Throughout Josh Wise’s eight year Sprint Cup career, he has raced for several lower budget teams, including The Motorsports Group in 2016.

In 146 career starts at NASCAR’s top level, Wise has a best career finish of 10th coming last season at Talladega. Since then he’s raced for four different race teams in 33 races.

Owned by Curtis Key, The Motorsports Group is in its second year of existence at the Cup Series level. In 2012, Wise and the team ran 22 events in the XFINITY Series, finishing 33rd in the championship standings.

According to Wise, 2016 has been about building for the future. Every little amount of speed that the team can find will benefit them down the road.

“Expectations for us are just based on our execution of the weekend,” Wise told Speedway Digest. Obviously, you look at where you’re starting, where you want to be and you create some sort of plan to get there. It’s all about the execution of that plan. If you don’t end up where you want to be then that’s something you reevaluate. For us, those steps are simple. It’s about practice and making changes the right way and communicating well, spending time with Dave [Fuge, crew chief] going over what I feel like the car needs.”

Including Wise, The Motorsports Group has seven full-time employees, the lowest amount at the Cup Series level. He also believes that his team is a long ways away from being in a position to run in the top 20 on a weekly basis, admitting that compared to other small teams in the garage, TMG is “microscopic.”

The team has competed in 18 of the 22 races this season, missing all three restrictor plate events and the Brickyard 400 last month. Finishes like a season-high 24th-place at Kentucky are a step in the right direction for the organization.

“Those are weekends that the morale is naturally higher,” Wise said. “As much as I try to keep the guys on focusing on our jobs, trying to improve and find gaps that are within us, you still get caught up in the board and what it says with what position you are and where you finished. It looks a little more optimistic than it really is at times.”

Whenever the team finishes in the 20s, it’s a small victory for the organization. Wise has been among the top 30 in three races this season Kentucky, Watkins Glen and Pocono.

“It’s a bit of a cliché statement, but it’s a David and Goliath scenario,” Wise said of his team. “Those finishes are wins for us for sure. Even weekends where we finish 32nd, if we do a good job and execute well and out race some cars with a fast racecar its worth it. At the last Pocono race we finished 34th, but I went home and I was really exciting because every time we hit the track we made some sort of gain on our cars and learned a tremendous amount in going toward the right direction.”

At the bigger tracks such as Pocono, there are some laps that TMG is faster in the race than they are in qualifying, something that Wise also believes the team can build on.

Missing a race for TMG isn’t the worst thing in the world. Wise is a racer and he will compete in anything, giving 100 percent on the race track, but the psyche of the team can rise with a solid car that doesn’t make the feature event.

“I’m getting excited about the direction that we are going and I feel like at Indy, we learned a lot there,” Wise said. “We missed the race, but we had an extremely good car just to have a fuel pump go out in qualifying. It’s just a total misfortune, not meant to be type thing. I was disappointed that we missed the race, but it was sort of out of our control, we had a lift pump go out, but I was excited that the car drove so well.”

Like many of the big teams in present day NASCAR, TMG has started off small, hoping it pays off down the road. Though comparing TMG to BK Racing is like BK Racing being compared to Hendrick Motorsports, Wise believes that in order to take the next step the team needs to find sponsorship.

TMG has had zero sponsorship at all in eight of the 18 races they’ve competed in this season. With the start-and-park era all but gone from NASCAR, Wise has an average finish of 34.6 this season, which is better than his 2013 season competing primarily for Front Row Motorsports.

“I think you always want more,” Wise said of his situation. “Contentment is a choice. You can choose to be content, but you can choose to continue to apply yourselves to do more. I think there is room for both ends of it and that’s where I’m at. Yeah, I want to run for a bigger and better team with a better opportunity or try and win an XFINITY race, but I’m not doing that, I’m here. I’m not caught up in the fact that I’m not there. I’m doing the best that I can.”

One thing that Wise has always had is the support from the fans. In 2014, competing for Phil Parsons Racing, Reddit, an online community fully backed the California native in his pursuit of making the All-Star Race. He won the fan vote, making it into his first career All-Star event.

At the time 2014 looked to be a turning point in Wise’s career. Missing just the second race of the season at Phoenix, the 33-year-old had 14 finishes in the top 30, the most he’s ever accumulated. Much of his success came from the fans.

