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.