Nature’s Bakery, a sponsor new to the sport, signed on to sponsor Danica Patrick in 28 races next season. Is this reason for optimism about new sponsors entering the sport, or more of an isolated instance?
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: I think sponsor shelling out the $20 million or so for a top-flight team like Patrick’s is a rarity anymore, and this went down because it’s Danica… very few drivers in the same points bracket as she is garner the same kind of money, and there are better drivers racing on less than her team has. But there is reason for cautious optimism if you look for it; several teams have had smaller deals with new sponsors this year. It may be just a race or two, but for some teams, that’s a big deal.
Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: I think Danica Patrick is unique within NASCAR because it’s not just about the on-track results for her. If that were the case, considering her track record the last three years there’d have been an opening at the No. 10 a long time ago. (It’s notable by the way Sam Hornish Jr., part of our next question, is getting pushed out at Richard Petty Motorsports, criticized for not being able to drum up sponsorship with an almost identical track record this year as Patrick.) As the sport’s only full-time female, that ace card she holds along with overwhelming popularity can open doors to a number of sponsors that would otherwise not take a second look at the sport.
A better gauge would be what happens with Michael Waltrip’s now-up-for-sale two-car Toyota program and race shop. If someone like Harry Scott takes it, fine, but he’s already involved in the sport. Can NASCAR get an additional owner/investor and some additional companies to come keep that program afloat instead of letting everything get auctioned off piecemeal? (Notable though is that Nature’s Bakery only had reported revenue of $100 million last year. That’s a heck of a $20 million sponsorship bill to suddenly add to a business functioning at that level. Can they sustain it?)
Aaron Bearden, Assistant Editor: While I want to believe this is a sign of sponsors flocking to the sport – and trust me, I really do – this is just an isolated incident. Love her or hate her, Patrick is one of the biggest names in the garage area. If anyone was going to get a major sponsor going into next year, it was going to be her. Don’t expect your typical drivers, the David Ragans and Cole Whitts, to get the same sort of sponsorship and support.
Joseph Wolkin, Assistant Editor: This really is a rare thing to occur in NASCAR’s premier division. With the insanely high costs of fielding a Cup car, it’s a shocker that Stewart-Haas Racing was even able to sign a business that isn’t a Fortune 500 company. However, this could be the beginning of a new trend in the sport. Maybe, just maybe, this will lead to other businesses like it entering NASCAR in all three premier divisions, showcasing the profit margin a company can have thanks to stock car racing.
Phil Allaway, Senior Editor: Believe me, it’s always good when a new company decides to press their luck in NASCAR. Some of them stick around for a while and advance themselves (Ex: 5-hour Energy, Camping World). Others, not so much (the list is too long to count). I hope that it leads to good news long-term, but looking at the plans for Nature’s Bakery, they decided to go big right away. That concerns me. I think that they’ll heavily support Patrick in 2016, but beyond that, who knows.
It’s been reported that Hornish Jr. will be out of the No. 9 RPM ride at the end of 2015, with Ragan and Regan Smith listed as potential replacements. Is a driver change needed, and if so who would be the best fit for the team as they work to become a contender?
Bearden: Hornish Jr. finally made his way back to the Cup Series after fighting and crawling through the lower ranks for a few years, and he’s going to get cut after one season? That’s rough. Hornish hasn’t excelled, but he hasn’t run much worse than teammate Aric Almirola or former driver Marcos Ambrose, either. Sponsorship might be the issue forcing the Indianapolis 500 champion out the door if that’s the case. As for replacements, RPM’s best hopes would be to poach someone from one of the smaller teams or Xfinity Series. Brett Moffitt, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Alex Bowman come to mind. That said, the true answer would be any driver that can bring sponsor money.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: I’ve always thought Hornish was a decent fit at RPM. The No. 9 is a good ride, and pretty much suited to Sam’s level of NASCAR experience. The idea of additional “Ragan or Smith?” discussion exhausts me, and it must do the same for the three drivers in question. I hope Hornish can convince RPM that he’s worthy of keeping his seat for the 2016 season.
Allaway: I’m not really surprised that Hornish could be out of the No. 9. However, Hornish is not the real problem here. The team went from being fully sponsored when Ambrose was still driving to struggling to put together outside support to cover more than one-third of the season. Andrew Murstein is putting a bunch of his own money out there just to field Hornish. Replacing Hornish more than likely isn’t fixing that unless whoever they replace him with brings money. Because of that, Hornish is far more likely to be replaced by either Clint Bowyer (with 5-hour Energy) or Michael Annett (with Pilot Flying J) than anyone else.
Clayton Caldwell, Contributing Writer: I think Hornish Jr. is a nice guy, but he simply does not get the job done in NASCAR. He was awesome in IndyCar, there’s no denying that, and had a few good years in the NXS before making his way back to Cup. However, his performance has not been great this season. They made a crew chief change and that hasn’t improved the No. 9 team much at all. Sponsorship has seemed to be few and far between on that car so maybe that’s why the performance has lacked. Are Smith or Ragan a better hire than Hornish? I personally think so. I would like to see what Smith can do in a decent ride. Remember he won a Cup race at Darlington with Furniture Row Racing. Ragan has won two races and if given a capable car can win at a plate track.