“It means a lot,” Wise said of the fan support. “It’s a strange thing for me because I’m not naturally a public person. I have to try and work at that end of it. I shy away from fans because I don’t like being admired. I’m just like a normal guy who happens to drive racecars. I don’t think that I’m anything special. I was given a great gift by God to do what I do and have the ability to do well at the opportunity.”

Not knowing his future is a hard thing on Wise. Racing for TMG is one of those handshake deals that could end at any moment. The plan for now is to make it through the 2016 season and go from there.

“It’s almost as good as any piece of paper that I’ve ever had a contract with,” Wise said.
I guess anybody will tell you that a contract is not worth the paper that they are written on. We have that commitment though this season and work hard every week at it.”

The main priority for the tri-athlete is to one day compete in an elite car, winning races on a consistent basis. But for now it’s about surviving, hoping that he sees that day.

Off the race track, Wise swims, runs and bikes training his body to perform in the racecar. Becoming good friends with six-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson as well as Trevor Bayne and Landon Cassill has sparked a fire under him.

Working out in a mental train of thought, otherwise known as a triathlon is something that translates over to the track for Wise..

“That’s something that I pushed into more recently where you build fitness eventually and then you are able to do more fitness above what the racecar demands,” Wise said of his training. “There are barriers that you can break down in your mind with intense fitness sessions and intense races that kind of directly lead to the racecar with the intensity and sometimes the frustration and mental fatigue of all of it.”    

 At every town on the circuit, Wise has a place he likes to do his training. Whether it’s a bike route that leads to a coffee shop downtown or a swim that leads lunch on the lake, he fully believes that pushing your body to the limit helps a driver perform.

“What happened was, I started wearing heart rate monitor and my heart rate monitor looks similar to if I were to run a marathon,” Wise elaborated on. “My heart rate goes into an aerobic rate where it’s a steady rate on your body and it’s physical. It’s the heat, it’s the movement and it’s the G-force that elevates your heart rate.  I believe that anyone that is driving a racecar for more than an hour needs to be doing some sort of endurance exercise.”

Last year both Wise and Cassill competed in the Iron Man 70.3 World Championship in Zell Am See-Kaprun, Austria.

Wise finished 1,016th overall, completing the circuit in 5 hours, 13 minutes and 4 seconds. Cassill topped him by just seven minutes, finishing 867th.

But in the end it all goes back to racing.

“I feel that I’m an underrated racecar driver,” Wise said. “I’m way better than anybody realizes. Maybe that’s somewhere where I don’t undervalue myself. I think that on any given day I can get in somebody’s racecar or anybody can get in my racecar and I can perform with or better than any racecar driver out there. It’s something I’m very confident in.”

While it’s hard to showcase his talent at TMG, Wise likes to overachieve, proving that he is one of the best drivers in the world. He’s not going to allow driving for a small team hurt his chances to make it in NASCAR.

 “Our sport is a team sport, almost more than any other sport,” he said of his situation. “There are so many hands that touch every part on that car and every part is so important. It’s kind of being between a rock and a hard place sometimes with where I am. I feel like I can do a lot more, but you are limited a little bit and you are doing the best you can.”

A new era of NASCAR merchandising began on July 31, 2015. One year later and Fanatics has taken the fans of NASCAR by storm, introducing never before seen products, ultimately becoming part of the racing experience.

For years, fans were accustomed to the driver souvenir haulers, located around each and every race track. Many fans were sad to see their favorite drivers stand go away, but in the process adapted to Fanatics.

Chris Williams, Vice President of Trackside for Motorsports Authentic was one of the people in charge of setting up Fanatics. He had a vision of what he wanted to see at the track, and thought that this was the way of the future.

Williams has worked around for the sport for the past 30 years, and much like Fanatics celebrating it’s one year anniversary at Pocono Raceway, so is he. He once worked for Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and then became the man in charge of the 30 plus souvenir haulers.

Much like the fans, getting used to the 1.5-acre tent that Fanatics is made up of has been a transition process for him over the season.

“Fanatics had a great vision of what they wanted to do with Trackside,” Williams said of the merchandise. “A lot of people don’t realize that we were digressing away from trailers because there were really only five guys that were making a profit and we were reducing trailers as they went. What was happening is we didn’t have a full assortment of drivers. We didn’t have any Truck drivers, hardly any XFINITY drivers at all and the lower tier drivers weren’t having any coverage at all from a Trackside standpoint.”

The support of the XFINITY Series drivers has said to gone up over 100 percent and the Truck Series over 150 percent, simply because prior to Fanatics, Motorsport Authentic didn’t carry much product for those two series.

