The announcement that the Indianapolis 500 will run without fans overshadowed another big storyline in the racing world on Tuesday. On the NASCAR side, Leavine Family Racing announced that they will shutter their doors at seasons end.
That’s a big deal on many layers. It was what team owner Bob Leavine calls a “perfect storm.”
They may be aligned with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing, but it’s not like money was taken care of because of that. JGR gave them cars and support but LFR still lacked the funding to continue on.
That was the death blow to Furniture Row Racing too. Barney Visser owned the company and the race team. He got Bass Pro Shops, 5 Hour Energy and a few other sponsors to offset costs so that he didn’t have to come out of pocket anymore. The alliance with JGR and Toyota was the tipping point to get going further up.
It paid off. They went from one win, 15 top five finishes, 32 top 10s, two poles and 497 laps led in the first 271 races. Then with Toyota, they won 16 times, 60 top fives, 100 top 10s, 13 poles and 5,955 laps led in just 180 races including the 2017 championship.
But, two seasons after their miraculous title, they were gone. How?
Sponsors left and Visser couldn’t risk his own business to keep the team afloat. Sound familiar?
Leavine said on Tuesday morning that he had 11 races unsponsored on their No. 95 Toyota this season, then the pandemic hit. They lost out on so much funding already. Now, they wouldn’t get more. After begging NASCAR for some help, it didn’t come.
They needed the new car to come out next year still but the pandemic pushed that back too. Hence the “perfect storm.”
“It was a snowball effect on multiple things,” Leavine said. “We saw no way out. We could not afford the affiliation, and what we did this year, next year. That’s what we banked on. Okay, we will do this one year, run good, get our charter value up, and we had a plan. That plan came tumbling down with the pandemic. Then you take a bad business model; it doesn’t work for us.”
So, Toyota is back to just five full time cars. Four of those are at Joe Gibbs Racing and the other for Gaunt Brothers and that’s if GBR still runs full time next year.
That in turn sets up an interesting problem for JGR and Toyota. They have more drivers than they know what to do with.
Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin are all under contract for 2021. Erik Jones and Christopher Bell are free agents. They have five drivers for four cars.
That’s why they needed the alliance with FRR. They needed to house Jones for his rookie year in 2017 and a place for their younger drivers to grow until a seat opens up at JGR.
That’s why they aligned with LFR. They needed to keep Bell.
Now, what do you do? They don’t want to lose Jones and Bell but who do you let go of the veteran trio?
Then, you have younger drivers like Harrison Burton, Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones in the Xfinity Series. You also have Chandler Smith, Raphael Lessard, Christian Eckes and Derek Kraus in Trucks and Ty Gibbs in ARCA. Where do they go?
It’s a good problem to have but you can’t groom future stars of the sport for other teams/manufacturers.
Kyle Larson, Willam Byron and Noah Gragson all came up through the TRD program and left. They don’t want to keep losing stars, but they also can’t just cut ties with championship winning veterans either.
So, Toyota and JGR need to expand but they’re capped out at four drivers in Cup for JGR. How do they approach a new team to align with when the previous two folded in a three year span?