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Fire on Fridays: Is The Pay To Play Era In NASCAR Ending?

As long as racing has been in existence, money has been paramount.

That will never change, but as of late, the concept seems to be morphing to some degree.

When the sport was at its peak in the early-to-mid 2000s, sponsors aplenty came into NASCAR like clockwork. Heck, I can only imagine what it’d be like if a team told a sponsor to get in line to be a part of their organization.

Back then, teams hired the best driver, then found a sponsor. Now, sponsors are few and far between (relatively speaking), and teams hire a driver based upon sponsorship they bring to the table.

It’s been that way for a long time, but has been magnified since the recession hit. The dollar became more important than ever, and motorsports wasn’t an exception. Unfortunately, drivers with talent were on the outs, and drivers with money were on the way in.

That’s always been the name of the game. But recently, there’s been some glimmers of hope that the “pay to play” mantra that’s been dominating the sports headlines negatively when it comes to “Silly Season” may be on the outs.

See: Ross Chastain. Rumors as of late are that he’ll be driving for Kaulig Racing next season in the Xfinity Series. Sure, Nutrien Ag Solutions loves Chastain, and will likely come over with him. But he didn’t get the Chip Ganassi Racing ride and put it in Victory Lane with a sponsor backing him. A team did.

How about Chris Buescher’s move to Roush Fenway Racing? After winning the championship with RFR in the Xfinity Series, he moved to Front Row Motorsports in Cup with basically nothing. Then to JTG Daugherty Racing with, again, basically nothing.

Now, back to Roush he goes, bringing little to no sponsorship. Jack Roush admitted he made a mistake by letting Buescher go in the first place, and he’s convinced his sponsors this move will be worthwhile for them.

Tyler Reddick‘s grandfather has ties to Broken Bow Records, which has helped with some sponsorship in his Xfinity Series season. But his move to Cup has been strictly performance based. Richard Childress will tell you as much.

Ryan Preece had to dig deep in his pockets to get a chance at his ultimate goal: winning in the Cup Series. He bet on himself by securing some events with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series, made the most of them, and JTG took a chance on him.

Alex Bowman replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. and sponsors Nationwide and Axalta staying on, after the most popular driver for almost two decades steps away? That speaks volumes.

But there are still questions to be answered as to whether the proverbial problem has been solved. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. … will he land on his feet somewhere? Will he bring any sponsorship with him and if so, how much? If not, what does he do?

For all those that haven’t brought sponsorship but wound up in competitive rides, there are countless more that can’t say the same.

See: Tommy Joe Martins

I get the pessimism from most. But NASCAR seems to be in a better place than they have been when it comes to this issue. And that’s a start.

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Davey joined the site prior to the 2017 season and currently serves as a multimedia editor and reporter. He authors the bi-weekly column "Fire on Fridays" and spearheads Frontstretchs video content. He's covered the ARCA Menards Series East and West extensively for NASCAR.com and currently serves as a production assistant for NBC Sports Washington.

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3 comments

  1. Avatar

    The real ‘peaches’ are those drivers that are so talented that they have a snowball of money that they have gathered moving up thru the ranks or are so damn good that the money follows. Stewart, Larson, Bell, Elliott, Byron, one of the Burtons, etc all were able to attract money because of talent displayed at lower levels. The number of race winning Pay to Play drivers is rather small.
    But they do serve the vital function of getting in lower level rides and pissing off Kyle Busch

  2. Avatar

    Back in the day, owners like Jr. Johnson, Bud Moore and the Wood Brothers asked a driver if he would drive for them and if he liked their offer he would accept it. And they would win in the cars because they earned the chance in the car. Now, drivers go to owners with an offer and the owner decides if he wants to accept it. It has nothing to do with deserving the ride.

  3. Avatar

    The upcoming indicator as to the state of pay-to-play drivers will be the ongoing negotiations between Daniel Suarez, his sponsor Arris and SHR. Gene Haas originally expected to have Arris come over to SHR at the same funding level that Suarez had when he drove for JGR. However, Arris still had one year left on their deal with JGR (for 2019) and some of the funding that would have gone to SHR had to be used to buy out the remainder of the JGR contract. Now Haas, who has mostly funded the #41 team this season with his own business, is probably insisting that Arris up their deal for 2020 to at least the JGR funding level of 2018. If Arris steps up, then Suarez will be back, but if they come up short, then Cole Custer will probably get this ride. From the sound of things, this ride may not be sorted out for 2020 until the end of this month, or even into November.