Speedweeks – Clash and Pole Day

NASCAR had to wait half a day to get the seasons started thanks to that pesky Florida weather. I’m sure there are plenty of traditionalist who were happy to see the Clash, back with its preferred name, during the day, back at its preferred time (if only accidentally). NASCAR can throw down the Clash whenever it wants as long as we can get a good show.

The end of the race did not disappoint.

logono-wins-17-clashLogano won the Clash with a last lap pass thanks to Keselowski and Hamlin wrecking. Really the whole Clash came down to Penske vs Gibbs. Those two teams are the powerhouses of Monster Cup right now. Yeah, Jimmie won the championship last year, but he had a very un-Jimmie-like season with a lot more ups and downs. Hendrick is close behind in third and would be right there if Kahne was running better.

The Clash looked like it was going to be Hamlin’s to own. Again. The four Gibbs cars got nose to tail and were housing the field. Four fast cars are tough to beat. Kyle Busch, running at the tail of the Gibbs train, would be the most likely to throw down with his own teammates at the end, but no way he could have gotten a run on Hamlin by his lonesome with Suarez and Kenseth behind the 11.

Fortunately for everyone, Penske was there. Keselowski was not going to coast around and let that Gibbs train happen. Things like that are why he is one of the best things to happen to NASCAR. It was a very Dale Earnhardt like bull rush up there to break up the Gibbs train and set up the nice finish.

So Logano got the win. The big teams showed up to play. None of these things are surprising. What else did we learn from the Clash?

dillon-at-17-clashAustin Dillon showed up to race. RCR hasn’t won in a long time (Going back to when Harvick was still on the team) but they tend to finish a little better on plate tracks. Dillon seemed to will his car forward more than once without help. He couldn’t make it up front without dance partners though. His qualifying time was pretty pedestrian later that day, but Newman and Ty (running ECR engines on the Germain team) did well. A couple tweaks and someone to run with and I like to think RCR can be a factor in the 500. We’ll have to see how they run with more cars on the field during the Duals.

bowman-at-clashAlex Bowman is solidifying my opinion that Dale Jr is grooming him to be his hand picked replacement when he finally does retire (hopefully on his own terms). The chaos at the end of the race let him sneak up into a third place finish. He did it without much in the way of drafting help since Jimmie wrecked out and Chase Elliot wasn’t around. Even on Bowman’s BK Racing days, I always thought he outdrove the equipment he had. He’s done very well when he’s been given the top shelf equipment. It’s very unfortunate that he can’t get into a good car full time already.

In a shocking development (sarcasm only mild), Danica actually took advantage of the Danica Rule. Eligibility for the Class was tweaked a couple years ago to say any past Daytona 500 pole winners got in if they didn’t hit any of the other check boxes. The end of race chaos let her sneak into a fourth place finish. So a top five finish in a field of seventeen cars isn’t super impressive, but any time a driver mired in the bottom half week in and week out can sniff the front of the field, it’s positive. This is definitely a put up or shut up year for Danica, and with her sponsor woes, up front TV time is a must.

elliot-dale-jr-17-daytona-pole-dayAfter the Clash rolled up, Pole Day time trials hit the track that afternoon. Showing Gibbs and Penske not to forget about the Chevys, Hendrick swept the front row with Chase Elliot getting back to back Daytona 500 poles and Junior hitting second in his first track action after injury. Kahne even showed up to play, hitting the second round and qualifying eighth fastest.

This year’s rookie class has high expectations. After running well in the Gibbs freight train in the Clash, Suarez managed an okay 15th on time. Erik Jones with the new Furniture Row car could only hit 20th. The only rookie to make it to the second round of qualifying was Ty Dillon who ended up with a 12th place time. Germain Racing this year might as well be another RCR team, the same way that Furniture Row is practically an extension of Gibbs. Good on Ty and Germain Racing for getting a good run in qualifying, but it’s got to be frustrating to RCR that the technical alliance teams keep out performing them. Newman made a top ten time but Menard and brother Austin were both down in the 20s.

Single car runs at Daytona only mean so much though. Things will change a lot during the Can-Ams. (Hey look! I’m finally remembering to call them the correct name and not the Twin 125s)

What am I watching for on the Can-Am Duals this week? The big teams are there to party but that’s not the interesting part for me. The health of the sport is reflected in the health of the little teams so the qualifying bubble is what I want to see.

