Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.
Today, David writes about what the future of NASCAR may look like, and the owners that will be fielding entries for the rookies of tomorrow.
This year’s rookie class in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has been everything we thought it’d be: Deep with unpolished, unbridled talent. Kyle Larson is a barrel full of passing efficiency clothed in an exciting, rim-riding cape. Austin Dillon is enough of a constant for a team that finished third in points last year that the sun is peeking through the cloudy skies that loomed over Richard Childress Racing following the departure of Kevin Harvick. Cole Whitt is throwing everything in his repertoire — raw speed, passing ability and equipment conservation — into a car that is likely not fit to race in this competitive of a division. It’s the kind of class that sets trends. Team owners without one of these young-and-hungry pups should covet them. But they don’t, because there is zero incentive to do so.
Football and basketball have it right. There are annual drafts, which infuse new talent in an effort to keep the product fresh. There is a salary cap in place, which creates a market for promising players on inexpensive contracts. The built-in incentives, both performance-wise and financial, make young talent attractive. In NASCAR, there isn’t a guarantee that there will even be a rookie class in 2015.
And it isn’t as if the cupboards are bare. Chase Elliott has developed into a calculating, cutthroat racer in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, but as a Hendrick Motorsports prospect he is essentially a shortstop in the New York Yankees’ farm system during Derek Jeter’s heyday. Corey LaJoie’s mastery of equipment conservation allowed him to be the only driver to go toe to toe with Larson two years ago in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. He was signed to a contract with Richard Petty Motorsports last year, but a divide in the company’s philosophy — long-term growth vs. short-term profit — placed him on the sidelines as funded driver Dakoda Armstrong took the wheel of the team’s Nationwide Series ride. Ryan Blaney has scored victories in both the Nationwide Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, but Team Penske isn’t being moved to act immediately; their coffers are currently funding the salary of 2012 champion Brad Keselowski on a new deal that was announced last year, and preparing to splash down on 2014 breakout Joey Logano, who will demand industry-elite dollars a year or two from now.
In any other sport, athletes with the degree of talent that Elliott, LaJoie and Blaney have would be ceremoniously chosen to become faces of franchises while receiving a draft cap and a jersey, shaking the hand of the league’s commissioner and smiling for the cameras, wearing a suit so new that the Astor & Black tag is still attached. But there is no incentive for old-hat, run-of-the-mill car owners to move mountains.
There is, however, a new ownership group on the horizon with the financial resources and emotional rationale necessary to move as young drivers do. It’s an emerging fiefdom, run by Dad.
Last week I unveiled my top 75 Cup Series prospects of 2014. I fancy myself as someone who avoids overused clichés; in an exhaustive three-page breakdown of the prospects I didn’t use the tired racing industry term “the real deal” once. I attempted to avoid overusing any term, but there was one that stood out in more than a handful of prospect analyses: “family-owned team.” It was mentioned 10 times, which is realistically a low-end number. Of those 75 prospects, 23 of them drive for a car owner they also call father.
Families funding rides along the NASCAR ladder is nothing new; two-time Cup-champion car owner Jack Roush once famously said that, “At some point you have to buy your own tires.” While that will always remain an inevitability, some of the teams being trotted out by Dad aren’t built for the purpose of helping their sons pursue something better. These organizations are successful businesses — not unlike the ones that awarded them the wealth necessary to tackle such a project — and are, apparently, here to stay on a quest to chase championships at the highest level with their first-borns first in line.
Bob Newberry, whose son Brennan is the most frequent crasher in Trucks and the K&N East, is operating a four-car operation, NTS Motorsports, across both of those divisions. Maurice Gallagher has a four-team organization of his own, spanning Trucks and the ARCA Series, which prominently features son Spencer (above right). Tony Townley, a co-founder of quick service restaurant chain Zaxby’s, is fielding his own team for son John Wes (below right) after years of renting rides. Their collective target is entry into the Sprint Cup Series.
Though this seems like a recent trend, it’s been in the works for a while. This current crop of family-first owners might have been born the moment James Buescher, as a rookie in the Nationwide Series in 2010 for the James Finch-owned Phoenix Racing contingent, parted with the team just 10 races into the season.
I was a fly on the wall for the situation, working with Buescher’s agency of record at the time. Buescher, funded by soon-to-be father-in-law Steve Turner, was being pursued by Roush Fenway Racing. Asked whether he was enticed by the possibility of paying to place Buescher in a Roush ride, Turner’s response was a flat no.
“I can build a better car than Jack Roush,” he said.
At the time this was, of course, a seemingly preposterous statement; however, in 2014, Turner Scott Motorsports, the company of which Turner is a co-owner, has two wins and seven top-5 finishes in the Nationwide Series. Roush cars have yet to win and have amassed just three top-5 finishes across three full-time teams. At this point in the season, Turner has indeed built a better car than Jack Roush.
If the Dads (and Dads-in-law) have the financial wherewithal to fund a team, they likely also have the ability to start a team and, as Turner proved, it’s possible to carve a territory within the sport’s elite. If the old-hat teams don’t act fast, they’ll lose their place.
The Dads have money, typically coming from businesses they created, which means they also have leverage. Where the old-hat teams can trump business-to-business synergy is by promoting young talent. Even in a post-recession world, companies seem quick to sponsor successful young athletes with fervent followings. Beats by Dre built a $3 billion empire, most of it domestically, on the back of LeBron James, who ceased to utter a word in the television spots in which he was adorned with trendy headphones. Now, freshly purchased by Apple, they’re attempting to conquer the rest of the world with Neymar, the Brazilian soccer standout in this year’s World Cup. Sprint, the title sponsor of NASCAR’s premier series, currently has NBA MVP Kevin Durant in their ads for cellphone billing plans. Humble and quiet, Durant doesn’t exude the charm of a typical product pitchman, but his success at such a young age attracts a youthful audience.
It’d be a gamble, sure, but the best way for established race teams to combat the rising tide of Dad owners is to promote the best talent, which could fetch sponsorship necessary to keep the companies in business and in a good competitive standing. There are a lot of what-ifs and maybes in that scenario, but the writing on the wall is foreshadowing doom. At this point, no idea is a bad idea.
This idea — the idea to give the best and brightest a shot in prime time — is one born out of necessity by the existing market. It also presents the first real incentive to rolling the dice on the young and talented: Avoiding extinction.
Acting fast while the getting is good, and continuing an emphasis on acquiring young talent, is the only way to defend against a growing number of family-owned teams with giant aspirations. The future of NASCAR is Dad, and for current owners, failing to react accordingly practically assures their demise within an ever-changing industry.
David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projection, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.