Several teams have announced new drivers across NASCAR’s national divisions this month. Among them are Brian Scott in the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Cup ride, Chris Buescher in a Cup ride with Front Row Motorsports and Ben Rhodes moving to Thorsport in the Camping World Truck Series. Which driver will have the biggest impact on his new team?
Aaron Bearden, Assistant Editor: Ben Rhodes will have the greatest impact, solely because he’s joining a better team than the other two drivers in a smaller series. His opportunity to succeed is greater than Buescher or Scott, who will join mid-tier teams against the strongest competition NASCAR has to offer.
Sean Fesko, Contributor: Brian Scott inherits a Chase-caliber ride, Ben Rhodes a truck that has challenged for championships, yet it will be Chris Buescher having the biggest impact on the team, for two reasons: talent and money. Buescher is by far the most-polished of the three drivers and, more importantly, brings Roush Fenway Racing and Ford money to his ride at Front Row. In a sport that requires massive funding to be competitive, FRM was given an early Christmas present as they reorganize around the reigning XFINITY champ. Watch them pick up their performance in 2016.
Matt Stallknecht, Senior Editor: If we’re strictly going off of the three listed in the question, then the answer is absolutely has to be Buescher. When he was announced as the 2016 driver for Front Row, the mainstream NASCAR writers did not do a very good job of explaining just how much that team was going to benefit. Just to clarify on that point, Buescher’s No. 34 team is going to quite literally be treated as a fourth Roush car. It isn’t just a case of Roush giving some “additional help” to the FRM folks: the two teams quite literally are Roush-powered cars now. Of course, that may not mean a whole lot, given that Roush has only performed marginally better than FRM in recent years, but one cannot understate the sheer level of money and resources that have suddenly been made available to them.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Even though I’d like to say Brian Scott will have a great effect on the fortunes of RPM and the No. 9 Ford, my call goes to Ben Rhodes at Thorsport in the NCWTS next year. He’s a talented young man with a great personality and a desire (despite his family’s financial strength) to become a truly successful race car driver. My eyes will be on him next season.
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: I think long-term, Buescher will have the biggest impact, both as a driver and for his new team, because at the end of the day, he’s the best driver in the group. Front Row will grow as part of their new alliance with Roush Fenway, though that won’t happen overnight, and RFR has some work to do as it is. Rhodes and Scott bring money to their new organizations, and that’s important, but few buy-a-ride situations lead to huge gains for team or driver.
Both Joe Gibbs Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing announced major internal moves this offseason. Will anything change for either organization based on these adjustments?
Clayton Caldwell, Contributor: I thought Joe Gibbs Racing overreacted with the moves they made over the offseason. I think a lot of people in the organization expected to go to four cars and run fantastic right out of the gate and that reality just didn’t happen. Darian Grubb’s resume as a crew chief is tremendous. Since 2009, only one other crew chief has more wins than Grubb and that is Chad Knaus. Granted, Grubb has worked for some really good drivers over the years but he deserves some credit there as well. Kind of surprising there. As far as Tommy Baldwin Racing is concerned, this guy seems to have his act together. He started his organization from scratch and has built it into a very competitive race team considering their financial challenges. The alliance with RCR should only make them continue to run better.
Joseph Wolkin, Assistant Editor: The changes at Joe Gibbs Racing mainly focus around the crew chiefs, which one could argue were not needed, especially for Carl Edwards’ team. However, Tommy Baldwin Racing’s changes are immense and could turn a 30th-place team into one that contends for top 20s. With Tommy Baldwin remaining as Alex Bowman’s crew chief, in addition to adding several key team members and more sponsorship dollars, it could create a whole new level of success for this small team, especially if Ryan Preece is able to come up with the funding to run a second car.
Mike Neff, Short Track Coordinator: Everyone is incorporating Michael Waltrip Racing people into their organization; we’ll see how successful that is. That said, it is difficult to improve the championship-winning organization but Joe Gibbs is never scared to make moves. Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards were the two drivers that “struggled” in 2016. Edwards does well with the new rules package so pairing with Dave Rogers could be a situation where he excels. By Charlotte we’ll know if the moves have made a difference.
Stallknecht: For Joe Gibbs Racing? Probably not so much. The moves they made, while big, were done more in the interest of improving driver/crew chief chemistry for the Nos. 11 and 19 teams. What is more intriguing here are the changes with Tommy Baldwin’s No. 7. TBR, much like FRM, is in the process of moving up in the world of NASCAR. Their new engineering hires are incredibly talented people; it should also be noted that the TBR group received a fresh influx of cash recently courtesy of a new investor in the team. Also, very quietly, TBR bolstered its ties to Richard Childress Racing, with whom they’ve had a small technical alliance with since 2014. These are all the moves one would expect a team to make when it is serious about improving its position in the world of NASCAR. All told, TBR appears to be the next Furniture Row or JTG-Daugherty in the sense that it is a small team finally making the moves necessary to become competitive on a weekly basis. You can expect marked improvement out of this bunch in ’16, and I am excited to see a new “middle class” forming in the world of NASCAR once again.