There are six charterless teams attempting to qualify for the 500 this year. The two fastest on time are guaranteed a spot. Long time Xfinity racer Brendan Gaughan (remember he ran a full Cup rookie season back in 04) in the part time Beard Motorsports #75 is locked in to his second Daytona 500. Tommy Baldwin Racing sold off their charter to Levine Family Racing as part of the off season charter dance, so the 7 car is running as a part time open team. Elliot Saddler locked the car in on Sunday for his 14th Daytona 500, but his first since 2012 as a spare RCR car.

Who’s got to race in?

Reed Sorensen in the Premium Motorsports #55. Premium got a charter when HScott shut down, but they’re using it on the #15 that Michael Waltrip is running his last race in. That team was pretty consistant about showing up and making the show last year with two open cars so I think they will be ok to make the show.

kennington-daytonaDJ Kennington in the part time Gaunt Brothers Racing #96. Kennington, from NASCAR’s cousins to the north in the Canadian Pinty’s Series, is slated to run the restrictor plate tracks. This team isn’t completely out of nowhere even though it is brand new. The owners also build engines as Triad Racing Technologies supplying the non-factory supported Toyotas.

Corie LaJoie in the BK Racing #83. BK downsized to just one charter and will run this car as a full time open team. It will be driven by committee. LaJoie is a second generation racer who’s had a couple starts in Cup back in ’14 and has been picking up some races in Xfinity. He’s looking for his first 500 and only his second start on the track in any series. This might be a tough hill to climb but he does have his teammate in the same Dual and they start nose to tail (albeit at the caboose).

t-hill-daytonaTimmy Hill in the Rick Ware Racing #51. This team is jumping up to Cup from Xfinity and will be racing by committee. They plan to run the whole season but Daytona is going to be a tough bill. The 51 car ran a whole half mile per hour slower than Jeffery Earnhardt’s in the Circle Sport’s Partnership of the Year car.

Hillman Sues Circle Sport-Levine for Charter

mcdowell promo picWe all knew coming into the season that Charters would change the way the back end of NASCAR operates. I talked about all the charter maneuverings before the Daytona 500. In the direct lead up to the charter announcement, there were moves among some of the smaller teams to secure one of the coveted charters.

BK Racing shrunk to only two full time cars. So did Front Row Motorsports. The Wood Brothers were left out in the cold but in a proper old school mentality shrugged and got to work kicking ass anyways. Premium Motorsports shrunk to a single full time car and then leased their charter out to HScott for their Clint Boywer year (although, look how good that’s working out for them).

cslfr logoThe big move among the little teams was the merger between Joe Falk’s Circle Sport Racing #33 and the Levine Family Racing #95.

Circle Sport has been running full time long enough to score the charter. Just barely. That team purchased the points off of RCR back in 2012 and struck a deal to be an unofficial fourth RCR car for certain races when Childress wanted to get his Xfinity drivers seat time in Cup. Brian Scott and Austin Dillon picked up a few starts this way before they were officially rookies. Ty Dillon has a few, including a start in this year’s Daytona 500 with the new merged CS-LFR.

Levine Family Racing kind of got hosed by the charter system. They were one of those little teams that started out part time and was chugging along, surviving, getting better, and on the road to running full time. Even prior to the charter system, I expect they would have been running full time this year anyways.

So the two teams struck a deal. Falk’s charter and deals with RCR. Levine’s gear and driver. Seems like it’s a win for the two groups.

Problem is, a lawsuit dropped this week in North Carolina says there were more investors left out in the cold.

Back when I first wrote about the charters, I mentioned that Mike Hillman, owner of the #40 Hillman Motors car that was often run by Landon Cassill before he moved to Front Row, sounded pretty annoyed about all the work he put into his team to be left out in the cold.

Cassill @ Martinsville, 2013
Cassill at Martinsville, 2013

I felt he had every right to be annoyed by it and bitter. In among the preseason moves, if you follow the little teams, Premium Motorsports bought up most of the #40’s equipment and took Hillman on in a role with that team. Made it sound like the #40 was up the creek without a paddle without a charter. They entered in as an open team into the Daytona 500 with Reed Sorensen, but did not qualify for the race. They haven’t attempted a race since (although, not terribly uncommon for the part time teams to skip the west coast run).