Not only did the value of product increase, but so has the support from NASCAR. The way to purchase NASCAR merchandise at the race track is unlike any other sport. For that Fanatics and NASCAR have had a great relationship in year one.

“They [NASCAR] saw the numbers go down from the trailers and they knew they needed to keep the environment as part of the show,” Williams said of the support from NASCAR. “Shopping is a part of the excitement. We have the displays, interactions and hospitality, so they wanted something to be created that was going to be fan friendly. Going up to the trailers and waiting 40 minutes to be serviced was difficult.”

While shopping at Fanatics, fans will get in and out as quickly or as slowly as one wants. Each team has its own individual pod with hundreds of products for that organization. 15-time Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has five pods dedicated to him, which is upward of 100 feet of merchandising.

Over the past year brands such as Columbia, New Era and even Under Armor through Hendrick Motorsports have joined the sport. Fanatics is always trying to produce more and are hopeful that even more companies will join in the next calendar year.

Last weekend at Indianapolis was the last track that saw the new setup. Though the tent has been to every track, the company is not afraid to change.

“A year into this, we’ve gone to all the race tracks, we’ve changed them all a few times,
 Williams said. “We’ve even changed in dimension a few times. We’ve changed even location from a couple of the historical places that we set with the trailers. But when they find us, the shopping has been very good. All of the transactions are doing extremely well, compared to last year. Though we might have seen a declining in some of the race attendance, our sales are pretty much flat or better, which tells us we are giving the right things to the fans.”

Going into the new process, Motorsports Authentic wasn’t sure how the process would go. Most of the people are the same from the trailers, but this is said to be a unique experience that sets NASCAR apart.

Many of the products, including die-cast cars, t-shirts and fans are all merchandise that fans can see up close and even feel. Before, fans had to ask to see the product after waiting in a long line just to be serviced.

For years, there were over 30 trailers touring the United States, going from track-to-track. Now, full-time employees are given days off in-between races, something that hasn’t been done before.  

“Presentation wise, it looks very good and fans love the presentation part of it,” Williams said. “I think from an expectation standpoint everyone seems happy. I know from a process standpoint it’s really good.”

With 26 full-time employees, Fanatics goes into each region looking for help. The company hires over 100 people per region to help set up the process as well work at the track. Over the last 52 weeks, the company has hired 12 new people, but that doesn’t fill more than 60 cash registers.

“We do a deal online through our HR department, where they can go out and say that they would like to work in Fanatics,” Williams said. “We have a training deal that we do for different colleges that come out that’s kind of like an internship as well as a placement of positions. So far it’s turned out really well. Everyone that has come on board except for one is still here and they really like the job. They like being mobile and dealing with the consumer, they thrive on getting it done in a certain amount of timeframe because there is such a limited window.”

As year two is now in the making, Fanatics is trying to get bigger and better. With goals of expanding based on each race track, the company knows that there will be challenges.

Unlike other sports, the drivers are constantly changing colors due to sponsorship. It’s something that some fans enjoy and other fans despise, but it’s all part of the game.

“I think what we need to do is get a little bit thinner and deeper in product because we didn’t know what to expect,” Williams said of one of his main goals. “We probably enlarged our inventory 30 to 35 percent more than we ever had it. Our sport is a little different than any other sport, so we kind of learn through that.”

 Income is based solely off the market. There will always be that die-hard fan that comes in at whatever track they go to, but the money varies by different markets.

It was announced earlier this week that Earnhardt was the top driver in merchandise sales. Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was second on the list. Defending Cup Series champion Kyle Busch was third in product sold, rookie Chase Elliott was fourth and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

Since the beginning of the 2016 season at Daytona, Tony Stewart and Martin Truex, Jr. have seen their merchandise sales improve the most from last season.

Johnson to Backup

Friday, Jul 08

Jimmie Johnson will go to the backup for Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.

 

Johnson had ran 17 laps in the session before making the outside wall. An already unpredictable race became even more unpredictable for the veteran driver from Hendrick Motorsports.

 

“I just got wide and evidently the track is dirty wide.  I didn’t have anything go wrong, I just got wide and the car just started going straight and it wouldn’t turn.  I was in the marbles.  I couldn’t see the line where the track was clean and dirty and it just kept going straight and straight and straight and hit the wall,” said Johnson. 

