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Beside the Rising Ride: Man at the Top 2

The Peter principle is a longtime cautionary career warning. It states that within a hierarchy, men or women will tend to rise to their level of incompetence. Thus, a hotshot entry level management new hire might do a bang-up job drawing notice and praise from his superiors. As such, he gets a promotion further up the chain of command. Perhaps he does that job well too and earns himself a reputation as an “up and comer.” According to the Peter principle, that cycle of promotions and more challenging positions will continue until the once fresh-faced wunderkind finds himself with a job that is simply beyond his capabilities to the extent that he can’t grow to meet the challenge in a timely manner. At that point, his superiors and subordinates will overlook his previous accomplishments and start wondering, “Where did this moron come from and what is the most expeditious way to kick him to the curb to limit the damage he’s doing to the firm?”

It would have been far better for that woman or fellow man to have kept the position they had before the final promotion. Doubtless they were making decent money, doing a capable job gives folks some level of inner satisfaction, and they had a certain degree of status within the firm. It surely beats finding one’s self unemployed and worried what kind of reference he’s going to get from that firm where he’d once been a rising star when he (or she) begins handing out resumes. Probably something like, “I don’t think that moron could sell mugs of cold beer for a nickel at a bikers’ picnic.” 

You won’t find it on any calendar at the Hallmark store, but we are currently in the midst of what’s called “Silly Season.” There’s a lot of moving parts that have to mesh before we know which drivers will be driving for which team and which ones are going to be out a seat when the game of musical chairs stops. 

“Silly Season” is a term originally coined by the English press to describe the dog days of summer. Most of the Parliament and other elected officials were on vacation (or perhaps on holiday, given the Brits’ vernacular), so nothing much was being accomplished. Still, members of the press were expected to come up with columns and stories to keep the newspapers full and the talking heads babbling on and on. Stories that might have been dismissed with a wave of a hand the rest of the year became headlines during silly season. 

In NASCAR racing, I believe Mike Joy, now of FOX, was first to use the term to describe this part of the season when drivers without a seat start courting car owners with one to fill. Of course it was our long term friend Jayski who mined the motherlode of silly season, if I recall correctly, because he was curious as to where one of his favorites drivers, Lake Speed, was going to end up the following year.  

The main focus of Silly Season this year has been on the three NXS drivers the media has dubbed the “Big 3” (which was a silly thing to call them, but it is after all the dog days of summer). Those drivers, Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick, are all thought to be future Cup series stars. Perhaps. Or perhaps the Peter principle will kick in. All three drivers have talent and are showing some nascent semblances of personalities. But I will assure you no matter how the deck is dealt, it won’t be Bell, Custer and Reddick in a three-way scrap for next year’s Cup title. It’s the nature of the sport that the New Kid in Town often turns into “Old News,” the driver everyone is speculating is going to lose his ride to make room for “The Next Big Thing.” 

By coincidence, the Big 3 each drive different makes of cars: Bell a Toyota, Custer a Ford and Reddick a Chevy. The teams they drive for have alliances or in fact are official sub-teams of JGR, SHR and RCR.

Part of the puzzle looked to be falling into place with some announcements made last week. Erik Jones signed a one-year extension with Joe Gibbs Racing. If any of JGR’s current staff of four Cup drivers was going to be replaced, it seemed likely that Jones would have been the odd man out, and Toyota is apparently intent on keeping Bell under their umbrella. At the same time, Matt DiBenedetto released a rather melancholy announcement that he wouldn’t be driving the No, 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota next year. That seat will apparently go to Bell. DiBenedetto got the boot this time around, but Jones, driving the fourth JGR Cup Toyota for the mothership, is on notice there’s someone breathing down his neck if he doesn’t run near the leaders of the pack in 2020. Typically, Gibbs signs multi-year deals with his drivers, allegedly at sponsors’ insistence. 

The big loser in this shuffle of the cars was DiBenedetto, who is looking for a new ride for 2020 despite a David and Goliath-like second-place finish Saturday night at Bristol. The chances of the Leavine Family Racing winning a Cup race are about roughly equal to the Philadelphia Flyers winning the Stanley Cup. 

