Did You Notice? …. That Brad Keselowski’s signing narrows down the list of Silly Season question marks? Keselowski’s extension, announced Tuesday, keeps him in the Team Penske No. 2 Ford with sponsorship from Miller Lite. The move came paired with a new contract for crew chief Paul Wolfe as well; the duo will continue their successful partnership, a marriage which began in the NASCAR XFINITY Series prior to the start of the 2010 season.
Rumors Keselowski would move to Hendrick Motorsports, the team he left for Penske following the 2009 season, proved to be little more than idle talk. For me, the most important domino in the whole equation was Miller Lite. Keselowski’s age (33) had some thinking the beer company would move over to 23-year-old Ryan Blaney once Penske expands to three cars.
So what happens now? NASCAR’s free agent pool has been depleted. Brickyard 400 winner Kasey Kahne (whose contract still runs through 2018) and Matt Kenseth head a shrinking list of marquee names. In my view, the focus now turns not toward the drivers but the owners. The franchising system, entering its third year in 2018 will cause a number of guaranteed charter spots to move around.
Exactly how and who purchases those charters will go a long way to determining who winds up where for 2018. Let’s examine some of these 36 guaranteed spots whose future (and the money that comes with it) remains a question mark.
There are four charters currently leased to other teams for the 2017 season. Under NASCAR rules, those teams can only hold onto those charters for one year; after Homestead in November, they must buy them from their owners or give up their guaranteed spot.
Let’s start easy and go from there. Leased charter one is with JTG Daugherty Racing, which rented one from Roush Fenway Racing for its second team, currently driven by Chris Buescher. All parties involved claim JTG Daugherty will stay with two teams and Buescher will drive the No. 37 for them in 2018. RFR, for its part, is happy remaining at two cars. So expect JTG to simply purchase this charter outright and keep Buescher until RFR has the ability to expand once again. At that point, the organization will simply buy a new charter from somebody else.
The second leased charter is with Go FAS Racing, which rented out the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 44 Ford’s spot for one year. The single-car effort with Matt DiBenedetto will supposedly remain the same next year. The No. 32 Ford also already has a charter of its own. I know, it’s a little confusing … the team rented that out to the Wood Brothers for 2017, expecting the No. 21 Ford to do far better than them. That ups the value of Go FAS Racing’s own charter, long-term in case NASCAR decides to strip them from underperforming teams following the 2018 season. (NASCAR rules state the three lowest cars in owner points after three years could be vulnerable to losing their spots in the field.)
With Go FAS set to take its own charter back, that means Richard Petty Motorsports must use the No. 44 charter or sell it. Chances are they’ll use it, attempting to put Darrell Wallace Jr. in a second car after his admirable job subbing for an injured Aric Almirola. As we’ve discussed before, the hard reality is Wallace is a gold coin NASCAR wants to protect at all costs. Trumpeting their diversity efforts, it would be a major loss to have the first African-American driver running the Cup Series in a decade sitting on the sidelines with no money. Add in Petty, the sport’s living legend? It seems reasonable that they’ll get a deal done, bringing the charter back to RPM.
That leaves the Wood Brothers, who will lose their charter after the season and once again be forced to lease from someone else. That’s why having a guy like Paul Menard in the fold, then would be a major help. Menard not only brings family sponsorship to the team should he sign there but a potential charter from Richard Childress Racing. RCR is likely to scale down to two teams, allowing its charter to be leased out rather than try to squeeze the finances to stay at three.
Putting Menard at the Wood Brothers while Blaney moves to Penske would stabilize their single-car operation and allow them to continue full-time, potentially with a charter as part of the package deal. Remember, too, the Woods are a satellite of Team Penske. Should Blaney need sponsorship to fill out a new, third car you wonder if the Menards chain would be all too happy to oblige a few extra races as the primary backer of an up-and-coming talent.
The fourth and final leased charter sits with TriStar Motorsports, a big unknown after the death this week of owner Mark Smith from cancer. Smith’s son, Bryan, has been running the team and pledged to continue it in his father’s memory. The charter comes from Front Row Motorsports, initially planning to run a third car next season but whose plans remain unknown. It seems plausible FRM could just simply sell off their charter to TriStar, giving the No. 72 a guaranteed spot for 2018. Or how about Penske’s third team? That’s a top-tier Ford outfit that would love to pay an underfunded Ford partner for a guaranteed spot.
CHARTERS THAT COULD BE SOLD
For teams like Penske or potential newcomer GMS Racing, there’s a few teams out there who’d potentially sell. BK Racing and Premium Motorsports, two teams running near the back of the field already have a history of selling their guaranteed spots. BK Racing parted with the No. 83 charter this year, selling it to Front Row (which was then leased to TriStar). Premium, meanwhile, sold one of their charters to Furniture Row Racing’s No. 77 while keeping just one for their two-car program.
