Since August 2020, Justin Marks started Trackhouse Racing, added Pitbull as a partner, witnessed the team’s first season and bought Chip Ganassi Racing – allowing Trackhouse to be a two-car operation in 2022 and have a charter for each car.
“It’s certainly been a learning experience,” Marks told NBC Sports about his first season as a Cup owner. “We’ve packed a lot of stuff into the last 12 months.”
Marks is not alone. The past 15 months have seen an influx of new Cup owners: Denny Hamlin, Michael Jordan, BJ McLeod, Matt Tifft, Matt Kaulig, Brad Keselowski, Maury Gallagher, Pitbull and Marks.
Keselowski became the latest driver to move to the ownership ranks, joining Roush Fenway Racing to form RFK Racing. He’ll also drive the organization’s flagship No. 6 car this coming season.
“My confidence in the sport and where it’s going increased – or has been increased – in the experience I’ve had so far, so that’s been a real positive for me,” Keselowski said. “In a lot of ways, it’s reinvigorating. There were a lot of things happening behind the scenes that I didn’t know about that I think are sources of optimism.”
Gallagher, whose GMS Racing team announced in June plans to go Cup racing in 2022 with Ty Dillon, announced this month that it had purchased majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports. The new team will be called Petty GMS Motorsports.
Kaulig Racing will compete full-time in Cup next season for the first time – after winning its first Cup race this season while running a partial schedule.
The influx of new ownership was bound to happen, as the core group of Cup owners grows older. Roger Penske is 84 years old. Joe Gibbs turned 81 in November. Jack Roush is 79. Richard Childress is 76. Rick Hendrick is 72.
Among the new group of owners, most already were in the sport. Only Michael Jordan and Pitbull came from outside NASCAR, although both were fans.
Hamlin said that the sport can use more owners coming from outside it.
“What we want is the businessmen up in New York, or LA, or wherever they are, to say, ‘Why aren’t we owning a NASCAR team?,’” Hamlin said. “We have to create that interest somehow. But the moment in the past where you opened up your books to someone who wanted to invest in your team, they shut it after one page because it didn’t make sense. That’s been no secret.
“I think that NASCAR is trying to address that with the new car. We’ll see where the (next) TV (contract, which expires after the 2024 season) goes in the next 12-24 months, but ultimately, if you want to grow this sport, you’ve got to have people knocking on the door wanting to be a part of it. So, that’s where the next group is going to have to come from.”
But those outside the sport are not going to come to NASCAR for small investments. Medallion Corp. stated in its SEC filing that it sold its interest in Richard Petty Motorsports for $19.1 million to Gallagher.
While not to belittle the cost, it pales compared to other sports. Charlotte, North Carolina, will see its Major League Soccer team debut in February after reportedly paying a $325 million expansion fee.
Fenway Sports Group, a part owner of RFK Racing, reached a deal last month to reportedly pay $900 million for controlling interest in the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.
Team values in NASCAR have remained low because it wasn’t until 2016 that the charter system was introduced.
“We believe we made the team owner model more reliable, more stable, more open, more open to new investors, more capital to come into the sport,” former NASCAR Chairman Brian France said in announcing the charter system Feb. 9, 2016. The charter system was extended in 2020 to go through the 2024 season.
Value is predicated on supply and demand. Front Row Motorsports purchased a BK Racing charter in bankruptcy court for $2.08 million, including team assets, in Aug. 2018.
Hamlin acknowledged last week before the NASCAR Awards that 23XI Racing recently paid about $13.5 million for a second charter.
Gallagher looked at purchasing the BK Racing charter in 2018. Mike Beam, president of GMS Racing, put in an initial bid of $1.8 million for the charter and assets. They didn’t see a value in increasing the bid because of all the other costs associated with owning a Cup team at the time.
“I think the problem with NASCAR has been the lack of a charter, the lack of equity in a franchise … because anybody could show up in any given Sunday and get in,” Gallagher told NBC Sports. “Now it’s very regimented, which is good. Will (charter prices) go up? I believe so.
