NASCAR's Curious Case: Owner-Drivers the Kiss of Death?
Being an owner-driver in the cup series creates enormous pressure, and takes a special kind of driver. The situation can be so nerve-racking that many drivers steer clear of the cup series, instead owning teams in lesser series with significantly less pressure.
Many great drivers have tried their hand at owning a cup team at one point or another, and in the early days of NASCAR these owner-drivers flourished. However, as time wore on they became less and less relevant
Then came the 80’s, and while a few owner-drivers were still relevant (Richard Petty), Corporate America mostly killed off the owner-driver. A few stragglers hung on, but never posed a true threat to better funded teams.
Then a miracle happened; in 1992 Alan Kulwicki owned and drove for a vastly underfunded team, with a small time sponsor. He defeated not one, not two, but three powerhouse teams: Junior Johnson, Roberts Yates Racing, and Felix Sabates Racing on the way to the championship.
Suddenly being an owner-driver was fashionable again, and big names such as Ricky Rudd, Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, and Darrell Waltrip owned their own teams in the 90’s (Waltrip started a year before Kulwicki won the championship). Although some found victory, most did not meet with success.
A look at the season averages of these four men (minus Kulwicki) before and during ownership shows a sad trend.
Bill Elliott started his own team in 1995 after an argument with the legendary Junior Johnson, and also gave rides to drivers such as David Green and Tommy Kendall.
Before Ownership: 19 years, 2.1 wins, 7.4 top fives, 12.6 top tens
During Ownership: 6 years, 0 wins, 2.1 top fives, 7.5 top tens
Darrell Waltrip was originally an owner for the first three and a half years of his career, but after accepting a ride for DiGard, Waltrip would not become an owner again for 15 years. His career numbers suggest he should have stuck to driving.
Before Ownership: 15 years, 5.1 wins, 15.1 top fives, 19.2 top tens
During Ownership: 7 years, .7 wins, 4 top fives, 9.5 top tens Ricky Rudd became an owner in 1994 after losing a ride at Hendrick. Rudd started with four productive seasons before quitting in 2000 after two miserable seasons in a row. He was the last big name before Tony Stewart to ride his own equipment.
Before Ownership: 18 years, .7 wins, 6.7 top fives, 13 top tens
During Ownership: 6 years, 1 win, 5.1 top fives, 11.3 top tens
Dale Earnhardt is a different story, as he didn’t drive his own equipment. He started his team in 1982 as a way to run Busch Series races, and he did not own a cup team until 1997 when Steve Park ran a few races for him. Dale Earnhardt Inc. would run as a full-time team the following season, and was a dominant team in NASCAR until the mid-2000’s
Before Ownership: 22 years, 3.1 wins, 10.9 top fives, 16 top tens
During Ownership: 5 years, 1.2 wins, 6.4 top fives, 14.8 top tens
As you can see, when a driver becomes an owner it’s often not pretty. Only in rare circumstances do owner-drivers prosper in a sport filled with multi-car juggernauts. As fans we can only hope Tony Stewart’s success last season (and really over the last three seasons) can spur another owner-driver revolution in cup.
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