It doesn’t take the work of some analyst sitting in the corner of a dark office poring through document upon document, statistic upon statistic to realize one of the side effects of NASCAR’s charter system in the Sprint Cup Series: lack of variety in the teams that compete each week.
But another, perhaps slightly unexpected byproduct of charters has become quite clear as the season draws to a close.
Where in the heck are the debuts?
I’m not talking about rookies, per se. The Cup Series has a good crop of them in 2016, with two — Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher even making the Chase, while Ryan Blaney, Brian Scott and Jeffrey Earnhardt fill out a list that many will probably refer to a decade or two down the line as one of the better collections in recent memory.
But all five of those drivers, despite choosing 2016 as their rookie seasons in Cup, have this in common: their first starts in the series came before 2016, ranging as far back as 2013.
As far as drivers making their first start go, well, 2016’s been… a bit of a bore.
In fact, entering this weekend’s Hellmann’s 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, only one driver has made his Cup debut all season: Dylan Lupton, who has competed in two races for BK Racing, the first coming at Sonoma Raceway with a 35th-place result.
That number is likely to change in the coming weeks, with Ryan Reed attempting Talladega in a fourth Roush Fenway Racing car, the No. 99, while Gray Gaulding was announced Thursday (Oct. 20) as the driver of the No. 30 for three races to finish out the 2016 season. Again, neither are givens for actual debuts — especially Reed, with 42 entered this weekend — but assuming they do make the field, that’s still three debuts. Just three. All year.
OK, you say, what about Cody Ware, who failed to qualify at Sonoma? Even if you add Ware and make it a collection of drivers who attempted their debut, that’s still just four, and… look, that’s still not very much.
Here’s the breakdown: since 2010, not counting 2016, the Cup Series has averaged 10 debuts a season. The number has climbed as high as 12 twice — 2013 and 2015 — and as low as seven in 2010 and 2012. Meanwhile, 2011 and 2013 each featured 11 debuts apiece.
So as it stands, 2016 not only has a fairly sizable decrease — seven to just one — in debuts from the lowest previous amount in the 2010s, but it also would still be at over a 50 percent decline even if Reed and Gaulding make the field in the coming weeks. And again, even if they do, that’s still a 75 percent drop-off from the year before.
Look at last year’s crop: alongside Elliott, Earnhardt and Buescher, the debuts in Cup cars in 2015 included the likes of Erik Jones, Matt DiBenedetto, Jeb Burton, Ryan Ellis, Matt Crafton, BJ McLeod, Derek White, Ryan Preece and Will Kimmel. The previous year added Blaney alongside Ty Dillon, Brett Moffitt, Alex Bowman and more.
And yet 2016 can barely cough up a single new talent.
It all comes back to the charter system. It’s not that there aren’t drivers capable of making the leap to Cup, nor is it that one has to be a certain caliber of driver to even make an attempt anyway. Look, last year featured future stars like Elliott and Jones getting their first shots, but that was alongside guys like White, McLeod and Kimmel, who are by no means bad drivers but haven’t set the lower NASCAR national series on fire either. It’s not out of the ordinary to have expected drivers like, say, Daniel Suarez, Brennan Poole, even someone on the next rung down like Garrett Smithley to get at least a shot, because looking at the previous lists of debuts in the last few years, that’s just what happened.
But when the opportunities close up, what can you do? There have been just 40 full-time or mostly full-time teams in the series in 2016, and the vast majority of them have regular drivers. BK Racing’s brought out a third entry occasionally, and that’s where you saw Lupton get his initial chance. Front Row Motorsports has fielded the No. 35 at the restrictor plate tracks. There’s, of course, Roush’s No. 99 this weekend. But on a weekly basis, the only rides that could have been open at all have tended to be Go FAS Racing’s No. 32 and one of Premium Motorsports’ entries, and those still have their usuals.
It makes sense. With charters now prevalent in the series, it’s tougher than ever for a new team to break into NASCAR, but it’s also more of a risk for a team to bring out an extra car or two, because there’s less of a chance those cars will actually make the field come Saturday or Sunday. It’s not out of the question to think that could deter a prospective sponsor who suddenly has more of a chance of its money being wasted on a DNQ than before, let alone a team who’s fielding an unsponsored car being in the same boat.
That’s why seeing Reed on the entry list at Talladega was a bit of a breath of fresh air, because it made the series sort of look like its old self again. No, the Cup Series didn’t always have random up-and-comers or extra teams each and every race in the past, but shoot, it still happened occasionally. Nowadays, it’s rarely even worthwhile to check the Cup entry lists each week because you already have a fairly good idea of 38 out of the 40 entries, if not all 40. No No. 99 for Roush, no No. 25 for Hendrick Motorsports, no No. 12 for Team Penske, so on and so forth.
Of course, Dylan Lupton will almost certainly not be the only Cup debut this year. Alongside the already-mentioned Reed and Gaulding, DJ Kennington has also signed on to pilot a car for Premium at Phoenix International Raceway, and no one’s saying they’ll be the only others to try before the season ends, especially since this time of year is often a hotbed for one-offs across all three national series as teams and drivers prepare for next season.
However, there’s also no indication that things will be changing anytime soon, with the charter system seemingly here to stay. The series has seen a few retiring drivers in recent seasons, but after Tony Stewart hangs up the helmet after 2016, no one is a sure bet to walk away in the next few years (though there certainly are candidates). If they stick around, thus giving little incentive for some of the up-and-comers to even make a Cup attempt, this could certainly become the status quo for the next few seasons.