Starting and parking is a term that used to be uttered a lot more often in NASCAR than it is nowadays. However, you may be left wondering what it means to start and park in a NASCAR race.
Start and park involves NASCAR drivers who, under the direction of their team, start a race, then park their car after a few laps. This allowed them to collect generous winnings, even if they finished in last place. Because starting and parking became controversial, NASCAR sought to eliminate it.
Below, we will provide a full definition of what start and park means in NASCAR, and why teams engage in the act. We will also reveal whether starting and parking is still an issue in NASCAR today, before we look at some of the most famous start and park teams in the sport’s history.
Starting & Parking In NASCAR Explained
Starting and parking occurs when a NASCAR team instructs their driver to start the race, drive a handful of laps, then exit the race. While starting and parking rarely, if ever, occurs in NASCAR today, it was a common thing back in the late 1990s until the mid 2010s.
NASCAR cars may drop out of a race due to overheating, engine failures, brake issues, electrical problems, suspension damage, or even excessive vibrations. While these issues are real and still plague some teams today, start and park teams would simply claim to NASCAR that their car suffered from one of these issues and dropped out as a result.
Identifying A Start & Park Team
While rare today, start and park teams were often easy to distinguish since many lacked a sponsor. Some races featured cars that had no sponsors on the hood, the rear, or the quarter panels of the cars. These were likely start and park teams. With zero or a limited number of sponsors, teams often lacked the resources to run full races. This meant they often didn’t have enough tires to run the full race distance.
Some start and park teams had car bodies that looked oddly familiar. This is because they often bought those bodies from established NASCAR teams that did away with them. For example, one of Kirk Shelmerdine’s 2004 cars had a paint scheme reminiscent of Greg Biffle’s National Guard car.
What Was The Point Of Start & Park NASCAR Teams?
There used to be a few reasons to start and park a NASCAR race. The first reason came from the fact NASCAR used to field 43 cars for every race. This meant low-funded teams could gain exposure just by showing up for the race. Their goal was simple: To run long enough to earn tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This led to increased profits for these teams at lower costs. Since running a full NASCAR race could cost a team tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, starting and parking kept teams from forking out the funds required to run an entire race. Teams saved money on tires, while they also protected their engines and car bodies from wear and tear.
They used this money to fund future races, hopefully with more tires and better engines so they could field a more competitive car, which could later attract sponsors, and eventually evolve into a full-time ride. However, this was rarely the case, as teams routinely went bankrupt and shut down operations, or were sold off when they were close to running out of funds.
Major Teams Also Started & Parked
While small and independent teams looked for exposure, profits, and sponsorships, large teams fielded start and park rides to either help fund a main car, or even to help one of their drivers win a championship. One example occurred in 1981, when Richard Childress started and parked for Junior Johnson. Johnson employed Childress to start and park the ride for two reasons.
Darrell Waltrip was also racing for Junior Johnson and was in contention for the championship that year. If his car did not start at the beginning of the race, Childress would climb out of his car and Waltrip would take over.
The second reason was that, with Childress parking the car after five laps, it increased Waltrip’s chance to win the championship. Waltrip finished sixth, which gave him enough points to take the Cup.
Something similar happened in 1993, this time with Childress as the car owner. To increase Dale Earnhardt’s chances of winning his sixth championship, Childress employed Neil Bonnett to drive a second car. Like Waltrip 12 years before, if Earnhardt’s car failed to start or if something happened during the parade laps, he would hop into Bonnett’s car.
Bonnett drove for five laps, as Earnhardt’s car ran smoothly, and the latter won his sixth championship. Two seasons later, Hendrick Motorsports attempted the same thing, this time to help Jeff Gordon win his first title. While both cars finished this race, the second driver, Jeff Purvis, would have parked had Gordon’s car experienced issues, increasing the latter’s chances to win the title.
KEY POINTS• Starting and parking used to be a common practice in NASCAR
• It allowed smaller teams to take home winnings at little cost
• Sometimes big teams did it to boost their main driver’s chances of winning
Are There Still Start & Park NASCAR Teams?
Starting in the 2010s, NASCAR began to discourage teams from starting and parking. The first step came with reducing the prize money in 2013 and again in 2014 for teams finishing 36th or lower. Further, NASCAR once had a rule where only the top 35 drivers in the points standings were guaranteed a spot on the starting grid, but they soon got rid of this rule.
Also in 2013, NASCAR slashed the number of Xfinity Series cars allowed to compete to just 40 cars. They did the same thing in the Truck Series in 2015, when they temporarily modified their starting grid to field just 32 rides instead of 36. The Cup Series followed suit in 2016 with the advent of the charter system, allowing between 36 and 40 cars on the starting grid instead of 43.
Chartered System Eliminates Start & Park
NASCAR’s charter system guarantees 36 drivers a place on the starting grid, but those drivers and their teams must have attempted every race from the previous three seasons. They must also avoid finishing in the bottom three for three consecutive seasons. Teams may sell their charter to new teams, but those teams must compete in every event to the best of their ability.
The chartered system also brought the advent of new purses, which became dramatically reduced for teams finishing between 36th and 40th in each race. While NASCAR does not release these numbers, we do know that the reductions were significant enough, when paired with the charter system in general, to essentially eliminate starting and parking.
Starting and parking is not just a misuse of the prize money for the races, as it also diminishes the show that NASCAR aims to put on for fans every weekend. With some cars not actually turning up to race and instead packing it in after a few laps, the overall spectacle loses something, and NASCAR was determined to stop that from happening again.
