The high cost of modern racing has largely squeezed the driver-owner out of the sport
In NASCAR's early days, driver-owners were as common as lug nuts in the garage. Between 1949 (the sport's inaugural year) and 1979, a driver-owner won the championship 13 times. Some of racing's most iconic figures—Herb Thomas, Lee Petty and the King himself, Richard Petty—were driver-owners. The last of this species to hoist the big trophy at season's end was Alan Kulwicki in 1992. (Kulwicki was killed in a plane crash the following year.) But since then the driver-owner has nearly gone the way of the dodo. The reason? Money.
Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Cup champ in the early 1980s while driving for owner Junior Johnson, went on to field his own team and in 1991 won two races and finished eighth in the points. But he was operating on a shoestring budget of $3.5 million. He was eventually KO'd in 1998 because he was losing his best employees to bigger teams—"They could pay more," he says—and he couldn't come up with the $12 million or so that he needed to be competitive. Neither could Ricky Rudd, who got out of the driver-owner game in '99, or Bill Elliott, who left the following year. Today it costs about $25 million per season to field an elite car.
Which is why you've got to admire the tenacity of Robby Gordon and Michael Waltrip (Darrell's brother), the two other full-time driver-owners currently in the sport along with Tony Stewart. Unlike Stewart, who took over an existing team that had a special relationship with Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon and Waltrip started their teams from scratch. "You can't even put me in the same category as Michael and Robby," Stewart says. "What they are doing is amazing."
What they are not doing is winning. Gordon has been driving for Robby Gordon Motorsports for five years and in that time has just four top-five finishes. That's impressive, though, considering that his bare bones operation is competing against the likes of Hendrick, which boasts a staff of 550. Michael Waltrip, meanwhile, has only five top 10s in 74 starts. But his team broke through this year. David Reutimann, who drives the number 00 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing, earned the first victory for MWR in Charlotte this fall and narrowly missed qualifying for the Chase. Better days are ahead for this team, but not with Waltrip behind the wheel; he's getting out of the car next season and putting Martin Truex Jr. in his seat.