What does Chip Ganassi’s latest news say about the state of NASCAR today. For those who haven’t heard Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates will cease the operation of his #40 Dodge formerly piloted by Dario Franchitti. Look back no farther than 2002, when Sterling Marlin made the #40 “flagship” car of CGR a perennial championship contender.
Ganassi pioneered the “Open-Wheel Driver” movement into NASCAR. A few short years ago they introduced Juan Pablo Montoya into NASCAR. Despite the seemingly unnoticed earlier movements of Tony Stewart and other less storied drivers from open wheel backgrounds, JPM ignited a fad towards open wheel drivers making the move. Suddenly it seemed like every owner wanted open wheel talent; every open wheel driver wanted to be in NASCAR.
One driver to make the jump during that time was Dario Franchitti. Dario only had experience in the open wheel ranks, he was 35 years old, and he wanted see if he could find success like JPM. Like so many others had before him, he jumped right into the Cup level. As on several previous occasions, he made a mistake doing it, and Ganassi made a mistake letting him do it.
Looking at this years entry lists it is not uncommon to see ten or more drivers who have recently made the jump. Chip Ganassi becomes the latest to realize that this fad is not always profitable. Remember Jacque Villeneuve and his early departure from Bill Davis Racing - an underfunded team at best. In the long run it is overly obvious that only a few open wheel drivers will successfully make and maintain the transition into NASCAR.
Looking at the bigger picture of driver impact on sponsorship, and the financial requirement race teams need from sponsorship, we see yet another trend. Today’s multi-million dollar sponsors, or lack thereof, are making and breaking teams like never before. With the additional emphasis placed on the top-12 by the new Chase format, we can only expect the current trend to continue.
Sponsors seem to want young talent that experience instant success. At times they just want youth. This was most recently referenced in stories of the Army wanting a younger driver to hit their target audience, rather than old and gray, yet experienced and capable Mark Martin. With more sponsors either finding success or moving on to a more successful organization, we will see more and more of the smaller teams dropping off the radar.
With the news of Dario, it is clear that even Ganassi Racing is not exempt from sponsorship woes. It seems like sponsors would rather have a small patch on the uniform in victory lane than a logo on the hood of the car riding mid to rear pack. Sooner or later teams like Penske, Ganassi, Waltrip, DEI, Wood Brothers, etc. will be mired permanently outside of the top-25 in points. Left there to fight over the few small sponsors and investors left who want to take a chance on a struggling team. Or they will resort to partnering up with a larger team like Yates Racing has with Roush, left still to struggle with good equipment due to lesser known drivers and lack of full time primary sponsors.
The result will be the big teams like Hendrick, Gibbs, Childress, and Roush having a controlling interest in all the teams in NASCAR. Which ironically is the same route taken by the tracks raced on in NASCAR. Before long all tracks will be owned by one of two organizations, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI) or International Speedway Corporation (ISC).
The days of drivers like Kurt Busch, Reed Sorenson, Casey Mears, and a wide array of driving talent having a few years to bounce off the walls of every track before finding their footing are numbered. The unfortunate part is that occasionally a few of those drivers would figure it out and win races or a championship. Furthermore champions can now be produced by equipment over talent.
What is most distressing is that money now controls our beloved NASCAR.
Go Kyle Busch and the #18 crew! Show them how to win at Daytona this time!
Goodbye Ashley Judd-Franchitti, we will now have to watch those old DVD’s to see your smiling face.