It’s a well-known story but it bears repeating when discussing the state of today’s driver development programs in NASCAR.
Kyle Larson was a hot shot racer competing in sprint cars when Toyota officials whisked him away to Chicagoland Speedway in the late 2000s and began introducing him to the automaker’s various Cup Series teams.
There was no push from Toyota toward those organizations to sign the youngster, although it was clear that introductions were made in hopes of kindling interest in the California kid.
No Toyota team bit, and Larson was eventually signed by Chevrolet team owner Chip Ganassi.
Today Larson is seen not only as the one who got away, but as the project/prodigy that kickstarted the Toyota driver development program in NASCAR.
David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development (TRD) USA, called it an “ah-ha moment.”
Larson wasn’t the last driver groomed by Toyota who didn’t stick around. But he clearly has been the most prominent.
Now 26 and still at Ganassi, he has five wins in NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series and is considered a championship contender with the start of each new racing season. He has qualified for the series’ 16-team playoff the last three seasons.
Jack Irving is the director of team and support services for TRD. It’s his job to help locate potential candidates, track driver progress and assist those who have the ability to advance.
“You can’t help but lose Larson and then look around and watch him kick the hell out of you and think ‘Man, we probably should have kept him,’” Irving said.
• THE PIPELINE •
Three automakers, Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota, are currently involved in NASCAR and each has its own unique approach to driver development.
Toyota appears to have the most detailed process, with a feeder system that identifies potential candidates as young as, well, there really doesn’t seem to be an age limitation. If you show promise as a racer, chances are someone from Toyota or Toyota Racing Development has noticed you or heard about you and is following your progress at this very moment. You might be 12, you might be 20. You might be aware of their interest or you might not.
Ford officials currently work closely with Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske, two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series organizations that also field Xfinity Series teams. Talks concerning involvement in lower series are said to be on-going. The auto maker still has a foot in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series as well, through an affiliation with ThorSport Racing.
Chevrolet’s program at this time consists of a relationship with Drivers Edge Development, a platform launched just this year by JR Motorsports and GMS Racing. Six drivers are enrolled in the program and are competing in five series – Late Model, ARCA, K&N, the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series and the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
“Everybody has a different philosophy on where they are with it,” TRD’s Irving said of the various development programs. “I think there are ebbs and flows.
“I think there is this weird, ‘We’re completely out of the box different,’” he said of Toyota’s approach. “We’re not. We’re just doing it now and they did it 15 years ago, 10 years ago.”
Toyota engages with approximately 20 kids on a consistent basis, and many more to a lesser degree. “We probably actively have decent knowledge on a good 100 kids,” he said, noting that number is for pre-teen projects alone.
“The longer we go the more we are learning and the more we’re layering on to the program. I think at this point I feel like we’re in a good spot but we’re still so far away from where we want to be.
“People talk about the program with admiration – we’re years away from being really good at it.”
Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance, said Ford officials are pleased with the progress made in his company’s driver development program for one simple reason.
“Because two years ago we didn’t have one,” he noted.
“Is it to the level that we want it to be? No, absolutely not,” Rushbrook said. “That’s something that we want to continue to be working on.
“We are happy with the balance that we have with Chase (Briscoe) and Cole (Custer) and Austin (Cindric) running in Xfinity. I think that’s going to be a great combination with those three drivers. And as drivers and as teams, I think there will be some collaboration between Stewart-Haas (Racing) and (Team) Penske at the Xfinity level.”
Custer, 21, is in his third full season of Xfinity Series competition with Stewart-Haas Racing. Second in the 2018 standings and a two-time winner in the series, he pilots the No. 00 SHR Ford.
Cindric, 20, finished eighth in points last season driving for Team Penske while Briscoe made a dozen of his 17 starts last year in the No. 60 entry out of Roush Fenway Racing.
Cindric has resumed his duties with Penske for ’19 and Briscoe has landed a ride at SHR as that organization has added a second full-time Xfinity Series entry.
