Startup teams making noise at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tommy Baldwin was fidgety late Thursday afternoon. Between accepting congratulations from crew members and NASCAR officials to checking his countless text messages to making sure his car made it through postrace inspection, there wasn't enough of him to go around.

He wasn't complaining.

He was in the Daytona 500.

For a moment, the owner/crew chief of newly formed Tommy Baldwin Racing and his driver, Scott Riggs, made us all forget the economic downturn that has a dark cloud hanging over Daytona International Speedway and the entire Sprint Cup Series.

They came to NASCAR's most storied track with a crew of eight and an organization that had been in place barely a month and competed well enough to make the biggest race of the year.

Riggs' eighth-place finish in the first of the 150-mile qualifying races wasn't a victory, but it sure felt like one judging by the tears and smiles along pit road.

Jeremy Mayfield created a similar feeling in the second qualifier, finishing ninth to make the Great American Race with a team that was put together 23 days ago.

Nobody was thinking about the stock market Thursday. Nobody was thinking about the number of organizations that have been forced to fold or merge because of financial difficulties. Nobody was thinking about the fans who had to stay home because they couldn't afford a ticket.

This was a feel-good moment, a shot in the arm that NASCAR sorely needed.

"In times like these, those are the great stories," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of corporate communications. "Everybody in the garage, everybody in the industry, was pulling for Tommy Baldwin and Jeremy Mayfield."

In many ways, it was a throwback to the '60s and '70s, when makeshift teams came to these hallowed grounds chasing the American dream.

"It proves you don't need 400 people to run fast," said legendary Buddy Baker, who won this race in 1980.

Bobby Allison was reminded of the day he won the 1988 Daytona 500 with a team of about 20, and that included three secretaries and a janitor at the shop.

"I have a son-in-law right now who is a shock specialist for Joe Gibbs Racing," Allison said. "He is one of five people that works in that department that doesn't do anything else.

"In 1988, I was the shock department."

This doesn't mean Riggs and Mayfield will be a threat to win the 500, although Baker wouldn't be surprised to see Riggs get a top-5. It doesn't mean they'll survive the entire season, although that's their intention.

But it does give them and others around them a reason to smile, knowing that, at least for a day, these guys competed with teams that have 10 times the personnel and money.

"A lot of people are pulling for the underdogs," Baldwin said. "The small guys ran up front with the big guys. That was cool. … Like I've been telling everybody, we have a very small race team with a lot of big hearts right now.

"I have guys that care. When you have good people, good cars and a good race car driver, you're going to be successful. I think we showed everybody we can do it."

At least at Daytona they can. It will be tougher next week at California and the next week at Las Vegas when teams have to qualify on speed instead of a qualifying race.

"It couldn't possibly happen anywhere else," seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty said. "It was a roll of the dice."

It wasn't a gamble for Baldwin or Mayfield. Not when they considered that the alternative in a market flooded with unemployed mechanics, crew chiefs, engineers and drivers was to find something else to do.

So they invested their own money and time, brought in out-of-work volunteers, giving some a salary and promising others they would get paid based on winnings.

They bought cars and other parts at bargain prices, less than $20,000 for a machine that a year ago would have cost at least $100,000.

"I'm a wheeler and dealer from New York," Baldwin said. "All kidding aside, I have had a lot of support from a lot of people."

Just look at the black and white uniforms worn by Baldwin's crew. They were provided by safety guru Bill Simpson, the owner of Action Racing.

"It was just the right opportunity to do something like this," Baldwin said. "With the economy the way it is and people needing a new story and the equipment that was available and the people that were available, we really didn't have a choice."

Until Thursday, it all seemed like a pipe dream. The odds of Baldwin or Mayfield making the 500 were about as long as those of Ward Burton winning the 2002 Daytona 500.

He did. Baldwin was his crew chief.

"He's just from the old school," Baker said. "He knows how to make things work."

Three years ago, this wouldn't have worked for either owner. Too much effort and money was put into molding the old car for this race for an owner to practically give it away.

But with the new car, with the tight box NASCAR has put teams into as far as changes, there's not that much difference between a used car and new one.

"We built a lot of speedway cars, and we've seen two-tenths [mph] of a difference in all of them," said Jeff Burton, who drives the No. 31 for Richard Childress Racing. "The [new car] has been a contributing factor to allow them to come down and run as well as they have."

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon agreed.

"I'm sure NASCAR has a big smile on their face in a lot of ways to see this," he said. "It shows you don't have to spend millions and millions just preparing for Daytona.

"It's also a tribute to Scott, who did a great job driving, and Tommy has always been a fantastic crew chief. They have a very steep mountain to climb from, not only this weekend but moving forward, but this certainly propels them to a level I don't know if they expected to be at this point."

They are guaranteed at least $250,000, the approximate purse for finishing last in the 500, which should carry them through several more races. They are guaranteed a shot at the exposure sponsors seek.

Baldwin says that he might have a couple of sponsorship options for the 500 now and that if those don't pan out, Red Bank Outfitters -- which was on the car in the qualifier -- will step up again.

"A lot of people don't know if you're real until you show up and run well," Baldwin said. "Hopefully, we proved we're for real."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.