Money, Not Talent or On-track Success, Has Become the Measuring Stick by Which Teams Choose Which Drivers to Keep
By Matt Myftiu | Yahoo! Contributor Network – Mon, Jul 29, 2013 11:30 AM EDT
COMMENTARY | Brickyard 400 winner Ryan Newman doesn't have a ride for 2014, but Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Danica Patrick does.
That, in a nutshell, sums up what is wrong with NASCAR right now.
Once upon a time, drivers would get noticed for their talent displayed at lower levels and given rides based on that ability. Success would generally lead to more sponsorship, and a career as a successful driver in Cup would be born with the proper funding in place to build competitive cars.
I recognize that money has in some capacity ruled things from the start of the sport, but in the past a driver at least had to have some history of success at lower levels to be considered for a ride in the top levels of NASCAR.
Now, things are all topsy-turvy. It's pay-to-play, and that's really all teams care about, as the Newman/Danica paradox confirms.
A look at the numbers
Ryan Newman has been racing at NASCAR's Cup level since 2000, has 17 wins (including the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400), has an amazing 50 pole positions, and is regarded around the garage as one of the hardest guys to pass on the track.
Sure, he's not Jimmie Johnson lighting up the track every week and dominating races all the time and winning Cup titles, but ask any driver whether he would consider Ryan Newman a legitimate contender to win Cup races and he'll say yes, because it's true.
But, oh yeah, there's that whole issue of sponsorship -- Ryan Newman isn't sponsored for next year, so Tony Stewart just announced Newman will not be with the team in 2014. Tony, Danica and new arrival Kevin Harvick will compose the team next season.
"No, we are not ready to expand to a fourth team," Tony Stewart said when he announced the arrival of Harvick and sponsor Budweiser at SHR. "Unfortunately, this will be the last year that we have Ryan with us."
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Danica Patrick. She is a rookie who rarely deserves a mention on the Sunday broadcast due to running in the back of the pack or laps down, but she has the most important thing in this day and age -- lots of sponsorship money behind her.
She could run 40th every week, and GoDaddy would continue to unload a Brinks truck at the back door of Stewart-Haas Racing, because she is what advertising people call "marketable."
Here's what it's all about: You can put a picture of Danica Patrick on some product, and it will sell more. Her commercials will attract attention and be featured on the Super Bowl. People who know absolutely nothing about racing -- NASCAR, Indycar or otherwise -- know her name. These are the reasons Danica has sponsorship and Ryan Newman doesn't. How well Danica does on the racetrack isn't even a thought in the mind of those sponsor her.
Ryan Newman is just a racer, a good one, too. He's a guy who's not photogenic. He's not going to be featured on any sexy GoDaddy ads. He won't be posing for photo spreads in magazines. He won't be featured on the cover of national newspapers and magazines that have nothing to do with NASCAR.
But Danica will.
It sounds a bit crazy when you think about it logically -- a guy with the talent to win races and run up front is getting booted, but a driver of Danica's statistics is secure in her ride for as long as she feels like driving.
Not her fault -- it's how things work
FYI: For the Danica fans, I'm not blaming her for the fact that she is funded for 2014 and Newman is not. That's how the system works, and she happens to be on the beneficial end of that system. Good for her, and she's not doing anything wrong -- she just wants to race like the rest of the drivers out there. And I know she's just a rookie. I'm not expecting her to contend for wins. I fully expect her to struggle and hopefully improve as the year goes on. I don't wish her to not have a ride.
All I'm saying is that this system that leads to Danica staying at SHR over Newman due to her financial backing leave me shaking my head a bit.
Call me old-fashioned, but I want to have the best and most competitive 43 drivers on the track each week -- not just the drivers who have the most companies funding them. Likewise, I'm sure Tony Stewart wants the three most competitive drivers in his stable. But due to the financial reality of running a team, he has to make a decision that clearly goes against that concept -- and it's especially a hard decision because Newman is a good friend of Stewart's.
Most of the drivers who race each Sunday actually do have the most funding -- which makes perfect sense because their performances have earned them the trust of these companies who are shelling out millions of dollars so the teams can race. But regarding the Newman vs. Danica debate at SHR, the true racing fan in me is somewhat amazed that a sponsor would rather have their logos on a car running 30th most weeks than on a car that might win some races.
Ryan Newman is a very talented driver, as his 2013 Brickyard 400 win proves -- so I wouldn't worry too much about his future. Some smart team will pick him up this offseason (or even before), and it will be better off for it.
What ride Newman lands for 2014 isn't the point, though. The point is that he shouldn't have to be looking for a ride.
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu.
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