Nearly two years into an ambitious foray into the NASCAR Sprint Cup world, TRG Motorsports owner Kevin Buckler has found the going challenging, to say the least.
Right now, TRG’s No. 71 Chevrolet holds onto the 35th and final guaranteed spot in the NASCAR Sprint Cup owner points, having featured a rotating cast of drivers, including Bobby Labonte, Andy Lally, Mike Bliss, Landon Cassill, Tony Raines, Hermie Sadler, Chad McCumbee and this weekend at Phoenix, Brendan Gaughan.
The team spent part of the season in start-and-park mode, which prompted Labonte’s departure in midseason, although he agreed to return and run some races where the team had sponsorship and so could run the full distance.
It’s a humbling existence for Buckler, who has won the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona and the Grand Am GT-class championship in the sports-car ranks. Nevertheless, he insists he’s in NASCAR for the long haul.
TRG got its start in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, but decided to move up to the Sprint Cup Series when it became obvious that the economics of the Truck Series didn’t work for the team.
“I’ve got 21 investor partners, really cool guys who are captains of industry,” said Buckler. “And we put enough money together to sort of come here and learn the rules of engagement. I know a lot of guys come here as racers, or non-racers, they jump into Sprint Cup, beat their chests and usually get run out of town on a rail. Ours’ was just come here and learn — sit in the back of the room, learn the rules of the poker game.”
Buckler said his team is on track with its three-year plan.
“We did it,” he said. “I feel like we’ve accomplished now, going into the end of the second year, pretty much exactly what we wanted to do. We’re going to end up the season most likely in the top 35. We’re working diligently on a couple of sponsors for next year.”
Buckler said after toughing it out in years one and two, he expects improvement in 2011.
“Next year’s going to be a big year for us,” he said. “I think we’ll end up with either a potential partnership with some other people we’re talking about, and/or some sponsorship that’s going to allow us to run the whole season. ... We didn’t come around here to poke around at the back as a single-car team. You’ve got big teams, you’ve got little teams, and there’s really nobody in the middle. I’d like to be that guy in the middle, that single-car team that people are mildly afraid of, that say, ‘Hey, those guys can get it done.’ That’s our goal for next year, to get out and run for a top-20 every week, instead of just trying to make the show.”
Sounds good on paper, but that’s a ways away from where the team is today. And while Buckler talked in general terms about partners and sponsors and potential drivers, at this point he’s divulging few specifics.
“My little secret goal is to go from prey to predator, where what happens if a little team becomes competitive?” asked Buckler. “And no longer are we worried about them stealing our sponsors, we’re going to look at taking theirs’, because we can do it for half as much. That’s the goal. I want to be solid, solid competition. Our price point will be attractive to a sponsor and we’ll look at potentially making the jump to a two-car team if we can.”
Asked if he’d remain with Chevrolet next year, Buckler hedged his bets. “Most likely,” he said. “The options are out there. We have to look at whatever benefits the partnership. Chevy’s been good to us, the ECR guys (Earnhardt-Childress Racing Engines), Richard (Childress) has been good to us. But by the same token, every man for himself. We don’t get the kind of support running a single-car team that we’d like to see. And we’re not even getting the support that the big teams are getting, and that’s troublesome to me, because it gives the big teams even more of an unfair advantage.”
Likewise, the team’s driver for next season remains to be settled.
“We’re working on a variety of things,” Buckler said. “Obviously, if we had a strong driver that came with some sponsorship, that person usually leaps to the front of the line. I’m now off and on with Andy (Lally) to sort of develop him in this role. And if we could attract sponsorship to TRG Motorsports with Andy as the driver, that’d be my first choice.
“What I don’t want to do is go back and do a recycle,” Buckler said. “There’s that same group, 10 or 15 guys that are available. We need to step out of that. That was a mistake we made this year, probably, with Bobby (Labonte). You get really kind of attracted at the star power of the drivers in the series, but at the end of the day, what’s best for our company? A young buck who can get up there and bark with the big dogs, talent-wise, that’s who we need on our team.”
And so now, it’s on to 2011 and time to see if the team can move up. Buckler thinks it can.
“We actually had a three-year plan,” said Buckler. “Normally, I’d say these things are so fluid, but it’s actually come full circle and is right where it’s supposed to be.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.