Craig Murto: It’s all about the money

First we heard that Stewart-Haas Racing did not pick up the option on its contract with Kurt Busch, despite the fact that he won the Daytona 500.

Now we discover that Kasey Kahne, only weeks after winning the Brickyard 400, will not return to Hendrick Motorsports in 2018, despite the fact that he has a year remaining on his contract.

In the case of Kurt Busch, owner Gene Haas indicated that he was pretty sure something would happen to keep Busch on the team. And even Ford Motor Company indicated it would prefer that Busch remain behind the wheel of a Ford. The issue is money.

Monster Energy, which is also the title sponsor of NASCAR’s top division, has sponsored Kurt Busch for years. But unlike many other companies, Monster seems to make its decisions in January. Remember how late the announcement was that they were coming on board with NASCAR?

Gene Haas must be tired of putting his own money up, and without a secure sponsor let Busch’s option go. That makes him a free agent, and he did say that his phone has been “ringing off the hook.”

In the case of Kahne, his longtime primary sponsor Great Clips stated they will not return. And in the six years he’s been with Hendrick, he’s only won six races. Some drivers would give their right arm to win six races at the Cup level, but when you drive for Hendrick Motorsports you’re held to a different standard.

Matt Kenseth’s release from Joe Gibbs Racing also appears to be about funding. It’s the same reason you may never see Carl Edwards in a top Cup ride again, even if he chose to return.

It’s all about the money. Long gone are the days that a primary sponsor ponies up the money to be on a car for every race of the entire Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season. Teams are asking for $40 million to $70 million for that. Sponsors are coming in with $10 million and selectively picking a handful of races that best suit their marketing.

Teams are working harder than ever to keep cars fully sponsored for the entire season. And in many cases, sponsors are simply offering less money for the sponsorships, and teams are forced to take less money or be left with no money.

The other side of the coin is that young, hungry drivers will jump at the chance to drive at the top level, even for pennies on the dollar of what the veteran drivers are getting. So when a driver such as Kasey Kahne loses his sponsorship and has seemingly under performed during his six years at Hendrick Motorsports, why wouldn’t the team let him go? I expect William Byron may get the ride, but he won’t get Kahne’s salary, just as Erik Jones will not get Matt Kenseth’s salary when he jumps into the No. 20 Toyota next season.

I suspect Kurt Busch may get an offer to stay at Stewart-Haas, but it will be for less money than he makes this season.

Money issues in NASCAR especially hurt the smaller teams, primarily those that do not have charters. Thanks to the charter system – which essentially gives 36 teams a franchise, and sets a value on the franchise — the purse for unchartered teams was cut in half. Even though NASCAR cut the field from 43 cars to 40, we still get short fields – 37 cars at Watkins Glen – because unchartered teams just can’t afford to race for the purse.

It used to be that a beginning team could start and park, collect starting money, and save its resources for the day it could afford to compete. That way they got paid for being there, but didn’t spend all their money on tires, racing fuel, and wear and tear on the equipment. Teams grew that way. But you won’t have that anymore because the starting purse for unchartered teams doesn’t pay enough to make it worthwhile to start and park.

It was ironic that when the charter system was announced, they put Tommy Baldwin’s face forward as a success story who would benefit by having a charter. Thanks to the charter system, you will never have another Tommy Baldwin. Nobody’s going to mortgage their home to buy a Cup team in today’s climate.

And now it’s apparent that even the top teams are letting expensive drivers go if they don’t have funding or don’t perform, in favor of younger, hungry and less-expensive drivers. The sport is not what it used to be; it’s all about the money.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.