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New owners embrace sport’s future

Perhaps it is only fitting. The Next Gen car rolls into NASCAR Cup Series competition in 2022 with an expanding group of Next Gen team owners; from a successful 40-year-old entrepreneur to former drivers and current competitors to an NBA legend and a Grammy winner, they’re all creating a new-look ownership landscape in the sport‘s premier series.

Yes, the NASCAR “titans” remain still very much in play, with NASCAR Hall of Fame owners such as Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress, Jack Roush, Roger Penske and Joe Gibbs. But a group of next-generation ownership including businessman Matt Kaulig, former competitor Justin Marks and current racers Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski will field cars on the grid next season, too.

Add to that NBA legend Michael Jordan and Grammy winner Pitbull, who are lending a decidedly marquee feel to the grid as well as part of the new NASCAR ownership groups.

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It‘s one of the largest “new class” of NASCAR Cup Series ownership and a sure sign the sport will retain its competitive foundation for the foreseeable future. It is Opportunity with a capital O but also a well-regarded safety net for the sport‘s natural transitions in team ownership.

“The sport has a lot of momentum,” said Hendrick, who in June named four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, 49, as Hendrick Motorsports‘ vice chairman, essentially his heir apparent. “We have a whole crop of young drivers who are winning races and developing into stars. We have a huge fan base and they‘re coming back in a major way after the pandemic. When you see 100,000 people at Road America, that‘s very exciting.

“NASCAR has done an excellent job with the schedule and introducing new venues. The business model is also changing and making things more attractive for potential new owners. It‘s a great time for the sport.”

Kaulig, a team owner, certainly agrees. As a former college football player, whose father was an executive at Raybestos Brakes, Kaulig grew up around motorsports. In five years fielding a team full time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, his Kaulig Racing organization has scored 10 wins and amassed an impressive 142 top-10 finishes in 283 total starts.

Kaulig has also made a few highly competitive forays into the NASCAR Cup Series as well. In April, he announced his team will field a car for his current 22-year-old Xfinity Series driver, Justin Haley, full time in the NASCAR Cup Series.

With a solid track record, his background as a successful businessman and his genuine aspirations of expanding his place in the sport, Kaulig said he had originally hoped to make the jump into the NASCAR Cup Series ranks full time for the 2021 season. But COVID-19 and the extenuating circumstances the pandemic created pushed his plans back a year.

Still, it is the ultimate outcome for someone who initially became involved in the sport as a sponsor, putting his LeafFilter Gutter Protection company on the hood of cars and eventually becoming so involved he bought his own team.

He, too, welcomes the increased level of competition all around and is adamant the ever-burgeoning group of new teams coming into the sport right now are a valuable and visible asset.

Certainly rolling out the Next Gen car for 2022 presents a kind of fresh start or even reset for everyone on the grid. The timing just makes sense.

“I think it‘s really healthy and I think NASCAR is embracing it,” Kaulig said of the new, younger ownership groups. “There‘s definitely a transition going on and I‘m super excited about it. I want to be one of the guys that‘s looked at as kind of taking over care for the sport. I know Justin (Marks) has been pretty vocal about their goals to do that, too.

“These longtime owners, like Richard Childress, Jack Roush, they‘ve been great and I aspire to be like them.”

To that point, one of the most successful all-around racing organizations, Chip Ganassi Racing, has sold its entire NASCAR operation to Marks, who along with international music superstar Pitbull, debuted Trackhouse Racing Team this year. Currently Trackhouse fields the No. 99 Chevrolet for Daniel Suarez. Next year, thanks to the Ganassi purchase, there will be two cars on track for the team, although the second driver has yet to be named.

With essentially a jump on the pivotal 2022 season, Marks, 40, a former NASCAR Xfinity Series race winner who has had a successful and versatile driving career himself, is optimistic about having a year under the team‘s belt. He‘s especially enthusiastic about what acquiring Ganassi‘s assets and some of the team‘s manpower could mean going forward.

Marks also sees the present rise in new ownership as a sort of competitive evolution. Seeing so many younger team owners is a natural and positive sign of progression. And it bodes well not just for a couple of upcoming seasons but potentially for decades to come.

“I think where my mind goes is proof of concept for NASCAR‘s vision for the future,” Marks said. “It‘s proof of concept for the new car. This is exactly what they were trying to do with the new car. The business model of the sport made the barrier of entry for new ownership higher and higher and higher every single year and it was going to take something like this to ignite a movement like this.

“I think we‘re proving that there‘s a lot of desire to get into this sport, just the mechanism to do that had just been too high of a mountain for a lot of people to climb. But I think the promise of the new car and the model of the new car is that opportunity for a lot of owners.

“Denny (Hamlin) and I talk about this and it‘s a common theme among a number of the new owners that this is the opportunity to come in when the sport is in a big period of transition and I think the days ahead of the sport and for the new ownership and these new teams are really, really bright and I‘m very fortunate to be a part of it.”

Hamlin, who partnered with the NBA great Jordan to form 23XI Racing — a nod to Jordan‘s famed No. 23 jersey and Hamlin‘s famed Joe Gibbs Racing No 11 Toyota — also sees a true transition of sorts in NASCAR.

A three-time Daytona 500 winner and consummate NASCAR Cup Series championship contender, the 40-year-old Hamlin has managed to both compete in the sport‘s highest level — he currently leads the championship standings — and operate his own team employing driver Bubba Wallace.

