Monday, August 07, 2017

COMMENTARY: "Right-Sizing" Proving Painful For Veteran Drivers

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 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.” 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.

End result?

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


  1. Couldn't agree more. The days of big $$ sponsors and drivers are dwindling. Experience is good but youth is exciting. These young guys are hungry for wins as much as a paycheck. The future looks bright

  2. Anonymous12:08 PM

    This is a great article and so true. Maybe we can get back to a time when drivers and fans can interact with out having to pay them thousands to sign an autograph!

  3. Anonymous12:55 PM

    The reason sponsors are leaving is the same reason fans are leaving. There's no reason for them to come back. They neglected the long-time fans while chasing the elusive "new fan" only to find out that getting the new fan wasn't working. In the process, they drove away the long-time fans that NASCAR had taken for granted. NASCAR got rich off of a television contract. NASCAR got rich off of "official (whatevers) of NASCAR" sponsorships. NASCAR got rich chasing everything but good racing.

    Then once the fans were gone from the television and the stands, they noticed their problem. By now, it might be too late to fix it. Now we're in a boat where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is only going to get wider.

    Paying younger drivers (read: cheaper drivers) is simply another cost saving measure. They've cut everywhere else they could - and finally it's come time to cut drivers.
    Dale Jr. said it best. There's only so much money for the teams to spend to fund a race team. Some teams have more money than others.

    None of them has more money than NASCAR. Aero packages and stage racing didn't show up until NASCAR felt the pinch that its team owners have been feeling for a long time now.

    Leaner days are ahead for NASCAR - not necessarily better days - but leaner days. Hopefully, it's not too late.

    1. NASCAR Head Shed is responsible for all of this! Losing the 200 million dollar Sprint Sponsorship to replace it with a 20 million Monster Energy Sponsorship is showing it's ugly head in the form of greedy owners no longer willing to pay for the veterans when they can get teenagers for like Jr. said so much cheaper! Here's to seeing the decline of Hendricks Motorsports for being on The Cheap! I wish I could say good luck to Hendricks Motorsports but, other than really liking his 3 young drivers, really will not shed a tear when his organization's decline continues!

  4. Anonymous2:30 PM

    Hope it's not too late. Get rid of the cookie cutter cars, tracks and drivers and bring back diversity, character, emotion and excitement.

    1. Sorry man, the good ol days are gone, NASCAR fines the crap out of emotion and excitement! Gone are the days of the black 3 and the black 2 trading paint coming across the finish line for a win and then having a beer back in the shed after calling each other names! Now if someone takes the wind off of someone else, they cry and NASCAR fines! Here's to the days of Sr. and Rusty!

    2. "Get rid of the cookie cutters." Why? They're not the problem. "Bring back diversity, character, emotion, and exciement." How about bringing back professionalism? All the rest, we've been seeing more different winners creeping upward in the sport this season.

  5. TheNASCARJeff3:30 PM

    I agree on everything this article says... The billionaire car owners who have other business interests outside of NASCAR can pay a driver salary an not blink twice at it.

    I have said this for a long time, this is not about racing, it is about money, who much you can get and then spend and then him is some phony foundation so you can write it off.

  6. Anonymous4:34 PM

    Every long time fan I know, and I know dozens, have either left completely of just catch a race on TV every now and then.
    The reason.
    Too many changes. First the asinine Chase. Where a driver with 6 or 7 wins can be out of the Championship race because of a flat tire at the wrong time.
    Now, Stage Racing and Playoffs. What a freaking joke you have turned this sport into.
    NASCAR can't drive us away any faster if they tried.

    1. Ive been around since 87 with rusty wallace being my driver.Ive seen alot of changes.I totally agree about being too many changes.All sports change overtime.The chase was and still is a great idea.I see your point about being the best all year and having a blown tire cost you the championship.But thats racing.I remember the days when a driver won the title by 300 points and 3 races until the final race.Today is different,but i like it better when we dont know until the final race between 4 drivers who will be the champ.Stage racing adds 2 things.It gives them a real reason to go after points all race instead of showing up for the win at the end.Fact just ask #78 team.A known caution coming is better than a blowout EX.#78 at the Coke 600 2016- I was in the stands he led all but 8 laps of a 600 mile race.The stage racing took me sometime but its better than 400 miles all green flag no cautions 3 cars on the lead lap.Sounds boring.When i hear people say BRING BACK THE OLE DAYS,I cringe remembering 4 cars on the LL,winner by 5 seconds ect.Its closer now in more ways than one than ever before.Its not my opinion,its fact.Enjoy what we have,i do.

    2. William Byron dominated the Camping World Truck series last year with 7 victories only to be denied a championship for a mechanical malfunction in 1 race!

    3. It isn't "too many changes," it's lack of incentive to win and lead - a lack being corrected by one of the changes you lament, stage racing.

  7. I think you are right on track here, also believe there may be better ways to structure the deals so that higher performance, leads to the higher rewards. However, I've never seen a driver contract so....

