The charter system in NASCAR’s premier division is forcing owners to examine the way they operate.
With the charters in place, several owners are re-evaluating their programs for 2017. Obviously owners take a long look at their teams at this point every year, but charters have changed the significance. Given only 36 teams can have a charter for a 40-car field, some owners are likely concerned about having their cars make the 2017 field on a weekly basis.
Essentially, the whole system is quite detrimental to any new owners who want to break into the Cup Series, given the high costs for fielding an entry at the sport’s highest level. However, it is still not much different than the go-or-go-home scenario that has been seen in the past, one that helped create teams that are now contenders, like Furniture Row Racing.
But for teams like Tommy Baldwin Racing, the struggle to make ends meet is never-ending, even with sponsorship beginning to pour in. As rumors flow throughout the garage about what the 2017 Cup Series field will look like, the overwhelming number of unknowns could make this a silly season to remember for a long time, and it’s all because of the charter system.
Q: There are 42 cars on the original entry list for Talladega this coming weekend (No. 30 withdrew, so it would have been 43). Is this a sign for things to come next season? – Mike L., Milwaukee.
A: Well, the sport certainly hopes there will be more than 40 cars at every race. The hope is always to have not only a full field, but an increase in competition to qualify for the races, like the early to mid-2000s. As such, Talladega could certainly be a sign for the future.
Ryan Reed makes his Sprint Cup Series debut for Roush Fenway Racing, and with funding from Lilly, he could be on his way to competing in the Cup Series full-time sooner rather than later. As he brings Roush’s No. 99 car back to the sport’s top division, it gives the team four cars at one race for the first time since Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. fielded the No. 6 car at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2012 before RFR downgraded to three entries.
In addition to Reed, BK Racing is fielding a third entry for the fifth time this year. This time, the team is bringing Jeffrey Earnhardt into the fold, with another run with the Toyota-backed organization in the season finale. If there’s any way he can move his funding from Go Fas Racing to BK Racing in 2017, it could give the team a third full-time entry — or at least one for the majority of the year, which would also leave another opening with the No. 32 team.
Front Row Motorsports is running a third car for veteran David Gilliland, who was ousted after the charter system was created. However, it is highly unlikely the team would expand to three cars next year given both cars are still not fully funded.
While the back part of the Sprint Cup field appears to be on the way of having some shake-ups, it is highly likely the sport will stay at approximately 40 cars.
Q: With all the talk about Tommy Baldwin Racing selling its charter, what does it mean for Regan Smith and anyone else possibly affected by the change? – Lisa R., South Carolina.
A: This whole situation is catching many off guard. Baldwin says it’s a conversation the team has had in six of its eight years of existence. However, this time, because of the charter system, it appears the team is on its way to being sold. This rumor first arose early Wednesday morning, and since, it has caught fire.
— Jim Noble (@Noble_Jim) October 19, 2016
Reports from NBC Sports and Fox Sports say TBR is selling its charter to Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing. We reached out to CSLFR, which declined to comment about the situation. However, a spokesperson for the team forwarded a news brief from ESPN, which sources CSLFR Vice President Jeremy Lange as saying the single-car organization will remain with one entry in 2017.
Michael McDowell is in his third year with the No. 95 team, and is having a career-best year with an average finish of 25.4 and nine lead-lap finishes.
If CSLFR acquires TBR’s charter, it will mean Baldwin’s operation, which he started in 2009, will shut down. The team began as a start-and-park program, but worked its way it to a full-time team, bringing its original No. 36 car to every event with Dave Blaney behind the wheel from 2011 to 2013.
TBR’s recent history includes the team going back to a single-car operation, led by Alex Bowman in 2015. But after Baldwin and Bowman had a falling-out, the team selected Regan Smith to pilot the No. 7 car. Evidently, Smith has helped improve the team, with an average finish of 28.1 compared to his predecessor’s 31.6.
Even with Toy State/Nikko extending its deal through 2017, with 17 races as a primary sponsor next year, the team’s performance has not significantly improved as hoped. Smith’s car has often been soaked in flat black paint this year, with limited funding from smaller companies for discounted prices.
Evidently, it is a lot for Baldwin to handle, especially since he is also the team’s crew chief. As the team will likely be sold, it means there will be more shaking up throughout the field.
Ty Dillon is expected to either head over to Germain Racing, replacing Casey Mears, who would go to Joe Falk’s Circle Sport, which would be revived in 2017. In this situation, McDowell would likely stay with Leavine Family Racing, unless the team opts to sign Smith or another free agent.
No matter what happens to the other drivers in the fold, it appears Smith will be searching for a ride for the second straight year after seemingly finding a home at TBR.