Even prior to Saturday night’s “Miracle in the Soup Bowl” second-place finish, like many people, I was a bit surprised by the announcement in that DiBenedetto has been enjoying some strong finishes as of late, including three top-10 results in the last six Cup races. That, despite the fact that Leavine Family Racing typically isn’t running in the first third of the pack. DiBenedetto has scored three of the team’s total of five top-five results this season. While he’s normally not the sort of driver you’d hear much about, DiBenedetto has gone out of his way to gain some name recognition, engaging with fans and the media on social media and doing things with dances and wigs at Bristol during drivers’ intros better left unspoken. 

If DiBenedetto’s announcement was a bit melancholy, the rest of what he said was upbeat and hopeful. He wants to keep driving at the Cup level and feels that he’s earned that chance given his results with a team and in cars that can hardly be called top-tier. He remained sportsmanlike, wishing his soon to be former team and teammates success and all good things going forward. It can be hard sometimes to stay classy after you’ve gotten the boot, as I can attest personally. 

Recall, these are real peoples’ lives. Most of us only see the Cup drivers on TV. As such, it’s sometimes hard to recall these guys aren’t like Kramer, Rachel and Sheldon, actors playing a role. What goes on in the lives of those characters on TV has nothing to do with the life of the artists who portray them. 

Real life can be complicated. David Ragan announced this week he will not return to racing in the Cup series next year. While he’s won two races, Ragan has never spent a full season in competitive equipment. In addition to that, he wants to spend more time with his wife and children, something that often weighs heavily on the minds of competitors in a sport that involves being on the road the better part of at least 38 weekends each year. 

So why would somebody surrender a seat in a good truck or NXS entry with competitive speed to move on up to the Cup series?  It used to be about the money, but drivers in all three of NASCAR’s three touring decisions don’t make money the way the drivers that came before them in the sport’s gold rush days did. The gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” among the upper and lower tier teams seems to grow wider every year. There are only so many top-notch rides available in the Cup series, and they don’t change hands too often.

I once asked a former Cup driver about an announcement that he’d be running select Truck Series races that season. He told me that wasn’t the case because “you don’t get paid anything even if you win in the trucks.” I didn’t think to have him guess what people got paid to report on the Truck Series (or even the upper series) back in that era. I wouldn’t have wanted him throwing change in my empty coffee cup. 

To what extent is success in the Cup series an indication of future success in the Cup series? The relationship seems more coincidental in some cases than causal. The last two Xfinity (or Busch) series champions to win a Cup title as well were Brad Keselowski (NXS champion in 2010) and Kyle Busch (2009 NXS titlist.) Kevin Harvick has won both titles; the Busch series in 2001 and 2006 and top honors in the Cup Series in 2014. Prior to that, Martin Truex Jr. was Busch series champion in 2004 and 2005 before his career eventually got detoured after he threw in his lot with the scoundrels at Michael Waltrip Racing. The only other Busch champion to eventually earn a Cup title since 1982 was Bobby Labonte, who was Busch champion in 1991 and the Cup titlist in 2000. 

You’ll recall Labonte and Truex didn’t exactly set the world on fire when they first graduated to the Cup series. In fact, the last eight Busch/NXS series champions have combined to win a total of 10 Cup races to date, with Chase Elliott contributing five of those wins. William Byron and Daniel Suarez (NXS champions in 2017 and 2016, respectively) have yet to win a race despite Byron having been touted as the spiritual heir to the dynasties of Jeff Gordon (never a Busch series champ) and Jimmie Johnson (neither was he).

The career of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. can serve as a cautionary tale to NXS drivers looking to move up to Cup. While he’s now best known as the driver who’s hometown is named after a twig, Stenhouse was Busch champion in both 2011 and 2012. Stenhouse won a combined eight races in those two seasons, with six of them won in 2012. Back then he was in fact “the next big thing” and a Cup champion to be.

