(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

2019 NASCAR Top Storylines: The Pay-to-Play Trend

Money buys a lot of things in NASCAR. It buys speed, or at least the parts and pieces to make speed happen. It buys alliances between teams that can also lead to more speed. It buys advertising time that gets sponsors and drivers exposure.

Money also buys rides.

It’s a trend that has been on the increase in recent years. It popped up several times in 2019 in NASCAR’s national series, with rides going not to the driver most likely to win races or titles, but to the one who can pay to play. It wasn’t limited to replacing drivers at the ends of their contracts with someone who could bring a sponsor to the table; some drivers who have lost rides in this manned in recent years were under long-term contracts.

To some degree, it’s been going on for years. The recently retired Paul Menard, for example, was never without a ride despite a mediocre record because he brought sponsorship from his family business with him. Menard is far from the only example.

There are a couple of subsets going on as well. Drivers like Menard or Brendan Gaughan weren’t really taking rides from other drivers. Both drove for Richard Childress Racing, which fielded those teams only as long as they were paid for and self-sustaining, and both teams and drivers were talented enough to at the very least not interfere with more competitive teams. There’s really little to no negative impact here.

The other trend has been the willingness of teams to drop a driver, regardless of performance, when another brings more money to the table, rendering long-term contracts void.

Perhaps the most prominent example came in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, when 2018 champion Brett Moffitt was let go from Hattori Racing Enterprises after winning the title because he didn’t bring enough money to the team to keep him. Moffitt found another ride and contended for the title this year because he was a champion. Austin Hill brought money and had a solid year at HRE but didn’t make the title cut.

Fans took notice of that, and the response wasn’t particularly positive. Some felt that Moffitt had more than earned the right to retain his ride. It’s not a good look for the sport when fans openly question whether the drivers are really the most talented in the seat, or simply the most wealthy.

On the other hand, sponsors aren’t exactly coming out of the woodwork to sponsor NASCAR teams these days, and if a driver can bring money, either by way of a sponsorship agreement or outright payment, teams have to make a choice at some point, one that can keep people employed or make the team more competitive.

It wasn’t long ago that NASCAR was on the rise and sponsorship was so lucrative for the sponsors that everyone wanted a piece of the pie. Teams could pick the driver they wanted in their cars and then find someone willing to back them. A youngster could earn a ride and be given time to develop and not have to worry about the money if they were good enough. And those were (and generally still are) the drivers who won races and titles; it’s the model that brought in Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon as well as generations of drivers before them, when racing wasn’t so expensive.

But as costs went up and sponsor interest dwindled, teams got caught in a no-win situation.  They could hire the kid who brought the family money and field a solid effort, or they could hire a brilliant youngster who didn’t bring money to the table and wonder if they were going to make the next race. It’s a different day, and a tough decision, especially because it’s so unpopular with fans.

Just last week, StarCom Racing announced that Quin Houff will drive the No. 00 full time next year in the NASCAR Cup Series. Landon Cassill, who drove the car in 2019 and for much of 2018, was under contract through 2020, and while the team says it will honor his contract, it’s unclear exactly how.  It’s not expected to field a second full-time car. That’s  still a possibility but unlikely with a new car coming in 2021 and teams not wanting to build new cars only to scrap them in a year.

More prominently, Daniel Suarez lost his ride with Stewart-Haas Racing when he couldn’t quite get 100% sponsorship in place by the end of the season (Suarez said he had 95% finalized). There was a team option on Suarez’s multi-year contract that allowed SHR to opt out.

Neither of these moves has resonated well with fans, but moves like them are getting more and more common.

Seat buyouts have also been a part of the team alliances that have become vital to the survival of smaller teams. Buying into an alliance is a way for a small team to have access to information and equipment it otherwise would not, but it can also be buying into the whims of the parent team. Matt DiBenedetto’s release from Leavine Family Racing was one of the least popular Silly Season moves among fans, but Joe Gibbs Racing wanted Christopher Bell in the seat and got that because it has something LFR needs and could not otherwise afford. It’s certainly not the first time; Roush Fenway Racing, SHR and RCR have worked similar deals with satellite teams in recent years to field their drivers.

As racing gets more expensive, this is a trend that’s only going to increase as teams look for options that keep them afloat and competitive. It’s a tough position for NASCAR as a sport because it’s not popular with fans, but there are few other options for teams.

But unless NASCAR can find a way to significantly cut costs for teams and create financial parity, it’s not something that can be fixed. Down the road, this could end up being a non-issue (after all, it’s not new), but it could also be a bigger problem than anyone realizes.

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About Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson
Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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4 comments

  1. Avatar

    I think Austin Hill deserves more credit than what he’s given in the article. Hill and Moffitt were tied for second in the series in wins with four, and it’s unrealistic to expect a six-win, championship season every single year from anybody. For being a “ride-buyer” who still had a not-insignificant portion of the season covered by Shige’s connections, Hill did unbelievably well, leaving me to think he’s not actually much of a ride-buyer after all but a wheelman with sponsorship.

    • Avatar

      He did well but if you think that team would have rather had him than Moffitt you’re kidding yourself. He got the ride because he had money up front and Moffitt needed to raise sponsorship. Yes he did well and deserves credit but that’s not the point the author is making.

  2. Avatar

    It seems the whole model that NASCAR and certain teams (maybe others) adhere to is a recipe for doom for all of them . Looking at the report of Danny S. with his fallen short of commitment dollars and then getting shown the door. Really? I would love to know the TRUE expense down to the last penny of SHR and others the size of that org? It starts from the top down to the bottom. Always wondered at SHR. What is it? And that idiot long past his prime “Good old Boy” CLINT!. Still going! Come on. Just asking! Just curious! Yeah, yeah he gets somce backing. DS I though had more money that Clint did. 95 percent or not???????????

    JGR did the same thing to so many young drivers, DS was one. The math is weird. Maybe they can cut back on who gets the BIG MAMA/BIG DADDY luxury, no expense spared hotel/camper for starters? Yes I am cynical……(Shame on me..SARC)

  3. Avatar

    Racing has always been a rich man’s sport. The average family couldn’t even begin to think about putting their kid into much more than an entry level go-kart class before the costs would overwhelm them.

    Used to be rich dudes were altruistic and would put their money behind a talented but broke kid, these days the rich dudes stroke their ego and go out and play race car driver. Too bad, the sport suffers from this problem. What always amazes me is that most people don’t understand this problem at all, probably because they haven’t got a remote idea how much it costs to race these days.