Until Friday night, UMBC might have been confused for your local bank. Instead, it’s an honors university in Maryland that turned honorable as perhaps the greatest Cinderella story of all time. Even NASCAR fans enthusiastic over qualifying couldn’t help but get caught up in March Madness fever that became the first ever 16-seed upsetting a No. 1.
It’s ironic Austin Dillon was chirping UMBC love on Twitter because he’s the closest name NASCAR has to that Cinderella fantasy. Leading only the last lap of this year’s Daytona 500, Dillon took the iconic No. 3 car to Victory Lane in this sport’s Super Bowl for the first time since Dale Earnhardt Sr. did so back in 1998. The loss of a legend had its final chapter written by the next generation taking center stage.
That was a little sparkle stock car racing needed, a new name and at least the semblance of an underdog story. Had Darrell Wallace Jr. won that race, running the iconic No. 43 of Richard Petty, it could have been a bigger glass slipper. This year’s runner-up finisher is the first African-American to run full-time at the NASCAR Cup level since Wendell Scott way back in 1971. Wallace’s presence in Victory Lane, prevailing in the sport’s biggest moment could have ignited a fire that took NASCAR national once again.
But the reality is that small team didn’t win; Wallace, a series rookie, has been taking his lumps since. And Dillon? All the Daytona 500 hype has faded into the background after three straight wins by Kevin Harvick. (And some fans feel Dillon, the grandson of car owner Richard Childress has been handed his ride, further depleting any type of Cinderella image).
As UMBC left the court after the historic victory, days after one of the darkest NASCAR news weeks this season, I couldn’t help but think back to a month ago. It’s that type of moment, a surprise breakthrough on a big stage that could get fans parked behind this sport again. But the teams we already know have dominated 2018, to no one’s great surprise. The top seeds of Stewart-Haas Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Team Penske occupy 10 of 16 playoff spots heading into Fontana race weekend. Just two single-car organizations are left in the mix, Furniture Row Racing and the Wood Brothers No. 21, both of whom are heavily aligned with rich multi-car partners.
What about NASCAR’s UMBC? A team that far down the totem pole hasn’t won since Chris Buescher and his then-employer Front Row Motorsports in 2016. But even then, Buescher did it with a quirky rain delay at a track (Pocono) that’s more a yawner regular season game than a season-defining conference tournament.
No, for these small teams to make an impact they need to not only win but then succeed in the playoffs under NASCAR’s new, elimination-style postseason format. When you get a Cinderella in and the glass slipper doesn’t break, you can create a story that sizzles in this age of instant social media.
But NASCAR, instead of Cinderella has a bunch of Goliaths out in front of the field. It’s a parity issue (read: stale) that could be yet another reason one of its biggest backers (Lowe’s) is leaving the sport and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. It could be a factor in title sponsor Monster Energy, despite some positive signs for the sport in the long-term, sitting on the fence about renewal.
Can NASCAR find its own UMBC? Matt DiBenedetto and Go FAS Racing, perhaps who’s a darling of social media if not Wallace? It’s a needle in a haystack that seems impossible to find, at least until the sport heads to Talladega Superspeedway in late spring. Heck, they can’t even get celebrated young guns like Chase Elliott and Erik Jones to surge toward long-awaited first victories.
UMBC showed what sports could do when the occasional glass slipper doesn’t break. It’s a lesson NASCAR could learn from and adjust, creating new opportunities for the sport’s underfunded to compete and reconnect with its blue-collar roots.
Let’s hope it’s the next step in a rebuilding process some, in the wake of Lowe’s’ departure this week, fear may be coming too little, too late.
21st Auto Club 400
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Auto Club Speedway
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kevin Harvick
Harvick is handling the competition with ease, simply reaching another gear at every unrestricted race this season. A Phoenix free-for-all proved far more competitive; the 42-year-old held off spirited challenges by Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott. But after a final round of pit stops, the No. 4 emerged at the forefront of NASCAR history. It’s the first time Harvick has won three straight races in a long, distinguished Cup Series career; it’s also the first three-for-four start for a Cup driver in Victory Lane since Bill Elliott did it for Junior Johnson way back in 1992.
Can Harvick start four-for-five? It’s certainly possible. Fontana is a track where he’s finished runner-up in two out of the last three races and is similar to Atlanta with old, tricky pavement. It’s the type of race veterans like Harvick shine as the No. 4 team, having already clinched a spot in NASCAR’s postseason, can be as aggressive as they want going forward.
