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Caraveillo: Inside driver's head is where start-and-park debate rages most

March 23, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Inside driver's head is where start-and-park debate rages most

Michael McDowell remembers the first time he had to start and park. It was in the Nationwide Series, after an 11th-place run in the 2009 event on the road course in Montreal, when the driver stood 10th in the standings. McDowell had posted solid finishes in four of his previous five outings, but his limited deal with JTG Daugherty Racing had run out, and the sponsorship had disappeared with it, and suddenly he faced the prospect of starting and parking just to keep himself afloat in the points.

So in the following race at Atlanta, he made 41 laps and pulled into the garage. "I was thinking, it just doesn't seem right to be this far up in the points and have to start and park," McDowell said. "But this sport is very humbling."

"You've got to hold your head high. Confidence is big. It's just a matter of knowing what you're there to do, and doing it. "

--LANDON CASSILL

For a race car driver raised on the idea of passing competitors and getting to the front, there's not a more galling experience. Some have flatly refused to do it. Bobby Labonte split with an organization he raced with part of last season because the former Cup Series champion didn't want to start and park. David Stremme parted ways with another team last year for similar reasons. And this past Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway, Jennifer Jo Cobb walked away from the No. 79 Nationwide car of owner Rick Russell rather than run only a handful of laps and park it.

It's a polarizing issue -- Cobb cited her principles in climbing out of the No. 79 car, and others have charged start-and-park teams with an act tantamount to stealing. The practice, which arises when sluggish economic times make it difficult to find enough fully sponsored cars to fill a complete field, almost certainly makes NASCAR uneasy. And yet, for all the bluster surrounding the issue in the garage and in the grandstand, the conflict over starting and parking is never more pronounced than it is inside the head of the driver who has to do it. Pulling an intact vehicle off a track before the end of an event defies every racing instinct, and can seem alien to someone raised on speed.

"It's not ideal, for sure," McDowell said. "There are times you wish you didn't have to do it. There are times you wish you could just race, because you think your car is good enough to have a decent run. But it's just not in the cards."

The drivers who do it see it not as a way to make a few easy dollars, but as a means toward a hoped-for end. In a sport where out of sight is out of mind, not every driver has the financial means to stand on principle. To them, being in a car that starts and parks is better than not being in a car at all. No question it stings, no question there are moments when they question why they're doing it. But ultimately, it's still exposure, it's still seat time, it's still an opportunity for someone to notice something that will help a driver take the next step in his career.

"Nobody is starting and parking to get rich," said Landon Cassill, who's started and parked cars this year on the Sprint Cup tour. "Starting and parking is the worst, most dangerous form of gambling that there is. You don't get very good odds. We're not doing this to get rich, and to be honest, the people that try to do this to get rich aren't in it. They don't make it. ... We all do this to get to the next level. All of us on a team. The crewmen I've worked with, the crew chiefs I've worked with, they all want to move up. They all want to get that next opportunity."

McDowell, a former sports-car racer, broke into NASCAR just as the economy began to turn south in 2008, and lost his ride with Michael Waltrip Racing -- he was the original driver of the "Dream Machine" that David Reutimann drives now -- when the organization downsized from three cars to two because of sponsorship losses. With fully sponsored seats in short supply, McDowell gravitated to a succession of start-and-park efforts, and is currently with the HP Racing team owned by Randy Humphrey and Phil Parsons.

"Nobody wants to start and park. There's not a driver out there that would tell you that they'd want to do that, especially in the Cup Series. It's hard enough just to get to this level, let alone when you get there to imagine yourself only running 20 or 30 laps each week. It's tough, you know? That's not any of our goals. But the reality of our sport is, that gives us the best opportunity to get into a full-time ride or to generate sponsorship to race with the teams that we're with. And for me, just staying out there and allowing people to see me every week has given me an opportunity to stay in the sport three or four more years than I would have if I had just stopped when I was let go from MWR," McDowell said.