  8. Anonymous9:58 PM

    I have watched NASCAR since the days of getting to see an hour once a month on Wide World of Sports. I still watch every race. There are two things that irritate me the most. One being watching three minutes of commercials then two or three laps of racing and back to commercial. The other is seeing a driver like Bubba Wallace perform better than others but lose his ride or sit out due to a team not being able to secure sponsorship. It is all about money but how soon before we have four teams with four cars each and the field is 16 drivers? I remember years where there would be 52 or 53 cars qualifying to make a race. Those days are long gone.

  9. I have always said, even in the glory years, that is a race team sponsorship was so damn good, why are the team owners not sponsoring cars through their other businesses? It would be a very hard sell to me to ask me for my $$ to put on a car when you are not very willing to put your own $$ on a car. Yes, some have, but typically only for a few races, and very grudgingly.

  10. Anonymous - 12:55, I couldn't disagree with your point more. NASCAR is taking their cues from fans now more than ever - and has been for more than a decade.

    The reality is that back in the day Bill France Sr and his son were running the sport, they ruled much less democratically - and it worked.

    Today, there are fan councils and executives listening to comments from radio show callers, etc. The truth of the matter is that fans lack the deep understanding of the sport works - and can't be trusted to run the sport.

    1. Anonymous12:37 PM

      My point was that they weren't listening to fans who were screaming "leave our racing alone!" 10-15 years ago. Big Bill had NASCAR running and growing and knew what was best for the teams, the fans, and the racing. Brian showed up, appears to have seen it as a money grab, and started chasing new fans. THAT'S when they didn't listen to the core fan base yelling to quit making changes.

      Fast forward to now when it's not just fishing for new fans, but desperately trying to find fans, and we've reached your mentioned points of fan councils and finger-in-the-wind weekly decisions. Sure, they're listening to the fans now. They're running out of them, so they need to try and keep what they have. And it's doing NOTHING to fix the problem.

      All of my points were from a "days gone by" time frame. And by "days gone by" I mean a time when racing was about winning a race. The whole point now is the title. They win the Daytona 500, the biggest race in motorsports, and the first reaction is "in the chase!" What about winning races? Bill France understood that with a long season, you made the weekly focus about the racing. Not the title that's awarded 9 months from now. So the races lost their importance as television, media, and nascar itself keeps making sure we pay attention solely to the title in November. Meanwhile, the D-shaped triovals got more and more monotonous while NASCAR kept chasing fringe fans and driving away the old school. "Wins matter" they say, but only as a statistic in qualifying for the chase. Who won the most races in a season? Few people can tell you that anymore.

      So now much of the old guard has gone, while the new fans lost interest and left. And sponsors are looking at the landscape wondering why they should put there money in this poorly-run sport.

      To see how see how far nascar has fallen, look at the difference in title sponsor contracts. 10 years and $750 million with Nextel/Sprint. In 2011, that was renegotiated down to $50 million a year. That's now down to $20 million with Monster? That's less than a third. RJ Reynolds was paying them more than that annually back in 2002 when it was the Winston Cup!!!

      How many more clues do they need that they're not doing it right?!

      And at some point, it's bleeding so badly that there's no saving it. It just bleeds out a slow, lingering death. And I'm sitting here wondering if that's what we're watching now. Fans aren't the only ones that lack a deep understanding of how the sport works. There's a lot of people in decision-making positions that lack that same understanding.

  11. Anonymous10:48 AM

    The networks (and NASCAR) make huge income from advertising. Sure, they have to pay off their investment to NASCAR for the 'privilege' of showing these races. The question is why doesn't NASCAR step in and open the purse strings to help the smaller teams instead of the sport being dominated by FOUR teams (Hendricks, Gibbs, Penske, Stewart-Haas) combined have one third of the field starting each week. The sponsors are fleeing because the sport's demographic no longer fits the 18-55 window. It isn't the fault of the sponsors it's the fault of NASCAR for waiting too long to do something to retain viewership and fans.

    Pistonhead in Texas

  12. Nascar saw a major decline in loyal fans with the death of Dale Earnhardt. Ask the old timers and you're likely to hear them say, "I quit watching after Earnhardt died." Now what do you expect when the second Earnhardt leaves the track. The same can be said after the death of Fireball Roberts. The sport seemed to slow and mourn his death and departure. Maybe we will see a resurgence but I don't see the day ever coming back to times when it was not hard to be able to walk through the garage and talk to a driver one on one.

  13. Godfather, unfortunately you're right. Lets not say "NASCAR" though. This pact between large owners has been a driving force more so than fans. Their push for charters gave some heavily leveraged race shops instant 7 figures in collateral out of thin air. NASCAR's champion this year is likely to earn about the same as a mid-level right tackle on a low paying NFL team or a upper level defenceman on a top 10 NHL club. We won't even start the conversation about F1 comparisons. I don't like what I see happening with drivers, and neither will potential sponsors.