CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – With very little sponsorship and a skeleton crew, David Gilliland and TRG Motorsports aren’t going to contend for a championship in NASCAR’s elite Sprint Cup Series anytime soon.

But they head to Martinsville Speedway this weekend locked inside the top 35 in points, a huge victory for a small team fighting against the economic slowdown in NASCAR.

“It’s been nerve-racking,” said Gilliland. “We’ve just had to take it week by week and fight hard to get to this point. From here, we only hope it gets a little easier.”

That’s not likely for TRG, an acronym for The Racers Group. Founded by Kevin Buckler, a former sports car driver with an extensive and successful background in that series, the team is fighting an uphill battle in NASCAR’s elite division. They’re racing against multi-car teams with millions of dollars in sponsorship and fully staffed engineering departments.

But fresh off a 1-2 finish in its class at the Rolex 24 sports car race (ninth and 10th overall), TRG put together a Sprint Cup Series team in under two weeks and went to NASCAR’s season-opening Daytona 500 intent on proving to the industry that the underdog can succeed.

Kevin Harvick, familiar with Buckler from West Coast racing, was one of the few to predict the team could do it. A team owner himself, Harvick had seen how hard TRG had worked the year before in the Truck Series, even winning a race with Donny Lia in Mansfield, Ohio.

“They have a legitimate opportunity to become a full-time Cup team, if the cards fall right for them in the beginning,” Harvick said. “If they wind up making the 500, then it leaps over into the California race. And all of sudden it snowballs, and you have the snowball effect that runs you through the whole season and you have a team established.”

It didn’t happen. TRG failed to make the race when Mike Wallace narrowly fell short of racing the car into the 500.

Instead, all the hype and hoopla went to Jeremy Mayfield and Scott Riggs, who both put their underdog teams into the biggest and highest-paying race of the season.

The TRG team refused to crumble. Gilliland, who had just been released from Yates Racing because they had no sponsorship for him, signed on and agreed to go with the team to California. Veteran crew chief Slugger Labbe also came aboard, pushing the crew to about 10 employees.

With a used car bought from Richard Childress Racing, the team qualified at California and Gilliland finished 33rd. But the next two weeks were better: He was 14th at Las Vegas, 24th at Atlanta and went to Bristol Motor Speedway last weekend needing a trouble-free race to lock the car inside the all-important top 35.

Despite two flat tires, Gilliland did it with a 36th-place finish.

TRG now goes to Martinsville this weekend locked into the race. Scott Speed and Paul Menard, two drivers racing for fully funded teams, can’t say the same thing.

For the TRG team, it means they don’t have to spend all day Friday focused on putting together one fast lap to make the field. Instead, they’ll be able to work ahead to race day in an effort to move off the top-35 bubble.

The No. 71 Chevrolet is just 21 points ahead of 36th-place Speed, and a bad run Sunday could put TRG on the outside looking in again.

“Being 35th in owner points is like having the last seat in the last life boats on the Titanic,” Buckler said. “You breathe a sigh of relief, but you are still out in the freezing ocean waiting for a lifeline. We will be able to focus a little more on the race setup of the car instead of constantly running qualifying laps in practice.

“This should help us to have a better race car on Sunday and provide the opportunity to finish higher and score maximum points.”

Sponsorship is still a major issue, and Buckler is hoping NASCAR’s “industry marketing” arm can help bring in funding that will help TRG run the full season.

The four-person branch of NASCAR is supposed to work with teams to pair them with potential sponsors.

“This is a real opportunity for NASCAR, in this economic environment, to help a little guy and promote the Cinderellas of the sport,” Buckler said.

Three-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson is hopeful TRG can stay afloat.

“Those guys really are racers and that acronym really means something,” Johnson said. “They have always been competitive and dominant in whatever division they race in. I think today’s world has hurt some teams and has forced some mergers, but at the same time, it has allowed other teams an opportunity to come into our sport.

“It is nice to see some good things come out of the tough economy and the tough market we have right now.”

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