NASCAR’s sponsorship agreement with Sprint ends after the 2016 season, and no title sponsor has been announced yet for the top series. What companies could be a good fit, and what should NASCAR be looking for in the deal?
Phil Allaway, Senior Editor: Realistically, it’s quite depressing that we’ve heard absolutely nothing to this point, knowing that NASCAR’s going to want to have the deal sewn up sometime within the next six months. NASCAR should select a well-known company that is willing to pony up the money, while at the same time commit to helping to grow the series. I don’t want an IZOD situation where they stop caring after a couple of years. Walmart seems like the obvious choice here, but they’re just about the least progressive company in the United States, plus their main competitor (Target) is entrenched in the sport and likely won’t take kindly to getting booted. They also have next to no history in sponsoring anything in racing outside of the FLW Tour.
Stallknecht: My only hope is that NASCAR doesn’t just jump at the first company to offer them a big check, especially companies that embody the sport’s “redneck” stereotypes (Walmart, for instance, would be a terrible fit). I’m intrigued to see how this story goes.
Wolkin: There are several major corporations that are likely being considered to be the Cup Series’ new title sponsor. One that always comes to the rumor mill whenever there is a title agreement expiring is Dunkin’ Donuts. A lot of sources are saying Microsoft, but I’ll disagree and here is why: While Microsoft’s stock price has surged over the past few months and has begun to increase its investments in NASCAR, what can it really get out of NASCAR fans? Not much other than what it already has. However, a tech company that has an alliance with Microsoft will certainly be a major player. Expect any company that comes on to be largely domestic, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt for an international tech company to come on board.
Bearden: Given NASCAR’s push to appeal in social and technological sectors, a strong sponsor such as Microsoft would be a good fit for the sport. Realistically, though, the organization would take anyone that brings money to the table.
Fesko: NASCAR needs an established, multinational brand to take over the Cup Series. What kind of companies would fit these parameters? Walmart comes immediately to mind as it caters to the middle-class demographic, many of whom spend their Sundays watching NASCAR. And what about 3M and Aaron’s, sponsors that are taking 2016 off from NASCAR to reevaluate their options? Perhaps they are considering a run at the title sponsor and are taking a year away to get their bids in order.
Looking back on the 2015 season, which teams made the biggest gains, and what can we expect from them in 2016?
Henderson: Furniture Row Racing went from a good small team to an elite team in one season; it’s hard to beat that. It will be interesting to see what their future holds with Toyota, because the team they were formerly aligned with, Richard Childress Racing, also made gains last season and all three teams who were in an alliance with them showed promise. The other team who really showed potential was HScott Motorsports’ No. 51 team, but driver Justin Allgaier was dropped in favor of a one-year deal with Clint Bowyer. It was a short-term gain in terms of whatever Stewart-Haas was willing to pay them, but a long-term mistake as they were just starting to build around Allgaier and getting some solid results.
Bearden: Joe Gibbs Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. 2015 was a breakout year for the team, including their first title with Toyota. It’ll be interesting to see if they can elevate their performance to match the incoming changes this season.
Caldwell: Chip Ganassi Racing is adding another partner to their team with former Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman. Kauffman, head of the Race Team Alliance, is not going anywhere anytime soon and has very deep pockets. He will be another asset to the organization that will help them grow for the future. Jamie McMurray ran well in 2015 and Kyle Larson is one of the best young talents in the garage. Look for big things from this organization in 2016.
Neff: At first blush, Furniture Row made some huge gains in 2015. Truex went on his run of top 10s to open the season and made it to Victory Lane. Richard Childress Racing made some gains in 2015 as well. Putting two cars in the Chase and a third just on the outside looking in is a good year for them even though they didn’t score any wins. 2016 very well could be the breakout year for Austin Dillon. He’s always been strong on intermediate tracks and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him end up in Victory Lane multiple times in 2016.
Allaway: The biggest gains, position-wise were made by Furniture Row Racing, which finished fourth in points after finishing 24th in 2014. However, the team didn’t really make that many gains in 2015. Most of what we saw this year was already in place by Chase-time in 2014. Remember their marked improvement in form late in the season. For what’s it worth, their move to Toyota and a new alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing will likely result in growing pains. They might regress just a little in 2016. Outside of Furniture Row, the biggest gain in points (nine positions) was made by Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 with (mostly) series champion Kyle Busch behind the wheel. There’s no reason to believe that Busch won’t be strong in 2016.