Around this time last year, Scott Borchetta, president and founder of Big Machine Label Group, was done playing around. In order to run a competitive Xfinity Series team, his Big Machine Racing entry needed viable equipment.
Enter Richard Childress Racing, who houses equipment in alliances with many teams in the Xfinity Series. After taking a stroll with Richard Childress through RCR last year, Borchetta knew the tools were in front of him to upgrade his No. 48 team, in what he calls a “real investment.”
“I thought we could be a consistent top-10 team,” Borchetta told Jayski.com of his approach to the 2022 season. “We know we have the cars that can do it and now we have to make sure we have the right people in place.”
Returning was driver Jade Buford and veteran crew chief Patrick Donahue. Together, the duo picked up a ninth-place finish at Michigan last year, while putting together 16 top-20 finishes. Not bad for a driver who never previously competed on an oval, while also having very limited practice and qualifying.
But compared to the 2021 season, a different mentality was taken into 2022. Donahue said everything changed: racecars, technology and information, all to help improve the setups of the No. 48 car.
While having a more methodical approach — not putting everything together last minute like 2021 — Big Machine Racing was excited for the 2022 season. And on the final lap of the season opener at Daytona, Buford was positioned inside the top 10. That‘s when Myatt Snider got turned and came across the front of the No. 48 car on the final lap, dropping Buford to 23rd in the finishing order. In the opening eight races, he tied his career-best finish at COTA in eighth, but saw an average finish of 27.1.
A change was needed. So Borchetta opted to pull Buford, who he met at COTA four years ago, when Buford needed a return flight back to Nashville, out of the car in place of Kaz Grala, who has run five races in the No. 48 car. Cup Series regulars in the Chevrolet camp have also had their chance at running for Big Machine.
“It wasn‘t jelling with the team, and that‘s the hardest thing to do,” Borchetta said of the driver change. “When a driver loses confidence and the team loses confidence in each other, those are hard days. We‘ve all seen it. I didn‘t expect it. But it got to the point where we were going the wrong direction. That‘s when we had the conversation of, ‘Alright, what should we do?‘ I wanted to know for myself if our cars could run up front.
“It was really hard for me to pull Jade out. He‘s still my guy. I want to continue to support him in any way that I can. It just got to the point of, this chemistry isn‘t working.”
Buford concurred. He knew a change was needed.
“It‘s always difficult,” Buford said of being taken out of the car. “It was a decision that I fully supported because I could see where things were going and knew there were places I wanted to be and had to get my priorities straight as well.”
Still, the driver and owner remain close friends, as Buford is still Borchetta‘s driving coach when he runs Trans Am 2 races. In early August, Borchetta finished third in the streets of Nashville.
“If you follow me, I‘m still very much with the team, involved on the team on the TA2 side and work with Scott a lot and appreciate everything he‘s done for me,” Buford said. “I think the future looks pretty bright.”
Since being taken out of a full-time driving role after Martinsville, Buford has competed in just one Xfinity race at Portland. There, he finished 14th in a rain-soaked race.
Big Machine, however, has been rolling. After a pair of mid-20 finishes by Grala at Talladega and Dover, Tyler Reddick entered the fray at Darlington and was running inside the top five in the late portion of that race. In the series‘ next race at Texas, he surprised everyone by starting second, leading 31 laps en route to the team‘s first victory.
“I was ready for it if it happened, but I did not think it was going to come like that,” Reddick said of his win. “For Texas to go as well as it did was a nice surprise.”
Borchetta wasn‘t in attendance at Texas. Instead, he was racing vintage cars at Road America, over 1,000 miles away. With the laps in Texas winding down, the owner certainly had an eye on the television, as he recalls watching the ending with Buford on the podium.
It‘s a moment Borchetta will never forget, as his team won in just its 45th start, rare for any upstart NASCAR team.
“Just seeing the car run up front and seeing it do the things we all hoped it could do was super satisfying,” Borchetta added. “Jade and my team were there watching, and I‘m standing right next to Jade. That could have been awkward, but I turned to him and said, ‘This doesn‘t happen without you.‘ It was quite a moment to see our car win.”
Buford was happy for the team to get its first win, as he called Reddick a “great driver.” For Donahue, it was his first series win since 2000 with Jeff Gordon. This one was arguably more satisfying, given he‘s had his head down, grinding since the team‘s formation.
“When I left Darlington (the previous) Saturday, I thought we could win, we could do this,” Donahue added. “Texas was a big effort for everybody at RCR and ECR to go there.
“I wasn‘t surprised because I expected to win. That sounds cocky, but I knew we could do it. I knew what I had in my building and I knew what we had access to. I didn‘t get real excited because I expect to win, and knew we could do it. Did I expect to do it 45 races into our race team‘s existence? Absolutely not. But I knew we could get there.”
On a personal level, Texas was a monumental achievement for Donahue because his son, 17, was in attendance. It‘s the first win that he‘s seen his father have at the national level.
Since Texas, Big Machine has recorded three additional top 10s. Reddick placed fourth at Atlanta, while Ty Dillon managed a sixth-place outing in his lone start for the team at New Hampshire. Grala rounded out the top five at Watkins Glen last month.
This weekend at Kansas, two-time Cup winner this year Ross Chastain will make his second consecutive start with the team. Nick Sanchez has signed on for four races this year, while Marco Andretti makes his highly anticipated NASCAR debut in the No. 48 car at the Charlotte ROVAL.
With the 2023 season on the horizon, Borchetta wants to return to one primary driver. That‘s the first step.
“In any business, you‘re looking for the weak link,” Borchetta added. “If there‘s a weakness, you‘re going to have to identify it and fix it.”
Borchetta compares success in racing to three-dimensional chess. But he likes it that way, calling it a “never-ending chase to get it all right.”
Before the 2023 season, Donahue believes the team could contend for more wins over the final nine races of the 2022 schedule.
“We‘ll win more. I know what we‘re doing, I know where we‘re heading,” he said. “We‘ve got a lot of exciting stuff for next year, and we‘re going to put ourselves in a position to win more races. I think we can have a chance to win a few more this year, so I‘m looking forward to that.”
Chastain finished 15th in his first start for Big Machine last weekend at Darlington.