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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

4 Burning Questions: NASCAR Is Not a Modern Sport

So, was that the biggest upset in the history of NASCAR?

As much crap as Derrike Cope has gotten for… 30 years now?! Jeez, everybody’s getting old. Anyway, when Cope won the 1990 Daytona 500 in fluky fashion, he was at least able to be second coming to the white flag.

Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500 in a shocker, but it wasn’t as surprising in the moment. The No. 21 Ford was fast that week in the draft, and while it was an upset, that car was probably one of the five fastest after unloading the week before.

Brad Keselowski’s upset win with Phoenix Racing in 2009 at Talladega Superspeedway, while arguably the most unlikely in the sport’s history to that point, has been tarnished a bit with hindsight. We know now that Keselowski is a championship-caliber driver and that the team did have a Hendrick Motorsports engine in the Chevrolet.

Richard Brickhouse ended the darkest non-fatality week in NASCAR history with a win in the first ever Talladega Superspeedway race in 1969. But that was with just one series regular, Bobby Isaac, in the field.

With all of that being said, I still don’t know if Justin Haley’s win in a Spire Motorsports Chevrolet in the final July Daytona International Speedway race in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is the biggest upset in history. There’s still David Gilliland‘s surprise NASCAR Xfinity Series win in 2006 when it comes to that.

But in a raw, “did anybody at all think this team would win after unloading?” kind of thought process, probably no situation comes close in 70 years of this stuff.

A betting man wouldn’t put money on the team even being able to stick with the pack in the draft, never mind actually win the race.

A team owned by a talent agency, with cars fielded by Premium Motorsports and an average finish of 32.5 entering the weekend, just won a Cup race. When Butch Bellah created this website in 1998, would he have imagined that sentence would one day be published on it?

There’s been a bit of controversy this week over Spire’s obvious conflict of interest. Drivers represented by Spire such as Haley and Garrett Smithley have enjoyed seat team in the No. 77 this year.

Here’s the dirty little secret, however. NASCAR and conflicts of interest go together like mayonnaise and banana sandwiches supposedly do. It’s a tale as old as time… or in this case, 1950.

The very first 500-mile stock car race, the inaugural Southern 500, was won by a driver in a car with three owners – the track owner, the promoter/sanctioning body owner (Bill France Sr.) and an active driver who competed in a separate car (Curtis Turner). The rest of this column could very well be stories like that, how and when there have been obvious business conflicts since then, probably most notably the 1956 Grand National championship race.

But it’s not going to, because it isn’t that big a deal.

So why is it that this isn’t really a big problem?

NASCAR, ultimately, is not a modern sport.

Hold on, hold on. Put the pitchforks and torches down for a minute. Hear me out.

NASCAR races are athletic competitions, featuring athletes with incredible mental and physical endurance. This is not a knock on those elements.

Rather, look at how the economy works in the NASCAR industry compared to modern sports. These sports have significant revenue sharing streams, enough to call them socialist in nature. This is enough to where most actual professional sport teams can change their fortunes from year to year. Everybody gets an equal amount of money from the TV contracts, the biggest source of revenue for just about every major sport in America. The leagues are ultimately only as strong or as credible as their worst teams.

Meanwhile, compare it to NASCAR. The tracks end up taking the vast majority of the TV rights dollars, and the percentage that the teams get are most definitely not evenly distributed. One of the reasons Spire exists is because of just how valuable that old Furniture Row Racing charter is and how just showing up every week after starting from nothing will, in effect, allow the charter to pay itself.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (in which case hey, Spire won a Cup race last weekend), you should be well aware by now that sponsors are the bread and butter of race teams. And yet, they have to compete with themselves, tracks, teams from other racing series, the television providers and NASCAR itself to secure that lifeblood.

Let’s also be clear that almost nobody starts small and ends up big in racing. Businessmen such as Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs all entered NASCAR in the past 35 years and were regularly competing for wins almost right off the bat.

Nobody goes the Furniture Row route because that isn’t really a route. Front Row Motorsports entered the sport at about the same time FRR did and is completely hopeless outside of plate tracks. JTG Daugherty Racing is more-or-less at the exact same level it was 10 years ago, now with just an extra car finishing 22nd every week. FRR was able to explode in part thanks to luck, good investment from car manufacturers and finding one of the best crew chief-driver pairings in the past 15 years.

The rich stay rich in NASCAR, unless they have no clue what they’re doing (Hi, George Gillette, how are you doing?), while the poor either stay poor or get out. Teams such as Spire or Premium Motorsports have been able to exist for years without putting their best possible product on the racetrack and have been rewarded by staying in business. This isn’t a modern sport, this is late stage capitalism.

Spire winning a Cup race is really just the icing on that cake. At this point, there’s no getting off this roller coaster for the industry. We’re just along for the ride.

So does anybody remember that lightning controversy last week?

Last week, I criticized NASCAR’s lightning policy after a very close call at Chicagoland Speedway.

Well, the powers that be definitely made up for it this week, didn’t they?

The ending to the race at Daytona was plagued with lightning strikes. It takes a lot of courage for any racing series to not ignore lightning from 8 miles away just to try to get to the checkered flag before the rain started to come in, but they were able to do it this time around.

As much as fans don’t like it, it is a rule for their safety. We’ve seen one fan die within the last few years due to being outside when a thunderstorm was close at a NASCAR event, and that’s one too many.

