It’s a top water-cooler topic across NASCAR Nation these days; the ongoing battle between money and talent in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Some observers – including many longtime fans of the sport – believe that the almighty dollar has supplanted driving talent in determining NASCAR’s Sunday afternoon starting grid. And while there is no denying the importance of financing, a look at last season’s Sprint Cup Series standings reveals far more wheelmen than sugar babies.
Newly crowned champion Kevin Harvick came to national prominence by winning the 1998 NASCAR Winston West (now K&N Pro Series West) title for Spears Motorsports, an operation owned by Wayne and Connie Spears and sponsored by Spears Manufacturing; the couple’s PVC pipe, valve and fitting business. Harvick was hired solely for his driving talent and brought no money to the dance. That talent eventually made him the heir-apparent at Richard Childress Racing when Dale Earnhardt lost his life on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
|Newman climbed the USAC ladder|
The rest, as they say, is history.
Last year’s runner-up, Ryan Newman, following a trail blazed years before by Jeff Gordon through the USAC Open Wheel ranks. Newman was USAC’s 1996 Rookie of the Year in both the Midget and Silver Crown Series, and in 1999, became the first driver to win races in all three divisions in the same season. All those checkered flags caught the attention of team owner Roger Penske, who brought the Purdue University engineering major to ARCA and the NASCAR Busch Series, where he won in just his ninth career start. Again, Newman made his mark with speed, not family money.
Denny Hamlin – third in last year’s Cup standings – began racing go-karts at age seven, eventually progressing to the Mini Stock ranks at Langley (VA) Speedway, where he won his first-ever stock car race from the pole. In Late Model Stock cars, Hamlin won 35 races in just two seasons, including 25 victories in 36 starts in 2003. That was more than enough to earn him a driver development deal with Joe Gibbs Racing, an opportunity on which Hamlin has clearly capitalized.
|Keselowski started with his family team|
Last year’s Chase field included a number of drivers with similar stories. Like Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola all fought their way through the asphalt short track Late Model or Modified ranks; all without the benefit of major family backing. Keselowski’s parents mortgaged their home a number of times to keep the family-owned K-Automotive Motorsports team afloat, before eventually closing the doors due to lack of sponsorship. Keselowski’s big break came when Germain Racing tabbed him to replace the suspended Ted Musgrave in a 2007 Truck Series race at Memphis Motorsports Park, where he won the pole, led 62 laps and contended for the win. That performance convinced Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to put Keselowski in his No. 88 Nationwide Series Chevrolet, where he won the 2010 championship.
Jimmie Johnson competed in off-road racing before transitioning to ASA Late Models (and eventually NASCAR) with Herzog Jackson Motorsports. Carl Edwards worked as a substitute school teacher before catching the eye of Jack Roush with a handful of overachieving runs for the underdog Mittler Brothers Truck Series team. The Busch Brothers wheeled Legends Cars and Late Models to dozens of wins in their native Las Vegas before also coming to Roush’s attention. Kasey Kahne climbed the USAC ladder, while AJ Allmendinger won championships in carts and Champ Cars.
|Jimmie Johnson, pre-NASCAR|
Of the 16 drivers who qualified for last year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, only two – Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – can be said to have benefitted significantly from any sort of family money. Logano’s parents bankrolled their son through karts, Legends and asphalt Late Models before Joe Gibbs (on a tip from veteran driver Mark Martin) signed him to a driver development deal.
You may also have heard of the Earnhardt family and its ties to NASCAR.
Based on last year’s numbers, however, it’s difficult to argue that talent has taken a backseat to cash on the list of most desirable driver qualities.
For every winless rich kid floundering around in the middle of the XFINITY or Camping World Truck Series pack, there are a dozen drivers like Clint Bowyer, who got their call to the big time while sanding Bondo in a two-bay auto body shop. For every hapless newcomer with a ton of cash and no clue what to do with it, there is a Chase Elliott, Regan Smith, Chris Buescher or Ryan Reed, who came to NASCAR with nothing but talent, then attracted top-dollar sponsorship by running at the front of the pack.
Money has always played an important role in determining who wins and loses on Sunday afternoon. Richard Petty and David Pearson possessed awesome driving talent, but also benefitted from substantial sponsorship, factory backing and technological support. G.C. Spencer, Elmo Langley and James Hilton could also twist a pretty wheel, but they never had the resources to compete with the big dogs.
At the end of the day, it’s the same now as it ever was.