“Professional sports, who knows where the ceiling is with football, baseball? … I think the next thing is the sport has to make money, as these teams (in NASCAR) have to make money. You don’t have a lot of public disclosures, so you don’t know the numbers, but if I had to speculate, it’s not been a very lucrative business for even the people at the top, particularly in the last four or five years.”
Hendrick, whose teams have won the past two series championships, sees some interest in Cup ownership as charter prices have increased due to recent demand.
“There’s a bunch interested and that’s rewarding,” he said of potential new owners. “I think that’s going to be good for the sport.”
He also knows it is not easy coming into the sport.
“You’ve got to have the right talent like Kyle (Larson),” Hendrick said of the 2021 Cup champion. “When you look at our organization, you’ve got Jeff Gordon there, you’ve got Chad Knaus. It’s hard to go out and hire those people. You can hire people, but when you put them together it doesn’t mean it’s going to work.”
New owners bring new ideas. It doesn’t mean every idea will work, but it also can help broaden a sport’s reach. That’s what Marks wants to do with his team.
“We’re going to start doing partnerships, significant partnerships, outside of NASCAR,” he said. “That means building a scalable and diverse sports brand that starts penetrating a lot of different markets – with the goal of creating a platform of popularity and value to partners.
“That means content media. That means being in music, being in other sports, aligning with other significant personalities.”
Marks admits some of his ideas are “so outlandish that I want to try to make them happen.
“I bring some ideas to the group, and they look at me like, ‘You are so crazy.’ But, every once in a while, one of them works. Like maybe it’s the (biggest) Latin music star (Pitbull) in the world coming to NASCAR.”
2. Return to dominance
This past season marked the first time since 2015 that Chevrolet was the winningest Cup manufacturer. Chevy teams won 19 of 36 points races this past season. That came after a three-year period that saw Chevy win only 20 of 108 Cup points races.
Part of the change can be traced to the push for Chevrolet teams to work closer together.
Dr. Eric Warren, who was at Richard Childress Racing at the time and now is the director of GM’s NASCAR programs, got together with Jeff Andrews at Hendrick Motorsports and Tony Lunders at Chip Ganassi Racing to form a tighter coalition between those three teams.
“We we really working close to try to build the 2020 ZL1 1LE, which turned out to win the championship the two years it raced,” Warren told NBC Sports. “Part of that was learning each other and all the trust and development. It took a little of time to get everybody to trust each other on the aero stuff.
The rules (limiting wind tunnel time for teams) kind of changed. Wind tunnel was important. You had a certain amount of time that you had to maximize. … Then we got the crew chiefs going off that side of it. That kind of built a little bit of the foundation.”
Also, Earnhardt Childress Racing engines and the Hendrick Motorsports engine department began to work together.
The result was the 19 Cup races won by Chevy this past season came from six different drivers, led by Cup champion Kyle Larson’s 10 wins and Alex Bowman’s four.
Should Chevy’s winning ways continue in 2022, it could prove lucrative for teams under a new incentive structure with the manufacturer.
“Three years, we were struggling,” Warren said. “Toyota and Ford were winning 18, 19 races. We’re winning five, seven, whatever. It got to a point that (with) our continued spend for all of the partners (that) we need to have a little more focus on the incentive. So, there is the push to get the right drivers and right engineers and all those things.”
The incentives are the same for each team. Warren said previously that organizations would get a set amount from the manufacturer per team. This plan changes the focus.
“It was like, ‘We have a lot of competitive Chevy teams now. Do we really care if we have one more team?,’” Warren said. “Now, it almost becomes a decision by the teams: ‘Is this team going to give us more chances to get the incentives?’”
Warren said the program is “not anything uncommon. It’s just a different approach.”
3. Looking ahead
Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks said earlier this year that he was looking at the potential of moving his race team to Nashville, Tennessee.
