Tommy Baldwin is a racer, and no matter what, he says, he always will be.
During his final race weekend as a team owner in NASCAR’s premier division at Homestead-Miami Speedway earlier this month, he sat in the midst of the Sprint Cup Series garage by his race team’s hauler with driver Regan Smith. The two relaxed, sun-bathing after practice Saturday afternoon, enjoying the minimal time they had left working together.
Baldwin recently sold his charter to Leavine Family Racing, creating speculation of what will happen to his No. 7 team. Since he started the organization in 2009, his single- to multi-car efforts have been one of several to ride in the latter half of the field, facing a glimmer of hope whenever they sign even just one primary sponsor.
“It was just time,” Baldwin told Frontstretch. “The timing was right. We didn’t have much sponsorship going on for next year, and I just felt with everything going on within the garage, it was just time for a change.”
While Baldwin would not say how much the charter is worth, it means he can walk away from being a full-time owner without being in massive debt, like some owners have done in the past.
The charter system, created prior to the 2016 season largely due to Rob Kauffman’s efforts while a co-owner at Michael Waltrip Racing, enables teams to sell guaranteed spots in the field as they prepare to leave the sport.
“[The charter] was good that it guaranteed us into all of the races,” Baldwin said. “It worked out for the better. There’s a lot more that needs to be added to it, but we all agreed in the beginning that we have to grow all together. It is what it is.”
Baldwin isn’t sure what is next for him. Some say he will stick around the Cup Series, being a consultant for teams. However, he claimed he is unsure what his next step is.
Baldwin’s team entered 2016 with Alex Bowman signed on to drive the No. 7. But in January, Bowman found out he lost his ride via Twitter. Days later, Smith began meeting with Baldwin and the organization’s sponsors, signing just three weeks prior to the season-opening Daytona 500.
No longer playing the role of super sub, Smith was a full-time Sprint Cup driver for the first time since 2012 when he competed with Furniture Row Racing (plus two races subbing for an injured Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and then another two with Phoenix Racing at season’s end).
But throughout 2016, Baldwin’s role as owner and crew chief intensified. Smith had a five-race streak of finishes of 30th or worse from Martinsville Speedway through Talladega Superspeedway in the spring.
Come Pocono Raceway in August, taking off the owner’s hat, Baldwin used his experience as a crew chief to bring his underfunded effort to the front of the pack when the fog came. Smith was running on the lead lap throughout the race, and with 138 laps completed, he came home in third, tying Dave Blaney’s best finish for the team in 2011, marking only the second time the team had finished in the top 5.
As the season went on, rumors swirled around the garage about the future of TBR. But Baldwin knew his employees deserved to begin searching for new jobs early in preparation for next year.
“It had been out there for a while already before the official announcement,” Smith said. “It was public knowledge about six weeks prior to it, and I knew well before that. It’s no surprise.”
During Baldwin’s final race weekend as a full-time owner, it was a joyous one for the Long Island, New York, native.
“I’ve just been reflecting,” Baldwin said. “I’m trying to soak it in. I’ve been surprised that a lot of people have come up to me and thanked me for being in the sport, which is pretty cool. The Facebook message had a lot of neat comments, so it’s been good.”
And that Facebook message was a difficult one for Baldwin to make public.
Hey Everyone…It is with mixed emotions that I write this today, but I want to address all of you personally.
The season finale at Homestead will be the last race for Tommy Baldwin Racing full-time. We felt that it’s time for a new chapter in our lives and we have sold our charter to a great group of people who will continue to guide our vision.
For the past eight years we’ve shown up at every race, worked hard to compete at the top level and bring value to our sponsors. I feel confident that we are moving on having accomplished that. There have been many teams like ours that have come and gone. I’m proud that we have been able to sustain ourselves from the very beginning.
Over the years we have been fortunate enough to have a great group of people both in the shop and on the road. In this business, you are really defined by the people you employ and I’m grateful for everyone’s hard work.
Getting sponsors these days is a tough task. Keeping them is even tougher. But we have had so many great supporters of our program. Whether they were a primary, associate or just a one-race sponsor, they were all great to work with and I thank them for believing in us.
We’ve had some really great drivers in our cars over the years. Each of them drove hard every lap – no matter how the car was handling. They always gave 110% and that’s all you can really ask from a driver. We’re proud of the names that were on the roof of our Chevrolets.
If you’re reading this, you already know that NASCAR is the greatest sport in the world. I have been blessed to have a career in motorsports because of how NASCAR has grown over the years.
Teams don’t always agree with their stance on rule changes or penalties or just the way things are done. But I can tell you that they have gone out of their way to help our team. They’ve brought us opportunities and have always made themselves available to meet with prospective sponsors if we needed them to. It’s been a privilege for me to say that I’m a NASCAR team owner.
Finally, there are you guys. We can’t begin to tell you how much your support of our team has meant to us. You’re not just fans — you’re friends and family to us.
When we have good days, you cheer us on. When we’ve had rough days, you give us encouragement. You have supported our drivers and our sponsors with so much enthusiasm. I promise you that it never went unnoticed.
So what’s next?
Well, we’re not 100% sure. We are going to work hard to get the best possible results in Miami, take a little family time and then figure out the rest. So, stay tuned – announcements will be forthcoming.
Thanks again for everything, TB. (Posted on Nov. 17, 2016, on the Tommy Baldwin Racing Facebook page)
Smith wrapped up the year 34th in the driver standings. Baldwin would have finished right around there in the owner’s battle, but the sale of the charter was effective prior to the season finale at Homestead, meaning the No. 95 team received the owner points from the No. 7 crew.
Nikko sponsored the team’s efforts for 15 events in 2016, with Advanced Patient Care on the car for 14 contests. Golden Corral was the primary sponsor for the team at the restrictor plate events, with AIPAC, Fire Alarm Services, Citizen Soldier and Advanced Auto Parts being featured on the No. 7 car for the remaining events.
It is unknown whether or not the sponsors will stick around the sport or not.
For Smith, the future remains highly uncertain. There are only a handful of full-time rides available in the Cup Series for next year, and he would not say if he is willing to drop down to the XFINITY Series once again after competing full-time for JR Motorsports from 2013 to 2015.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Smith said. “Hopefully, I’m going to compete for wins and a championship. We’ll have to wait and see how the off-season plays out. We’ll look at the options, look at what makes the most sense and go from there.”
As Baldwin transitions into the next stage of his career, he has five wins on his crew chief resume, including the Daytona 500 in 2002 with Ward Burton. Baldwin was also on the pit box for Kasey Kahne‘s first career victory while at Evernham Motorsports in 2005.
Among Baldwin’s career highlights as a crew chief, he played a major role in developing Toyota into the Sprint Cup powerhouse that it is today. He helped move Bill Davis Racing from Dodge to Toyota in 2007, winning the manufacturer its first pole with Dave Blaney at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
When Baldwin became a team owner, his operation began as a start-and-park organization. He, along with Bob Germain of Germain Racing, Premium Motorsports and Leavine Family Racing, were the only teams to go from a start-and-park organization to ones that compete full-time in the Cup Series.
“We’ve had a lot of good times,” Baldwin said. “We’ve had a lot of good runs that we can look back and reflect back on saying the little team showed up that day. This sport is hard when you don’t have a lot of money and resources to compete against the top guys. When you run well and finish better than you should, it’s pretty good.”