Most Famous NASCAR Start & Park Teams
1. Phoenix Racing
While start and park teams were often obscure and rarely known to the general public, some became well-known for attempting most or every race on the schedule. One notable example was Phoenix Racing, a team that had been around since 1990. They had never finished in the top 40 in owner points until 2004, when they finished 38th.
Early that year, however, they employed a driver named Joe Ruttman, and for the Rockingham spring race, Phoenix Racing arrived at the track with no pit crew. This prompted NASCAR to black flag the ride after one lap, forcing Ruttman to park the car. Despite this, they still pocketed $54,196, a hefty sum for a team that completed just one lap!
2. Phil Parsons Racing
Originally called MSRP Motorsports, among other names, Phil Parsons Racing (PPR) ran between 1991 and 2015, but they were best known for their starting and parking efforts during the 2000s and 2010s in both the Xfinity and the Cup Series, despite Phil Parsons remaining tight-lipped when asked if he were running a start and park operation.
While Parsons eventually admitted that the team started and parked, they also eventually managed to finish races in the Xfinity and Cup Series. Their best finish occurred in 2015 when they took 10th at Talladega with driver Josh Wise. One year prior, Wise won the fan vote to be included in the All-Star Race. He started in 19th and finished 15th out of 22 cars.
3. Robby Gordon Motorsports
This team was not always a start and park operation, but instead they ran competitive races until August 2011. During this time, team owner Robby Gordon stated he would start and park for the remainder of the season, and his numbers indicated this was the case, having placed higher than 32nd just once in the final 15 races.
He continued to start and park during the three races he entered in 2012, resulting in 41st place finishes at Daytona and Phoenix, before his team disbanded following a 39th place finish at Sonoma. The most notorious instance regarding Gordon’s start and park operation came at the fall Bristol race, when he earned $85,960 despite completing just 10 laps.
4. NEMCO Motorsports
Joe Nemechek is often associated with NEMCO Motorsports, since he owned and drove for the team that dates back to the 1989 Xfinity Season. This team often focused on its Xfinity operation. So, to better fund the ride during their declining seasons, they would start and park in the Cup Series between 2009 and 2013, earning over $2 million in winnings each year.
During those seasons, the team never finished higher than 38th in the standings, despite qualifying for and running most races during those seasons. Their best finish in this era came at Talladega in 2009, when they finished 14th. This race, however, was an outlier, as NEMCO rarely finished higher than 35th.
5. Front Row Motorsports
One of NASCAR’s current chartered teams is one of a few cases where starting and parking paid off. By attempting every race between 2013 and 2015, they gained a charter for 2016 and beyond. Yet except for a few outliers before they became competitive, Front Row mainly started and parked, running competitive races primarily at superspeedways during those seasons.
Starting in 2011, the team began to deviate from starting and parking, and raced so well on the superspeedways they scored their first NASCAR win in 2013 with David Ragan as the driver. While they aren’t the best team on the track in the 2020s, Front Row Motorsports did race to a 16th place finish in the points in 2021, a year in which they also won the Daytona 500.
Starting & Parking In The Xfinity/Truck Series
While starting and parking became nonexistent in the Cup Series as the 2010s progressed, we saw instances of it occurring up until 2021. However, as in the NASCAR Cup Series, the overall number of instances of starting and parking dwindled as the 2010s turned into the 2020s. As in the Cup Series, one major reason stemmed from lower prize money.
Like the Cup Series, neither the Xfinity nor Truck Series releases its purses, though leaked reports of last-place winnings sat no higher than $10,000 for the Xfinity Series and up to $7,500 for the Truck Series. The costs of hauling a car or truck plus an entire team to a racetrack, just to earn a few thousand dollars, is not a sound investment in the eyes of many car owners.
Before the prize money dwindled, some teams regularly started and parked in the Xfinity and Truck Series. Below are two of the most notorious examples of starting and parking in the Xfinity Series during the 2000s and 2010s.
2nd Chance Motorsports
Perhaps the most bizarre start and park team in NASCAR history, Xfinity or Cup, was 2nd Chance Motorsports. This team debuted in 2010 and appeared in five races that season, with Tim Andrews as their driver. In 2011, they hired Jennifer Jo Cobb to pilot the ride early in the year.
Cobb refused to start and park at Bristol when she was informed she would not be in the car the following weekend at Auto Club, prompting her and the team to abandon the event. This led the team to turn back to Tim Andrews to drive in the following nine races. Following the race at Chicagoland, the team abruptly disbanded, with owner Rick Russell firing Andrews and the entire crew.
Phil Parsons Racing
We touched on Phil Parsons Racing earlier, but they gained notoriety for starting and parking in the Xfinity Series in 2008 and 2009 with Johnny Chapman and Terry Cook fielding a pair of plain white cars. Chapman attempted to race in 59 of the 70 races held over both seasons, and he never finished higher than 35th. Cook primarily raced during the 2009 season, and never finished higher than 37th.
In 2008 and 2009, Chapman earned $915,503 for starting and parking. When you break it down, that’s about $16,000 per race. Also in 2009, Terry Cook took home $370,484 in 20 starts, or more than $18,500 per race. That’s nearly twice the amount last place finishers reported in 2021!
Starting and parking was a controversial practice in NASCAR because it guaranteed teams generous sums of money while saving on the costs of running an entire race. This became problematic, given the number of teams who showed up just to run a few laps to collect bottom-tier prize money. NASCAR has since gone out of its way to fix the issue, and it’s nearly nonexistent today.