The agony of defeat, before the race even starts

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 17: Kaz Grala, driver of the #50 Pit Viper Sunglasses Chevrolet, reacts after the NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duel #1 at Daytona at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

There are three sets of garages at Daytona International Raceway. The worst is an open-air affair way at the end of the infield that services the leftover cars from the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

On the other side of the infield, there are the old NASCAR Cup series garages, which at least have sliding doors but little else.

On Sunday, the day the Daytona 500 will take place (1:30 p.m. ET, on Fox), those two garages will be empty. All the cars will be working out of the new garages, a state-of-the-art facility built with NASCAR in mind. Laid out in a V-shape, fans can peer through glass windows in each garage at the work going on, and maybe catch a glimpse of a favorite driver. On a good day, that driver may walk over to a sliding glass partition big enough to handle autographs, but that doesn’t happen a lot.

That garage, with 22 stalls on the front side and 22 on the back, is sort of a caste system. The big teams and top drivers are generally in the front 22. The smaller teams are on the back, and the backmarkers – teams that are basically field-fillers – get the last of the last set of garages. This year, 42 cars showed up for the 40-car Daytona 500, so two drivers will be watching the race on television.

Their teams have lost even before the green flag falls.

NASCAR’s most prominent 35 teams all have charters, which were sold by NASCAR and are now sold among the teams like the infamous medallions for New York City taxicabs. The price now is somewhere in the low seven figures. What does a charter mean? It means that every chartered car will start every NASCAR race, regardless of qualifying. Which means a chartered team can guarantee to a sponsor that their product will be in every race.

This leaves five spots for gypsy teams that can’t afford a charter. And this year, seven drivers were angling for those five spots. The easiest way to gain a spot is to be one of the two fastest qualifiers, which takes place on Wednesday. Those two were Jacques Villeneuve, the former Formula 1 champion making his first NASCAR Cup start, and Noah Gragson.

Now we are down to five teams vying for those last two spots – veteran Greg Biffle, driving for a brand-new team, New York Racing, which only got its car on the Friday before Speed Week; Kaz Grala, also driving for a new team; Timmy Hill, a personable youngster racing for Carl Long’s MBM Team, and J.J. Yeley, a dirt track specialist who has made a living for several years qualifying backmarker teams, and often taking last-place prize money, also racing for MBM.

Why is it so important to make the Daytona 500? Two reasons – one, money. And two, getting noticed. The Daytona 500 kicks off the season, and the TV audience is the highest of the year, so even backmarker teams can usually acquire a sponsor – Yeley has, an online crypto currency dealer, and Hill had, a parts supplier.

As far as money goes, NASCAR hasn’t released its purse money figures since 2015. But the first-place car in 2015, driven by Joey Logano, earned $1,586,503. Fine, but his Shell- and Pennzoil-sponsored team and owner Roger Penske were already rich. More important, to the backmarker teams, anyway, was that last place Landon Cassill, who finished 43rd (NASCAR raced 43 instead of 40 cars back then) earned $262,390. The 40th-place car, the aforementioned Yeley, earned $273,790.

That money, plus whatever they could get from sponsorship, goes a long way toward making it to the second race. That year, 2015, it was Atlanta, and winner Jimmie Johnson won $335,901. And last place, again Landon Cassill, took home only $68,365. Daytona pays huge money to last-place cars. Teams in that category sometimes “start and park,” meaning they start the race, and park the car after a few laps. It saves wear and tear on what may be the team’s only car, plus it saves on payroll – no high-dollar pit crew required – and parts and tires.

So not making the Daytona 500 is a big deal. The last five teams here had to “race” their way in – there are two qualifying races on Thursday, and the highest-finishing cars get to be in the Daytona 500, and two teams would be sent home.

Greg Biffle leads Ty Dillon
Greg Biffle, driver of the #44 Grambling State University Chevrolet, and Ty Dillon, driver of the #42 Black Rifle Coffee Company Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duel #2 at Daytona at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

For Yeley, it’s a nerve-racking experience. But there is a small flashlight at the end of the tunnel: NASCAR has a new car for 2022, and very team gets the same basic package. Parity “is certainly closer than we’ve seen it in years past, especially for the smaller teams. They give everybody the same package. But they have engineers and manufacturer’s support, they’re still going to have an edge.”
He is correct. At one point during qualifying, the four fastest cars were all from Rick Hendrick’s stable, which fields current champion and Sunday polesitter Kyle Larson, as well as past champions like Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, and perennial most-popular-driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Hendrick has over 100 employees, while Carl Long’s full-time employees, working on Yeley and Hill’s cars, can be counted on two hands.

Compounding it all is the evil supply chain, meaning some teams only have one car, as all the parts are filtered through NASCAR except for the engines.

Biffle said that his new team was plagued by “a supply shortage of parts and cars and equipment, plus it’s hard to get people. I think this weekend is a big unknown for us to get this thing off the ground and running.”

Some teams, Yeley said, have instituted a barter system. One team might have more front clips than they need, and another team might have enough control arms, and they’d work out a swap. You can’t hold it against NASCAR – you go grocery shopping and you see empty shelves.” Parts are sourced from at least 25 manufacturers. About all that is held over from last year is the steering wheel and instrument panel.

This also means that there are no used cars and parts for sale, which is how teams like MBM have survived – running last year’s equipment sourced from top teams. All those parts are of no use now, another financial blow for backmarkers.

The two qualifying races, called the Twin 150s on Thursday night, were dull, as all the teams were working to save their cars for the Daytona 500. It had been almost 20 years since the two qualifying races had gone without a caution flag, and this year it was almost duplicated, but there was one crash on the last lap of race two. That’s the race Timmy Hill was in. His car never got up to speed, and Hill won’t be racing Sunday.

In the first race, Yeley had worked into a spot that would have him finishing ahead of Kaz Grala, but on the last lap he lost the draft and Grala sped by, finishing one spot ahead of Yeley. So Yeley won’t need to suit up for the big game. It was the second year in a row that both MBM teams failed to qualify.

In fact, Yeley – before he moved the NASCAR he was a short-track specialist with five USAC titles to his name, and he’s in the USAC Hall of Fame – was at a place he must have felt more at home Friday night, at a USAC dirt sprint car race at nearby Bubba Raceway Park, where he signed autographs, shook hands and watched the races from the pits.

It was good, no doubt, but not as good as racing in the Daytona 500.

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