Are Driver Development Contracts Good For NASCAR Drivers?


It’s a relatively new revelation in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Young drivers signing development deals with major Sprint Cup Series race teams to run in the lower divisions of NASCAR. However, do development deals hurt the sport of NASCAR in the long run?

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Since the beginning of time NASCAR has been a business. In the last ten years the business has more of a monopoly for the major Sprint Cup Series teams and development contracts are just more proof of that. How it works is young drivers sign an exclusivity deal with these teams in which they can not race for another organization in any capacity without the blessing of their Sprint Cup Series team.

There’s an example of it going on currently in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Roush Fenway Racing NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Chris Buescher had begun driving the No. 34 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team for Front Row Motorsports this season. Buescher, however, had to ask Roush Fenway Racing permission before racing in the Cup Series team. Roush Fenway Racing has obliged, for now.

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Yet, several reports have stated that the organization would rather have Buescher turn his focus towards his NASCAR Xfinity Series effort rather than run in the Cup Series for an organization that has no ties to their team. It’s understandable. Roush Fenway Racing has spent a lot of time, effort and most importantly money on Buescher to run for the 2015 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship and thus far it’s paid off. Buescher is currently third in the NASCAR Xfinity Series points standings just 11 points out of the lead.

However, Front Row Motorsports has found themselves in a bit of a dielmma and now needs to find a young driver to race their No. 34 car for the near future. Their driver, David Ragan, was just announced as driver of the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota for the remainder of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. Ragan, who spent the last three seasons driving for Front Row Motorsports, took an opportunity to drive for a most established organization trying to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time in his career. Front Row Motorsports allowed Ragan to drive the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing replacing the injured Kyle Busch.

Originally the deal was that Ragan would come back and drive for Front Row Motorsports after a short stint with the No. 18 team. Michael Waltrip Racing wanted to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup and Ragan was available and is their best chance to give their sponsor Aaron’s a run at the championship for the first time in the team’s history. That has left Front Row Motorsports searching for a driver.

The team has tabbed Buescher as driver for this weekend’s Geico 500 Talladega Superspeedway. Although Buescher is a talented young driver and may be the best option for the organization it’s likely the team may not be able to have Buescher for the near future due to his responsibility of running his Xfinity Series car. That leaves Front Row Motorsports to look elsewhere for drivers.

The problem with that is a lot of the great young drivers are taken up by development contracts. Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Bubba Wallace, Erik Jones, Brian Scott, Regan Smith and Daniel Suarez are all under contract with a Sprint Cup Series team and would need that teams blessing to run in the Sprint Cup Series with Front Row Motorsports. That is where the problem is.

For years in the Cup Series it was standard for young drivers to start out with a team smaller team and get their feet wet in the Cup Series before getting their chance to run for a major operation. Several successful Sprint Cup Series drivers got their starts with smaller teams before taking their talent and experience to bigger Sprint Cup teams.

18-time Cup winner Ernie Irvan ran for D.K. Ulrich’s  US Racing team before driving for the more established Morgan-McClure Motorsports and making a name for himself in the Cup Series. Ken Schrader drove for Junie Donlavey’s team before he had success running at Hendrick Motorsports. Jeff Burton ran for the Stavola Brothers early in his career before catching the eye of Jack Roush and moving to Roush Racing and having a great career. Even 2000 series champion Bobby Labonte drove for Bill Davis Racing before getting the call to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing in the No. 18 car.

However, in the last 10 year development deals have become sort of a standard but with the limit on Sprint Cup Series race teams at four cars per organization there aren’t a lot of options to give to young drivers. Chase Elliott is an example of driver who has graduated through the program successfully. However, Elliott has had the fortune of being with a team with an aging Jeff Gordon, who is retiring after the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. For most young drivers opportunities like that don’t come often.

23 year old Corey LaJoie is just one example of a young driver with a lot of talent who is on the outside looking in for a ride. LaJoie signed a development deal with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2013.  Yet LaJoie made just two career Cup starts and is now out of a ride and looking for a deal. LaJoie’s lack of experience in stock cars has hurt him in getting rides and unfortunately for LaJoie, he lacks big time sponsorship money which is very important these days in NASCAR.

That’s why veteran names like Joe Nemechek, David Stremme and Dave Blaney continue to pop up as possible drivers in the Cup Series and why not? With those drivers there are no strings attached and they have the experience to qualify their way into the race, something that is very important to a smaller team. You can keep one driver in the car for the remainder of the season and have some stability in the Cup Series.

Meanwhile, the young drivers with Xfinity experience continue to learn in the Xfinity Series without a lot of room to venture off into the Sprint Cup Series. Instead of seeing young talent going into the Sprint Cup Series to learn how to drive Sprint Cup Series cars in lesser equipment most drivers are locked into their development contracts. It’s a harsh reality and one that several drivers hope is beneficial.

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