|Kahne is out at HMS|
Three of NASCAR’s biggest names are currently “at leisure” for the 2018 season; a fact that many observers struggle to understand.
Hendrick Motorsports confirmed today that Kasey Kahne has been released from the final year of his contract, freeing him to explore other opportunities for 2018 and beyond. Last week, Stewart Haas Racing declined to exercise its contract option on Kurt Busch, while Matt Kenseth currently has no ride lined up for next season, after losing his spot with Joe Gibbs Racing.
How do three proven drivers with a combined 85 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins and two series championships find themselves on the outside, looking in? And while we’re at it, how does Greg Biffle – a former Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series champion with 19 career MENCS wins -- languish on the sidelines while drivers with a small fraction of his resume continue to compete every week?
The answer comes down to money, or the lack thereof.
“Kasey has worked extremely hard,” said team owner Rick Hendrick in announcing Kahne’s impending departure. “He’s a tremendous teammate and person, and he has been totally dedicated to our program since day one.”
|Kurt Busch is a free agent...|
All of that is unquestionably true. Unfortunately, Kahne is also a veteran driver who expects a certain level of compensation for his labor. And like Kenseth, Busch and Biffle, Kahne’s desired level of compensation makes him expendable in these changing economic times.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – who owns a top NASCAR Xfinity Series team in addition to his driving duties with Hendrick Motorsports – explained the realities of today’s NASCAR to NBCSports.com recently, saying, “You’ve got a guy who you think has got a lot of talent (and) a lot of potential, and a veteran who is established but wants three, four, five, six times the amount of money. You’re going to go with the younger guy, because it’s a better deal financially.”
|...as is Kenseth.|
Earnhardt said that in an era where sponsorship is increasingly difficult to come by, drivers can no longer write their own check when it comes to salary.
“The trickle-down effect is coming through in the drivers’ contracts and making a big difference in the decisions these owners are making,” said Earnhardt. “You can’t pay a driver $5 to $8 million a year, if you ain’t got but $10 million worth of sponsorship.”
And that, my friends, is the rub.
It’s not 1998 anymore. The days when a sponsor would happily stroke a check for $30 million per year are long gone, and they’re not coming back anytime soon. The number of sponsors willing (or able) to fund an entire, 38-race season can easily be counted on the fingers of one hand. And as sponsorship wanes, teams must respond by cutting payroll, slashing expenses and paring their operation closer to the bone than ever before.
|Biffle: Still sidelined|
A proven commodity like Kenseth finds himself jettisoned in favor of 21-year old newcomer Erik Jones, who will win races and contend for championships while cashing a much smaller paycheck than the man he replaced.
Busch has his contract option declined by Stewart Haas Racing, who will almost certainly attempt to ink a new pact with the former series champion, at a lower rate of compensation.
Biffle – who sources say was near the top of Richard Petty’s wish list when Aric Almirola was sidelined by injury earlier this season – gets passed over in favor of 23-year old Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, in large measure due to the gaping disparity in their pay demands.
And Kahne is let go by Hendrick Motorsports, likely in favor of young William Byron; a wildly talented 19-year old who will race competitively for less money than Kahne likely has scattered beneath his couch cushions.
NASCAR has recently come face-to-face with a difficult (though arguably long overdue) period of right-sizing. The days when mid-pack drivers owned their own private jets are long gone. The team owner’s helicopter went up for sale years ago, and the mountain chalet is now a luxury, rather than a necessity.
There is a leaner, meaner NASCAR on the horizon, and the transition will be uncomfortable for some. In the end, though, we will ultimately get back to what the sport was supposed to be about all along, racing instead of revenue