Marks told NBC Sports that the purchase of Chip Ganassi Racing changed those plans. The team will continue to be run out of Nashville, which is where Marks lives, but there are no longer plans to relocate the entire organization to Tennessee.
“Building a race shop in Nashville was something I was very, very focused on doing when there were 12 (employees) and we were just trying to find a charter,” Marks told NBC Sports.
“When the Ganassi opportunity came, all of a sudden I’ve got a shop, I’ve got millions of dollars of equipment and 125-plus people. You can’t pick that up and move it. With our relationship with Chevrolet and the fact they are building this tech center (near Charlotte), proximity is important.
“So the vision changed. Nashville is very important to our company. We’re exploring ways to scale our presence in Nashville. I don’t think, with how fast we have grown and where Trackhouse is right now, that you will see the core of our competitive operations based here.”
So, is Marks satisfied with just being a two-car operation beginning with the 2022 season?
“Oh my gosh,” he quipped. “You can’t ask me that question. I haven’t even gotten on the racetrack yet with two.”
He said the growth to two cars in the team’s second year does not alter his five-year plan for the organization. When he looks to the future, though, he doesn’t see a four-car operation for Trackhouse. Just three cars.
“I think the sweet spot is three (teams), but we got to two really quickly,” he said. “There are absolutely zero plans in place for a third car.”
What makes having three cars better than four cars for him?
“I think when you get to four, you start to get an operation so big that it’s difficult to manage,” he said. “It’s difficult to keep a cohesive culture and a motivated workforce. I think it’s difficult because then you’re just (got) a lot of people and it’s a big operation.”
4. More Racing
William Byron, coming off his best Cup season, says one way he looks to improve as a driver is by racing more often.
“Honestly, for me, I want to try to race more outside of NASCAR,” Byron said. “I think just the hunger is there to get better for our team.
“It was different this year. I didn’t leave (the season finale at) Phoenix and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m ready for a break.’ I left, and I was like, ‘Let’s go to the next race. Let’s figure it out.’ I think with (crew chief Rudy Fugle), I think we are just ready to go to the next event.”
Byron won a race and had a career-high 12 top-five finishes and 20 top-10 finishes on the way to placing a career-best 10th in the points in 2021. He won at Homestead in the season’s third race, making him the first Hendrick Motorsports driver to score a Cup victory this past season.
As for what that type of racing Byron wants to do? He has one race planned.
“I’m doing a karting race (this week), and I like those a lot,” he said of an event at Go-Pro Motorplex in Mooresville, North Carolina. “I was racing out there with (IndyCar driver) Will Power the other afternoon.
“I think just doing some other stuff that I enjoy. I don’t want to go do any huge races, but it’s fun to just maybe go race the kart sometime or maybe go do a Trans-Am race or something.”
Cup champion Kyle Larson looks to get Byron to race a midget car on dirt, just like Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott has done since last year.
“He’s an amazing racecar driver,” Larson said of Byron. “I get to see how dedicated he is to getting better. He puts in more effort than anybody I’ve ever seen.
“I feel like if he did try (a midget car), he would jump in headfirst at it and really try to get good at it, and I believe he would get good at it. Who knows, someday you may see him in a car.”
5. Five seasons later
Jimmie Johnson’s seventh and final Cup championship came in 2016. In the five seasons since, there has been a different champion each year: Martin Truex Jr. (2017), Joey Logano (2018), Kyle Busch (2019), Chase Elliott (2020) and Kyle Larson (2021).
Twenty-seven drivers have won at least one race in the past five seasons. Here is a look at the drivers who have won the most Cup races in that span:
24 — Martin Truex Jr.
23 — Kevin Harvick
21 — Kyle Busch
17 — Denny Hamlin
15 — Kyle Larson
14 — Brad Keselowski
13 — Chase Elliott
10 — Joey Logano
7 — Ryan Blaney
6 — Alex Bowman
5 — Kurt Busch