Owners' game tough to break into

As NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers get younger, top owners are the old guard such as Richard Childress, Jack Roush, Joe Gibbs, Rick Hendrick.

At a time when men too young to legally buy a beer are winning NASCAR races, the sport’s top Sprint Cup team owners are older on average than the US Supreme Court Justices.

The NASCAR driver talent pool right now is incredibly vibrant and deep: Chase Elliott is 17 years old and already signed to a long-term deal to drive for Hendrick Motorsports. Likewise, 19-year-olds Ryan Blaney and Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., and 20-year-olds Jeb Burton and Kyle Larson are dazzling fans, with Blaney, Burton and Larson already having won in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

But while youth is unquestionably being served in the driver ranks, the average age of the top NASCAR Sprint Cup team owners is even older than the 67-year-old average of the US Supreme Court Justices: Roger Penske is 76 years old; Joe Gibbs, 72; Jack Roush, 71; Richard Childress, 67; and Rick Hendrick, 63. Collectively, the five power owners have won a whopping 22 Sprint Cup championships, including 20 of the past 23, and have an average age of 69.8.

Don’t expect to see an ownership youth movement anytime soon, either.

The odds of a new team owner coming in and challenging the big dogs are not good. The reason is money. While critics like to deride NASCAR as being low-tech, nothing could be further from the truth. The last generation has seen a huge influx of sophisticated — and expensive — engineering and technology enter the sport.

“Money buys speed in this sport, for sure,” said Kyle Busch, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing and owns Kyle Busch Motorsports, which fields entries in the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck series. “That’s the easiest way to look at it.”

Roush came to NASCAR in 1988 after previously enjoying success in drag racing and road racing. By his team’s third full season in 1990, he took the championship to the final race of the year, with Roush and driver Mark Martin finishing second to Dale Earnhardt and Richard Childress Racing.

“I started with one car and 12 people, and now I run three cars, and I’ve got 100 people behind each car,” Roush said. “The amount of resources, human and technical, the pieces of lab equipment, the infrastructure, the network of vendors and associates and consultants that give you advice and have an impact on your cars has just exploded over what it was in 1988.”

And that explosion is precisely what is keeping other would-be owners out of the game.

“If we were able to take where I was in 1988 and put me at 46 years old in 2013 and say, ‘Jack, with the same amount of money I had and the same amount of support I had, would I be able to get involved (in NASCAR)?’ The answer is no,” Roush said.

“You couldn’t get into the sport like I did,” said Childress, who rose from journeyman driver/owner to one of NASCAR’s elite team owners largely because of the success of Earnhardt, who won six of his seven Sprint Cup championships driving for RCR. “It’s so, so expensive. For anyone to get into the sport, it takes multi-millions of dollars today. To have someone come in today, it would take a lot of money to get into the sport and have one of the top five or six or seven teams.”

The NASCAR team ownership model also makes it extraordinarily hard to succeed. In most sports, the franchise itself has value; in NASCAR, the team’s value is based almost solely on how many sponsor dollars the team can attract and how well it runs.

No one knows that better than J.D. Gibbs, the president of Joe Gibbs Racing and the son of the team owner. The elder Gibbs was a Super Bowl-winning NFL coach prior to coming to NASCAR, so the Gibbs family has a unique perspective on how the two sports compare.

“The guy you want to be in the NFL is the owner,” J.D. Gibbs said. “In the NFL, you can have a horrible season after horrible season and there’s still value to it. Over here, you don’t exist.”

And that reality, Gibbs said, struck his father early on. “He realized a few years after we started the (race) team that the guy you want to be is the driver, not the owner,” J.D. said of Joe. “It’s hard, because there’s not a whole lot of financial stability that comes with that. … It’s a difficult process. It took us probably at least 10 years before it was ever working for us.”

Of course, with every rule there are exceptions. In NASCAR, those two exceptions are Tony Stewart and Michael Waltrip, two drivers who have built competitive teams as owners in recent years.

