In order for NASCAR to continue to survive and thrive, just like any good business, it is important for each generation to have a devoted number of individuals willing and able to take up the torch and resume higher leadership roles. Depending on your generation and how long you've followed the sport, we've seen many a driver-owner combination in NASCAR.
From the Junior Johnson ran teams of the 1950s and 1960s and later led teams of the 1970's and 1980's; to Petty Enterprises, which began in 1949 with three-time Grand National Champion Lee Petty; to 1992 Winston Cup Champion Alan Kulwicki and Dale Earnhardt Inc., this format has been tried before with decreasing success each time (at least in the successive instances I've highlighted).
The next generation's owner-drivers hope to offer more of the same in terms of longevity, meanwhile improving on the consistency of their elders. The future also offers some suggestions as to who might one day join them in these owners' ranks.
Fifteen years from now, who could be the next generation of former drivers turned owners?
Michael Waltrip Racing
Contrary to its contemporary product, Michael Waltrip Racing initially debuted in 2002, albeit sporadically, as part of a joint venture with Bill Davis Racing. Unable to land sponsorship deals, the single car operation had little success. It wasn't until 2006, when the team switched Toyota—a highly controversial move—that it began the organization we know it to be today.
Whether you love him or you hate him, Michael Waltrip has been around NASCAR for almost 25 years. Despite his four career victories, the latest one coming in 2003 at a restrictor track (big surprise) in Talladega, Waltrip will always be able to consider himself as the two-time Daytona 500 champion. He'll be introduced as such for the rest of his career, and ultimately, his life—symbolizing his lasting legacy in the sport.
We've all seen his fantastic ability to serve as a product pitchman for any number of his sponsors over the years, like Ritz crackers, NAPA Auto Parts, Coke, Country Time Lemonade, Aaron's and or Domino's. That alone has been a big factor in his ability to keep finding rides long before the formation of his own team, as described above.
Here is their 2009 gem so far.
With Waltrip's acting ability, partnering with Joe Gibbs Racing, not to mention solidly improving his team with several renewed sponsorships (unlike many of his fellow drivers and their respective teams) I'm glad to know he'll be a part of NASCAR for the next generation and beyond whenever he decides to ultimately retire, which he hinted at earlier this year.
The 2009 season also saw the formation of Stewart-Haas Racing, named after co-owner and two-time Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart, who was given a half stake in the former Haas-CNC racing group. With 33 wins to his credit and current Chase contender, Stewart clearly still knows how to get it done on the track, while maintaining his new niche as an owner off of it.
Like Waltrip, Stewart was quite the pitchman for his former employer Joe Gibbs Racing and primary sponsor, Home Depot. We've seen a small sample of this carry over to Old Spice, but to an understandable decrease, due to Stewart's new obligations and commitments. Nevertheless, it's good to see he'll be around long after his racing days are over.
Kevin Harvick Inc
Kevin Harvick, owner of the No. 33 Camping World Nationwide team and No. 4 truck team, has already seen his fair share of success with three truck wins, and many more by various drivers in each series.
Due to this success since debuting in mid-2004, along with his wide array of sponsors, it's logical for Harvick to make the natural transisition to Cup owner some day soon.
Harvick may be 33 years old to Stewart's 37, but it wouldn't be that inconceivable to see Harvick form a splinter team with Richard Childress Racing, with Nationwide Series driver Cale Gale serving as the primary drivers of the two-car team. Should Gale not be that driver, Harvick would be free to either scour his Nationwide or truck team for a teammate, or take the Tony Stewart established method and sign a valuable veteran.
It appears Dale Jr. intends to take his father's route in serving as owner of one team while racing for another. Currently, his Nationwide team consists of himself, Brad Keselowski, and a combination of other drivers including 19-year-old Landon Cassill. With lots of sponsorships and drivers that would be sure to follow his legendary name, it seems highly unlikely this stable will stay in Nationwide status long term, especially after its owner retires to commit himself full time to the organization.
Jeff Gordon Motorsports
Some people believe that when Rick Hendrick walks away from NASCAR, his natural heir is the man who put his team on the map and changed the sport forever. How many of you know that Gordon is technically already the owner of the No. 48, meaning his fellow teammate, three-time Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson, is actually his subordinate?
Keep in mind that it was Gordon who made the No. 24 relevant, as that number and sponsor had never co-existed before. A stable consisting of a plethora of California-based drivers is never out of the question, seeing as how this storied stable is already spearheaded by two of the best. Like Jr. and Harvick, sponsorship wouldn't be an issue. Neither would the storied-stable's fans be able to tell about the one guy they loved to hate.
Mark Martin Motorsports
Provided the 50-year-old Martin ever stops racing, it's very easy to see him owning at least a two-car stable in the future. He was already part owner of Matt Kenseth's 2003 Championship winning teamwhile driving for Jack Roush, and you know his popularity and longevity is bound to keep him around the sport.
Additionally, he, too, would have sponsors due to his likability and Waltrip-like communication skills. Don't count out his 18-year-old son's possible return to racing, which of course would peak his interest and commitment.
Rusty Wallace Racing
Rusty Wallace already has a 21-year-old son in the Nationwide series who had nowhere to go but up, literally, as he's on the series' cusp. Furthermore, with racing in their blood, it's probable there are countless other Wallace kin itching to race. It seems Rusty can simply be content to wait it out while his son gains more valuable experience and seat time.
Don't forget his connections to Iowa Speedway could prove huge, as the track has already garnered a truck and Nationwide race for 2009. It's not that far-fetched to think a Cup date could certainly be in its long-term future, therefore increasing Wallace's motivation to go there and be involved in a hands-on manner.
Busch Brothers Racing
NASCAR already has Wood Brothers Racing named after the legendary engine block builders of the 1970s, so why not another brotherly stable? With each sibling successful in his own right, and considering each will likely retire with victories likely into their 30s at the very least, both is sure to appeal to sponsors and fans alike. Mix in the fact that Kyle apparantly has already been floating around the idea on a lesser circuit, despite being just 23 years old, and it's not that hard to imagine at all. By then, their home track in Las Vegas will have two dates, too, thereby increasing their visibility.
The preceeding offers a wide variety of personality, experience, and marketability nececessary to make the sport grow for the next generation. Each driver brings their own set of skills needed to capture new fans and retain the old that cherish the nostalgia we know of as the present. I know I among them already have memories watching a few of these drivers, if not all, make history on the circuit, similar to the pioneers mentioned before them.
We can only wait to see how they each transition to the next phase of their careers: Ones that started not too long ago, and ones that will continue to evolve right before our very eyes.