Ryan: NASCAR driver contracts cause consternation after charter system


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A contract usually means clarity.

It’s the rock-solid agreement that locks in the assurances of everyday life and erases all of the niggling uncertainties that stem from loose ends.

One of the most historic contracts in stock-car history – the charter deal that triggered a sweeping overhaul of the Sprint Cup team business model with guaranteed attendance and revenues – was signed a week ago and stamped by a unanimous chorus of NASCAR and team executives proclaiming it as a overwhelming victory for the industry.

Safety. Stability. Security.

So, let’s check in Tuesday for a sampling of what Sprint Cup drivers said about the landmark deal at Daytona 500 Media Day.

“We’re all scrambling.”

“It’s definitely fair to say the whole group probably felt caught off guard.”

“I may go into the Daytona 500 not actually knowing what I’m earning.”

So much for the 200-mph Magna Carta.

“I think anyone would like to know before the terms of their employment change, but that is not the situation,” Brad Keselowski said. “I am aware of the fact that I am a race car driver, and no matter what happens, I am still going to be OK. I am not looking for anyone to feel bad for me. On the other side it is not ideal.

“It would be like if your employer just said, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it, you will get paid.’ That is kind of where most every driver is.”

While it indirectly shored up the underpinnings of the business keeping them gainfully employed and also erased the stress of qualifying without a safety net, the charter system makeover left NASCAR’s stars with a large and lingering question.

Now that the purse structure has been reworked in a way that makes the previous model outmoded, how do we ensure we make the same amount of money as before?

Drivers are paid through two primary methods: a base salary and a percentage of the race winnings, which were provided in every box score.

Under the new charter system, NASCAR no longer will provide those race winnings nor the total purse, underscoring how radically different the cash is being distributed.

The contracts are based on purses that included contingency plans that entirely have been carved out of the results – necessitating drastic changes in driver compensation if previous income levels are maintained.

“I think that everyone will have to have something redone within their contract,” Denny Hamlin said. “There’s verbiage in stuff that has changed how drivers get paid from the purse. There’s not one common standard that one driver or team offers that’s going to be the same. It’s up to the individual driver and owner to work out those details.”

That’s a lot of billable hours being burned in law firms around the country this month, the byproduct of the loosely constructed federation of independent contractors who compete in NASCAR’s premier series.

Though a Driver Council was formed last year to provide some semblance of a unified voice, there is no collective bargaining unit among NASCAR drivers and thus no uniformity or guarantees on what they are entitled to receive from a team owner.

Couple that with a massively complex deal struck less than two weeks from the season opener, and the timing ensured some level of uneasiness.

“The charter system was agreed upon rapidly and pushed the drivers into a very small window to renegotiate a lot of their contracts.” Earnhardt said. “We’re all still negotiating in some of those areas with respective teams. Hopefully all the drivers are having success there.”

There was no pervasive sense of panic Tuesday. NASCAR met with drivers over the weekend and briefed them on the terms of the charter deal

“They did a really nice job of laying it out and talking us through the process,” said Jamie McMurray, who also has gleaned insight from Rob Kauffman, a minority owner of McMurray’s No.1 Chevrolet and Race Team Alliance chairman who brokered the charter agreement. “Maybe it made a little more sense to me because I’d heard Rob’s side and then I heard their side, and I’m putting it all together. They did a good job of explaining it all to us.”

But when it comes to multimillion-dollar annual incomes, all of the PowerPoint presentations in the world won’t assuage fears of a precipitous drop in earnings power.

“Listen, yeah, every driver has a concern if you’re paid based on the purse,” McMurray said. “That’s how most contracts were structured. You get a salary and get paid based on the purse. That structure changed.

“It’s all for the better, but everyone’s contracts had to be relooked at and reworked, and from what I know from talking to other drivers and our team and listening to what other teams are saying, all the owners were really fair in making that right. It just takes a different contract from what we had.”

Some drivers, such as Richard Childress Racing’s Ryan Newman, hadn’t begun to work out the details of their new deals.

