This week’s Frontstretch debate question: a number of race teams have been downsizing their organizations in terms of teams in the past few years. Most recently, Roush Fenway Racing wound up in Victory Lane with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. this past weekend after downsizing from three full-time teams in 2016 to two full-time teams in 2017. Does NASCAR downsizing have positive or negative impact on the overall performance of the organization?
Bigger Isn’t Always Better
We get caught up so much in today’s society about making things bigger and assumedly better whenever possible. But in some cases, including race teams, the more control you can have, the better.
That’s one of the reasons I believe downsizing race teams can be an overwhelming positive in NASCAR (and other forms of motorsports). There are a few recent examples that illustrate my point to a tee. Let’s start by looking no further than this past weekend at Talladega Superspeedway with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Roush Fenway Racing.
In 2005, “The Cat in the Hat,” Jack Roush, ran a five-car operation that was hitting on all cylinders. One year removed from a Cup championship with Kurt Busch in the No. 97, Roush had all five cars qualify for the ten-car Chase. But over time, one small misstep led to another, and everyone else caught up.
Fast forward over a decade to a miserable last season, one where RFR couldn’t place a single driver inside the top 20 in points. But now, 10 races into 2017, they have both drivers qualifying for the playoffs (if the season ended today) and a driver in Victory Lane for the first time since 2014. It has taken a considerable amount of time, but RFR seems to have their sea legs back. And Sunday’s Talladega triumph may only be the beginning of their long-term recovery.
Richard Petty Motorsports has also seen an upward trend in performance this season after scuttling one of their cars. The Brian Scott experiment last season in the No. 44 didn’t go well … at all. So “The King” and company decided to go in a direction that had never been done at RPM: run a one-car operation. Aric Almirola has been performing much better in 2017, compared to his dismal 2016 campaign. Richard Petty is synonymous with greatness and winning, but his team has been doing none of that recently. With this downsizing move, RPM’s climb back to the top of the mountain is being accelerated.
Team Penske also won their first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title one year after their No. 77 team, driven by Sam Hornish Jr., was scrapped. Coincidence? I think not. These three teams, along with a handful of others, have seen an uptick in their on-track results and shop morale.
Resources can be shared more easily in a smaller program, while drivers are able to come into their own and become leaders of the team on-track. The personnel that remains, once the consolidation ends are then able to work closer together.
Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports have done it right, don’t get me wrong. But the leadership in place, coupled with the caliber of drivers, top-tier equipment as well as circumstances surrounding their growth have dictated their success as well. RPM, RFR, Penske, etc. have had differing circumstances that resulted in subpar performance.
Brad Keselowski has come into his own as a leader and a superstar in NASCAR, much in part due to the small-sized team he is a part of at Penske. His championship didn’t hurt any, that’s for sure, but I truly believe that he wouldn’t be a Cup champion (as soon as he was) if he had more than one teammate at the time. Plus, sponsorship can be more attractive to a company if they know they will be on a race car for “x” amount of races. With a three or four-car operation, spreading the money means making that deal can be tricky.
Once a team has cemented themselves in the NASCAR world, emerging as a solid organization that can win races and contend for championships, then they can think about expansion. But in my opinion, teams need to hold off on adding cars just because they’re having short-term success. In the long run, they can and will get bit. They’ll be non-contenders, seeking financial stability, struggling to stay on the lead lap and negativity will be flooding the hallways.
Cutting back can be a long process. But it’s often a worthwhile one.
– Davey Segal
The Downsides of Downsizing
Downsizing a race team is not the way to go for long-term success.
I realize Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports are looking much better this season. But there are other factors at play hidden underneath the colossal news both teams cut back during the offseason.
The most important factor is that Ford realized it was starting to trail behind other manufacturers. As a result, it tremendously improved its support for the 2017 season. Ford is now giving all of its teams funds to develop future talent, meaning those teams have less to worry about in the lower divisions and can shift more focus to their veterans in the Cup Series.
Another key factor to RFR’s and RPM’s upswing is Ford’s addition of Stewart-Haas Racing. That means both teams have the opportunity to share information with a multi-car giant capable of winning the championship every year. I realize SHR is not going to share as much information as an extra car in your stable, but the information the team does share will be helpful. What good is receiving extra information when the cars exchanging it both run from 20th on back each week?
RFR was also getting better prior to downsizing. Greg Biffle was the only RFR driver that did not improve his point standing last year compared to 2015, and that likely had more to do with the fact that he was 46 years old. I believe that had RFR placed a younger driver in the No. 16 instead of shutting it down, then the team would be doing even better now than they already are.
The reason for RPM’s struggles last season is that they switched from buying chassis from RFR to building their own. That led to an atrocious start to last season and saw Aric Almirola drop nine spots from his 2015 place in the point standings. I believe that, with a year under its belt, the team is now starting to figure out how to make solid chassis. If the team still had its No. 44 out there (with a driver better than Brian Scott, as he tore up too many of the new chassis), then it would be doing even better.
All of the above are the real reasons those teams have improved this season. Downsizing has little to do with it. If you look at the history of the sport, downsizing a team is essentially like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound; it hardly stops the bleeding.
2017 is not the first time Jack Roush has had to downsize his team. In fact, it is the third time that the team has eliminated a car since the 2009-10 offseason.
At the start of 2009, RFR had five successful full-time teams before it was forced to downsize because of NASCAR’s new four-team limit. One would think that the team would then have more resources to use for less cars and it would yield greater results. However, it resulted in Roush losing another car just two seasons later. Fast forward, and now the once great dynasty is down to just two cars overall. The initial downsize resulted in a freefall for the organization.
Petty is another team that is in a downsizing frenzy. In 2010, RPM had four full-time teams. It downsized to two cars after that season with the expectation it would eventually field more cars again. However, the opposite has happened, as RPM is now down to only its iconic No. 43.
Essentially, it pays off to keep multiple cars on the track, even if all of them are struggling. Multiple opportunities for information that the cars can bounce off each other can get the team facing in the right direction a whole lot quicker than downsizing.[poll id=”9″]
Just look at the success of Joe Gibbs Racing. That team has won a championship every single time it has added a car. JGR first doubled in size in 1999 for Tony Stewart and won a championship in 2000 with Bobby Labonte. It added a third car in 2005 for Jason Leffler and Stewart won the title that same season. Carl Edwards came on board in a fourth car for 2015. The end result? Kyle Busch took home the championship trophy that same season. Such a pattern speaks volumes as to how valuable it is for teams to keep expanding.
While RFR and RPM have shown improvements in their performance this season, I have to believe cutting back will hurt them over the long-term. If both teams do not add back their missing cars after this season, I only see a continuing freefall rather than a bump back up NASCAR’s competition ladder.
– Michael Massie
About the author
Davey is in his fifth season with Frontstretch and currently serves as a multimedia editor and reporter. He authors the "NASCAR Mailbox" column, spearheads the site's video content and hosts the Frontstretch Podcast weekly. He's covered the K&N Pro Series and ARCA extensively for NASCAR.com and currently serves as an associate producer for SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and production assistant for NBC Sports Washington. Follow him on Twitter @DaveyCenter.
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