NASCAR has different paths to Cup seats, but they’re inbetween which ways work or not

Parity. Every sport is looking for it, but rarely do they every find the right mix of it. The NFL has it during the regular season, but you also still see the same teams vie for the Super Bowl each year too. I mean take the AFC for example, from 2001 on, the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens made it to the “Big Game” 18 times in a 20 year span. The only outlier was the Oakland Raiders in 2003 and the Kansas City Chiefs last year. That’s just 5 of 16 teams making it to the championship way more times than not. Hell, go back five more years to the 1995 season and you get 22 years in a 25 year span that the AFC representative was either the Patriots, Colts, Steelers, Broncos or the Ravens.

Same for the NFC in the 1990s. Between the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers, they each made it to the Super Bowl eight times in a 10 year span.

The NBA has seen their fair share of dynasties too. From 1980 to 2005, the only teams to win a championship were the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers (just once), Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets and the San Antonio Spurs. That’s it. That’s the list. Seven teams in 25 years.

Since, we’ve had just the Miami Heat, who won three championships in an eight year span and had a streak of four straight Finals appearances last decade, Golden State Warriors (3 championships in 4 years, 5 straight NBA Finals), Dallas Mavericks (2 championships in 6 years), Cleveland Cavaliers (1 championship but 4 straight at one point) and the Toronto Raptors (2019) to join that previous list as NBA champions.

As you can see, there’s really not all that much parity in those sports. They’re all dynasties.

Well, same can kind of be said in NASCAR. While we’re seeing more parity among drivers winning races on the race track as well as taking home championships too, what we’re not seeing is parity among organizations winning. That is taking a toll on how Silly Season’s are starting to play out now as a direct result.

You want to be on one of four organizations in Cup if you want any chance of a championship.

Yes, since this new era started in 2014, we’ve only had one repeat champion in the sport’s top level. Kyle Busch did so in 2015 and again in 2019. Yes, I can make a case to where it’s as difficult now to win a title in the Cup Series as it’s ever been. But, if you want to make a lasting impact on this sport too, the dynamics are changing.

Silly Season is being affected by this. Here’s why.

This past year, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports won 34 of the 36 points paying races. They took all four of the Championship 4 spots too.

In 2019, the same four teams won 33 of the 36 races run. They also took all four Championship 4 spots again. In 2018, they won 31 of the 36 races. Furniture Row Racing with a JGR alliance won four times that year which if you count them in this mix, that’s 35 of 36 races.

Chip Ganassi Racing has won three times since 2018. Richard Childress Racing has won twice over the last three years too. Spire’s upset win in the 2019 Coke Zero Sugar 400 with Justin Haley is the only other team to have won in the Cup Series since the start of the 2018 season.

That’s it.

Other than Martin Truex Jr’s title with FRR in 2017, you have to go all the way back to Kurt Busch’s championship with Roush Fenway Racing in 2004 as the last team not named Gibbs, Stewart-Haas, Penske, or Hendrick to win a Cup championship.

So, parity is at it’s highest among drivers winning races and winning championships. You like to see that. But, if you want to stay in this sport for a while, you better find a way to those four top teams and when you do, you better win often.

This just scratches the surface. I’d be lazy if I stopped here though. You have to dig deeper as to why this is happening and how this is affecting Silly Season’s.

The thing is, contracts are being done differently with those top teams now too. Those lucrative multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts are a thing of the past. The paths are now much smaller to the top because of that.

That’s all because sponsorship money isn’t like it used to be. Back in the glory days, you’d see just 1-2 sponsors on a car all year long. Now, there’s at the very least 4-5 different sponsors per car per year with upwards of more than that too. Contracts aren’t long term because of that. They’re really just year by year in most instances. You rarely will see a drivers’ contract last longer than three years anymore. Most of them, even if they do last three years, are year to year based off options from the team.

Plus, each team is trying to get younger as well. The younger driver commands a vastly cheaper base salary and most of those drivers are bringing money to the table as an added bonus.

It’s hurting the market for the old guard. It’s pushing them out as the “Youth Movement” has almost won out.

The other factor and main path forward is that the manufacturers are having their own development programs to bring talent through the ranks more than ever now. Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota each have differing approaches to this. Ford likes to keep their development list low. Chevy sides with Ford and have more drivers at their disposal, but not by much. Toyota, well they sign anyone and everyone.

