Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Perception, Reality & NASCAR’s Million-Dollar Problem

There was once a young driver with a reputation for winning. He built a name for himself at the local bullrings, racing — and sometimes winning — against drivers twice his age and who had been racing before he was born.

He scraped together what sponsorship he could, and put more than he could probably afford into the car to make it better, faster, a winner. His work ethic and talent resonated with fans, his popularity grew locally. Fans knew his name, and they liked him.

This is where it should read that the driver earned a chance in a larger series — a NASCAR regional series, perhaps, or ARCA, and then maybe a one-off opportunity in a Truck Series or even an Xfinity ride. This is where fans should be watching his progress and rooting for him, and sponsors talking with owners about how to snatch him up before their rivals do.

But this isn’t a fairy tale, and it doesn’t work like that. At least not any more.

There was a time it did — the above could describe any number of drivers who went on to have not only successful, but spectacular careers. To be fair, there are still drivers making it to the top level this way, but that number is dwindling. And the reason is ugly.

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It all boils down to money and who has it. Where teams once competed for the top prospects, now they look for youngsters who bring funding to the table. And it’s hard to fault them; they have to.

There are still drivers finding sponsorship the old-fashioned way, where they land a ride and the owner shops them to backers with promises of glory. But even the most talented or most popular driver is a gamble, and team owners need deep pockets to go this route because they may find themselves covering expenses out of their own pocket.

Many of the drivers who came in this way have been successful enough to forge long-term relationships with sponsors. But even those are increasingly rare. For the first time in veteran Denny Hamlin’s career, FedEx isn’t footing every race, and sponsors like that who cover an entire season are increasingly rare, with the remaining dinosaurs easily counted on one hand. Even seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson lost Lowe’s late in his Hall of Fame career.

But new drivers? That’s an even harder road. And the cold truth is that as NASCAR’s popularity wave has dwindled, nobody’s going to foot a bill of over $20 million for questionable return on that investment.

That’s opened the door to drivers who can bring backing to a team. If a driver can offer sponsors for the majority of the season, what choice does a team have but to latch on to a sure thing?

The big teams aren’t going to spend less. Sure, that would be a logical solution, but it won’t happen unless NASCAR drops the hammer on spending. So sometimes teams have to follow the money.

Aric Almirola brings Smithfield to Stewart-Haas Racing for 25 races a year. Without that, would an aging driver with a lackluster career record have a seat in the Cup Series? And on the flip side, how many drivers will never get a chance in a good ride, no matter how talented they might be, because they don’t bring money to the table?

While the trend has been moving more and more toward a buy-a-ride model, we’re not there yet. There are plenty of drivers who have gotten to the top levels on talent, but it’s hard to dispute that it’s harder for new talent to enter the sport without money behind them.

And because perception is, to a degree, reality, that’s what many fans are seeing, and many aren’t happy about it.

Part of the problem is that drivers, especially up-and-comers, get noticed if they drive for a recognizable team or have a big-name sponsor. Money does buy speed, but it also buys hype.

And while it’s not rampant yet, the perception that it is rampant is based in the reality of fans seeing talented drivers being passed over, or replaced in their rides, for money, or nepotism, or both.

There needs to be a path forward for young drivers with talent. That’s not to say that drivers with money aren’t talented — certainly some of them are deserving of top rides, but the sport can do better.

It’s not the team owners’ fault, at least not all of it. Some can afford to gamble on a driver’s talent and that it will pay off with sponsorship down the road. They can put their own businesses on the hood for unsold races and call it a day. But that’s not a sustainable model for many teams. So, when faced with a popular, marketable driver who has scratched his way through the ranks or one who can provide money to pay for racecars and crew, they have to take the sure thing.

What is the teams’ fault, to a degree, is the skyrocketing costs — they spent whatever it took when sponsors were knocking on their doors, and when they weren’t knocking anymore, nobody really cut back spending.

But fans, to a large degree, want to see the young driver above get the chance he has earned. Part of the pull of nostalgia is an era where drivers were blue-collar sorts who started at the bottom and clawed their way up. That’s the American Dream in a nutshell, after all. That’s Junior Johnson and Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt and countless others who drove all the way to the top.

Today, there are still drivers like that — Matt DiBenedetto comes to mind. And he’s widely speculated to be losing his ride after 2021 despite doing just about everything right from the start of his career. If Austin Cindric takes over, as good as he is, many fans see him as being in position to have that ride because of his father. Cindric is very talented, but will fans see past the silver spoon they see?

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Is NASCAR becoming a pay-to-play sport? There are plenty of drivers who have rides because they bring money and hype, possibly more than ever. And there are still plenty who got noticed for their winning ways, too. But do fans see it that way, or do they see money being the driving factor in too many instances?

