An 18th place finish might have been the biggest story of the day
In discussions over what driver will be NASCAR's “Next Big Thing”, several names generally come up first. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won two consecutive Nationwide titles and is now running at the Sprint Cup level. Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon did likewise in 2014- with Dillon returning the Richard Childress Racing #3 to Sprint Cup competition for the first time since Earnhardt Senior died at Daytona more than a decade ago. Others such as Chase Elliott and Bubba Wallace are drawing attention with their races on the truck level. Yet the AAA Texas 500 saw yet another potential young gun make his Sprint Cup debut. Amid little fanfare, Parker Kligerman finished 18th and gave Swan Racing one of its best runs of the year. Who is this guy?
At 23 years of age, Kligerman has been a part of stock car racing since before his 18th birthday. He debuted as a 17 year old in the ARCA series, finishing inside the top ten in both races he ran. The following year he ran the entire ARCA schedule, winning nine events and finished only five points behind series champion Justin Lofton. Thanks to his early success, Kligerman came to the attention of Penske Racing and was signed as a developmental driver for the team. Everything seemed to be lining up for the young driver as he was set to run with Eddie Smith's Team 42 Racing at the Nationwide level. The Penske satellite would provide Parker the opportunity to show what he was capable of in elite-level equipment just one step down from the Sprint Cup.
Parker Kligerman fan gear on Amazon
2010 didn't turn out to be the season Kligerman, Smith or anyone else involved had expected. He failed to make the season opener at Daytona and the fourth race at Bristol (with two poor runs in between). The poor performance didn't help the team's sponsorship woes as Team 42 only attempted to qualify two of the next 12 races, failing at Charlotte and finishing 31st at Talladega. The second half of the season showed some improvement; Parker qualified for the five remaining races he attempted with Team 42 and also four races he ran for Bob Keselowski's K-Automotive Motorsports. During those nine events, Kligerman had two top ten and six top 15 finishes. Moreover, those finishes came under less than ideal circumstances as neither 42 nor K-Automotive had the funding to run up front with the leaders.
He must have impressed someone in the Keselowski family, as 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad signed Parker to drive the Brad Keselowski Motorsports truck for the full 2011 season. While the Camping World truck series is a step down from Nationwide, Kligerman would be taking a major step up in terms of equipment. Instead of driving a virtually unsponsored car for an under-funded team, he would be driving a nearly fully sponsored ride with top shelf equipment.
Yet once again it was not to be. Kligerman ran 37 races for the team between 2010 and 2012 but failed to win during his time with Keselowski. He finished 11th in series points for 2011 with four top five and eight top ten finishes- but only led 31 laps over the course of the entire season. By the time 2012 rolled around, Penske had a new developmental driver (Ryan Blaney) waiting in the wings had clearly tired of waiting for Parker to deliver. After the 11th race of the season at Pocono, the team released Kligerman despite him having the truck in sixth place in the season standings. The fact that Blaney won with the same truck a few weeks later must have only added to his frustration; after signing with Red Horse Racing to complete the season, he answered Blaney's win with one of his own on the high banks of Talladega. Despite running for different teams with different manufacturers, Kligerman finished fifth in the final driver point standings for 2012.
Kligerman picks up his first truck series win at Talladega
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch needed to find someone to run the Nationwide level for his team in 2013. Despite being closely aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing (a Nationwide powerhouse), Kyle Busch Motorsports had not had a great deal of success as a Nationwide operation. Busch, who has won more Nationwide races than any other driver in NASCAR history, was unable to take KBM car to victory lane in 2012. After a year spent splitting the ride with brother Kurt (who had the team's lone win), Kyle folded the #54 Nationwide team into the Gibbs operation. With Nationwide being the next logical step up for his successful truck series team- and a significant amount of money already sunk into developing a Nationwide program- Busch wanted to put someone in the field. So he looked to the driver rival Keselowski fired just a few months before.
While he hasn't set the world on fire, Kligerman has done a respectable job in Busch's car. He has three top five finishes, 12 top tens and only three DNFs. For a young driver who's never run the full schedule before, bringing the car home in one piece is no small accomplishment. He ultimately finished the season ninth in points.
Kligerman's only prior Sprint Cup experience came in 2012. Sam Hornish Jr, filling in for a suspended A.J. Allmendinger, was already contracted to run a Nationwide race in Montreal. Penske needed someone to qualify the Cup car at Michigan (Hornish would then run the actual race the day after). Kligerman qualified 17th, ensuring Hornish a starting spot. Sunday's start for Swan Racing was Parker's first chance to drive a Cup car in active competition. The run itself was nothing spectacular. He qualified the car 23rd and brought it home two laps down in 18th place. Stenhouse Jr. and Kurt Busch finished right in front of him while Elliott Sadler and Juan Pablo Montoya finished immediately behind. TV didn't spend much (if any) time on his story and unless you follow racing closely, you may not have even known who was behind the wheel of the #30 this weekend.
What all of those drivers have in common is the equipment they're driving. Roush Fenway, Michael Waltrip Racing, Earnhardt Ganassi- all three of those teams have won races. Furniture Row hasn't but technical ally RCR has. They are driving cars purpose built for the tracks they run. Swan had an Earnhardt-Ganassi chassis as well. The only difference? It was built in 2008. This isn't equipment a step or so below the competition. This is equipment nearly a full generation behind the current cars. It's why the team has struggled to move much beyond start and park status. Since parting ways with David Stremme, Swan has given several drivers the opportunity to drive the car. Kevin Swindell finished 38th at Loudon. Cole Whitt drove the car for six races with a high finish of 31st. Even veteran (and competing team owner) Michael Waltrip took a turn at Daytona in February, driving a Sandy Hook Elementary tribute car to a 22nd place finish. Before leaving, Stremme's only runs inside the top 20 were at Talladega (12th) and Bristol (17th).
So Kligerman's ability to haul an 18th place finish with that team and that car speaks volumes as to his ability on the racetrack. He's spent the past few years running equipment a step behind the cars around him and it seems he's learned how to get the most out of those situations. He's a young, marketable driver who's learned how to drive within the equipment he has. While he had issues with qualifying in the past, he seems to have left those problems behind, making every race he's attempted since 2011.
The cameras were focused on Jimmie Johnson's domination and its effect on NASCAR's close championship race. As I discussed with one reader on twitter, that makes perfect sense. But should Parker Kligerman get a full time ride with a competent team, we may look back differently. We may find that the biggest story of the day came from an eighteenth place finish. The same thing happened over 20 years ago; a driver finished 31st in his Sprint Cup debut and no one paid him much attention either thanks to a tight title race. It worked out pretty well for that guy or so I've heard. He only went on to win more than a fistful of Cup championships.