Toyota has so much talent that they put the pressure on those drivers to deliver early and often. They’ll give you top notch equipment and if you can’t perform, well there’s someone younger waiting that will. Ford and Chevy prefer to give their younger drivers time to develop before bringing them up.

Still, both methods have proven that they can and will work.

The problem is, what about those tweener drivers. We have other teams than the “Big 4.” This is where the flux lies in NASCAR.

This is the second path to the bigger seats, but this path which at times helps keep these smaller teams afloat, is starting to phase out.

These are the ones that don’t have deep pockets to get in with those development programs. The drivers that drive for the underfunded teams just do so to keep their name out there?

Well, that’s what’s changing the game too.

Ryan Preece had a chance to drive for one of those teams another year in the Xfinity Series a few yeares ago. He felt like due to the landscape getting younger and younger, he couldn’t risk another year fighting for 15th place each week. He took a chance on himself and took his money for a limited gig with JGR on the Xfinity level. It paid off. He quickly became a Cup driver, but did so with not one of the top teams. Now, he’s being overlooked again and his days if he can’t align with a top team again could be numbered. He was lauded with talent and praise when he bet on himself with JGR and now that he’s been with JTG Daugherty Racing, he’s being overlooked again.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – FEBRUARY 10: Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, talks with team owner Rick Hendrick during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 61st Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 10, 2019 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Alex Bowman followed a similar path but it led to Hendrick Motorsports. It paid off for him. Same for Ross Chastain. It worked for him to get a ride with Ganassi for 2021.

Those are the good stories. What about the ones that showed that they have talent but not given the time?

Daniel Suarez was great for JGR in Xfinity and rushed to Cup. They didn’t give him much time. He was out of a ride with them after two years for Erik Jones because Jones needed a place to go. Jones, was out of a ride after three years because Christopher Bell needs a place to go.

Suarez, will race for his fourth different team in as many years in 2021. Jones, will join Richard Petty Motorsports. Neither team is a top team. Are their paths now heading towards out of the sport soon?

Ty Dillon was with Germain but he never stood out. The team shuttered their doors and he literally has no where to go now. He was once viewed as a top talent and now he may be without a ride for 2021.

Daniel Hemric also comes to mind. He was strong in Trucks, made the Championship 4 in both years in Xfinity, won the Rookie of the Year in 2019 in Cup but because one of those budding young drivers needing a Cup seat, he was let go after all of that. He could have taken one of those mid level cars in Cup or a full time ride in NXS with a smaller team, but what future would that lead him? Instead, he bet on himself and ran part time with JR Motorsports in Xfinity in 2020. That led to a full time seat with JGR in the same series in 2021. That could in turn lead to another chance in Cup for 2022. If he’s lucky enough.

Brett Moffitt is now following a same path. He could have came back to GMS Racing for another year. He won the championship with Hattori Racing Enterprises in 2018 and was with GMS the last two years. But, what’s the point of coming back again in 2021? He had an offer from Our Motorsports to help them grow in Xfinity for next year. Moffitt’s goal is to still run on Sunday’s he says, so this is his maneuver to still keep him relevant.

I have a feeling that’s what John Hunter Nemechek is doing too. He had a Cup ride again for 2021 but turned it down. He finished 27th in points this past year but says he has something else lined up. Without any top rides in Cup left, is he going back down to Xfinity to help his path to a top Cup ride?

Can the Hemric’s, Nemechek’s and Moffitt’s new paths pan out? They have the Sam Mayer’s (Chevrolet/JRM), Noah Gragson (Chevrolet, JRM), Harrison Burton (Toyota/JGR) to compete with for rides in 2022. Then, you have Truck drivers like Todd Gilliland (Ford), Tanner Gray (Ford) and Hailie Deegan (Ford) to compete with. Chandler Smith (Toyota) and Christian Eckes (Toyota) have paths.

Are the paths for the once stars of Suarez, Jones, Dillon and Hemric smaller? Absolutely. The paths are far wider for those that they’re competing with in the lower series’.

In turn, just look at what they’re vying for too. The paths are all different but the paths lead to the same goal. With so many top rides being filled, the music is about to be stopped for a while now though. I mean, just look at the top teams in Cup and their drivers.

SHR has Cole Custer (22) and Chase Briscoe (25) but Kevin Harvick locked in for three more years. HMS has all four drivers now below the age of 30. Kyle Larson is the oldest at 28 years old now for HMS. Alex Bowman is 27 while Chase Elliott and William Byron are 24 and 22 respectively. Team Penske has 30 year old Joey Logano and 26 year old Ryan Blaney locked in for their future. They’ll have 22 year old Austin Cindric ready for next year.

