When Jennifer Jo Cobb quit and left her team rather than running a few laps and then parking the car in the Nationwide Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway Saturday, it demonstrated again how sensitive drivers and fans are toward start-and-park teams.
To many, it doesn’t matter that a team runs only portions of a race to raise money so it eventually can run a full race. Until the team actually attempts to run full races on a consistent basis, it will be looked at as a start-and-park operation designed to put money in the owner’s pocket. That’s the perception even if it’s not reality.
There’s a lengthy history of drivers and teams not finishing races – or, in most cases, running only a few laps – because they don’t want to damage a car or engine or don’t have enough money to buy enough tires to race on. But the idea that a team could make money just by starting a race has become prevalent in the last 10 years or so as purses have increased.
In the Nationwide Series race Saturday, the last-place team earned $16,668. The 2nd Chance Motorsports team, which Cobb was scheduled to drive for, completed just four laps, finished 41st and went home with $16,775.
Team owner Rick Russell said he had just spent $16,000 on repairing his car from a wreck two weeks earlier and that the unsponsored team was heading to Auto Club Speedway in California this weekend. He couldn’t afford to tear up the car, he said.
That’s why he wanted to start and park. But Cobb insists that she didn’t want anything to do with that or with the stigma of being a start-and-park driver.
“I just felt like I owed it to my fans and my sponsors that I’m seeking and to NASCAR that if I say, ‘I’m here to race,’ that I go out and race,” Cobb said.
In the Nationwide race at Bristol, six cars ran only 20 percent of the laps or less. Two weeks earlier at Las Vegas, 10 cars parked early.
In Sprint Cup, four cars at Bristol and four at Las Vegas completed fewer than 20 percent of the laps. Last place paid $80,289 at Bristol and $80,004 at Las Vegas.
Among those that parked early at Bristol was HP Racing, which had planned to run the entire event but blew an engine early in the race.
Tommy Baldwin Racing raised the eyebrows of NASCAR officials when his team put out a news release stating that it was going to start and park at Phoenix because of a crash earlier in the weekend. The team had previously announced which races it would attempt to run the whole race and Phoenix was one of them.
Baldwin announced at the start of the season that his team would go to all 36 races but target 16 in which it would attempt to run the entire distance.
“Our plan is in place to compete in 16 events with or without sponsorship,” Baldwin said about those events. “We would definitely love to bring a sponsor on board to support our team in those 16 races and more. We will continue to seek more funding and add to our schedule.”
Two years ago, Baldwin and driver Scott Riggs parted ways, in part, because Riggs couldn’t accept being a start-and-park driver.
“I’m a competitor and I’m a racer,” Riggs said at the time. “To go to the race track and to be [potentially] starting and parking, I can’t do it. It kills my soul to know that we go to the race track and we’re not going to be competitive. Even if the car is competitive, we’re not going to be around at the end to be competitive.”
The reality is that if start-and-park teams hadn’t shown up for the last three races, there likely wouldn’t have been a full Sprint Cup field. There were only 44 cars entered for each of those events, and there might be only 43 this week at Auto Club Speedway since Brian Keselowski isn’t taking his team there.
Start-and-park teams also provide mechanics and crewmen and drivers without a full-time ride with a paycheck. Brian Keselowski, who ran a start-and-park team in the Nationwide Series last year, has vowed not to do it in Cup.
“I’m sick of the start-and-park deal,” he said. “I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m not going to do it in Cup. I want to make this deal work.”
That’s probably what excited fans when Keselowski raced his way into the Daytona 500. They wanted to see another underdog driver succeed.
Cobb’s decision also has garnered a lot of attention with many fans supporting her because they believe she upheld the integrity of the sport.
Until the economy improves and more sponsors flock to the sport, start-and-park teams are here to stay as long as NASCAR doesn’t outlaw them. But in the land of public opinion, they don’t stand a fighting chance.