NASCAR stars moonlighting in minors unique and crucial
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Imagine Steph Curry, between starts with Golden State, earning some extra coin by lighting up the NBDL. Cam Newton, when he’s not guiding the Panthers offense, tearing up the Arena League. Bryce Harper feasting on Triple A pitching on his off days with the Nationals. Alex Ovechkin setting off sirens in the AHL while helping the Capitals' Hershey affiliate in his spare time.
Can’t fathom it? Well then you must not follow NASCAR, where Sprint Cup stars drop down to the minors often enough to make you wonder whether they’re still waiting for their big call-up.
Habitually, major league drivers steal the show in the Xfinity and Camping World truck series. So far in Xfinity, the series just below Cup, major leaguers have swept all five races this year and won 25 out of 33 events in 2015. Of those nine total victors, three (Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano) are Daytona 500 winners, three (Harvick, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski) are former Cup series champions, and one—Hendrick’s Chase Elliott, a Cup rookie this year—won the Xfinity championship in 2014.
Surely this must demoralize the many young’uns who toil in these series in pursuit of their own big break. Some, like truck racer Cole Custer, started as actual minors. Sometimes watching them struggle against the pilots they yearn to be can feel like watching a big brother steal his little brother’s birthday party, blowing out the candles as he makes off with the gifts. “When you look at it like that,” says Darrell Wallace Jr., a 22-year-old Xfinity driver in his second season at Roush Fenway Racing, “it’s obviously tough.”
The setup—bullying, some might call it—isn’t simply unique in sports. It’s unique in motorsports. Formula One got out of the practice of sending its stars back down to the farm in the early-70s—right after maybe its boldest name, Lotus ace Jim Clark, was killed in a Formula Two racing accident at Germany’s Hockenheimring.
IndyCar’s six-year-old ladder system—the Mazda Road to Indy—is expressly designed to develop young talent, with scholarships and everything. Conor Daly, a 24-year-old American open-wheel racer, posted wins along a few of its rungs before landing his big IndyCar break this year with Dale Coyne Racing. The idea of facing four-time series champion Scott Dixon or three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves before his big arrival couldn’t seem more, well, unfair. “I’m a fan of seeing drivers get opportunities,” he says. “It’s definitely an interesting system that they’ve got there, for sure.”
When you break it down to the essence, that system isn’t a farm program for NASCAR, per se. It’s more like alternate universes of the pros, one where it became common practice to see wheelmen like Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Mark Martin weave in and out while taking on the stars of tomorrow. Rare is the case of a minor leaguer punching above his curb weight, as Trevor Bayne did in 2011 when he became the youngest driver (at 20 years and a day) to win the Daytona 500.
Why do Cup drivers bother with all this bullying? Mostly, for the seat time—which has become even more precious since NASCAR outlawed pre-race testing in an effort to ease the operating expenses on teams. “The biggest thing for us,” says Wallace, “is how did they get so good? Well, it’s all about seat time. Since we can’t test anymore, we have to stay active in our cars. And the only way of doing that is by running in any and everything that we can. It’s like Kobe going down to his local basketball park and playing pickup games. You’re just trying to stay warm.”
Then of course there’s the thrill of it all—which even NASCAR, to be fair, has had to dial down a tick. After Cup stars cruised to Xfinity championships from 2006 through ’10, a rule was passed prohibiting minor-league moonlighters from accruing points twoard minor league championships. NASCAR’s shift this year to decide the Xfinity and truck series through the Chase (an elimination-style playoff that counts full-time driving as a base qualification) instead of an old-fashioned, long-slog points race reads like another win for the developing class.
And let’s be clear: That’s what many of these lower level drivers are—developing. (Although it is easy to miss that underneath all those sponsorship decals.) What’s more, their crew chiefs and engineers and pit crew teammates are too. The whole enterprise isn’t farming, so much. It’s closer to corporate ranching. “Imagine you’re the Denver Broncos,” says 32-year-old Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion who makes regular cameos at NASCAR’s lower levels for Team Penske. “There’s no draft. Imagine you could strike a partnership with Alabama that says I get all your best players every year. It’d be a pretty sweet deal, wouldn’t it?”
That is essentially the universe that Penske has created for itself. All three of its Cup crew chiefs—Paul Wolfe (who oversees Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford), Todd Gordon (the boss of Joey Logano’s No. 2 car) and Jeremy Mullins (who directs the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford of rookie Ryan Blaney)—were formerly Xfinity prospects. Other parts of the franchise are similarly farm-to-stable—including Blaney, who helped Penske to the Xfinity owners championship in 2014. It’s much the same story throughout the rest of the grid.
Franchises have to build this way just to be able to withstand the personnel turnover in this sport, which can rival the NFL at times. “I have a picture in my office from when I won the championship with every person on the team—kinda your standard team picture,” Keselowski says. “Less than half of that team is still together.”
So NASCAR franchises use the minor, ahem, alternate leagues to create bespoke draft classes. “I’m gonna be honest with you,” Keselowski says. “There’s people that we run through the system that don’t always make it. We have all the same issues that the NCAA has: substance abuse issues, discipline issues. We have guys that are physical beasts that you look at them and say, This guy’s got all the talent, but doesn’t have the right attitude. Doesn’t have the right work ethic. We just bring in the best people we can and try to train ’em, and hopefully it turns out good.”
Really, the only minor thing about these leagues is the money. Look harder, and you’ll see the true margin of victory in the Xfinity series, where the big franchises (Penske, Roush, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports) are the ones cleaning up.
“If you’re driving an Xfinity car and you’re not in a Joe Gibbs or an RCR or Roush car or any other Cup affiliate,” says Matt Crafton, a two-time truck series champion, “you’re not gonna contend for wins. I don’t care who you are. You’re just not going to. So I don’t see how you're gonna ever fix that problem. That’s the only negative I see.”
Indeed, those super franchises park far more of their resources in Xfinity than in trucks (which, by and large, remain the preserve of the independent small business owner). But arguably no resource is more important than the Cup driver himself—the tide that floats all ships, if you will. “We drive value to sponsors, to track attendance, to purse money that you can see a real effect from,” says Keselowski. “If Sprint Cup drivers left Xfinity tomorrow, the fan argument is, Well, x, y or z Xfinity driver would get all the purse money. Yeah, he’d get a larger percentage, but the unfortunate part is instead of getting 30 percent of a million, he’d get 75 percent of a quarter million. The math doesn’t work out.”
From Crafton’s perspective, the numbers are even simpler. There’s just one: 39, his age—which makes him about the furthest thing from a developing driver. With it comes the maturity to embrace the Cup stars who stoop to his level, if only to show the world that “they’re not that much better drivers than some of us are,” he says, alluding to the big leaguers' 20% success rate in the last 25 truck races. “When Kyle Busch and those guys come in here and run with us, they’re running in more of an equally prepared truck as we are.”
A young driver, Crafton thinks, would have to be a fool to demur from that challenge—even at the Xfinity level, where the fight is never straight up. “At the end of the day,” he adds, “if you’re gonna try to go compete with Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick and Keselowski and all these guys on Sunday, you better learn to race with ’em on Saturday. You better learn to outrun ’em.”
And if they can’t beat ’em? They can always join ’em in the Cup series (by excelling in the Chase, for a start) and take out their frustrations on the next bumper crop of Cup stars until they’ve achieved something that feels like revenge. “If a sponsor wanted to go Xfinity racing, then absolutely I’d strap back in,” says Wallace, who’s on the cusp of having to make that call some day. “Anything to get more seat team and stay warm I’m all about.”