"There definitely are times when you're like, I can't believe I'm doing this. But on the other side, I haven't been in the sport that long, and I haven't made millions of dollars like some of these other guys, and this is my income. There's no two ways about it. This allows me to pay my bills and allows me to keep my family on the road with me. It's not like there's an option where I just say, I'll just walk away because I'm not racing. This has been a good opportunity to allow me to stay in the sport and chase my dream, but it allows me to support my family, too."

Cassill cites starting and parking with resuscitating his career, which seemed to be at a dead end after his release from JR Motorsports late in the 2008 campaign. His first Sprint Cup start was a start-and-park effort in the summer of 2010, when James Finch brought Cassill aboard to try and qualify a No. 09 car that had missed the previous four races. He did just that, following it up with a 20th-place starting spot at Indianapolis and a 15th-place qualifying effort back at Michigan. Suddenly, he was in demand among start-and-park owners. "That kind of shocked people, because I had been off the map," he said. "It was like, 'Landon might be able to drive a car.'"

"This is my income. ... This has been a good opportunity to allow me to stay in the sport and chase my dream, but it allows me to support my family, too."

--MICHAEL MCDOWELL

But for a start-and-park driver, qualifying and racing are two very different things. Cassill cites two instances where being a start-and-parker got to him -- Indy last year, where he not only qualified well but led a lap by staying out on a pit cycle; and two weeks ago at Las Vegas, where he passed Juan Montoya and Clint Bowyer in the early stages of the event before pulling into the garage after 32 laps. McDowell has experienced similar heartache. His team had pulled together enough money and planned to race the event at Bristol this past weekend, but a broken engine lifter in practice forced another start-and-park effort. He'll have to wait until Martinsville next weekend for another opportunity to actually race.

"Sometimes it's a tough pill to swallow, but you have to have you focus on Friday and on qualifying into the race," Cassill said. "That's the main objective."

They take comfort in small victories, like going all-out in the few laps they have, or out-qualifying Cup championship contenders. McDowell relishes those moments when he's riding around the track during pre-race ceremonies with someone like Jeff Gordon or Kevin Harvick, knowing that for one Friday afternoon, at least, he was faster than a more accomplished driver in superior equipment. Cassill, who has driven three events this year for Germain Racing, said Mark Martin texted him after the Bristol race with the words, "Good job. You really get on the gas." They may be start-and-parkers, but they're still race car drivers, and such instances are the kind they live for.

"You've got to hold your head high," Cassill said. "Confidence is big. It's just a matter of knowing what you're there to do, and doing it. ... Through the process of getting around that Cup garage and learning to drive those cars, learning what it's like to restart and do the start of the race with those guys, to qualify with those guys -- that's all really, really, really valuable."

And every now and then, opportunity arises. This week, Finch chose Cassill to take over his No. 09 Cup car, with the intention of not starting and parking, but racing. Cassill said Finch told him he had done a good enough job with start-and-park entries to deserve the chance. Cassill called his good friend McDowell to share the news. "We were like, 'Hey man, here's one for the underdogs,'" he said. "Because this is why we're doing it. McDowell and I talk just about on a daily basis, and we feel like this is a little bit of a brotherhood. We're all trying to get to that next level, we're all trying to get that next open seat. And that's why we start and park."

McDowell sees some hope, too. He's slated to run both Nationwide races at Iowa Speedway this season for powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing. He feels like his HP Racing team is trying to make progress, planning a few more short-track and road-course events where they can really race, rather than just park. After all, that's what they're born to do. And all it takes is one event to change everything.

"If we know at the end of the road this is what we're going to be doing, I'd probably go roof houses," McDowell said. "But given that we're trying to build it into something, I feel fairly motivated that we can sell some races. You never know. You look at Trevor Bayne's story. It only takes one race to change everything. It's no different than [Brad] Keselowski winning at Talladega, which sparked his career. You never know what you can do in this sport."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.