Amidst seemingly infinite permutations of potential impending driver movement in the Cup Series, there is one constant in the swirl.
NASCAR’s latest fairy tale has a finite shelf life.
The Ryan Blaney breakthrough at Pocono Raceway represented many positives: the furthering of an omnipresent youth movement expected to carry NASCAR to the next generation; the resurgence of a storied organization that seemed headed for the boneyard eight years ago; the expansion of a playoff field that promises to be Cup’s first winners-only championship invitational (despite including some unexpected qualifiers).
But the 23-year-old’s inaugural victory also signified a mostly overlooked reality: Blaney’s tenure with the venerable No. 21 Ford has an expiration date that rapidly is approaching.
Blaney’s initial contract was with Team Penske, which essentially has farmed him out to technical affiliate Wood Brothers Racing since 2015. The partnership strengthened when the 67-year-old team returned to a full schedule last year for the first time since 2008 and took another step in the offseason with the relocation of Wood Brothers Racing headquarters in close proximity to Penske’s sprawling shop in Mooresville, N.C.
But just like Trevor Bayne, Elliott Sadler, Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty before him, Blaney isn’t expected to stay long since earning his first Cup win with Wood Brothers Racing.
Jarrett was off to Joe Gibbs Racing within six months of his August 1991 win at Michigan. Petty had moved onward within three years of February 1986 at Richmond.
For the team’s two previous winners before Pocono, Sadler was announced as joining Robert Yates Racing roughly 15 months after March 2001 at Bristol Motor Speedway, and Bayne’s plans for a full-season ride at Roush Fenway Racing were unveiled barely theee years after his 2011 Daytona 500 shocker (a departure that probably was delayed by the driver’s illness while running a partial schedule).
Because of his existing contract with Penske, a parting with Blaney could be announced more suddenly than any of those.
But it’s become an accepted way of doing business to survive for Wood Brothers Racing, which deserves credit for evolving over the past quarter-century from a storied powerhouse (99 victories with the likes of David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Neil Bonnett among more than a dozen winners in the No. 21) to a solid satellite of Penske in the Ford Performance stable.
As Petty noted on NASCAR America this past week, other legacy teams belonging to Petty Enterprises, Junior Johnson and Bud Moore couldn’t make the transition because they didn’t embrace the mandatory survival instincts as well as Wood Brothers Racing did.
Team co-owner Eddie Wood was candid when asked by NBCSports.com about the understanding that Blaney can’t stay long-term.
“The relationship we have is great,” team co-owner Eddie Wood said. “Nobody can ever take this away. Just like with Trevor Bayne, nobody can ever take that win away.
“When Ryan came to drive our car, it was actually kind of understood that he was going to be moving on probably the next year, and then it didn’t happen, and whenever it happens, that’s fine. Everybody will move on, and he’ll go on to bigger and better and greater things. He’s going to win a lot of races, and I think he’s going to win some championships. Whatever we do from there, it’ll be fine.”
Blaney’s thoughts? “What (Wood) said,” he said. “I like where I’m at.”
The most authoritative voice on the matter belongs to Roger Penske, who wasn’t heard from in the postrace news conferences at Pocono. “The Captain” already had tipped his hand a week earlier in a USA Today Sports story that quoted Penske hinting Blaney would join the Team Penske fold “sooner rather than later.”
There have been rumblings since May of overtures about Blaney’s availability since Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced the 2017 would be his last season in the No. 88 Chevrolet.
Consecutive axle failures at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway for the No. 21 prior to Pocono (perpetuating the negative perception of whether the team’s purpose was partly as an R&D outfit) helped fuel the conjecture, and Penske’s recent on-the-record reaffirmation of keeping Blaney under his umbrella seems conspicuously timed, considering contracts can contain escape clauses predicated on teams fielding cars for their drivers.
Blaney’s future fits into a larger tapestry of teams that could reshuffle driver and sponsor lineups based on an array of factors ranging from performance to preference to purse strings.
Who could be involved? Here’s a lap around the Cup circuit.
