Did You Notice? … Owners are desperate to inject some long-term financial stability into their teams? NASCAR met with the Race Team Alliance Tuesday and is working on a proposal that would introduce a type of “franchising” system assuring Sprint Cup teams both leverage and automatic qualification for the 2016 season and beyond. NASCAR spokesman Brett Jewkes made it clear both sides are far from reaching a conclusion, stating, “Today’s meeting was one step in the process. There is still a lot of work to be done and that will continue over the coming months. We understand there will be speculation and rumors related to the concepts outlined today, but would caution against coming to any conclusions as we work toward final decisions.”
Whatever the choices, it’s clear today’s group of owners feels a need to protect their assets. The reaction is understandable in the face of grim financial realities; purses are down, a major team (Michael Waltrip Racing) is folding and television ratings for stock car racing are the lowest they’ve been this century. Putting a franchising system in place ensures the Richard Childress’ of the world they’ll get some value for their lifelong devotion of the sport instead of a bankruptcy notice if all their sponsors leave.
They don’t need to worry, like the former Michael Waltrip Racing whether their competition level goes down the tubes; right now, the Sprint Cup Series is barely filling a 43-car field each week. No new owners are on the horizon and their lower-level series need start-and-parks to fill out the grid. Qualifying each week for these owners is not an issue; it’s finishing 30th and missing the Chase in NASCAR’s new format, turning sponsors away, costing them media time and further depleting their resources.
Honestly, in some cases even missing the Chase is not enough. Just think about the cars that have had unsponsored races in recent years. Carl Edwards’ former No. 99 car comes to mind with Jack Roush, along with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s No. 88 with Rick Hendrick.
To me, the movement toward franchising is also about the old guard protecting what they have, reaching into NASCAR’s deep pockets to produce financial stability in order to keep from going under themselves. It’s a reaction to current events instead of proactively looking ahead and planning the sport’s future. That’s what concerns me, whatever the result. Protecting who we already have doesn’t address the question of what will happen after they’re gone. Who will the next Roger Penske be? Rick Hendrick? Toyota Camry? Jeff Gordon? How will they build themselves up in the sport and compete effectively with the owners already there?
That’s why, in the face of franchising NASCAR has a tremendous opportunity to reframe the sport. Let’s say they offer a “medallion” program, offering free spots on the grid to any owner who “buys in.” You know what the limit for those spots should be? One. Not four. Not three. Not two. One. Set a baseline of protection now so you can add more owners into the fold later. Saving 40 spots for ten people – making ten four-car teams which feels like where we’re heading to some degree – does nothing to address the problem. Band-Aids stop the dollar bills from falling out but they’re not the solution to more coming in.
Let’s hope all sides come to a decision that benefits not just NASCAR, not just the owners, but the health of the sport in general. It’s a crucial decision.
Did You Notice? … Tony Stewart’s retirement starts a domino effect that leaves one driver looking for work? Clint Bowyer’s signing with HScott Racing, likely to be announced this weekend as a one-year stopgap before joining Stewart-Haas Racing, leaves promising sophomore Justin Allgaier out in the cold. However, Allgaier – like Bowyer – comes paired with a sponsor, BRANDT, supposedly in position to push millions toward another Cup Series opportunity in 2016. Where could he end up with most of the other Silly Season dominos falling into place? Here are some options as we look ahead toward the short list of musical chairs remaining….
Richard Petty Motorsports. Rumor has it Sam Hornish, Jr. is out of the No. 9 car following the season as he hasn’t attracted enough sponsorship to keep the seat. Indeed, just three top-10 finishes have made the year a huge disappointment. The former IndyCar vet has been virtually invisible even after a crew chief swap (Drew Blickensderfer to “Bono” Manion) midseason. Investor Andy Murstein is looking for a mid-level replacement that’s shown flashes of future potential, works well with others (Aric Almirola) and has a financial backer that helps boost his profit margin. Allgaier would seem to fit that bill even though Ford would love to see David Ragan back inside their camp.
Front Row Motorsports. Cole Whitt appears set to return for 2016, but the No. 34 car has been a roundtable of Chris Buescher, Brett Moffitt and several others since Ragan left the season. Allgaier would bring much-needed stability and an economic boost to a team that needs a few extra million in order to move up in class.
The XFINITY Series. JR Motorsports is looking for more sponsorship and Allgaier could follow the path of fellow middling Cup driver Regan Smith in taking a step back, however briefly, while plotting a more effective path forward. Bringing in money could also pave a path at several Ford operations. A longshot? HScott Motorsports with Chip Ganassi. A source claims Scott would have loved to keep Allgaier in the fold but NASCAR blocked any type of expansion for any team with their franchising plan coming. Throwing Allgaier back into the XFINITY Series, at least for a year where he can run for a championship, could be a short-term solution until Bowyer moves on in 2017.
Roush Fenway Racing. It seems like an impossible dream, right? Probably. RFR has some of its own talent languishing in the XFINITY Series, both Chris Buescher and Darrell Wallace, Jr. angling to move up to Cup someday. But this organization could use a little more money, and rumors still persist Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. could be released from the No. 17 car a year early.
Where Allgaier lands will put the last threads of Silly Season into place. Yes, Ty Dillon is still potentially available but needs to raise enough money for grandfather Richard Childress to spearhead a successful transition to Cup. They’re not going to run Ty just so he can run 35th driving an unsponsored car for Circle Sport Racing every week.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- It’s not just the ratings down in NASCAR these days. With just eight races remaining, only 24 drivers have scored a top-five finish this season. A decade ago, that number stood at 30; that’s a drop of 20 percent. That same year, 43 drivers scored top-10 finishes as opposed to 33; again, a drop of about 23 percent. The less different options you see up front, the fewer people you’re capable of promoting within the sport. Parity only goes so far when it merely involves half the field.
- Hendrick Motorsports has won the last four races at Dover courtesy Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. For Kevin Harvick to make a breakthrough (he was second in the spring), it’s clear he’ll have to go through one of the men who put him in this predicament in the first place. Johnson and the No. 48 car earned their fourth victory in the first 13 races of 2015 that day, but they’ve quietly found themselves shut out of Victory Lane since. You’ve got to expect they’ll be up front, trying to prove a point during a fall where the title favorites have become everyone but the 48, which makes the upcoming on-track confrontation between the two that much more interesting.
- Think he’s a championship throwaway? Paul Menard’s last three finishes at Dover are 10th, 16th, and eighth. That’s more than good enough to keep it interesting and perhaps sneak inside the top 12 after remaining within striking distance (one point) in the first two races of this Chase.