NASCAR ownership is big business

Michael Waltrip sits surrounded by his NASCAR Sprint Cup cars and the drivers who compete for the organization he brought into the sport in 2007.

He admits that even by today's standards of relying on multicar teams to make it to the top tier of competition, his task was massive. Waltrip not only brought new manufacturer Toyota into the sport at the time, but he did so with the three-car organization he built from scratch.

He also did so with an advantage: he had ties to sponsors and his persona as a charming, witty driver helped attract the needed backing to field the teams.

In many ways, NASCAR ownership is finally being recognized for the business it has always been. And in some ways, it's not that much of a change from the past. Men like Richard Childress and Robert Yates were competitors within NASCAR before they took on ownership roles. The key difference now, though, comes in how the programs are developed. And the question is, will people outside of NASCAR be moving into it as team owners in the years to come?

"The difficult thing that NASCAR faces, and I think that our industry faces, is how do you get enough people with the war chest to be able to jump in this thing," four-car team owner Jack Roush says. "... We used to have 43 one-car teams and now we've got as many four-car teams as we can find sponsors for.

"And that consolidation has definitely changed the landscape."

That is not necessarily a bad thing. Roush was not complaining about that evolution, merely noting changes that have developed over the years in the way team owners come into the sport and the business nature of partnerships in it. Clearly, NASCAR is not suffering a dearth of ownership or a need for additional teams at this stage. But the way that teams break into the sport has changed -- and that could change the face of future owners.

Men like Roush and Rick Hendrick have other businesses that help them and that existed before they moved into the sport. Others who came through the NASCAR ranks have taken on outside business interests to help support their endeavor.

Now, new ownership has primarily come from those who built their living entirely within the sport. They've come into the sport as owners after winning championships as drivers or crew chiefs or making their mark in other ways. And they've done so following the new model of owning more than one team.

In 2008, the 12 teams competing for NASCAR's championship came from four organizations. That shifted last season as groups and drivers that broke into the sport at the same time as Michael Waltrip Racing gained ground and challenged the frontrunners.

Now, organizations such as Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Penske Racing -- all competing with at least three full-time teams -- have become the ones to watch annually. Others, like Stewart-Haas Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Red Bull Racing, are quickly coming along to challenge them. Most of the newer teams that have gained a competitive edge have been bred from within the ranks of the sport or some form of racing.

"One of the things that I see evolving is that the drivers are developing teams," Penske says. "They have notoriety, they can represent sponsors ... I see that. We all have racing in our blood. Some of us were competitors and we had that ability to attract potential sponsorship."

Penske doesn't see any lack of owners looming though.

"If we're not here next week, I'm sure that there will be someone taking our place," he says.

NASCAR has made it simpler for incoming teams in recent years, creating the new-model car that is more similar for all teams and working diligently to keep the playing field level. The sanctioning body has worked to balance the veteran teams and the new ones, trying to keep the sport as open as any professional one is for potential owners.

As to Yates, who started his team in 1989 and turned control of it over to his son in 2007, he wonders if this is something that is good for the sport or if the era for men like him, those who worked hard and had the ability to start with a single car, has passed.

"If it had been like that when I was coming up, Robert Yates never would have been an owner. ... I wonder if it will ever be again that people have the opportunity to do what I got to do," he says. "I'm lucky, the timing was fortunate for me to be an owner."

Waltrip is one of those men who got the chance -- through a lot of hard work -- and has since added partner Rob Kauffman. Waltrip freely admits that taking on team ownership is difficult. But with men such as Waltrip and Stewart in the Cup ranks, and Kevin Harvick in the Nationwide and Truck, it's clear to see that those who have racing in their blood and NASCAR in their dreams are still breaking into the sport.

"We entered into NASCAR Sprint Cup racing at a level no one ever had before, three teams, new manufacturer, big building and it just cost way more than I thought it would. I am lucky that I had spent so many years prior to owning a team driving for NAPA, driving for Aaron's, driving for Best Western because without that equity that I had built up over the years, we wouldn't be here," Waltrip said during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. "Being able to attract sponsors and retain sponsors is very, very difficult. ...

"The margins that we operate on to race one of these teams are very, very thin and a lot of these teams are literally a phone call away from a sponsor saying we're not coming back from finding themselves in desperate trouble, as we've seen recently. It is as hard as you can imagine. I'm lucky that I had sponsors that wanted to go on this journey with me."