Oddly enough, to date both Custer and Bell have won five NXS races this season, earning them the “can’t miss” moniker. Obviously, Stenhouse turned out to be “no big deal.” He started racing full time in the Cup series for Jack Roush in 2013, taking the wheel from Matt Kenseth in the No. 17 car after Matt decided to move onto greener pastures. That year he managed a total of three top-10 finishes with a best of third at Talladega in the fall, and an average finish of 19th, matching where he ended up in the year end points standings. 

It appears currently Daniel Hemric is a bit nervous about his Cup ride in 2020 despite having a signed contract with RCR. Childress admits he’s talking to Reddick about a potential Cup ride next year, and Grampy obviously isn’t going to give his grandson Austin Dillon the boot. RCR could potentially add a third team, but that’s easier said than done.

With Bell headed to the No. 95 team, that leaves Cole Custer still needing to find a ride if he wishes to move up. Roger Penske could potentially add a fourth team, but that depends largely on sponsorship being obtained. Over at Ford’s other headline team, Stewart-Haas Racing, rumors are rampant about the future of Clint Bowyer, and he isn’t even bothering to deny them while focusing on making a last ditch attempt to squirm into the playoffs. Suarez says he’s all set to go next year with a signed contract with SHR. Best of luck with that. Recall the old mathematical equation, “Signed Contract < The Paper it is Printed On.”

The other Ford teams in the Cup series include Roush Racing, with pilots Ryan Newman and former whiz kid Stenhouse, and the Wood Brothers’ satellite team to Penske, currently driven by Paul Menard

If success in the AAA Series doesn’t necessarily equate to success in the Cup garage, what does a lack of success in NXS mean to a driver’s future? In two years of full-time Busch competition, Gordon won three races and finished a best of fourth in the standings. He’s got more Cup titles than Busch wins scored as a series regular (Gordon has won a total of five Busch wins, three of them after he moved full time to Cup).

Seven-time Cup champion Johnson spent two full seasons in the Busch Series and won just one race in that series (Chicago 2001). When most people try to recall Johnson in the Busch Series, their best recollections are of the time that Johnson lost his brakes at Watkins Glen, crashed into the Styrofoam barriers, than leaped out of his car as if he was pleased as punch by the unexpected off-track foray. I recall thinking at the time, “Wow, if that cat is that happy to wreck he must be some sort of idiot boy.”

Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart eventually won 11 Busch races, but all of those wins were scored after he’d already moved up to the Cup level in 1999. Stewart never even ran a full season in the Busch Series. He is best recalled in that series for almost getting in a fistfight with both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his stepmom in Colorado. As those prospectuses always read, “Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.”

So congratulations to all the “next big things” in Cup racing and next generation of the “next big things” that will follow them as inevitably as night will follow day and fat kids will follow the ice cream truck in August. I wish you all success. But keep in mind the Peter principle and the flight of Icarus. If you’re going to try to ascend to the heights, make sure there’s someplace nice and soft for you to land if you happen to fall. And meanwhile, perhaps you all ought to invite Stenhouse out for a beer and ask him how being “the next big thing” worked out for him and why. Be decent, guys, and pick up the tab when you do. 

Here comes a fireman, here comes a cop
Here comes a wrench, here comes a car hop
Been going on forever, it ain’t ever gonna stop
Everybody wants to be the man at the top

-Bruce Springsteen- 

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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10 thoughts on “Beside the Rising Ride: Man at the Top 2”

  1. It just shows that success in any series is dependent on some intangibles that can’t be predicted or manufactured. The history books are full of “first round picks” that were supposed to be great but fizzled out soon after the ink had dried on the contract. There is no formula or algorithm that assures success anywhere.

  2. wow peter principle, been about 35 yrs since i’ve seen that mentioned.

    looking around here at work i really believe that it still exists in business today. i am surrounded by a bunch of people promoted to the level of incompetence. i sit and shake my head. these young people haven’t a clue.

    be interesting to see where these non-gibbs young guys land. they should be able to adapt to new car better than the older drivers. time will tell.

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