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Return of the Driver/Owners

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2009-03-28 06:51:24     
Article by Richard Paul

Back in the primitive days of NASCAR racing, if you wanted to race, you had to buy an old jalopy, or even go as far as searching through an old junk yard. After you brought the car home, you had to refurbish it in a way to where it can race without falling apart. Perhaps you had to buy or even build a racing engine. Basically, it was your car that you towed to the track every week. As the sport grew, drivers continued to race their own cars; however, drivers began to accept rides with established teams owned by former drivers or businessmen.

In 1992, the late Alan Kulwicki captured his only Winston Cup championship with a team that he owned, and had owned since he began racing in NASCAR in the mid-1980's. Darrell Waltrip, Ricky Rudd, Geoff Bodine, Brett Bodine, and Bill Elliott followed that trend hoping that they too could win a championship in their own equipment. They were in control of their own destiny. They were all great drivers, so it made sense that they believed that they could make the driver/owner deal work.

Unfortunately, these drivers could not duplicate Kulwicki's accomplishment, not even former champions Darrell Waltrip and Bill Elliott. By the late 1990's, it was clear that if you wanted to compete for a championship at this level, you needed to be a driver only, and you needed to race for an established owner, such as Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush, or Richard Childress. In the early 2000's, driver/owners became virtually extinct. Most drivers came to their senses.

However, in 2005, Robby Gordon opened up Robby Gordon Motorsports, and he hired himself as the driver. He had previously raced for Richard Childress Racing, a team that owned six titles. Robby Gordon earned all three of his career wins with Richard Childress Racing. Since his transition into NASCAR ownership, his results have been less than stellar. Nevertheless, he has been able to maintain the company and retain adequate sponsorship.

Gordon's venture into ownership was predicted to fail, and thus far, it has not failed. Not long after Gordon started his organization, Michael Waltrip moved his team up from the Nationwide Series and into the Sprint Cup Series. Michael Waltrip Racing became one of Toyota's flagship teams. It was a three-car effort with sufficient sponsorship and funding. That is rare in driver/owner situations, but Waltrip's no ordinary driver. Before he became an owner, he was a driver/salesman. Now you have to add another slash and then owner to his title.

Waltrip and his teams struggled mightily in 2007, but they have vastly improved in 2009. They formed an alliance with another Toyota team, JTG Daugherty Racing.

Tony Stewart, the two-time champion, joined the ranks of driver/owners. He acquired fifty percent ownership in what is now Stewart Haas Racing, formerly Haas CNC Racing. Stewart's name and previous accolades made it easier for sponsors to join the new venture. He was able to lure another top driver, Ryan Newman, from another top team, Penske Racing. Stewart and Waltrip are beginning to thrive as NASCAR Sprint Cup owners, but they have partners with deep pockets, something that Elliott, Waltrip, Rudd, and the Bodines did not have in the 1990's. Other drivers such as Jeremy Mayfield and Joe Nemechek have taken the plunge and have become owners at the Sprint Cup level.

Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr own teams, but they are in the Nationwide Series. That is where Michael Waltrip's team began. Harvick also owns a Camping World Truck Series team.

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