Did You Notice? … The announcement of Carl Edwards to a fourth Joe Gibbs Racing team carried with it more news than expected? Yes, we’ve known the pairing for months, to the point Edwards emerged for Tuesday’s press conference, said, “Surprise!” and the assembled media chuckled with laughter. The “secret” would have been hard to keep, regardless of leaks; considering the limited number of seats available, among top-tier teams in free agency Edwards’ options could be counted on one hand to begin with. JGR, for its part had been openly recruiting for a fourth team inside the Sprint Cup garage area since late spring, while one by one, other major free agents re-signed with their current programs. It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to put together the pieces on this one.
But nobody, at least not until the final hours pegged a brand new sponsor to enter NASCAR and get ready to start spending millions. Arris, a global innovator in both video and broadband technology was one of those “out of nowhere” companies, the type that most people on the street might not know regardless of if they were a NASCAR fan. But don’t be fooled by the lack of name recognition; Arris’ cash flow is right up there with some of the world’s famous Fortune 500 companies. Don’t believe me? See for yourself, as this link makes clear 17 races is just a drop in the bucket with revenue well over $1 billion per quarter.
It’s a huge moment for the sport, a feather in the cap of JGR in the midst of so many sponsors jumping ship. No doubt, the strong financial backing made the difference in their decision to finally expand to four cars after spending the past nine years with three. Longtime fans forget, back in 2005 despite FedEx sponsorship the whole experiment was an initial disaster with the late Jason Leffler. It took until late in the season, an unlikely flyer with Denny Hamlin and wholesale changes within the No. 11 program to get the team turned around; even then, it was another several years before all three cars were performing at the same level. Owner Joe Gibbs saw the internal stumbles, paired with other programs, like Richard Childress Racing who fell flat when expanding without the proper personnel. Any future growth would have to be done right.
“Over the years, people kept asking us if we were set to go to three cars. It took us the longest to go to three cars because it had to be the right sponsor, the right driver,” Joe Gibbs reminisced. “We’re very careful with [expansion].”
So JGR exhibited patience, a product of experience just like Edwards learned from three extra years of loyalty to Roush Fenway Racing. RFR slowly slipped backwards, away from his near-championship in 2011 to the level of a second-tier program. Meanwhile, former teammate Matt Kenseth moved to JGR and had arguably the best year of his career. For Edwards, now age 35 but without the championship pedigree (yet), a chance like this one might not have come around again.
“In all of sports,” he said Tuesday. “Change sometimes just on its own is a good thing… this is my decision. I didn’t take it likely. I felt at this time in my life, a change would be something that would let me reach [my goals].”
He also has a sponsor that’s sinking deep within NASCAR, right off the bat. Arris is extending its reach into the Nationwide Series as well, backing Mexican driver Daniel Suarez in a full-season effort beginning in 2015. The move also gives Suarez a part-time Truck ride, affiliated with Kyle Busch Motorsports as the company moves front and center to try and attract Hispanic drivers into the sport. As the world evolves, becoming more diverse Arris is hoping their initiative brings NASCAR up to speed with other sports.
“Our commitment to diversity has been a long held position,” Arris Chairman and CEO Bob Stanzione explained. “And it’s one of the chief reasons that pushed us into this.”
It’s a lot to take in over the course of one day. The move with Edwards appears well thought out, with plenty of time to prepare for 2015 in a Toyota camp that could use a boost of fresh momentum (two wins in 23 races this season). Considering Kenseth’s strong burst out of the gate, in 2013 it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Edwards pull a repeat performance.
The Suarez move remains less clear, although every opportunity will be given with a new sponsor and opportunity for NASCAR to diversify its driver base. What happens if Suarez is successful? Does that mean Denny Hamlin is on the hot seat? And what about Darrell Wallace, Jr., rumored to run in the Nationwide Series next season before this announcement? It seems silly for JGR to have four full-time Nationwide Series cars for Wallace, Suarez, Sadler, Kyle Busch and perhaps a fifth for its other Cup Series regulars. That’s a gargantuan operation larger than any of the other major teams are carrying.
That should tell you someone’s getting dumped at the end of the season. And if I’m Sam Hornish, Jr.? I’d start printing resumes. That’s just reality.