Stewart already had won two championships as a driver when he was approached in 2008 with a novel offer: Without putting up a dime of his own money, Stewart would get 50 percent ownership in the woebegone Haas-CNC Racing team, which from 2002-08 hadn’t won a race and had just one top-five and 14 top-10 finishes in 284 starts. Stewart would attract sponsorship and build a winning team, while California machine-tool manufacturer Gene Haas would continue to fund the team and remain 50 percent owner. The team was renamed Stewart-Haas Racing.

The combination worked famously: By the third year, Stewart had won a championship, and in every year of SHR’s existence, it has put at least one car in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“To come in now, I think myself and Michael Waltrip have shown about the only way to do it is to have someone with the financial means to support a race team,” Stewart said.

This year, SHR got off to a difficult start of the season — though Stewart since has rallied — and Haas Automation continues to sponsor the team when it has unsold inventory on one of its cars.

“That makes our job ... as an owner a lot easier, because it’s kind of a safety net for us,” Stewart said. “If for some reason we can’t sell some of the races, we have a company like Haas Automation that can come in and fill those voids to make sure we’re not in a situation where we don’t have what we need to go contend for a championship. Gene’s invested a lot in this sport and this partnership.”

Michael Waltrip launched his team in 2007 and made it less than halfway through the first season when he realized he was in way over his head financially. He found what turned out to be a perfect partner for him in investment banker and part-time sports car racer Rob Kauffman, who bought a 50 percent stake in the team and has remained there ever since.

Last year, the fruits of partnership paid off in a big way when Michael Waltrip Racing drivers Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. both qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the first time the team made it to NASCAR’s playoff round.

Unlike some of the investors who have come and gone in NASCAR in recent years, Kauffman wasn’t aiming to turn a quick buck.

“Rob didn’t look at it as a chance to come and make money,” Waltrip said. “He just wanted to come and be a part of a team and race cars. His attitude toward the sport was in a perfect spot.”

In the case of both MWR and SHR, the magic was the combination of a deep-pockets financier to provide economic stability, and a popular, visible driver to be a face of the team and someone who could bring in sponsor dollars.

“To be able to make that work, you’ve got to do what Tony (Stewart) did and what Michael Waltrip did,” Roush said. “You’ve got to be somebody that’s in the sport that’s got enough name recognition to attract or garner the infrastructure and to attract the sponsorship dollars and the investment dollars to be able to make it work. The idea of somebody getting involved that does not have some stake in it or some hook to be able to pull that together is not reality.”

“Michael Waltrip, he really wasn’t making a name for himself until Rob Kauffman came along,” Busch said. “And obviously they’ve done a lot better since then. Rob’s put a lot of his own money into that team and made it a lot better.

“It took Gene (Haas) a lot longer. Gene was around for five or six years — maybe even seven years — before Tony (Stewart) went over there and really got going. And even so, when Tony went over there, Gene was putting in a lot of money out of his own pockets, but they didn’t have a lot of big sponsors. Tony comes over there, brings a little bit more sponsorship money, but Gene still had to put more of his money in to make it competitive and relevant.”

At the age of 28, and with a track record of success in NASCAR’s second- and third-tier series, Kyle Busch would seem like the ideal candidate to someday become a Sprint Cup team owner. But the popular driver said he doesn’t see it in the cards.

Asked if he’d like to move up as an owner, Busch said no. His Nationwide and Truck teams all have drivers who one way or another are bringing money in, either with sponsors they landed or direct funding. That wouldn’t work at the Cup level.

“It’s way too difficult to compete with the likes of the top teams, the Hendricks and the Gibbs and everything else,” Busch said. “If I took all those truck teams and all those Nationwide teams and took all the money from each of those teams and put it into one Cup team, we could go out here and probably run 30th every week. But who’s the driver? You can only put one driver in there, and I’ve got four drivers that are paying for their rides, per se. It’s just not going to happen.”

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