JGR has soon to be 40 year old Denny Hamlin, 40 year old Martin Truex Jr., 35 year old Kyle Busch and 25 year old Christopher Bell.

These drivers see SHR could be a destination to unseat Aric Almirola but Riley Herbst is rumored to be taking his money to their Xfinity program. Almirola, isn’t old by any stretch of the imagination and if this was 1995 instead of 2020, he’d be secured longer. But, the new age of NASCAR is why he keeps getting one year deals. They’re grooming someone younger with more money to take his seat soon.

Clint Bowyer was forced out because of this. He’s not old by any stretch of the imagination, but in NASCAR years, he’s old. SHR needed Chase Briscoe to move up and had no where to store him. Why put him in an underfunded team for a year? Why put him back in NXS after a nine win season? So, Bowyer was pushed aside for Briscoe.

Penske can also keep Keselowski now for less in 2021 because of all of this new age contract lingo and can reevaluate for 2022. Will Keselowski take less again or will they sign Matt DiBenedetto? Keselowski’s value keeps going down no matter how good he does on track. We know Cindric is going to be in that third car in 2023 or 2024. HMS is set.

Toyota could be the spot soon though but remember they have a long list of drivers in their development program. It’s going to be hard to get into if you’re already in Cup now. With the ages of their top team, they could be in a transition soon. Does Hamlin move over to his self owned team giving way to Burton? Does Truex not improve in 2021 and his seat go to Burton? We know Busch isn’t likely going to be let go for at the very least a few more years, so Busch and Bell are set for the future and Burton soon after. Hamlin and Truex are the oldest drivers and could see their days numbered with the team. That’s why Hamlin went after ownership because he can control his own destiny.

In the old days, no way would Hamlin potentially be forced out but this isn’t the old days anymore. He forged his new path and did so with a partnership with Michael Jordan.

That’s why depending on your view of the Charters they’re either working or they’re not. We’ve seen too many teams in Cup fold because of money issues. They’re just not competitive. But, we’re seeing new teams coming in too in replacing them.

If you don’t have a charter, there’s no reason to join to sport, so that does up the value of them. But, it also means you’re set at 36 teams with as we sit here today 15 of them having any chance at a championship.

We’ve seen existing teams stay afloat but they’re not competitive enough to join the “Big 4” either. They’re not going to get young stars anymore because those young stars do themselves harm by going to race for them. They’re going to get good veterans that may have been pushed out to make room for younger drivers, but if the funding isn’t there, they’re not going to make any difference.

This is part why NASCAR capped a four car limit for all organizations in Cup. They had to. While it would make more sense to open it back up again and could keep drivers like Bowyer, Almirola, Keselowski and others around longer without being forced to take pay cuts or out of a ride scenarios, it would also mean the “Big 4” teams would dominate even further.

Just think about it. We see what they’re doing now with a four car cap. What happens if they expand to 5-7 cars each. That takes away more from the mid level to lower level teams. They couldn’t compete for that and we’d see a field full of JGR, SHR, Penske or Hendrick cars. Is that good for the sport long term? Do you want to see 40 car fields with 95 percent of them being among four organizations?

That’s why NASCAR is stuck in a rock and a hard place right now. Parity is there among the drivers in the top four organizations. A new car is coming out in 2022. New teams are coming into the sport. The surface is bright.

But, will we still lose those mid level to backmarker teams in the future? Will any other these new teams or existing mid level teams close the gap to the top? Will the paths to a top ride change again?

Is this a sport where the “Big 4” will continue to dominate and everyone else struggle? Is that the business model? NASCAR hopes not.

Right now, the best way to make it in NASCAR is to start young, find a manufacturer development program, shine in that and follow that wave to one of the top four teams. That’s the best path. The taking a risk on yourself outside of that path is risky and rarely pays off. But, there still is a door open at the top if you succeed that way. The best path though leads to a lot of pressure because you don’t have much time to learn. It’s a win now approach and could lead you to being out of a ride before you’re 25. Then, if you do make it in Cup, you have to be willing to take pay cuts instead of garnering raises as your career goes on. Someone younger is always going to be just as fast and willing to pay for your seat.

That’s why NASCAR’s in a weird phase right now.

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