Henderson: There are a few drivers out there of similar caliber as Hornish… and I’m not sold on a lateral move being a good one for a mid-tier team. Why start from scratch with a new driver who’s ultimately going to get the same results? It seems as though building with a driver who the team is already familiar with and who the cars are set up for would be a better option. Now if Hornish gets a second year, there needs to be improvement. But I just don’t see anyone out there who’s that much better and available.
Smith, who just a week before was critical of Ty Dillon for getting into his No. 7 NXS car, laid a bumper to Alex Tagliani on his way to the win at Mid-Ohio… was Smith’s move any more – or less – acceptable than Dillon’s?
Wolkin: The difference between the two is that Smith’s bump was a lot less severe than Dillon’s. Smith got into Tagliani, who entered the corner too hot. However, Dillon basically punted him. Either way, it’s racing and they’ll all live. It’s not the end of the world for any of them.
Bowles: If there’s anything we’ve learned about Smith the last month or so, it’s that he’s desperate to win and stay on the radar screen. Not only does he feel the No. 7 team is still in title contention but Smith got a taste of Cup again, subbing admirably for Kurt Busch this season and, at age 32, knows his chance for future opportunities there is running out. How do you get noticed by potential Cup owners late in Silly Season? Win all the races you can and steal a championship under the nose of these tweenage “young guns” Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher and Dillon.
The bump and run has been an acceptable maneuver within NASCAR for years; everyone from Jeff Gordon to Matt Kenseth have used it. I don’t think we should go overboard criticizing a driver who’s had a long winless streak, saw an opening in front of him and took it. Tagliani has every right to be mad but it’s not unlike anything we’ve seen in past years.
Henderson: You can’t really compare the two, because they were in totally different situations. I don’t think Dillon intentionally spun Smith at Watkins Glen. Smith’s move was deliberate, but also completely acceptable — in the closing laps, for the win, and he didn’t wreck Tagliani. That’s how a bump and run is supposed to work, and it’s OK when it’s for the win late in the game. Intentionally wrecking another driver is never acceptable, but I think the Dillon-Smith deal was a racing incident and not deliberate.
Howell: It was one of them racin’ deals – there’s little more there than that. Such is the nature of road-course racing, especially for stock cars at Mid-Ohio. Let’s move on….
Caldwell: I think it was less acceptable. I always judge these situations by what the driver thinks about before entering the corner. In Dillon’s case I don’t think he had the intention of wrecking Smith when he dove off to make it three-wide in turn 1 at Watkins Glen. I just think Dillon got a little too aggressive and it backfired. Smith, on the other hand, went in to the corner with the absolute intention of doing whatever he needed to do to get by Tagliani for the win, which he then of course acted upon. Smith has a lot of skill and I am for a driver doing whatever he needs to do to win the race. However, when you act like he did the week before and then pull a move like he did a week later you can’t help but call him a hypocrite.
This week, Ryan Ellis used a GoFundMe page to get the remaining $3,000 he needed to run the entire NXS race at Bristol. What does the mean moving forward for drivers such as Ellis that need to prove themselves but can’t find sponsorship?
Wolkin: The first driver I remember doing this was Kenny Wallace a few years ago, and everyone that I knew at the time loved it. Crowd funding is great for something once in a while, but it shouldn’t be used too often. For a guy like Ellis, he has maximized on every opportunity he gets to race in the NXS or Truck Series, and asking for something as small as $3,000 compared to what other teams get for races from sponsors is something different. In this era, you have to be creative, and this might just be the best way to get noticed in a sport where opportunities are limited.
Bearden: All that means is that the underfunded drivers and teams of NASCAR are having to get more creative to stay afloat. The fact that NASCAR fans managed to raise enough money for Ellis to race is impressive and a testament to the incredible loyalty in the industry, but unless Ellis can come up with some sort of subscription-based service to make the donations a weekly occurrence, it isn’t going to help him or any other drivers in the long run.
Howell: Raising cash through crowdsourcing seems to be in NASCAR’s immediate future. The days of convincing a local business to fund your car at a big time event are long gone. Small businesses (on which young drivers used to rely) are not as dependable as interested people with 1) Internet access and 2) cash to contribute. We’ve seen creative funding efforts many times before in NASCAR, and this is just another means by which to try and build a career. It’s sad that young drivers have to resort to such measures.
Bowles: We’ve seen fan-supported teams, donation-style teams and grassroots efforts to get a car or driver to a racetrack for decades. To me, Ellis’s tactic is nothing new; it’s just the fact it happened on GoFundMe. The problem is, these ideas will only produce limited success in the future considering how expensive it is to run even the Truck Series these days. I give Ellis points for creativity, but doubt we’re going to see an onslaught of GoFundMe efforts as random fans and giving donors can only spend so much.
Allaway: At this point, just about nothing. Drivers going to crowdfunding sites to raise capital in order to race is nothing new. Drivers have used sites like GoFundMe to raise quite a bit more than $3,000. Angela Cope raised $100,000 via crowdfunding and sponsorship in order to race for SR2 Motorsports at Charlotte a couple of years ago. It’s sad that someone like Ellis has to go to this level in order to race. The man has talent.