“(The charter system) is a great thing, it’s just it was sprung on us as drivers late,” Newman said. “We all can understand that, but most every owner has been (respectful) of the driver of sorting things out because everything changed so much. And I mean everything.

“But I don’t think you can take the history of these owners and business people and put them in a room and have something worse come out of it. I think they’ve done a really good job of protecting themselves for the future and giving this sport a better direction.”

“Everybody is in that same boat,” Casey Mears said. “Thankfully, I have a great relationship with my team owner. As soon as they did that deal, you hope you have a good relationship with your team. … All the conversations have been, ‘Hey, how can we get you back to, based on this new format, what we negotiated?’ There’s definitely a lot of internal conversations going on having to do with that.

“I think the majority of the teams are going to settle it and make it right.”

Stewart-Haas Racing drivers particularly were assured about their status. Kevin Harvick said his management team hammered out a restructuring “in a couple of hours. It didn’t seem like it was that big a deal,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of guys that have expressed some concern on where they are. I guess I should feel fortunate from that side of it.”

“I’m not in a big rush to address it,” Danica Patrick said. “My team has been nothing but fair for years, so we’ll work it out.”

Said Clint Bowyer, whose deal changes next year anyway after moving to SHR from HScott Motorsports: “I’m really not worried about it. I think it’s just a matter of figuring out what the math is and making it work.”

Of course, drivers won’t know how well the math works until the checks arrive. Many said Tuesday it will take at least a few races to gauge if the renegotiated deals are yielding the desired results.

“I think it’s just a matter of economics,” said Greg Biffle, who had yet to finish his deal with Roush Fenway Racing. “I don’t think anybody is taking it as an opportunity to change driver contracts.”

For the drivers’ sake, there better be clarity on that.

NASCAR implements safety changes after Talladega crash

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NASCAR is implementing changes to Cup cars that strengthen the right side door area and soften the frontal area after reviewing the crash between Kyle Larson and Ryan Preece at Talladega Superspeedway in April.

The changes are to be in place for the July 9 race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Larson and Preece were uninjured in the vicious crash late in the race at Talladega. Larson’s car was turned and slid down the track to the apron before coming back up in traffic. Preece’s car slammed into the right side door area of Larson’s car.

Dr. John Patalak, NASCAR vice president of safety engineering, said the difference in velocity of the two cars at the time of impact was 59 mph.

“It’s pretty hard to find that on the racetrack normally,” Patalak told reporters Thursday during a briefing.

The severe impact moved a right side door bar on Larson’s car. NASCAR announced last month that it was allowing teams to add six right side door bar gussets to prevent the door bars from buckling in such an impact.

Thursday, NASCAR announced additional changes to the cars. The changes come after computer simulations and crash testing.

NASCAR is mandating:

  • Steel plate welded to the right side door bars
  • Front clips will be softened
  • Front bumper strut softening
  • Front ballast softening
  • Modified cross brace

Patalak said that NASCAR had been working on changes to the car since last year and did crash testing in January at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio. NASCAR did more work after that crash test.

As for the changes to the front of the car, Patalak said: “From an engineering standpoint we’re reducing the buckling strength of those individual parts and pieces. The simplified version is we are increasing the amount of crush that the front clip will be capable of. That’s all an effort to reduce the accelerations that the center section and driver will be exposed to during these frontal crashes.”

Adding the steel plate to the door bars is meant to strengthen that area to prevent any type of intrusion or buckling of the door bars in a similar type of crash.

Patalak also said that NASCAR inspected the car of Blaine Perkins that barrel rolled during the Xfinity race at Talladega in April. Patalak said that NASCAR consulted with Dr. James Raddin, Jr., who was one of the four authors of the Earnhardt investigation report in 2001 for the sanctioning body, in that incident.

Dr. Diandra: Brad Keselowski driving RFK Racing revival


Brad Keselowski surprised many when he didn’t re-sign with Team Penske in 2021. Penske was his home since 2010, and the team who helped him to a Cup Series championship in 2012. But Jack Roush offered Keselowski something Roger Penske couldn’t — ownership stake in the team.