Brad Keselowski: He reiterated his loyalty to Penske this week and said he hopes to announce his plans soon, but there hasn’t been a definitive declaration of his landing spot.
The 33-year-old, who also owns a truck team that has lost seven figures annually, needs to secure the most financially lucrative deal possible while in the prime of his career (“Some great charts show a driver’s best years are right around age 39 … so I still have six of the best years of my career left”), and he has leverage.
When he left to join Team Penske, Rick Hendrick famously said he would like to bring Keselowski back, and Earnhardt’s vacant No. 88 offers that option.
It still would be stunning to absorb Keselowski exiting Penske, where he has emerged as a star over the past eight seasons. He shares Michigan roots with Penske (whose empire is based in the Detroit area) to make the pairing a natural fit.
Yet a move doesn’t seem improbable. Asked six weeks ago whether he’d be interested in the Hendrick ride, Keselowski replied, “Do I have to have a yes or no?” with a smile.
“It’s a Hendrick car, which by nature means it’s going to be one of the best cars available for a long period of time,” he said. “But I also would say the car that I’m in is one of the best available. The team I’m with, I have a lot of equity in, so I’m pretty darn happy where I’m at, but I’ve learned in this world to never say no.”
If Keselowski made the surprising decision to depart, Blaney would be an obvious choice in the No. 2 for Penske.
Besides an established working relationship with teammate Joey Logano (who re-signed with Penske through 2022 in February), Blaney would be an easy sell to primary sponsor Miller Lite. The iconic beer brand surely took notice of Blaney reveling post-Pocono in a beer-swilling celebration on social media while also promoting an edgier side through a weekly podcast that has dabbled in a swath of Barstool Sports-esque ribald humor.
Kasey Kahne: He has a contract with Hendrick Motorsports that runs through next season, but the team would appear to hold all the cards on whether it’s fulfilled.
Whether via performance (Kahne hasn’t won since 2014 and is on pace for his worst points finish since 2005) or sponsorship (the No. 5 Chevy appears to be far short of a full slate for 2018), there are many indicators this could be Kahne’s last season with an organization that recently restructured management (and that Johnson conceded is exploring “a lot of options”).
A cryptic Twitter posting did little to allay this assessment.
Danica Patrick: She said last week she intended to drive next season, but it’s questionable whether it will be in the No. 10 Ford of Stewart-Haas Racing.
Similar to Kahne, she signed a deal through 2018 (in concert with Nature’s Bakery, whose troubled sponsorship will end a year early in a greatly diminished capacity), but her middling results coupled with financial uncertainty left her status murky beyond this year. The Associated Press reported this week that her contract now will end this season, and the Sports Business Journal has reported Patrick and Stewart-Haas Racing have discussed whether she will drive for the team in 2018.
Erik Jones: His rookie season with Furniture Row Racing’s second car has been a success, but similar to Blaney, his primary contract is with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Team owner Barney Visser, whose bluntness is legendary, made it clear he has Jones locked down for only one year, and that he expected Jones would leave after ’17. If Jones returned to Gibbs, the only available opening would be the No. 20 of Matt Kenseth as Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Daniel Suarez are under contract beyond 2017.
Kenseth: His deal expires after this season, making the 45-year-old’s future the source of seasonlong speculation that has revealed little (aside from an unwelcome reminder of the Internet’s unreliability as a purveyor of journalism). Kenseth recently addressed his outlook with a nugget in his fan club newsletter.
Kurt Busch: Stewart-Haas Racing announced a multiyear extension with Busch in October 2015 that included expanded sponsorship from Monster Energy. The energy drink company became the title sponsor of NASCAR’s premier series this season with a deal for two years plus a two-year option.
After two seasons with SHR and Busch, it’s worth pondering if this also is a contract year for Monster’s team sponsorship, and whether the overlapping outlays might complicate a team renewal.
Paul Menard: His family’s home improvement chain sponsorship typically is an annual renewal that gets negotiated and announced during the summer. After making the playoffs in 2015, Menard is ranked in the mid-20s in points for the second consecutive season, his seventh in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 27 Chevrolet. Prior to RCR, Menard drove for Ford teams from 2009-10.
