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CUP: Front Row Building Toward Front Row

At a time when solid sponsorship money is hard to find and mid-level teams are struggling to stay in the Sprint Cup top 35, Bob Jenkins is sailing against the wind.

Jenkins is the owner of Front Row Motorsports, a Statesville, N.C.-based team that fields cars for Travis Kvapil, David Gilliland and rookie Kevin Conway. A team owner since 2005, Jenkins has advanced slowly through difficult times and, thanks to an off-season partnership with Doug Yates, now finds himself with three full-time Cup teams.

Entering Sunday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, a track that served as Jenkins’ introduction to NASCAR, his three teams are floating around the all-important top 35 cutoff mark (32nd, 34th, 36th). In driver points, Kvapil is 32nd, Gilliland 37th and Conway 40th.

In Sunday’s Food City 500, Jenkins, a soft-spoken restaurant franchise owner with a background as an industrial engineer, will be looking for his first top-10 finish as a team owner.

“Our goal this year is that we’d like to see the 34 (Kvapil) and 38 (Gilliland) teams be impact cars,” Jenkins said. “We’re smart enough to know we can’t go out for wins, but we’d like to be in a position where on any given day we could have a top 10. We’d like to get those guys in the top 25 in points and keep Conway in the top 35.”

Modest goals, to be sure. But this is the road Jenkins, who lives in Knoxville, Tenn., has taken both with his restaurant businesses and his racing – go slowly, build steadily, match expectations with reality.

Jenkins was introduced to NASCAR when Taco Bell restaurants (he then worked for the chain) sponsored former driver Jimmy Means at Bristol. They became friends, and, in 2004, Jenkins bought into Means’ team. The next season, Jenkins started his own team, running 13 races with a list of drivers that included Bobby Hamilton Jr., Tony Raines and Hermie Sadler.

Since then, drivers like Chad Chaffin, Kevin Lepage, Mike Skinner and Chad Blount have been in Jenkins’ cars. Last year, John Andretti ran the team’s first substantial season-long effort, competing in 34 races and finishing 35th in points.

When Jenkins started racing in 2005, he didn’t know everything there was to know about the sport, and that probably was a good thing, he said.

“It’s one of those deals where I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he said. “It was a good way to come into it. I was fortunate that I wasn’t too intimidated by it. We took our lumps. There were times when I felt embarrassed by some of the results we got, but I knew we were consistently working to get to a better place. We’ve been committed and determined.

“There’s been no shortage of heartbreak through the whole process. And we’re not there. We’re a long way from getting there.”

Jenkins said he doesn’t plan to become the next Rick Hendrick or Jack Roush, but he said he isn’t racing to just hang on, either.

“I have a ton of respect for those guys,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. My goal is to one day be standing in victory lane with one of my drivers. I’ve always felt like if I didn’t think we were getting better from one season to the next, then I would pull out of the sport. Fortunately, each year it’s been baby steps, but I think we’ve been able to progress. I’ve never really thought too much about where the end game is because we’re so far from that right now it doesn’t matter.”

Because Jenkins was able to keep a grip on the sport during the past few tough seasons, he was in position this year to pick up some of the employees who were released by other teams during the sport’s dramatic downsizing. Front Row has tripled its work force from 20 to 60.

“We think we have realistic goals to be in that sweet spot in the middle of the standings,” said team general manager Jerry Freeze, who formerly worked for Richard Petty. “Our business model works as long as the cars are in the top 35. We’re going to do everything we can to keep all three of them there.”

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEEDtv.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.