As part of a team building exercise, Ford put the three drivers, along with 24-year-old Ty Majeski, in Mustang GT4 entries at Daytona in January for the Michelin Pilot Challenge race. Rushbrook said the four will likely compete “at the end of the year at Road Atlanta just to continue that team building as well as driver skill building for road course racing.”
It is not yet known just how extensive the Chevrolet involvement will be with the Drivers Edge Development program. In a release announcing the effort, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, JRM general manager, said the program “is going to be critical to the future of the sport and our race team.”
“The fact that you have JRM, GMS and Chevrolet getting this off the ground speaks to that importance,” she said.
JRM is co-owned by Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick and works closely with the Cup Series organization to develop and train talent inside and outside the car.
The six drivers in the Drivers Edge system at this time are Xfinity Series drivers Noah Gragson, John Hunter Nemechek and Zane Smith; Truck Series driver Sheldon Creek; Sam Mayer, who is scheduled for Truck Series, K&N, ARCA and Late Model starts; and Adam Lemke in Late Models.
The Toyota roster is deep and includes associations with numerous teams and drivers at different levels.
“We started developing this network of relationships not just with teams at that (NASCAR) level but with Super Late Models, in ARCA, in K&N, the Venturinis, the McAnallys,” Wilson said. “Kyle Busch Motorsports runs a great Super Late Model program.”
Venturini Motorsports and Bill McAnally Racing provide entry points for racers, particularly those making the transition from dirt to asphalt.
Hailie Deegan, competing for McAnally, won this year’s season-opening NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at Las Vegas. It was her second career victory in the series – she became the series’ first female winner last year when she won at Meridian (Idaho) Speedway while also competing for McAnally.
A day after the Vegas victory, Deegan, 17, announced a six-race ARCA schedule with Venturini Motorsports in addition to the K&N effort.
DGR-Crosley is another organization that acts as a feeder system for Toyota talent. The group fields entries in a variety of racing series, from Late Model up to the Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
Toyota also uses the program to develop relationships with sponsors. Wilson said companies such as JBL, Safelite and Exxon Mobile, “were interested in grassroots racing as well.
“The perception that we are behind the scenes stroking checks and pulling strings is not accurate,” Wilson said. “We couldn’t do this without these B-to-B (business to business) partnerships that we have developed.”
• NO GUARANTEES •
A driver development program can be a fickle endeavor. Not only is it extremely costly and time consuming to operate, but there is no guarantee of a return for the time, effort and finances invested.
Even the best-case scenario, that can’t-miss prospects are found and developed at each level, carries certain risks.
What happens when that talent is ready to advance and there isn’t a seat available? What happens if after putting all that effort into developing a driver, he or she decides to sign with another manufacturer? How many development drivers are too many? How few are too few?
Rushbrook said it’s “a balance we need to strike” when considering numbers.
“The way we’ve approached it is … from top down,” he said. “We want to make sure we have drivers at the Xfinity level to have that opportunity, so they are ready to come into Cup when there’s an opportunity.
“Then the question is when do we extend below that so that we’re reaching into ARCA and K&N?”
The addition of ThorSport for 2018 kept Ford’s presence in the Truck Series, filling a gap created when Brad Keselowski Racing closed its doors at the end of the ’17 season. While the organization has a pair of veterans in former series champions Matt Crafton and the just-returned Johnny Sauter, it also fields an entry for 22-year-old Ben Rhodes.
Myatt Snider, 24, won the series rookie of the year title last season while racing for ThorSport and is slated for a partial schedule this year.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions,” Rushbrook said. “We like a lot of the teams that are running Ford at those different series … it’s just a matter of, when do we formally engage with them so that we’ve got drivers signed at that level to come up through into the Truck and Xfinity (level)?”
The loss of a driver is a risk but some say there still are positives that come from the experience.