Keselowski knew an RFK Racing revival would be an challenge, but also that he was prepared for it.

“I’ve been studying my whole life for this moment, and I’m ready for the test,” Keselowski said during the announcement of the new partnership.

A historic team with historic ups and downs

Roush Racing entered Cup competition in 1988. It didn’t win that first year, but the company collected at least one checkered flag every year from 1989-2014 — except for 1996.

Roush was one of the first owners (along with Rick Hendrick) to appreciate the advantages of multi-car teams. By 2003, Roush Racing fielded five full-time teams. In 2005, all five Roush cars made the playoffs, accumulating 15 wins between them. Their dominance prompted NASCAR to limit teams to four cars. That limit remains today.

Roush sold half the team to Fenway Sports Group in 2007. The renamed Roush Fenway Racing team, however, never reached the highs of 2005 as the graph below shows.

A vertical bar chart showing the challenges Brad Keselowski has in driving RFK's revival

The 2015 season was Jack Roush’s first winless season since 1996. By the time Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won two races in 2017, RFR was down to two cars. The company had four consecutive winless seasons before Keselowski came on board.

Keselowski is a perfect choice to drive the RFK revival. After all, how many other NASCAR drivers run a 3D-printing business? Or worry about having enough properly educated workers for 21st century manufacturing jobs?

“I feel like I’m buying into a stock that is about to go up,” Keselowski said.

Keselowski’s record

The new RFK Racing team started off strong at Daytona, with Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher each winning their Duels. During that week, NASCAR confiscated wheels from both drivers’ cars. Despite concerns about the team’s modifications, NASCAR ultimately levied no penalty. But after the fifth race of the year at Atlanta, NASCAR docked Keselowski 100 points for modifying single-source parts. Keselowski needed to win to make the playoffs.

It wasn’t Keselowski, but Buescher who won the first race under the new name. Unfortunately, Buescher’s Bristol win came too late to make the playoffs.

Keselowski finished 2022 ranked 24th, the worst finish since his first full-time season in 2010 when he finished 25th.

In the table below, I compare Keselowski’s finishes for his last two years at Team Penske to his finishes with RFK Racing in 2022 and the first 15 races of 2023.

Comparing Brad Keselowski's finishes for his last two years with Penske and his first two years (so far) with RFK RacingKeselowski’s lack of wins since switching teams is the most obvious difference; however, the falloff in top-five and top-10 finishes is even more significant. Keselowski was not only not winning races, he often wasn’t even in contention. In 2020, Keselowski finished 91.7% of all races on the lead lap. In his first year with RFK, that metric dropped to 61.1%.

On the positive side, his numbers this year look far better than his 2022 statistics. Keselowski finishes on the lead lap 86.7% of the time and already has as many top-10 finishes in 15 races as he had in all 36 races last year.

Keselowski’s top-five finish rate improved from 2.8% in 2022 to 20.0% this year. That’s still off his 2021 top-five-finish rate of 36.1%, but it’s a step forward.

I summarize the last four years of some of Keselowski’s loop data metrics in the table below.

A table comparing Brad Keselowski's attempt to drive RKF's revival with his last two years of loop data at Penske

In 2022, Keselowski was down between six to seven-and-a-half points in starting, finishing and average running positions relative to 2021. This year, he’s improved so that the difference is only in the 2.6 to 3.6-position range.

Two keys for continued improvement

Ford is playing catch-up this year, having won only two of 15 points-paying races. Ryan Blaney, who won one of those two races, has the highest average finishing position (11.3) among drivers with at least eight starts. Keselowski is 14th overall with a 15.7 average finishing position, and fourth best among Ford drivers. Buescher is finishing an average of 1.2 positions better than his teammate.

Kevin Harvick is the top-ranked Ford driver in average running position, coming in sixth overall. Keselowski is 13th overall in average running position and the fourth-best among the Ford drivers.

Average green-flag speed rank is the average of a driver’s rank in green-flag speed over all the races for which he was ranked. Harvick is the fastest Ford as measured by this metric, ranking eighth among all drivers who have completed at least eight races. Keselowski is the fifth-fastest Ford, but the 20th-ranked driver in average green-flag speed rank.

