Are Sponsorship Struggles Driving NASCAR’s Youth Movement?

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With sponsorship dollars down, veteran drivers are fighting for their jobs.

NASCAR is clearly undergoing a youth movement as several young guns have advanced through the ranks and are set with new Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rides for the 2018 season. Alex Bowman (above, right) will take over the № 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet when Dale Earnhardt Jr. retires at season’s end. (Photo via Zimbio.)

As some of the biggest names in NASCAR — including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon are either set to retire at season’s end (Earnhardt Jr.) or have already retired (Stewart and Gordon — both former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champions), NASCAR is going through a youth movement.

In an interview with NASCAR writer Lee Spencer, Earnhardt Jr. noted that there has been a payment shift in recent years due to the new charter system. These days, drivers have begun to take more of the purse from race winnings and have less of a guaranteed base salary Owners are also able to hire younger drivers for less salary, according to Earnhardt Jr.

Spencer noted that since sponsorship has declined in recent years, veteran drivers who once commanded a hefty salary are no longer in control when negotiating a new contract. Consider the case of four veteran drivers: Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth. Three of the four drivers are former MENCS champions; only Kahne is not. To his credit, Kahne does have an impressive 18 MENCS victories.

What’s interesting about those four drivers you ask? Three of the four are currently out of a job for next season. Only Keselowski, the youngest of the group has a contract, as he resigned with Team Penske, the very same company he won the 2012 Cup Championship with.

The current model appears to be younger drivers filling a void rather than a veteran. Hendrick Motorsports has recently had two openings, as Earnhardt Jr. is set to retire at the end of the season, and the company announced it would part ways with Kahne one year prior to his contract expiring. Hendrick could have tried to attract top-dollar talent, as after all, former champions Kenseth and Busch are on the market.

Instead, Hendrick went with the young guns: William Byron (№5) and Alex Bowman (№88). While both drivers have been in the Hendrick stable (Bowman filled in for an injured Dale Jr. in 2016 and Byron runs for Earnhardt Jr.’s XFINITY Series team) the moves are money saving ones for Hendrick.

William Bryon will replace Kasey Kahne at Hendrick Motorsports starting in 2018. Byron raced for Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016, winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Championship before moving to JR Motorsports for the 2017 NASCAR XFINITY Series season. (Photo via SBNation.)

Regarding the change in salary, Earnhardt Jr. said, “You can’t pay a driver five to eight million dollars a year if you ain’t got, but $10 million worth of sponsorship. That ain’t going to work. Guys aren’t getting $20, $30, $40 million a year on sponsorship. Owners aren’t getting that anymore. Drivers are having to sort of understand that change is coming down the pike if it hasn’t happened to them yet, it’s going to happen to them.”

Earnhardt Jr. knows that today, owners are less likely to go with a veteran whom they might have to pay four or five times the amount of money as young gun. The young-guns, who although are not as established as names like Kenseth, Busch and Kahne, are eager and willing to get a ride. Let’s take a look at three driver changes for the upcoming 2018 season:

Joe Gibbs Racing

· No 20 Team: Erik Jones replaces Matt Kenseth. Jones will enter his second full-time MENCS season in 2018 and won’t command the same salary as the proven Kenseth. While Jones hasn’t won in NASCAR’s premier series, to date he has seven top 10 finishes in 22 races for the Denver, Colorado based Furniture Row Racing team, which has a technical alliance with JGR.

Jones clearly showed the aforementioned eagerness when he spoke of his move, saying, “This is a really exciting time in my career for me to make the move back to Joe Gibbs Racing full time in the Cup Series and continue to have the success I’ve had with them over the last few years.”

One additional difference between the two drivers: age. Jones is only 22 and commands less of a salary than the 45-year-old Kenseth, who if he follows Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. might be the next to retire.

Hendrick Motorsports

· №88 Team: Alex Bowman replaces Dale Earnhardt Jr. It seemed to be the consensus all along that Bowman would take over the №88 machine when 14-time MENCS Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired. Again, rather than pay an established veteran like Busch or Kenseth, Rick Hendrick was able to stay within the Hendrick Motorsports stable (Bowman’s current position is serving as a test driver for Hendrick Motorsports) and put an up-and-coming driver in a competitive role for a smaller salary. Subbing for Earnhardt Jr., Bowman showed that he has what it takes to contend at the highest level, recording three top 10 finishes, while also capturing the pole at Phoenix and nearly winning that same race, leading 194 of 312 laps.

· №5 Team: William Byron replaces Kasey Kahne. The 19-year-old Byron is in his first season in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, one year after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship. There appears to have been little to no learning curve as Byron has captured three NXS checkered flags (Iowa, Daytona-July and Indianapolis) and sits second in the points standings behind his JR Motorsports teammate Elliott Sadler. The announcement that Byron would slide into the №5 came just one day after the news of Kahne’s departure, quieting any rumors that Busch or Kenseth would move to Hendrick.

Byron will command a smaller salary than Kahne, Busch or Kenseth. He has actually only raced real cars for five years and has risen through the industry at a scorching pace. Hendrick snatched him away from Kyle Busch Motorsports after his NCWTS championship last season.

While Kahne’s departure was in part due to lack of sponsorship, Byron brings Liberty University along with him, continuing a relationship from the past two seasons.

With these three drivers, the youth movement has officially been reignited in NASCAR. Which up-and-coming driver will join the Cup Series next? Tweet me @Kraig_Doremus with your thoughts.

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