If perception is reality, don’t look for too many fairy-tale endings.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Kathy Marino

I realize NASCAR makes the decisions in this racing sport but they should also get the in- out of everyone involved . Including the race car drivers.why not have voices from all the corners of the sport so nothing is missed.

Bill B

I don’t see any answer to this issue and, since I didn’t see any suggestions above, I guess you don’t either. However letting someone without talent drive just because they bring money will not work out well for a team in the long run unless their goal is to just be there. I would hope most teams have a desire to win and not just be out there looking pretty. There have always been field fillers and when a team goes that route that’s all they will ever be. I agree that it’s not a good look for the sport but it’s nothing new and I don’t think it will ever be different.

The real problem is, as you stated “…they spent whatever it took when sponsors were knocking on their doors, and when they weren’t knocking anymore, nobody really cut back spending.


I’m not sure how you put the cat back in the bag either, but come to think of it, the one thing missing “these days” is driver hunger. Hunger to win because purse money feeds his (and his family’s) hungry belly. It also means the drivers are missing a critical link to their fans – a blue collar bond. What does Joey Logano have in common with any working class fan? Sure, he’s talented, and I’m sure he’s worked hard learning how to race, and he’s probably a nice enough guy to hang out with if you’ve got enough $ to buy the ticket. But he’s never wondered if the bank is finally going to take the house, or whether he’s going to be eating hot dogs or day old bread for the next week. He’s never stuffed another driver in the wall to win because he HAD to.

Just like BBQ, it’s another craft perfected by the poor that has been taken over, watered down for profit, and made unaffordable by the wealthy. I digress…

Finally, regarding your point “letting someone without talent drive just because they bring money will not work out well for a team in the long run”, I present example 1 in support of your view: Formula 1, Haas, and Nikita Mazepin.

Bill B

Whenever the question of “why are there no longer any rivalries”, I point to exactly what you said in that first paragraph. In the early days if someone knocked you into the wall on Sunday and cost you a good finish, your family lived on peanut butter sandwiches the next week. Now days regardless whether they finish well they go home to their mansions and trophy wives, unwind in the hot-tub while sipping wine, then go out to a good restaurant for dinner. How long can you stay angry in those conditions? Any rivalries that pop up today are almost for show and don’t usually last that long before everyone moves on and collects their checks.

As for your point about the evolution of the business going from the poor to the rich, that is the natural end of reaching for success and achieving it. If NASCAR had never succeeded in becoming a major spectator sport, it would still be blue collar (and it wouldn’t be shown live on TV if at all).

Lastly, I do not know enough about F1 to say anything but, there are always exceptions to every rule.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bill B

True about success, but it would be nice if a few things became just successful enough to be accessible, yet still affordable, without ruining what everyone loved about it to begin with.

As for F1, I don’t follow closely, but I haven’t read a single headline about Mazepin that was written in a positive light. His dad’s writing the check, and everyone else on BOTH teams has to suffer for it. That’s basically the gist of what I’ve skimmed over on F1 lately.

Bill B

Way to throw that bait out.


I doubt that it’s simply a perception problem. NASCAR created it’s own issues with the number of changes to the tracks and schedule, plus the COT that fans AND drivers hated. The last real rivalry IMO was Earnhardt-Gordon and that was in the 90’s. That rivalry between the drivers on the track and the fans in the stands made NASCAR a must see deal.

Then we came into the era of Brian France and IMO again, it all went downhill. He wouldn’t listen to anyone and changed things wholesale. Eventually a large portion of the fan base realized that no one was listening and they left – both the stands and watching on TV.

Once upon a time, I could have told you where they were racing and the time the race started – oh and what channel it was on. Now I have to look it up.

I do think that the drivers should have a voice in the changes being made. Maybe they’d care a little more but as others have pointed out, most of them get paid no matter where they finish so there isn’t as much motivation. Plus you’ve had NASCAR with it’s “boys have at it” vs “be nice or we will penalize you”. Just can’t have it both ways. The cars don’t break, we have stages with built in cautions, if you win you’re in for the end of season trophy (I refuse to call it a championship when it’s a crapshoot) and so the racing simply doesn’t have the tension in it that it once did.

Al Torney

A lot of good points in this blog. However, everyone missed the biggest point on ride buying. Ride buyers bring no fans to the sport. Same with the farm system and diversity drivers. No fans.
The split was not good but open wheel was headed down hill anyway. Why because American drivers got looked over by Penske, Ganassi, Newman-Haas etc. for foreign drivers who brought no fans to the sport and drove away existing fans. Tony George saw this and tried to correct it but it was too late.

J. Barton

The problem is where the money goes. NASCAR (The France family) gets too much of the revenue. Jim France just made the billionaire list. In MLB or the NFL the money goes to the teams not the league. Can you imagine somebody being a starting QB because his father was rich? If the majority of the TV and sponsorship money went to the team owners rather than NASCAR the owners could pick the most talented drivers rather than depend on drivers who bring their own money.

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