2017 is the year of long-term contracts in NASCAR.
Clearly, team owners have not paid much attention to Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, where multi-year deals are hurting organizations left and right.
Hopefully, NASCAR teams are smart and will not make the mistake the New York Mets made with Bobby Bonilla. The Metropolitans have to pay Bonilla $1.19 million every July 1, which happens to be this Saturday, the day of NASCAR’s return to Daytona International Speedway.
The Mets aren’t the only team to mess up when signing a long-term deal with an athlete, but they are certainly the perfect example of what not to do. Deron Williams once inked a five-year, $98 million contract with the Brooklyn Nets. But that’s nothing. Rick DiPietro signed a 15-year, $67.5 million deal with the New York Islanders, which he didn’t even fulfill because his career ended seven seasons (11 overall) into the contract.
So let’s hope that NASCAR teams have learned from the mistakes of their counterparts when it comes to long-term deals.
Sometimes, you’ll end up with a lifetime contract like Jeff Gordon. Other times? Well, good luck to the owner who risks it all to put all their chips in when the dealer is ready to pass out the deck.
Q: What does Chase Elliott’s contract extension mean for Hendrick Motorsports? – Wesley R., San Diego
A: This could be a bigger gamble than it seems for Hendrick Motorsports. The team is signing Elliott through 2022, which is slightly less than Logano’s contract extension (2023) and exceeds that of HMS teammate Johnson, who is signed through 2020.
Elliott still has not driven his No. 24 car into Victory Lane, something he expected to do well before he ran what is now 57 races in NASCAR’s premier division. While the performance is certainly there, consistently running in the top 10 and as of the last month, the
top five, he still has an egg in the win column.
While the Georgia native should break into the Winner’s Circle sooner rather than later, it is a bold move to sign a winless driver to a contract spanning several years. It is even bolder to do so when each of the driver’s sponsors are only signed through 2018, even though they have the potential to extend for at least part of Elliott’s new deal.
Elliott’s potential is endless, using lessons learned from not only his veteran teammates, but his father as well.
He could potentially become NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver in 2018, taking the reigns from teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who became the most popular man in the sport after Elliott’s father, Bill Elliott, last won the award in 2002.
That in itself would make the extension worthwhile for HMS as the team will attempt to fill a marketing gap that is potentially damaging to the organization. Earnhardt’s departure could mean a shuffling of sponsors within the four-car team, along with searching for strategies to make its future driver line-up as popular as ever before.
But for Elliott, the popularity will only go so far if he does not win frequently as he continues to settle into the sport’s most prestigious level. He’s proven he can compete for victories, but putting together a complete race is lacking, making this extension premature.
His numbers are quite respectable, finishing 10th in the championship standings last year, earning 10 top fives and 17 top 10s, along with poles at the first two restrictor plate races of that season. This year, he is continuing the pace with five top fives and 10 top 10s through 16 contests.
If he doesn’t win, what do the results mean? They are just numbers without trophies to put in the entrance of the Nos. 5 and 24 shop.
But if Elliott does win, the gamble is an incredibly wise one on Hendrick’s part. It gives the team potential to market Elliott for several years, developing an on-going relationship with sponsors in an effort to build the program for once team owner Rick Hendrick, 67, retires.
And Elliott’s deal is incredibly important moving forward, securing at least two of the team’s four rides through 2020 and beyond, even if he doesn’t succeed like originally expected.
Once the organization figures out when to move XFINITY Series rookie William Byron to the Cup Series, which should be either 2019 or 2020, and determines who will fill Earnhardt’s ride, the team can begin its process at determining what is best for the future. Elliott will certainly be an integral part of the team’s plans, but he needs to show Hendrick Motorsports why this deal is a smart one.
Q: Could we see 16 winners in Cup before the playoffs begin? – Lisa K., Charlotte
A: Of the 11 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers to lead more than 100 laps this year, four are winless and one of them has an encumbered win.
10 folks are locked into the playoffs, which will once again feature 16 drivers. With 10 races left before the cutoff race at Richmond International Raceway, all four Joe Gibbs Racing cars are winless, and so are three Hendrick Motorsports drivers, two Stewart-Haas Racing drivers, amongst others.
Yeah, a lot can happen come September.
For the first time since introducing this playoff format during the 2014 season, NASCAR might find itself with a good problem — parity at the end of races. Drivers like Kyle Busch have dominated events, but they have failed to tame the competition when it counts the most. Late-race cautions are shaping finishes — for better or for worst — and because of it, there might be 16-plus winners once the playoffs start.
Let’s take a look at the drivers who haven’t won that have a legitimate chance to do so at tracks other than Daytona International Speedway this coming weekend since anyone can win there as long as they stay out of trouble.
Besides Busch, Hamlin and veteran Matt Kenseth have yet to win. All three of them should very well visit Victory Lane at least once each before the playoffs start. Add in rookie Daniel Suarez, who could sneak in a win, and you have four drivers right there who can make the playoffs.
That puts 14 in the playoffs.
Then, there is the aforementioned Logano, who is just at the start of a major contract with Team Penske. After his encumbered win at Richmond, he needs another one because points will likely not get him into the playoffs.
Elliott is still winless as well, along with Earnhardt and Kasey Kahne. Say Earnhardt wins at Daytona and then Elliott wins at a track like Michigan International Speedway, you have potentially 15-18 winners already — 10, plus three-four JGR drivers, Logano and the HMS guys.
Oh, and let’s not forget about Jamie McMurray, who like teammate Kyle Larson, is riding on Cloud 9. The No. 1 team would currently be in the playoffs based on points, sitting eighth in the standings and 13th in the playoff grid. In the midst of what could be a career-best season at this pace in terms of top fives and top 10s, if he wins, it would be icing on the cake and would guarantee 16 winners before the playoffs.
AJ Allmendinger is another driver who can sneak in a win. The road course ace is having a rough season, sitting 27th in points. But a win at Watkins Glen International will propel this team into the playoffs and could give the sport a situation that sees more than 16 winners.
Clint Bowyer is eager for a victory. After a disappointing second-place run at Sonoma Raceway, it is unbelievable to say that he could be disappointed after an unforgettable 2016. But that shows he is back and hungry. With more speed than the No. 14 car has shown in years, he and teammate Danica Patrick have potential to sneak in a win at Daytona, with Bowyer being able to do so at a track like Loudon as well.
The parity in NASCAR might not be present early in races, but it is certainly there at the end, when cautions breed cautions and strategy comes into play. The right strategy could be one that makes a team’s season, and it could prove that points still matter if there are more than 16 winners once the checkered flag waves at Richmond.