NASCAR Nextel Cup racing has been so successful in the past decade it can be easy to forget the sport's humble roots. Billion-dollar television contracts and bleachers filled with rabid fans tend to make people assume this has always been a big-money game. Junior Johnson first came to the racetrack straight from plowing his fields. Lee Petty raced the family car in the first NASCAR event he entered. Dale Earnhardt regularly depended on his race winnings to pay the tire bill from the previous week.

When Dave Marcis slowly faded from the scene a few seasons ago, he was lauded as the last of the independents. The economy was rolling, NASCAR's top series had recently signed a contract bringing it more network airplay than ever before, and Fortune 500 companies were lining up to put their logos on the hoods of the race cars. Of course, those companies with multimillion-dollar sponsor budgets wanted to have their logos on competitive cars, so they went to the established race shops. When those shops had more sponsors wanting to pay for primary spots than they had cars, they simply started new teams. Car counts swelled and, predictably, the smaller teams with minimal funding were squeezed out.

Now fast-forward to early 2004. The economy, while possibly on the verge of a rebound, has stumbled for many months. Many established businesses with a history of sponsoring race teams are now re-evaluating their programs. And teams are dropping like flies. Mostly, they are the weakest cars in multicar teams-such as DEI's No. 1 car-but it leaves open the possibility that for the first time in recent memory, a NASCAR Nextel Cup race might not have enough entrants to fill a 43-car field.

Long-time racer Andy Hillenburg was in Daytona preparing for the season-opening race when he says he realized how serious the situation had become. Because the Daytona 500 is the first and most important race of the season, several of the multicar teams had brought their full complement of cars, so the field was full. Hillenburg was attempting to qualify and race a car owned by Junie Donlavey and began counting up the cars at Daytona that wouldn't be making the trip to the next event at North Carolina Speedway. Hillenburg didn't make the field for the Daytona 500, but he did use his time in Florida to make a critical phone call.

"Stan [Hover] and I had been talking about doing a few races here and there," says Hillenburg. "Our target for our first race of the season was Atlanta [race number four], but I called him from Daytona and said, 'Hey, we've got to go and be at Rockingham with the way things are looking.

Hillenburg and Hover did make it to Rockingham with a car that was completed at the last minute. And they made the field. Forty-five cars attempted to qualify, and after provisionals were handed out, Hillenburg got the 43rd spot. He finished 34th, which was almost secondary to the victory of making the race and spending an afternoon racing against the acknowledged best stock car racers in the world. Hover Motorsports also collected $55,425, enough to allow the team to keep racing for another week.

Defending champion Matt Kenseth won the following week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but that news was almost secondary to the growing concern over what was being called NASCAR's "field fillers." Only 44 cars showed up to qualify at the 1.5-mile superspeedway, and among the racers to make the field were several part-timers, including Carl Long, Kirk Shelmerdine, Derrike Cope, and Morgan Shepherd. Many fans thought the 62-year-old Shepherd (who qualified faster than Scott Wimmer, driver of the No. 22 Caterpillar Dodge) was retired.