Carl Edwards: He has passed so far on returning, but the smart money still is on trading in his tractor for a stock car at some point.
While the attention was focused on Lowe’s committing to only one season with Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet as part of the driver’s three-year extension, the silver lining was the news that the company would be continuing its primary sponsorship for 38 race weekends (36 points races, plus the two exhibition events).
Several companies (such as Miller Lite) have balked at full-season commitments and elected to reduce their investments in recent years. It might be looked at as a preferable compromise to the decrease the length of a deal’s terms in order to maintain the integrity of the $20 million-plus price tag.
If Lowe’s, a full-season sponsor of Cup for more than two decades, had reduced its slate of races, it certainly would have been viewed as a major canary in the coal mine on the state of team sponsorship.
“I certainly would hope and think that it would go on further, but very excited to have a one-year contract with them now,” Johnson said of Lowe’s. “Thirty-eight races at a full-time primary sponsorship is nothing to sneeze at.”
Now that Hendrick has secured Lowe’s at least for 2018, the focus shifts to what Nationwide chooses after Earnhardt leaves the No. 88. Hendrick has signaled optimism about keeping the company, but the decision inextricably will be linked with the car’s next driver.
Crew chief Chad Knaus also is signed through next season with Johnson. Knaus indicated this weekend he planned to stay until at least 2020 (when he turns 49; he doesn’t intend to work as a crew chief past 50), and he said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast in February that a record eighth championship with Johnson is the goal.
“I don’t see why there isn’t an opportunity for that to happen,” Knaus said on the podcast. “Obviously we all know the structure of the industry is changing with the rules, the formatting, the competition is tougher than it ever has been. Racing is a harder thing to do now than at any other point in our lives because the culture and the environment has changed so much.
“Technology has come into play that has taken a little bit of the basic racer — which is what I am. I’m just a racer, I’m not an engineer. I’m not as smart as half the people that work for me — out of our hands to a degree. You approach it differently. My job has changed significantly since the first time I was a crew chief in 1999. We’ve got possibilities. We’ve got a lot of good stuff coming. There’s a lot of really neat things coming on the horizon that will be good for the 48.”
Listen to the rest of Knaus talking about his future on the podcast here (it starts around the 32-minute mark).
Chevrolet program manager Alba Colon was a guest on the most recent NASCAR on NBC podcast and shed some light on the new spirit of cooperation between Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing.
Colon, who has worked in NASCAR for General Motors since 1994, said the teams’ collaboration on a wheel force transducer project proved the spirit of unity was at an unprecedented level.
“One team was building the vehicle, the others were testing and sharing the information and going to the tests together,” Colon said. “We didn’t see that before. They all realize the goal is to beat the other (manufacturers). We have to do it working together.”
Part of that cooperation has stemmed from a Chevy Racing simulator that opened in Huntersville two years ago. Ford Performance and Toyota Racing Development were ahead in building and unveiling their driver simulators to the public, but Colon said Chevy recently has been validated by buy-in from several drivers. Dale Earnhardt Jr. tested on the simulator before Dover International Speedway, and Colon said Johnson logged several sessions of making laps in virtual reality.
“You see drivers asking for that, you’re doing something right,” Colon said.
The afterglow of Blaney’s win at Pocono also fueled a debate over exposure values. Brett Wheatley, executive director of North America for Ford Customer Service Division, said Friday that Blaney’s 2017 season had delivered “upward of $50 million” in media value for Ford, Motorcraft and its other brands that sponsor the No. 21.
Jon Wood, the director of business development at Wood Brothers Racing, tweeted the metrics were derived partly through Joyce Julius. That prompted several social media posts about the authenticity of exposure values, which isn’t a new discussion.
In a Twitter exchange earlier this year, Richard Childress Racing’s chief marketing officer noted many NASCAR teams had moved away from Joyce Julius to relying on Nielsen’s Repucom to measure sponsorship impact.
Interestingly, in the most recent post on Joyce Julius’ site, Blaney was listed as the 10th most mentioned driver during Cup broadcasts in the 2017 season through Dover (the race before his win).