Did You Notice?… There’s more competitive teams than last year in each of NASCAR’s top three divisions? After years of declining financial opportunities, where the economy, attendance and competition all played a role, it looks like the number of sponsorships in the sport are tilting upward.
Let’s take the Cup Series as an example. For the first time in years, the number of top-tier programs expanded by one with the addition of a fourth car at Joe Gibbs Racing. Team Penske, currently running Ryan Blaney with the Wood Brothers could also expand from two cars to three with the right level of sponsorship. That would take the number of teams who are linked to top-tier programs up to 30….
Hendrick Motorsports (four cars)
Stewart-Haas Racing (four cars, use Hendrick chassis and engines)
Chip Ganassi Racing (two cars, use Hendrick engines and information)
HScott Motorsports (two cars, use Hendrick engines)
ROUSH / PENSKE UMBRELLA
Team Penske (two cars – hypothetically three if Blaney runs the full season)
Roush Fenway Racing (three cars, provide engines to Penske)
Richard Petty Motorsports (two cars, get engines and chassis from Roush)
Richard Childress Racing (three cars)
Germain Racing (satellite team, RCR support and chassis, one car)
JTG-Daugherty Racing (satellite team, RCR support and chassis, one car)
Furniture Row Racing (satellite team, RCR support and chassis, one car)
Joe Gibbs Racing (four cars)
Michael Waltrip Racing (two cars… looking to share more this year with JGR)
GRAND TOTAL: 31
That’s an intriguing number, of course considering to make the Chase with a win you must also stay inside the top 30 in Sprint Cup points. A terrible start to the season, like Kurt Busch’s last year with seemingly five DNFs in the first seven races, will be a little more difficult to recover from. Of course, that also has the opposite effect for underdog organizations like Tommy Baldwin Racing looking to steal a plate racing win and an unlikely Chase bid. Breaking through this wall of top-tier programs, and securing that spot in the top 30 should that surprise victory come, will be a Herculean task to accomplish.
Still, more teams and greater parity has to be considered a good thing, a reality that also extends down to the XFINITY and Truck series. The XFINITY field looks to have 40 full-time cars, including next to none who will start and park for the first time in what seems like a century. The Truck Series, while reducing its field size to 32 will also mostly rid itself of its start-and-park problem that came with forcing a larger entry list. The teams that remain have the funding to do a full season; they’re not sitting there worrying over being bankrupt by April. It’s a positive sign for feeder series dominated too long by teams that were trying to survive by any means possible instead of thrive… a business model that isn’t exactly entertaining for the fan base.
Did You Notice?… Three of the last four winners of Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited have never won the Daytona 500? Kurt Busch (2011), Kyle Busch (2012) and Denny Hamlin (2014) have all taken the exhibition race only to fall short when it comes to NASCAR’s biggest prize. So when you’re looking at handicapping the field, you might want to go with the guys that have a big 500 zero next to their names. One that comes to mind for me? Tony Stewart. He’s a former Unlimited winner (three times), yet is now 0-for-16 when it comes to the Daytona 500, a drought approaching Dale Earnhardt-like status. His organization, fresh off the series championship with Kevin Harvick, has the equipment to get the job done; its lead driver / owner, despite all that is in desperate need of a boost. What better way for Stewart to start rebuilding than to start the season off with a victory?
Here’s a few other quirks from Unlimited history. No driver has won the Unlimited and the championship in the same season since Tony Stewart in 2002. The winner, unlike with NASCAR’s All-Star Race only takes home on average about $200K (Denny Hamlin, your 2014 winner took home slightly more than $200,000). Finally, the last driver to win both the Unlimited and the Daytona 500 in the same season was Dale Jarrett, way back in 2000. Those stats help contribute to the feeling that this event is an odd, one-off opportunity for drivers to get some extra track time no one quite understands. But hey, after three months off you could probably run single-file at Chicagoland for 400 miles and the fans would love it. Racing hibernation takes its toll.
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off….
- One of the stranger announcements I’ve seen in recent weeks is Zing Zang announce it was going to sponsor Reed Sorenson, driving the No. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevy only to say later “circumstances had changed” so it basically couldn’t happen. Sorenson, who is driving the No. 44 Team XTreme Racing Chevrolet in a one-race deal for Daytona, was left on the sidelines when TBR downsized from two cars to one. But why wouldn’t TBR end up with the sponsorship, which was posted for Martinsville in the Spring? And why couldn’t Sorenson take that money to another team? Or maybe he will and we just don’t know it yet? The whole story, while small in the grand scheme of things was interesting to me. With NASCAR teams still desperate for money, here was a company that wanted to pay somebody and somehow they wound up shut out.
- Keep an eye on Daytona 500 qualifying this weekend with one of the stronger entry lists expected in years. Remember, at Talladega last fall, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. wound up failing to qualify, the first time in ages a driver from a major team missed a race. I expect, with the different format this season, you’ll see a surprising amount of big-name drivers down the speed charts after Sunday. That forces them to race in through next Thursday’s Budweiser Duels and, one can only hope, spice up those 150-mile qualifying races. Every underdog team I’ve talked to sees Daytona as not just the Super Bowl but a prime opportunity to steal a victory, based on plate racing equality and put themselves in early position to make the Chase. Don’t be shocked to see names you wouldn’t expect, like David Gilliland from Front Row Motorsports or even Landon Cassill of Hillman Racing going for the pole.
- When teams are choosing not to enter exhibition races because they don’t have the sponsorship, like what we have in Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, it may be time to revisit said event. NASCAR can’t (more like won’t) change the plate racing format, but how about shortening this Unlimited to 35 laps? That’s more than the 20 it used to be but should eliminate the need for tires and pit stops, shrinking the cost. It’s alarming that this race, which used to be the equivalent of giving bonus money for yearly pole winners, has become more trouble than it’s worth for teams. Think about that one for a second… earning a spot in this race is supposed to be a privilege. Instead, it’s become a burden for teams unable to bear the costs. Could you imagine players turning down spots in the NBA All-Star Game because they couldn’t afford the roundtrip flight on United? It’s kind of the situation we have here. We’ve got to fix it…