proven commodity." The knock with Busch, however, is that his temperament doesn't always mesh well with other race teams. Freeze believes chemistry is very important in a successful operation.
"Just because you take a driver that has won a bunch of races like a Kurt Busch and plug him into one of our cars that traditionally hasn't run up front it doesn't always mean it's going to make a big difference," Freeze said. "Sometimes you really hit on it and the driver and crew chief are really into each other's heads and talking the same language and are able to hit on all eight cylinders. I always believe it's the package and we can always debate what is more important -- whether it's the driver, car or crew -- but at the end of the day it takes the full package to get it done."
Jenkins and Freeze are more interested in building a solid foundation to the race team so that one day it can be a viable option for a big-name driver to consider. But he doesn't have delusions of grandeur. For now, Front Row proved it belonged in the top 35 in the standings, but the next step is to become a consistent top-25 team in the season-long standings.
"It can be done," Freeze said. "The thing about our team is we aren't getting everything out of it that we can do. We can be a lot better on the racetrack. We have days that can be a lot better than other days. Every team is like that. We've seen some owners come in here in the past and try to be Rick Hendrick right away. They build a big shop, buy all the cars and buy all the equipment and think they should be winning races and then it doesn't happen. That's because there wasn't a good foundation in place. We don't think that next year Front Row will be a top-15 team but it can be a 20th- to 25th-place team in the season long points standings. I think we are capable of that. I think we can do it with the same budget we raced off of last year."
While a sluggish economy has dramatically impacted team ownerships ranked in NASCAR, Freeze believes it has created opportunity for team owners such as Jenkins.
"I think the sport is ripe right now for somebody to come in and start a team because there are not 45 fully-funded teams trying to compete every week," Freeze said. "There are 33 full-time teams with however many more start-and-park cars. If somebody was committed and had a good plan they could come into this sport and make an impact as a car owner. ... I respect the way Bob Jenkins has been building this team for the past four or five years and I've been part of it the last three years. I'm along for the ride and interested to see where it goes.
"We'll build it one brick at a time."