Did You Notice?… One small note this week that passed with little fanfare was the death of Tom Mitchell, a longtime NASCAR owner who also dabbled in the IndyCar Series. While Mitchell supported Chet Fillip early on, most NASCAR fans today know him as a longtime backer of the Camping World Truck Series, running Rick Crawford during the division’s peak years from the late 1990s through early 2010. Mitchell, whose team never won a championship, was simply content to run Trucks during that time, providing stability within the series and Crawford a steady ride. His modest support through Circle Bar Truck Corral led to five wins and a runner-up finish in the championship back in 2002.
Why is someone like Mitchell important to the future of the sport? Simple: men like him simply don’t exist much anymore on the landscape of NASCAR ownership. The Duke and Linda Thorsons, currently pursuing a Truck championship with Thorsport and three drivers (Jeb Burton, Matt Crafton, and Johnny Sauter) are fewer and farther between on the landscape of NASCAR’s second-tier divisions. In their place are a divide of either hardscrabble, mostly start-and-park operations or upper-class, multi-millionaire outfits supported by Sprint Cup giants.
For both the Nationwide and Truck Series to survive, long-term that’s just not going to fly. Not everyone can move up to the Sprint Cup level, especially under the current system where the four-car teams of Hendrick, Stewart-Haas Racing and now JGR make the price tag $100 million to play with the Big Boys. NASCAR has to create a business environment where it’s OK for the Thorsports of the world to stay where they are, armed with solid sponsorship and enough purse money to make a living at the middle levels of the sport for decades. Homegrown ownership leads to homegrown talent, a new generation of drivers like David Green who spend most of their career content running just below the Cup level while providing strong competition to the Kyle Larsons of the world meant to move up.
It’s easier said than done in this economic environment and where the current race teams in Cup are gaining power through the Race Team Alliance (RTA). But with the Trucks set with long-term sponsorship through Camping World and the Nationwide Series close behind with Comcast Xfinity, the next step has to be connecting other owners to there series and providing them incentives to stay. Winning $5,000 at Eldora simply doesn’t cut it considering the expenses incurred to run these days.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off:
- NASCAR has to do something about its purse money situation across all three series. In Trucks, despite steady ratings the cash remains an abomination. At Michigan, the last-place car was winning just $8,250, which will barely pay for tires over a race weekend at this point. By comparison, the lowest-paid driver the following day was Trevor Bayne with $63,805. If the sport is going to force this series to run at the big tracks, outside the scope of “local competition” they had in the past at short tracks like I-70, Mesa Marin and South Boston, they’re going to need to pony up more cash and balance things out. No wonder the entry list was down to 29 trucks there while at Bristol this week, where the trip is much closer (cutting down significantly on expenses) the entry list is up to 38.
It’s not just the Truck Series, though. At Michigan, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ran fifth but made less than Kyle Busch, who ran 39th and wrecked his car within five laps. No one understands the purse system, certainly not new owners who don’t understand why finishing higher in the running order gives you little if any extra money. You have to give the guys from 25th on back incentive to finish higher, because that’s where any new owner is going to start. NASCAR needs a financial planner to redirect where the money is going, before the RTA makes that decision all on its own.
- To those excited about Darlington back to Labor Day Weekend, a move reported to be a done deal in 2015 I say, “Yes, it’s about time.” But remember, it’s now been a decade since this 500-miler was back in its rightful place on the schedule. New fans might not recognize its importance, just like some don’t understand who Dale Earnhardt, Sr. even is 13 years after the driver’s passing. Let’s hope there’s enough traditionalists out there to fill the stands during a very hot September weekend next year; the brutal reality is at Rockingham, there just weren’t enough who cared.
- I say this every year, only to end up somewhat disappointed but I do expect Saturday night’s Bristol under the lights to be one of the season’s wildest races.
Three of the top-5 finishers in the spring haven’t won a race this season. Tony Stewart is one of those, although I don’t expect him to re-enter NASCAR competition until at the very least the Canandaigua investigation is officially complete. But Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. had his best run there, a driver that obviously must win to make the Chase. Marcos Ambrose, who ran fifth counts this track as one of his best statistically outside the road courses.
Don’t forget about Michael Waltrip Racing’s Brian Vickers, who has run very well there in recent years or last years 1-2 running order of Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne. Bottom line, there’s a whole lot of drivers looking to avoid the psychotic Richmond season finale, where it’s win-or-go-home and take care of business now. There’s also a bunch of drivers with no incentive other than to go out and win, an aggressive mentality we saw played out by the Busch brothers last week. And aren’t there still a few rivalries brewing, deep down, somewhere? It all adds up to what should be one of the best races we’ll see all year.
Let’s see if the competition follows through.