Both teams operate with smaller financial budgets. The $2-3 million boost these charters have reportedly gone for could go a long way. As we’ve seen this year, filling the field with 40 cars has been a struggle, so it’s not like these organizations would be at major risk of DNQs. More problematic would be the purse reduction for being a non-chartered team, reported to be at least 10-15 percent less. It’s a major deterrent to bringing in new ownership willing to test the waters full-time in Cup.
The aforementioned No. 77 of Furniture Row Racing is another option. Sponsorship remains from 5-Hour Energy but none of the free agents left on the market appear a great fit for their branding. Does that mean owner Barney Visser will shut it down or find some way to bring a veteran like Kenseth into the fold? He could also take a chance on a young driver like Christopher Bell, sponsor friendly but far from proven at the sport’s top level.
Less likely to sell but potentially out there are the No. 33 of Circle Sport/TMG and the No. 95 of Leavine Family Racing. Both single-car outfits own charters and claim they’re committed to the sport long-term. But both have sponsorship concerns, even with Circle Sport’s recent signing of Hulu for underperforming sophomore Jeffrey Earnhardt. LFR lost backer Thrivent Financial at the end of last season and has never fully replaced them.
Teams I wouldn’t expect to be selling are the No. 10 of Stewart-Haas Racing and the No. 5 of Hendrick Motorsports. Both would command top dollar for their charters, well beyond the sale prices we’ve seen and each owner has committed to remaining a four-car team. They’re more likely to throw Kenseth or Patrick in there, one-year stopgaps for their own situations rather than just lease the charter out to someone for pennies on the dollar.
Confused yet? I sure am. The franchising system is clearly adding another layer to an already complicated Silly Season.
Did You Notice? …. The drama of waiting to throw the caution flag in NASCAR Overtime for the Brickyard 400? It was clear as day the sport waited to throw the yellow after a multi-car wreck developed on the backstretch behind leader Kasey Kahne.
NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell toed the company line on the decision. But this quote during an NBC Sports appearance was telling in terms of NASCAR’s thinking.
“If we would have red-flagged the race, we would have never got it back in,” he said. “There was clearly oil on the racetrack.”
O’Donnell’s right. Considering how long it took to clean up other wrecks late in that race it would have been pitch black for the next green-white-checkered restart. NASCAR, was damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. I think they believed throwing the yellow a little late could be more easily explained away than the embarrassment of ending the race due to darkness. Remember, this race spilled into primetime (spiking ratings 18 percent) so why make a potential choice that alienates new fans?
We talk all the time about NASCAR making a subjective decision, like with debris fans don’t get a chance to see. But this choice? They saw it all unfold in real time. People can argue at the water cooler whether officials should have waited a few extra seconds. Ending early due to darkness? And a long list of wrecks? That’s harder to explain and brings in all sorts of icky side points (like why did the race start so late to begin with? Why did it take so long to remove cars? Etc.)
Instead, by waiting to throw the yellow, NASCAR got a relatively decent ending; Kahne was also so far ahead Keselowski needed a restart to catch him. Of all the questionable decisions from series officials over the years, this one made the most sense to me.
Did You Notice? …. Quick hits before taking off….
- The sport should absolutely run the XFINITY Series package next season at the Brickyard. Just think for a second how awful that Cup ending would have been had Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. not wrecked themselves. Busch would have led 140 laps, he’d have only Truex within a country mile down the stretch and your ratings would be down, not up. It was a great ending by comparison, but NASCAR officials know they got away with one. The sport would be foolish not to try this plate package out in a cooler September for 2018. Anything to bring fans back to an empty Indianapolis….
- Kudos to DiBenedetto for an eighth-place finish in Sunday’s Brickyard 400. He’s one of just four drivers to earn top 10s both here and at February’s Daytona 500, joining Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne and AJ Allmendinger. Oddly enough, only Kahne has qualified for the playoffs at this point.
- Keep an eye on Chase Elliott, whose blown engine at Indy left him clinging to one of the final playoff spots. Elliott has seen rival Blaney blow by him in recent weeks. He’s still winless and heading into a stretch of races where he ran 33rd and 13th last year. A similar set of subpar finishes could leave him on the outside of the playoffs looking in heading to Michigan.
- Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. still win? A lot of people look at Michigan as his best chance, but don’t sleep on how good he’s been at Pocono in recent years. This track gets weird, evidenced by Chris Buescher’s major upset last year and the right pit strategy can work wonders.