Remember Andy Hillenburg, Andy Belmont, Joe Ruttman, Stanton Barrett, and Carl Long? How about Kirk Shelmerdine, Morgan Shepherd, and Hermie Sadler? All of the above mentioned drivers were products of the field filler era. In 2004, several NASCAR Nextel Cup races barely had 43 competitors attempt to qualify; hence, this is where the field fillers came in.
With roughly 35 to 37 full-time NASCAR Nextel teams in 2004, several of the small independent teams took advantage and showed up for each race. And even though they would complete just a handful of laps before they pulled into the garage and declared themselves out of the race because of ‘handling’, ‘vibration’, or ‘rear end’, they collected their paycheck and headed back to their 1000 square foot race shops. If I remember correctly, at Rockingham, Joe Ruttman, driving for James Finch, was parked after one lap because he did not have a pit crew. If that is accurate, how in the world did James and Joe get that car to the track by themselves?
The fact that Kirk Shelmerdine started 18 races, and Morgan Shepherd started in 19 races confirms that 2004 was the year of the field fillers. Even some of the bigger teams in NASCAR had trouble putting sponsors on their hoods. Jeff Burton eventually left Roush Racing because they had no primary sponsor. Dale Earnhardt, Inc. downsized from three to two full-time teams after Pennzoil left the # 1 car.
So much has changed in the three years since. The 2007 season will be remembered as the year of the go-or-go homers. Basically what that means is that only the top 35 in NASCAR Nextel Cup owners points are guaranteed a spot in the race, while the rest are left to qualify on speed alone. This would have been a non-issue in 2004, however, due to the expansion of several teams, and the advent of Toyota, more than 50 full-time teams show up each week with aspirations of being one of the 43 teams racing on Sunday. And because of the over-abundance of NASCAR Nextel Cup teams, several drivers that are not used to going home early have been going home early.
Let’s take a look at the expansion over the past three years. Joe Gibbs Racing added a third team, as did Evernham Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Robby Gordon had ventured off and has his upstart team at the track each week. NFL Hall of Famers Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach have a full-time team up and running. Kenny Wallace and his Furniture Row Racing outfit show up each week as well as the Front Row Motorsports team which rotates drivers Bill Elliott, John Andretti, and Kevin Lepage.
In 2007, the influx of new teams includes Haas/CNC, Ginn Racing (formerly MB2 Motorsports), and Bill Davis Racing all adding a team to their operation. And then you have Michael Waltrip Racing’s three new teams, as well as the two Toyota teams fielded by Red Bull Racing. That is fourteen additional full-time operations coupled with several part-time teams. The only major downscale was in 2006 when Penske Racing disbanded the #77 team, however it is only a matter of time before they field a third team again. Also, PPI Motorsports owned by Cal Wells III shut down after the 2006 season.
With so many teams endeavoring to run a full NASCAR Nextel Cup schedule, sponsors are bound to grow intolerant if their product is on a car that only races intermittently. After Jeremy Mayfield failed to qualify for the first four races of the 2007 season, rumors began swirling that 360 OTC was going to pull the plug and Bill Davis Racing would be forced to field only one car.
And Mayfield is not the only NASCAR star sitting on the sidelines more often than not. Michael Waltrip, Brian Vickers, and Ward Burton have all missed multiple races in 2007.
All the while, the NASCAR Busch Series struggles each week to field a full 43 cars. If it wasn’t for the Buschwhackers, which everyone seems to constantly moan and groan about, the Busch Series would be in serious trouble. Maybe some of these teams that cannot seem to qualify for a Nextel Cup race (see A.J. Allmendinger) should consider a full-time Busch Series schedule. At least they would get to race.