 

Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team has until the end of the final practice, which ends at 2:50 pm, to get the backup car ready and to run some laps before qualifying at 6:45 pm eastern.

15-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has struggled in 2016 compared to recent seasons. But after a second-place finish at Pocono Raceway, he is attempting to turn the No. 88 team in the right direction. 

Through 15 races this season, the No. 88 team has four second-place finishes, but a disappointing six top-10 efforts. In the same amount of time last season, Earnhardt had eight top 10s en route to tying a career-high 22 top-10 finishes.

Most recently, Earnhardt is coming off a 39th-place finish in Michigan, after getting caught up in a wreck with Chris Buescher and AJ Allmendinger.

Earnhardt and Ives combined for three victories in 2015 and by this point had already solidified themselves into the Chase with a win at Talladega. Currently, the team is sitting 30 points above the Chase cutoff in the 11th position.

“We started the year out great,” Earnhardt told Speedway Digest regarding his season. “We were running really well and got a couple of second-place finishes, and it looked like we were on the brink of winning. This past month [May leading into June] has been kind of rough, but we will get it figured out.”

 Speed is a large part of the issue for the No. 88 car, according to Earnhardt. He had no top-10 finishes in the month of May runs at some of his best tracks, including Talladega, where he has been victorious six times. He has also had respectable runs at Kansas, Dover and Charlotte since he started working with Steve Letarte in 2011.

 His best finish over the course of those four races was 14th at Charlotte despite have a third-place effort in the Sprint All-Star Race while utilizing a possible aero package for 2017.  

 Earnhardt has been out front for 53 laps this season, leading laps in three of the 14 races, including the season-opening Daytona 500, the fourth race of the year at Phoenix and most recently at Pocono. 

 A beat of the upcoming racetracks on the schedule is where the No. 88 team has excelled in previous seasons. Earnhardt has multiple victories at Pocono, Michigan and Daytona. He is the defending winner of the July race at Daytona and swept the two Pocono events in 2014. In 2012, he put an end to a 143-race winless streak at Michigan.

 “I think that we would like to gain some speed,” Earnhardt said. “There are some tracks coming up that I think we could run really well at, Pocono is one of them, Michigan, New Hampshire. There are some tracks coming up that we feel like we can improve, learn and get some good information.”

 Back when Letarte first took over as crew chief for Earnhardt, it took the duo about a year and a half to settle in.

 Over the next few weeks, the team is approaching the year and a half mark with Ives but overall, the statistics are stronger with Ives atop the pit box.

 In 50 races with Ives as crew chief, the duo has earned three victories, with 21 top-five finishes. In that same time span with Letarte, Earnhardt was winless, with nine top fives.

 “I think the crew chief is the leader,” Earnhardt stated. “He’s with the guys every day in the shop and at the racetrack. I lean on Greg to sort of be the leader and get these guys fired up.

 “I think he does a good job and we had a great year last year and started this year very good. We’ve had a little bit of a rough patch here, but you’re going to have some adversity and you’ll have to deal with that from time-to-time. I feel like he does a good job. As a member of the team, you don’t want to be a part of the problem, you want to be a part of the solution. You just have to try and keep everybody’s morale up and try not to make a bad situation worse.”

 Looking at Hendrick Motorsports as a whole in 2016, rookie Chase Elliott leads the team with 11 top-10 finishes. Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to pull into Victory Lane, doing it twice at Atlanta and Fontana.

 “When you work with a different guy you learn what works for him and try to communicate with him,” Earnhardt said. “It’s not too challenging and it’s not extremely different than working with Steve. When you are hitting on all cylinders and you are running well, things come a lot easier.”

 It is an open door policy at HMS. When a driver needs help on race setup or even qualifying trim, the other teammates are there to help each other. The crew chiefs work closely together, though, the race team is split up into two shops on the team’s campus in Concord, N.C. In one shop, it’s the Nos. 48 team and No. 88 teams, with the other shop made up of the No. 5 team of Kasey Kahne and the No. 24 car.

 Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Earnhardt and Johnson have worked extremely well together, according to Earnhardt. They are the two elder statesmen as of now on the winningest team in NASCAR history. Both drivers want to improve on that.

 One thing that Earnhardt has been very critical of this year is the way the team is qualifying. The No. 88 Chevrolet has started outside of the top 20 nine times in 2016. Throughout the entire 36-race season last year, he started outside of the top 20 eight times.

