Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Sports

Veteran drivers disposable in unsustainable NASCAR money pit

NASCAR's business model is imploding before our eyes.

A fire sale is going on; all you need to do is look up in the sky and see all those fat contracts burning up. Within the span of weeks, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne have been dropped from their teams with a "thanks for the memories" sendoff.

But the reasons are obvious:

The money is drying up, especially sponsorships, and nobody can afford to keep multiple drivers on big contracts. It's simple economics and the reality that NASCAR faces moving forward.

Kids — we use the term relatively, of course — will be fast-tracked into the Monster Energy Cup Series because they are much more affordable. Veterans may be able to stick around at a much lower rate. Teams will downsize. And you might find a driver or two pushed into retirement.

This should not be surprising at all if you've been paying attention.

"You've got to look at guys like myself," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said at Watkins Glen last weekend. "There's sort of been a major shift in how much drivers are getting paid. How much they're getting obviously changed with the new agreement we had a couple of years ago. Drivers started taking more of the purse. I don't know everybody's contract situation, but there is a less of a base and more purse-driven.

"But one thing that's changed is that you've got a lot of young guys coming in being offered and accepting contracts that are a fifth to a tenth of what veterans are getting paid. And that's money that can go into the team, you know?"

Earnhardt was quite prophetic, considering that just a few days later Hendrick Motorsports announced it would not be renewing teammate Kahne's contract. Although you could argue that Kahne has underachieved in his six-year run at Hendrick, he has been a solid driver.

He has finished in the top 18 the last four seasons, wound up fourth in 2012, and has qualified for the playoffs this season.

With Alex Bowman taking Earnhardt's ride next season in the No. 88, William Byron, only 19, will be the next man up to complete the four-driver group with Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson.

The news on Byron broke on Tuesday, just a day after the team announced that Kahne was out at the end of the season.

Someone like Johnson, a seven-time champ, commands big bucks. Although teams do not make contracts public, a top-tier driver can make upward of $10 million on a base salary and purse money alone, excluding endorsements. But those numbers are shrinking.

Forbes Magazine reported that Johnson and his team earned a $1.9 million Sprint Cup bonus for winning the title in 2016. But they pocketed $7.2 million for his 2008 title. Some of that inequity involves a new charter system, which creates more parity in the distribution of purses and bonuses.

But there's also less money on the table. Target recently announced it was dropping its sponsorship of Kyle Larson, who happens to be one of the best drivers on the Monster Energy Cup circuit with two victories this season and third place overall in the points standings.

"These sponsors aren't giving teams the money that they used to," Earnhardt said. "So the owners and everybody's got to take a little cut. Everybody's got to dial it back. Everybody's got to realize that they have to accept some of that fallback and difference. And that's the same with the drivers' contracts. A lot of these veteran drivers are getting paid multimillion dollars, and a lot of these guys coming in are getting a fraction of that."

The beneficiaries include Bowman, Byron, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones.

"The sport is in a different place now than it was a few years ago, and these young guys are providing owners a great driver at a bargain price," said Darrell Waltrip, a NASCAR Hall of Famer and now analyst on Fox Sports. "It's the changing of the guard and it's also the future of the sport."

Old-school is out. It is the New World Order in NASCAR.

Combustible reaction

Two of my all-time favorites were back at it last weekend, banging cars and in some cases wanting to bang fists.

Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski became entangled at Watkins Glen, producing the predictable combustible reaction.

"You all better keep me away from that (expletive) after this race," Busch radioed to his team on his way to a seventh-place finish. "I will kill that (expletive)."

Fortunately, no lives were lost. Keselowski did own up to the mistake but declined to tell Busch in person.

"Nah," said Keselowski, who wound up 15th. "I don't think he is really the listening type, so that is pretty doubtful."

Busch, though, did start busting on people on Twitter.

(Hashtag)Awesome!

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