Hopefully, NASCAR doesn’t try to cater to people’s demands and make the window shorter for a stoppage in action.

Who might conquer turn 3 at Kentucky Speedway?

This week’s Cup race is at the newest track on the circuit, Kentucky Speedway. Kentucky was, at first, a fairly one-dimensional 1.5-mile oval. Now, after a number of changes, the track has become one of the most unique of those types of tracks on the schedule.

Three active drivers have absolutely dominated the track, regardless of configuration. Martin Truex Jr. is looking for his third straight win in the Bluegrass State. Keselowski has won three times there, including in 2014 where he led 199 of 267 laps and broke his hand in victory lane. Kyle Busch, Mr. Inaugural, also won in 2015 during his comeback tour from two broken legs.

You might be tempted to look at Jimmie Johnson in fantasy, with the seven-time champion having led 206 laps and having five top-10 finishes in eight starts. But 182 of those laps happened in one race, and Johnson has an average finish of just 29th in the last three Kentucky races.

Still, with the Hendrick team entering this weekend with a ton of momentum after a dominant performance at Chicagoland two weeks ago, you’d be hard pressed not have at least one of the four as a sleeper. William Byron has just a single Kentucky start, but he finished ahead of his average finish last year in that race and is the only Hendrick driver besides Johnson who has yet to win in 2019. He could definitely be a factor in the late stages of these races before long.

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About Michael Finley

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Michael has watched NASCAR for 15 years and began covering the sport five years ago. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and a proud member of the National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA).

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7 comments

  1. Avatar

    I’m going to pretend that I know all the financials of Nascar and the teams, and I know nascar likes to wrongly put all their eggs in one basket, but what happens to these owners of the super teams when they decide to stop owning these teams? Will they leave the sport completely? Where will the sport be if they do?

    To limit what could be a devastating blow to the sport should this happen, one has to wonder if the sport would be better off as a whole if everyone shared in more of the revenue pie, like the other major sports. This to me would eliminate the reliance so much on sponsorship. To me the bowing down to sponsors is killing this sport. From cookie cutter drivers, to drivers in Cup that probably don’t deserve a ride, to drivers looking like walking bilboards, sponsors have too much control of what goes on.

    My suggestion would be to first, give Nascar a bigger piece of the pie of the tv revenue, since it their sandbox. Next, distribute the remaining tv revenue to all the teams based on how many races they run each season. If you want to make it competitive based, then, only award the revenue based on that team finishing in a certain position or better each week to receive their piece of the pie.

    The out of control costs, sponsor controlled dynamics of the sport as they exist, to me, aren’t sustainable. Something needs to be done in order to keep teams coming into the sport. I would rather have a garage full of 50 cars on Friday and send people home instead of 35, with roughly 5-10 starting and parking so they can survive another week.

    I’m sure there are smarter people than me that might have better ideas, but things are different now than back in the day. Until Nascar changes it philosophy and values all teams and not just a select few, I don’t really think much will change and things could just be getting started as far as the downfall of the sport.

  2. Avatar

    Your comment about Gibbs is somewhat off the mark. They went winless in 92, only won the Daytona 500 in 93, and didn’t win until Charlotte 94. They even failed to qualify at North Wilkesboro in 94. They really were not a contender for wins on a consistent basis until the Labonte years.

    Rick almost went bankrupt until Bodine saved him. They did win 3 races their inaugural season, but winless in 85. They struck lightning in a bottle with Richmond. They are closer to FRR than you think considering the team literally was almost bankrupt.

    RCR is literally FRR from the old times. Team struggled for a decade before obviously Dale and Rudd put them on the map.

    Haas was a total non factor for years despite seeing Hendrick support (similar to FRR) Tony then turned that team around, but they were literally a backmarker for years just like FRR.

    Point is, most of the top teams on the circuit are closer to FRR, not unlike it. While it may be tougher today with the charter system, it can still be done in the right circumstances.

    • Avatar

      What the hell is the matter with you?
      Don’t let facts stand in the way of a good story. None of the information you provided supports the writer’s argument, so it isn’t relevant.
      If NASCAR doesn’t want non-chartered teams like Spire to win then change the rules accordingly… “In the event of a race that cannot be completed due to weather or some other act of God, if the race has completed two stages, then the first chartered team in the running order will be declared the winner”.

      There. Will that make everyone happy?

    • Avatar

      Spire has a charter. The reason the team exists is because they have Furniture Row Racing’s charter, which is one of the most valuable ones to have due to the team’s success in the past three years. The whole reason why the cars are not showing any signs of being legitimately competitive is because Spire is trying to just pay off the loan they took out to buy the charter. Which they have said they should be able to do if they just show up every week.

      As far as your points about the other teams, keep in mind that FRR did not have a driver who averaged a finish better than 28th until their fifth total season on the circuit. They also did not finish top 20 in points until Kurt got into the car in year eight.

      Meanwhile, Gibbs broke through both of those milestones in year one and finished fourth in points in year two. Hendrick did the same and finished fifth in points in year two.

      Childress is an anomaly, but also keep in mind that I was referring to teams that were established in the past 35 or so years, like FRR was. Finally, Haas did absolutely nothing in six years, showing no real signs of improvement before Tony came in and everything completely changed over night. You really can’t compare Haas with any other team on the circuit in stuff like this.

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