 “It makes racing difficult because you have to find a way to get to the front,” he said. “At times, it’s a lot fun to try and get to the front, but you certainly would like to make it easier on yourself with qualifying better. It’s been a big challenge trying to find the right balance for us and get speed. “

 Though Earnhardt has six solid finishes this season, the first stint of the race seems to be about rebounding for the team, attempting to drive the car halfway through the field.

 But the qualifying efforts have surprised Earnhardt for that reason.

 The car has raced well all season. Through some bad luck and unfortunate circumstances, he has three DNF’s, two coming at Daytona and Talladega, his two best racetracks with a combined 10 wins.

 “We always end up being one of the top five cars in lap times during the race,” Earnhardt elaborated. “We’re one of the fastest cars in the race, we just can’t do it in qualifying.”

 This is Earnhardt’s 18th season in the Cup Series, making him one of the longest tenured drivers in the sport’s top series. Matt Kenseth and he have the longest streak of full-time seasons.

 Earnhardt, 41, owns JR Motorsports, a NASCAR XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series team. There is always the option after to race back down into the lower divisions of NASCAR, but admittedly so, he doesn’t want to race as long as his father did.

 “I want to run in the XFINITY Series for JR Motorsports as long as it helps the company,” Earnhardt said of his organization. “I think it would be racing a late model race here and there with the late model program. That’s reasonably affordable and would probably enjoy doing on and off into my 50s and 60s if that’s what you wish.”

 2017 is a contract year for Earnhardt after previously signing a deal in 2011 to stick around with HMS. However, his future is still up in the air with no extension signed as of mid-2016.  

 Earnhardt would like to finish his Cup Series career with Hendrick Motorsports, which he has called home for the past eight years.

 “It’s great to have it all wrapped up so quickly and far in advance,” Earnhardt said prior to his last contract “Rick [Hendrick] and I were on the same page from the first time we talked about it, so there wasn’t any sense in waiting. There were never any questions or hesitations from either of us. It was just, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”

 With sponsorship from Nationwide, Axalta, Mountain Dew and TaxSlayer.com, it would be hard for Earnhardt to leave Hendrick Motorsports. The companies have combined to fund his efforts for the entire year, led by Nationwide’s 21 events as a primary sponsor and 13 from Axalta after working with four-time champion Jeff Gordon.

 “It’s something that we haven’t started to sit down and talk about,” Earnhardt said of his future. “We will see what Rick [Hendrick] wants to do with his direction and future is for the team. We will see if that lines up with what I want to do. I don’t think I will race as long as my dad did, but I have been having a lot of fun over the past couple of years.

 “I would hate to walk away from such a good opportunity prematurely, but when it comes down to it, Rick is the boss and what is future and direction of the team is important. I’m sure we will get talking about what we want to do past this contract in the next six months.”

Early in Happy Hour on Saturday afternoon, Austin Dillon put a speed up of 194.301 mph, a half-tenth of a second quicker than second place. 

Michigan is Dillon's "favorite racetrack." The last time the Cup Series sped around the 2.0-mile oval, the No. 3 car was out front for 19 laps after starting in the back and picking up a fourth-place finish. 

Brad Keselowski, hometown driver, was second on the leader board in the final  session at 194.013 mph. He has never recorded a victory at his home track. 

Jimmie Johnson was third on the board at 193.851 mph. Trevor Bayne led Roush Fenway Racing in fourth at 193.778 mph and Pocono winner, Kurt Busch completed the top five at 193.741 mph. 

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Martin Truex, Jr. Kyle Larson, pole-sitter Joey Logano and AJ Allmendinger rounded out the top 10. 

Ryan Blaney was the fastest rookie on Saturday, while his nemesis, Chase Elliott was 21st on speed, running 47 laps, the most of all drivers. The 20-year-old got into the wall with about 10 minutes remaining, scuffing up the right rear of the car. The No. 24 car got back out on track to complete more laps. 

After posting the fastest time in opening practice Saturday morning, Carl Edwards was mired down in 17th at 192.947 mph. 3All four of the Joe Gibbs Racing cars were outside the top 10 with Denny Hamlin leading the train of drivers in 11th. 

38 cars took time in Happy Hour. Truex led the way on best 10 lap averages at 191.991 mph. He had a pair of third-place finishes last season at Michigan.

The 400-mile race is scheduled to begin shortly after 1:00 p.m. ET on Sunday. Last year, Busch was victorious in a rain-shortened event.