Tommy Baldwin said he was “living the dream” when asked what he was up to earlier this week.
He’s not kidding.
The NASCAR team owner and Bellport native has a chance to make a big dream come true Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, thanks to years of perseverance combined with a tweak in NASCAR’s playoff system.
Baldwin’s two entries -- driven by Reed Sorenson and Michael Annett -- would be in striking distance of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff if either wins Sunday’s Aaron’s 499. In 2014’s format, 16 drivers will qualify for the playoffs -- up from 12. There are several variables, but winning a race and being in the top 30 in driver's points at the end of 26 races would likely earn a Chase spot.
Smaller teams such as Tommy Baldwin Racing circle superspeedway dates such as Talladega for a reason. In 2011, Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 a day after his 20th birthday for a part-time Wood Brothers team. In last year’s Aaron’s 499, David Ragan and teammate David Gilliland recorded a 1-2 finish, respectively, for the underfunded Front Row Motorsports.
“This weekend’s what we call the great equalizer,” Baldwin says.
The 47-year-old Baldwin knows from experience. During the 2012 Daytona 500, Juan Pablo Montoya’s car careened into a jet dryer and set part of the track surface on fire. Baldwin driver Dave Blaney was the leader as crews worked to fix the track, and Baldwin and Blaney spent two nerve-wracking hours not knowing whether they’d be declared the winner before the race was restarted.
Those kinds of emotional rollercoasters tend to keep people in the sport instead of chase them away, and Baldwin is no exception. The former Daytona 500-winning crew chief started TBR in 2009, scooping up discounted equipment and grabbing unemployed shop talent when the financial crisis put a dent in several NASCAR teams.
“We were in a low spot in our sport,” Baldwin said. “It was looked at as a negative. I looked at it as a positive, as good people looking for work.”
Since then he’s raced when he’s had funding, and also fielded “start-and-park” entries -- cars that run only a few laps due to lack of money.
“I haven’t start-and-parked in almost two years; that’s a thing of the past for our organization,” Baldwin said, explaining that his business model has evolved and currently allows him to keep Sorenson on the track despite only having sponsors for a few races. (Golden Corral will be on board Sunday.)
While Annett’s team is fully funded, Sorensen’s team skips some practices to preserve tires and save the engine. A partnership with Pro Motor Engines allows Baldwin’s team to go multiple races before re-servicing the engine, as opposed to Annett’s team, which has a leasing program with ECR Engines for fresh power under the hood each race.
Baldwin is looking to find more sponsorship for Sorenson, but until then has learned to appreciate all he has accomplished as an owner. He now has 45 employees in his North Carolina shop, compared with the five he started out with.
“I get really mad some days after the race,” Baldwin said of things not always going their way. “But then I put my business hat on and say this is what we got accomplished and go on to the next week and keep digging.”
Baldwin said running cars the full distance regardless of sponsorship makes his team look more viable for potential marketing partners. And after splitting time as a crew chief and car owner at different times over the years, Baldwin now has more time to focus on the business end during the week. Kevin “Bono” Manion, who won both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in 2010 as crew chief for Jamie McMurray, leads Annett’s team. Todd Parrott, who won a Sprint Cup title as Dale Jarrett’s crew chief in 1999, is in charge of Sorenson’s team.
Parrott’s case follows Baldwin’s history of seeing possibilities even in troubling situations. Parrott joined Baldwin’s operation after completing NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program -- following a failed drug test last year that got him suspended from NASCAR and released from Richard Petty Motorsports.
“Todd got in some trouble, and we were there to take advantage, for us and him,” Baldwin said. “Show everybody you’re back in good shape and build this team and get your career back on track. Take advantage of a bad situation and make it a good one for everybody.”
Sorensen and Annett are currently 32nd and 33rd in the points standings, respectively, so even with a win they’d need to leapfrog a few drivers in the standings for that win to count toward a playoff spot.
But it’s still a possibility, and Baldwin tends to turn those into something tangible.
“NASCAR is really opening that up,” Baldwin says of the playoff format. “It gives somebody [a chance]. Even a big team that’s having a bad year can get lucky and have one really good race. Obviously, we’re not quitters.”