Brad Keselowski re-signed with Team Penske this week in the NASCAR Cup Series for 2021, which was the first big domino to fall in silly season. The second was Bob Leavine selling his race team. We now have Erik Jones out at Joe Gibbs Racing. The rumors are flying throughout the NASCAR world about Hendrick Motorsports possibly contracting rather than filling the seat for Jimmie Johnson. There are other rumblings that Roush Fenway Racing might be losing Ryan Newman.
When it all comes out in the wash, just how many cars are we actually going to see on the grid at Daytona International Speedway next February?
Chevrolet is still the big dog in the sport, with Richard Childress Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing and satellite operations for Richard Petty Motorsports and Germain Racing. Ford has Stewart-Haas Racing, Penske and Roush, with Front Row Motorsports and Wood Brothers Racing. Toyota has Joe Gibbs Racing. That is it. Leavine Family Racing is a satellite organization, but it is going away at the end of the year, and it looks like that number will not continue with Toyota. That is going to leave four top-tier cars with Toyota.
With the prospect of the economy continuing to struggle and more and more organizations declaring bankruptcy, sponsorship dollars are going to be harder and harder to secure. Even the dollars that are handed over to the teams are not going to be as voluminous as they have been in the past. There are very real chances that some of these other big dogs in the sport might contact a car in 2021. With the backmarker teams like Go Fas Racing, Rick Ware Racing and Starcom Racing running on ultra-tight budgets, the loss of a sponsor or two could easily force them into part-time status or to have to leave the sport altogether.
If the big teams contract, and the small teams switch to part time or fold, the possibility is very real that the fields could be down to 20 cars on any given weekend. Charters won’t be worth the value of the paper that they are written on and the TV money will be severely reduced since the contracts specify full fields. While the size of a full field is now defined as 36 cars, that is going to be very hard to maintain if the sponsor money continues to shrink.
The future seems bright from a driver talent standpoint and a leadership standpoint of the sport, but the economic reality is that marketing budgets everywhere are shrinking and being slashed. With the choice to move the new car release to 2022, the cost savings that teams were theoretically scheduled to reap disappeared from the books for 2021. The reality of the situation is that there is going to be more drastic measures taken in 2021 in order to keep teams viable in the sport.
We will see what the sanctioning body decides to do as far as propping up the teams in the sport. The Race Team Alliance was supposed to help bring value to teams and save them money. Unfortunately it has appeared that whatever financial savings the teams have realized since that entity came into existence have done little to nothing to make the price of racing go down commensurate with the continuing decline of sponsorship dollars.
The COVID-19 crisis has hit everyone in the sport and outside of the sport. Racetracks have had little to no revenue from fans. Race teams are not pulling in the sponsor dollars that they are used to. The sanctioning body has reduced its payrolls due to reduced revenues. Everywhere you look, the struggle is very real for any business to stay afloat. Just last week it was confirmed that John Force Racing is not competing in 2020 in NHRA. When one of the top few teams in all of the drag racing world packs it in for a year, you know times are beyond tough.
It is going to be surprising if there are full fields in 2021, and it will be very challenging for the sport to rebound from this economic downturn in the next three years, let alone over the off-season. Don’t be surprised to see fields bordering on Formula 1 size rather than NASCAR size.