See, the thing is, Hillman and Falk used to run their cars together. At various times during the last few years, Hillman and Circle Sport were listed as a single entity. In fact, as of the day of posting this, Hillman’s entry on Wikipedia still lists the team as Hillman-Circle Sport.

In 2012, Hillman and the #40 teamed up with Michael Waltrip for him to run the Daytona 500. Per the rules at the time, that classified the #40 as a MWR car and maxed out the four car limit. Hillman was out of the game and couldn’t run his own car. Falk bought the RCR points for the #33 that year and started running full time. Hillman got in on the deal with Falk in 2013, and it included some discounted ECR engines from Childress starting with Indy. The #40 car was half a season short of qualifying for a charter. Despite the two groups working in tandem to run in Cup, Circle Sport was the official name on the #33 so when the charters came down, it went to the #33.

Sorensen at Daytona
Sorensen at Daytona

The full details of the lawsuit spell out how the relationship between Hillman and Falk soured starting with last year. Hillman accuses Falk of leaving the #40 side of the partnership with more of the bills. Supposedly Hillman and Falk were planning on cutting ties at the end of 2015 anyways but neither ever officially signed off on the agreed upon terms. The biggest thing is that Hillman was totally unaware of any pending deal with Circle Sport and Levine. The details in the lawsuit certainly imply that the investors in the #40 car had to liquidate everything they had (to Premium) and are still left with a hefty amount of debt. The complaint straight up says “As a results of the circumstances described … the 40 points are of negligible value, the Partnership is unable to race full-time during the 2016 race season, Hillman and Hillman Racing have no ability to pay for the significant debt incurred in the 2013, 2014 and 2015 race seasons, and the remaining partners have been forced to liquidate many of the Partnership’s remaining assets.’’

Hillman is seeking cash damages, the rights to the #33 team, the #95 charter and all profits/benefits gained from the charter.

So those are the details in summary. What is going to come of all this?

It’s hard to tell. From the public information out there that NASCAR fans can find with a little Google-fu, the ownership ties between Hillman and Falk seem murky at times over the last few years. I’m sure more details of their ties will come out over the course of the lawsuit because right now, what details we have are from Hillman’s point of view. Falk has not commented on anything because the case is pending. Childress will definitely be roped into this because of the ongoing deals he had to supply equipment and the checks he cut to run his driver/car/crew under the #33 banner (now the #95 banner).

mcdowell at daytona 59
McDowell at the Daytona 500

I think that the biggest loser in this fight is Michael McDowell. He is considered one of the nicest guys in the garage and committed to making Levine a better team. He was slated to finally run the full season (or pretty close to it depending on the number of Ty Dillon races with RCR). The drivers concern themselves with what happens on the track. The owners worry about behind the scenes. That’s why the owner-driver fad in the 90s fell apart and frankly, I’m surprised Stewart has so much success in the dual role.

Whatever happens between Hillman and Falk, I really hope McDowell doesn’t have to suffer as a result.

I think whoever loses this lawsuit, is likely broken and out as a Cup level owner. Hillman already seems to be busted so if he loses, he’s no worse off in terms of Cup racing (his debt is a different matter though). If Falk and Levine lose, there are a couple ways I could see it going. Falk is likely out as a Cup owner either way. Levine may or may not be. One of the big questions at this point is what, if anything, Levine knew about the situation between Hillman and Falk. That could lead to more lawsuits. The only asset belonging to the #95 that Hillman seeks is the charter itself (which was originally the #33’s). So Levine could survive without it and run as an open team. Their assets and deals might not be affected, just their guaronteed spot. Which, of course, is a big deal in itself, so who knows what that means in the new charter environment.

How much debt Hillman has racked up running the #40 over the last couple years is likely to come out in the lawsuit. All their gear is liquidated already. So depending on how much debt they’ve already got, winning the charter from CS-LFR may not enable them to race. No gear, no money to buy more gear, no racing. But charters are worth a few million a pop. We know this because Kaufmann sold his from MWR to the #19 and #41 teams. The initial thought seems like that even if Hillman wins, he’d have to sell the charter to get out of (some) debt.

Then we get to play the game of “Who Wants to Buy a Charter?” (answer: Penske-Wood)