CONCORD, N.C. — As the NASCAR playoffs come to a close, there’s a lot of change in the wind.
That’s nothing new, as anyone who follows the sport knows. All the plans for next season are usually announced late in the year, so there’s always been a fair amount of movement, both on the driver/team side and the sponsor front.
This year, it’s getting interesting.
With the advent of the charter system, there’s more at stake than just switching drivers or sponsors. Team ownership has seen, so far this year, both Leavine Family Racing and Germain Racing sell their charters on the way out the door.
That’s pretty big movement for NASCAR, where slow and steady wins the race. There are reasons, to be sure. The pandemic, the rise of mega-teams (pretty much a who’s who among the sport’s elite, with four-car teams from here to there) and the difficulty in getting ready for the Next Generation car.
The sport as a whole is pretty compartmentalized in a lot of ways. The Chevy teams stick together, as do the Fords and Toyotas. Everybody has four teams outright or partnerships to bring them to that level. There’s driver flux as well, but for once it isn’t the focus. It’s more moving pieces on the board to achieve a different dynamic these days.
The biggest news is the formation of a team by Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan with Bubba Wallace the driver. That snapped up one of the charters. Spire Motorsports grabbed another to become a two-car team, and there are rumors of another new team in the works.
That is going to be huge in at least one way: The star power brought to the table by Jordan, ostensibly the greatest NBA player in history, will make massive waves inside the sport. Jordan owns an NBA team in Charlotte, has a worldwide following and a massive relationship with apparel kingpin Nike. That’s huge for the sport.
Is it as huge as the R.J. Reynolds relationship that made NASCAR a national sport? It could be. With the economy in flux during an election year, having that kind of money and star power behind a new team could make up for a lot of inexperience in team management.
The economy, which usually dictates at least some of the movement, is holding steady despite being battered by the pandemic. It’s different these days anyway, what with very few teams having one major primary and a bunch of one-off or multi-race sponsors to fill the gap.
There’s money there, if one can find it. Equipment and alliances are available too. Drivers are also moving too. Hendrick Motorsports will make a major shuffle among its four teams as seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson leaves his familiar No. 48 and sets his sights on Indy car racing.
Driver salaries are much different than they used to be as well. Not too long ago, a primary driver would make seven figures for a season and that didn’t include purse money, which was commonly around 50 percent. There was bank to be made and by golly, they made it.
Now, the contracts are much smaller and so is the split, as money that used to go to what was euphemistically referred to as a “pedal-to-headrest spacer” is now going to things like simulators, equipment and personnel who don’t drive the car.
Add to this the fact that the television contract is in its sunset, and that will determine where the sport goes from the point when it is no longer in effect.
The next few months will go a long way toward identifying what NASCAR is going to be for the next five years, certainly, and perhaps longer if it works the way everyone intends it to.
Young stars, established multi-car teams and a solid economic footing would do a lot for NASCAR in general, and the teams in particular.
Still, there’s a lot of change in the wind, and the thing about wind is, you never know which way it is going to blow.