“I don’t think there is a huge negative between us if it hasn’t worked for whatever reason,” TRD’s Irving said. “But I think our goal was pure from the minute that we started. It was just to make it better for the kids and better for the sport.
“Ultimately, if they win races and they’re in a Toyotas, great. If they win races and they’re in somebody else’s well, at least we helped.
“One of the things we were told from the start was that drivers break your heart so there’s no point in developing drivers and I completely disagree with that.
“At some point, whoever did develop Jeff Gordon did a great job for the sport. It doesn’t matter that they didn’t end up with you. It doesn’t matter that Kasey Kahne didn’t end up with you. It’s going to suck if William Byron wins Cup races, but it was great that we were with him the year we were with him. And hopefully his view on us is as positive as our view is on him. And if we’ve done our job then I think it will be.”
Gordon, the four-time Cup champion and 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, competed for Bill Davis Racing, a Ford team at the time, in the Xfinity Series in 1991-92. But by the end of the ’92 season he had moved to Hendrick Motorsports, a Chevrolet organization, to begin his Cup career.
Kahne’s story is similar – in 2002 he competed for Robert Yates Racing and in ’03 Akins Motorsports, both Ford organizations, in the Xfinity Series. When he made the move to Cup the following year, however, it was with Evernham Motorsports, one of a handful of organizations helping to bring Dodge back to NASCAR.
Byron is the one of the most recent notables to jump ship – after winning seven times for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series in 2016, Byron moved to JR Motorsports the following year where he won the Xfinity Series title. He was moved up to Cup in ’18, where he took over the No. 24 previously driven by Gordon at HMS.
• WHAT’S NEXT? •
“One thing that they’ve been really good at is every step along the way, they’ve told me I’m going to get X, and then I get X plus five, or whatever that number is,” said Christopher Bell.
Bell is in his second full season of Xfinity Series competition with Joe Gibbs Racing. He won the Gander Outdoors Truck Series title in 2017 competing for Kyle Busch Motorsports, then won seven times in NXS competition last year driving the No. 20 Toyota for JGR.
“When we first did our deal in 2015, (Toyota officials) said ‘OK, we’re going Late Model racing’ and they gave me a schedule of 20 Late Model races,” Bell recalled. “And then the next thing you know, mid-June they’re like ‘Hey, you want to go Truck racing?’ So I ended up getting 20 Late Model races and then I think five Truck races.”
Actually, he ran seven Truck races that year. And the same thing happened after he moved into the Truck series fulltime. “Come mid-March or mid-April,” he said, “they’re like, ‘Oh hey, by the way, we got you a couple of Xfinity races.’
“They’ve always done more than what that told me and that’s something I’m thankful for.”
Bell is just one driver who likely will be looking to take that next step up to Cup in 2020.
Custer is in his third full season in the Xfinity Series; Tyler Reddick won the Xfinity title in ’18; Cindric and Brandon Jones have multiple years in the series. Are any of them ready to move up? Will there be seats available if they do?
Not everything is working in their favor.
Today’s Cup fields are smaller – in 2016 the size of the starting field was cut from 43 to 40 at each of the 36 points races. That means fewer seats are available today as the overall number of teams has dropped. The number of teams with charters, guaranteeing them spots in the starting lineup each week, has remained at 36 but the number of teams competing for those four open spots has fluctuated. Starting fields of fewer than 40 cars is no longer uncommon.
Also, the average age of the drivers in those starting lineups is younger. In 1998 the average age of the starting field for the Daytona 500 was 38. Ten years later it was 32. Fewer drivers are closer to retirement and that also means fewer seats are coming open.
“What would be great, honestly what would be awesome,” Irving said, “I would love nothing more than to have that competition (for talent). That at some point if I miss (on a prospect), then they’re taking them. I think that would be fascinating. It would be our program racing their program and trying to develop the best talent. I would love that. That would be the best thing for the sport, the best thing for us competitively.
“I do think we will get to that point.”