Who’s at the Back: Corey Lajoie
Lajoie, in his second season running part-time at the Cup level, is used to running with underfunded outfits. But while fighting for position at the back of the field is admirable; ending each race in the garage is simply awful. Lajoie had his car blow up after only 23 laps at Phoenix, the second DNF for him with TriStar Motorsports in two 2018 attempts. He’s only run a total of 31 laps in the No. 72 car out of a possible 519, both times retiring with engine failure.
Jimmie Johnson’s 2018 start, already dreadful, turned downright disastrous this week when primary sponsor Lowe’s announced they were leaving the sport. The home improvement company, one of just two sponsors left paying for a full season, decided to reprioritize their marketing strategy after 2018. Their choice to leave Johnson (and NASCAR) comes after seven championships, 83 race wins, and over two decades supporting various drivers (17 with Jimmie).
In the wake of the news, Johnson reiterated he’s not retiring (the veteran is signed with Hendrick Motorsports through 2020). HMS remains confident they’ll find companies willing to replace Lowe’s for a similar price. But sponsorship issues with NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. in past years along with now-retired Cup champion Matt Kenseth should serve as yellow flags. Johnson, now 42, is on the downside of his career and will someone be willing to pay a premium to back him when the sport is focused on marketing younger competitors?
The hits kept on coming this week for Hendrick as Chase Elliott was hit with an L1 penalty after a third-place finish Sunday at Phoenix. Rear suspension issues (specifically the trailing arm) of his No. 9 Chevrolet resulted in a loss of 25 driver and owner points. Crew chief Alan Gustafson has been fined $50,000 while car chief Josh Kirk has been suspended for the next two Cup Series events. HMS has chosen to appeal the ruling.
NASCAR inspectors got frustrated Friday at Fontana when 13 cars failed to pass tech inspection in time for qualifying. Those drivers will start at the back of a grid, a list that includes Johnson and Elliott as well as Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and rookie William Byron.
"The big issue is the cars aren't legal," NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Millertold ESPN’s Bob Pockrass. "That's really where the issue starts. ... It 100 percent frustrates me. We're in the business of putting on a show for everybody that watches our sport, and this is not a great story."
NASCAR by the Numbers
Runner-up finishes for Kyle Busch in the last five Cup Series races. That includes a second-place effort at Homestead last November to 2017 Cup champion Martin Truex Jr.
Lead-lap finishes for Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. this season, both of whom made NASCAR’s Playoffs in 2017.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Busch has been knocking on the door for several weeks now. Will Fontana be that breakthrough moment for the No. 18? Busch has won two of the last six races held at the track and has two other top-three finishes during that stretch. He slipped to eighth last year, but Busch has shown the 2018 speed necessary to compete with Kevin Harvick and Ford’s Stewart-Haas Racing fleet.
It’s hard to bet against Harvick right now, huh. Especially with DraftKings bonus points for a guy who goes out and dominates a race, it feels like no salary is too high to pick him up in daily fantasy leagues.
Don’t sleep on defending race winner Kyle Larson. Larson, who loves the high line, was highly successful here last season, leading 110 laps in his No. 42 Chevrolet. The worry is Chevrolet is so far behind the curve he’s not in a position chassis-wise to make up the difference.
Before getting sidetracked with Michael Waltrip Racing, Clint Bowyer was near the top of the class in California. Last year, he took steps back in the right direction after a third-place effort in his current ride, Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 14. If Bowyer can capitalize off of Harvick’s setup notes, he’s a dark horse to earn his first victory with SHR (and nearly six years).
He’s been an afterthought as of late but Austin Dillon has two top-15 finishes in four career Fontana starts. The No. 3 Chevrolet (and Richard Childress Racing in general) has been improving their intermediate track setup, peaking with Ryan Newman’s outside pole run at Atlanta a few weeks back. Dillon’s a good pick to fill out a roster.
Darrell Wallace Jr. is still building up experience running for single-car Richard Petty Motorsports. But Fontana offers an opportunity to step their performance up a notch. Wallace has two top-10 finishes at this track in the XFINITY Series and won a Truck Series race as recently as last August at sister track, Michgan International Speedway. Aric Almirola ran 19th with the No. 43 car last season, providing a baseline setup Wallace can build on for future success.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick leads the way at 3/1 odds, pursuing his fourth straight NASCAR victory (he’d be the first to do it since Johnson in 2007). Kyle Larson is next up with 4/1 odds with Kyle Busch third at 5/1.
What I Think
At some point, every great streak gets broken. I don’t think it’s a Cinderella that does it but Kyle Buschfinally edges Harvick to earn his first win of the 2018 Cup season.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)