The other issue, however, is particular to Keselowski: He is involved in a lot of accidents. That’s not new with Keselowski’s move to RFK Racing. Since 2016, Keselowski has been involved in at least eight caution-causing incidents every year.

What may be new is that he has a harder time recovering from non-race-ending incidents now than he did at Penske.

In 2021, Keselowski was involved in 12 caution-causing accidents. Last year, it was 10 (nine accidents and a spin). He’s already been involved in 12 incidents this year, the most of any full-time driver.

Keselowski isn’t too concerned about accidents. He views them as a consequence of pushing a car to its limits. His competitors, however, have called him out for for his aggressive driving style.

Neither accidents nor Keselowski’s attitude toward them changed with his transition from Team Penske to RFK Racing.

Except now he’s the one paying for those wrecked cars.

NASCAR weekend schedule at Sonoma Raceway


The NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series head to Sonoma Raceway this weekend. This marks the first time the Xfinity Series has competed at the 1.99-mile road course.

The Cup and Xfinity Series will take the following weekend off before the season resumes at Nashville Superspeedway. NBC and USA will broadcast each series the rest of the year, beginning at Nashville.

Sonoma Raceway

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 69 degrees.

Saturday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 73 degrees. Forecast is for a high of 70 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race.

Sunday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 67 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the Cup race.

Friday, June 9

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — ARCA Menards Series West
  • 1 – 10 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 2 – 3 p.m. — ARCA West practice
  • 3:10 – 3:30 p.m. — ARCA West qualifying
  • 4:05 – 4:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 p.m. — ARCA West race (64 laps, 127.36 miles; live on FloRacing, will air on CNBC at 11:30 a.m. ET on June 18)

Saturday, June 10

Garage open

  • 12 p.m. – 8 p.m.  — Cup Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 3 – 4 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 5 – 6 p.m. — Cup practice  (FS2)
  • 6 – 7 p.m. — Cup qualifying  (FS2)
  • 8 p.m. — Xfinity race (79 laps, 156.95 miles; FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, June 11

Garage open

  • 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (110 laps, 218.9 miles; Fox, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)


NASCAR penalizes Erik Jones, Legacy MC for L1 violation


NASCAR has docked Erik Jones and Legacy Motor Club 60 points and five playoff points each, suspended crew chief Dave Elenz two races and fined him $75,000 for the L1 violation discovered this week at the R&D Center. The team was found to have modified the greenhouse.

The penalty drops Jones from 26th to 30th in the standings heading into Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway.

MORE: NASCAR’s $1 million question is can the culture change?

“We have been diligently working with NASCAR regarding the penalty and are working internally to determine the course of action in response,” said Joey Cohen, vice president, race operations for Legacy MC, in a statement. “We will announce that decision within the timeframe determined by the NASCAR Rule Book.”

Cohen will serve as interim crew chief during Elenz’s suspension.

Jones’ car was among those brought to NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, after last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway.

NASCAR cited the team for violating:

Section 14.1.C: Vehicles must comply with Section 14 Vehicle and Driver Safety Specifications of the NASCAR Rule Book at all times during an Event. Failure to comply will be subject to Penalty pursuant to Section 10 Violations and Disciplinary Action.

Section 14.1.D: Except in cases explicitly permitted in the NASCAR Rules, installation of additional components, repairs, deletions, and/or modifications to Next Gen Single Source Vendor-supplied parts and/or assemblies will not be permitted.

Section 14.1.2.B: All parts and assemblies must comply with the NASCAR Engineering Change Log.

NASCAR also announced penalties Wednesday in the Craftsman Truck Series.

Crew chief Andrew Abbott has been fined $5,000, Young’s Motorsports has been penalized 25 points and Chris Hacker has been docked 25 points for a violation with the team’s window net.

Crew chief Charles Denike has been fined $2,500 for a lug nut not properly installed on Christian Eckes‘ truck for TRICON Garage.