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New racing team faces tough road

LONG POND, Pa. - No driver, at any level, wants to hear that he has no chance to win. But that is essentially the reality facing the folks at Front Row Motorsports heading into Sunday's Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500.

LONG POND, Pa. - No driver, at any level, wants to hear that he has no chance to win.

But that is essentially the reality facing the folks at Front Row Motorsports heading into Sunday's Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500.

"We're pretty realistic," said Jerry Freeze, Front Row's general manager. "To sit here and dream that we're going to win the race at Pocono is pretty unrealistic."

Freeze and his organization have plenty of company.

Over the last dozen Sprint Cup Series races held at Pocono Raceway, NASCAR's Big Three - Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing - have visited Victory Lane nine times. And last spring's checkered flag went to Tony Stewart's start-up team which, because of a wealth of technical support, is considered by many to be a Hendrick satellite franchise.

NASCAR veteran and TNT analyst Wally Dallenbach said those kind of results come with a high price tag.

"There's always going to be the haves and have-nots [in NASCAR], and the economic situation is brutal right now at all levels of racing," Dallenbach said. "The sport has changed so much from what it was 25, even 15 years ago. Everybody's making a lot more money, and it's not just the driver but all the way through the team."

By most estimates, each of the Big Three employs five times more personnel and spends roughly 10 times more money than Front Row, a small-budget team that expanded from one to three cars this season and didn't finalize its driver lineup until a few weeks before the opener.

Rookie Kevin Conway had no Cup experience but brought sponsorship to the table, and journeymen David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil, while having logged valuable laps on stock-car racing's top circuit in past seasons, had for the most part spent 2009 watching the Cup races on television.

Coming out of the gate in February, Front Row had a primary goal of putting all three cars in the top 35 in the owner points standings - guaranteeing that they wouldn't have to race their way into the starting lineup and face the prospect of packing up and heading home after a poor qualifying effort.

Through some juggling of points and repositioning of car numbers - allowed under NASCAR rules - the team has all three cars in the top 35 after 13 races.

But the task remains daunting, and Freeze readily admits that owner Bob Jenkins' program is a work in progress.

Support from Ford Racing has been crucial, and the Roush-Yates engines have been reliable, but recruiting the right drivers was essential to keeping the team on track for better results down the line.

"We've taken a big plunge, and it's a slow, slow process," said Freeze, who spent a dozen seasons working with Richard Petty's team before joining Front Row in 2009.

"Even though car counts are down, it's still ultra-competitive to make the races. We know we're not bringing equipment to the track that's capable of winning, but we believe we're capable of running in the top five and, if everything fell right, we could have a top-10 or top-15 finish. Kevin is hungry for the rookie of the year honors, and David and Travis are probably better than our equipment. I think they've kind of bought into what we're trying to do - to build a program.

"But making the Chase [10-race playoffs] and winning races is just really unrealistic."

Conway, cognizant of his surroundings, compared Front Row's mission to "putting an NHL team together in three weeks and saying we're going to win the Stanley Cup against the Flyers."

"I'm thrilled to have this opportunity, and it's cool to see what we've been able to accomplish, to compete with a fraction of the resources some of these other more-established organizations have," Conway said. "We're running the first-series [Car of Tomorrow] with a higher center of gravity and is 350 pounds heavier than most opponents' cars. We have three-year-old equipment going up against [other teams'] three-month-old technology."

Without the finances to run his own program this season, Gilliland was looking for a way to stay active and jumped at Jenkins' offer to get the Front Row team from the crawling to the walking and - it hopes - running stage.

"This has been one of the toughest things I've ever had to do, just because my career's been built on winning," Gilliland said. "I believe that Front Row can win races right now, but they're a minimum of a year away from being able to consistently compete for wins."

Kvapil, who was without a ride for almost all of 2009, agreed that better days are ahead.

"Bob Jenkins is not content with just having his cars among the top 35 in points, and we know the areas we need to work on," Kvapil said. "My goal is to run 15th to 25th every week, and even though we haven't hit our stride yet, this team is making progress. It's headed in the right direction."

Even if it doesn't lead to Victory Lane on Sunday.