The latter is something the sport hasn‘t really seen since the late Dale Earnhardt drove for Richard Childress Racing but also fielded cars under Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI).

For Hamlin, the formation of his team this season came a little sooner on the grand calendar than he anticipated.

“But the stars just aligned perfectly with myself and Toyota,” Hamlin said.

With Toyota essentially losing a team with Leavine Family Racing closing shop at the end of 2019, Jordan being open to NASCAR ownership and Hamlin always seeing it as a goal down the road for himself, things just moved more quickly.

“It happened certainly at least two or three years quicker than I thought it would, but I also thought this was really the right time,” said Hamlin, whose 23XI Racing Toyota is part of a Joe Gibbs Racing team alliance.

Hamlin is hopeful to add a second car soon to the 23XI team. Sponsorship and driver choice are essential to the expansion. And, as with Marks, he sees the 2022 debut of the Next Gen car presenting the perfect timing for all the new teams.

“You won‘t be starting from behind where if you come in two to three years from now, people have already started to refine stuff,” Hamlin said. “You‘re not starting at a deficit now, everyone is kind of starting at the same time, with the same playing field. Everyone is starting fresh. The drivers and teams, we‘re all going to be learning together. I think that‘s the reason now is kind of a critical time.”

Hamlin carries no illusions to how difficult it has been competing against the longtime legends of the sport in Penske, Hendrick, Childress, Roush and Gibbs. Unlike those long-tenured, championship owners, Hamlin doesn‘t bring a fortune with him from success in ventures outside of racing. He — and many of his fellow new, next-generation owners — must rely on sponsorship dollars and the business-sense of racing.

A renewed emphasis on keeping costs down is part of the philosophy behind the Next Gen car and a real attraction for potential owners.

“It‘s very difficult for the new owners coming in because ultimately when you look at us, we don‘t have billion-dollar businesses that we can leverage our partners in,” Hamlin said. “So what is the landscape for the next owners that come in?”

Like Marks and Hamlin, Gordon‘s transition from NASCAR‘s FOX broadcast booth has been well received and a positive sign about the health of the sport in general.

Gordon was a part-owner on seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson‘s Hendrick Motorsports car. And he has long been heavily involved with major decisions at the team. Beginning Jan. 1, however, he will sit alongside Hendrick on the NASCAR team owner council and oversee the day-to-day overall operation of the organization — whose four driver‘s average age, by the way, is only 26.

“I cannot put into words what Hendrick Motorsports means to me,” Gordon said upon the June announcement of his expanded role with the company. “In many ways, it‘s my home and the people here are my family. I‘ve never lost my passion for the organization, for our sport and for the sheer challenge of racing and winning at the highest level.

“Being part of the competition is where I‘m happiest and feel I can make the biggest contribution to the continued, long-term success of the team.”

It‘s a similarly optimistic view for yet another former NASCAR Cup Series champion, Brad Keselowski, who formally added his name to the ownership mix just two weeks ago.

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As with Gordon, team ownership has always been important for the 2012 champ Keselowski. He owned a successful NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team from 2008-17 that earned 11 wins and twice finished runner-up in the championship with Ryan Blaney (2011) and Tyler Reddick (2015).

Having spent the last 12 years driving for Team Penske — and earning 34 wins — Keselowski will move to Roush Fenway Racing at the end of this season, assuming an ownership role in that famed NASCAR operation.

Roush Fenway Racing president Steve Newmark said several extensive conversations took place between himself and Keselowski about the next era of NASCAR competition, long before the idea of Keselowski becoming part of the team‘s ownership group.

“It was a lot of focus on where we were headed with Next Gen and I was able to tell him unequivocally that from the Fenway and Roush perspective, we think the Next Gen is a pivotal point for the sport and is one that our owners and are committed to investing and continuing to build upon,” Newmark said. “And I think more importantly stepping back, we talked about how our ownership group really believes that NASCAR is going in the right direction and really bullish on the future and a lot of that stems from the leadership provided by Jim France, Steve Phelps and Steve O‘Donnell and a lot of the initiatives around the Next Gen, social initiatives, esports and so we talked a lot about the future and why we were coming up with five and 10-year plans.

“But we also explained that there was kind of a hole in our strategy going forward in that one of the things that we were looking for at Roush Fenway is a more solid succession plan.”

Keselowski said he entered into discussions with the team and set certain “deal-breakers” — from his insistence on securing a long-term driving contract to having a leadership role, to having an ownership stake. All those critical conditions were not only met by the Roush Fenway group but embraced.

The timing, with the introduction of the Next Gen car, made the opportunity feel so right Keselowski called it a “no-brainer”.

“The Next Gen car coming into the sport should be a significant reset with the technology, a significant reset for the way the processes flow and some of those things that we would need to overcome,” Keselowski said. “So I think that kind of taking that down the course of NASCAR leadership and some of the things they have going on, I have a lot of confidence in where the sport is heading.

“I think we‘re on a big upswing and I kind of feel like I‘m buying into a stock as it’s about to go up with looking at the landscape.”

It‘s a theme, for sure, and one that is significantly defining the NASCAR model going forward.

“I‘m a big believer in the law of attraction,” Pitbull said when announcing his ownership at the start of the season. “I want to be involved. There‘s no better time to be involved in NASCAR, with Trackhouse, Daniel (Suarez), Justin (Marks) and (team executive) Ty (Norris) than now.

“It is all about creating awareness. In the same way that music is a universal language, I also see NASCAR as a universal language. Everybody loves a fast car and a great story, you know.”