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Sept. 4, 2018 — When a championship team is undercut

Imagine, if you will, if the Philadelphia Eagles, or the Houston Astros, or any sports team winning a championship one year, gets the news that it will be out of business the next year. Imagine the absolute chaos that would ensue amongst participants, fans, and especially, the governing body of that sport.

Such is the case with the announcement today that Furniture Row Racing, the team that supplies NASCAR champion Martin Truex, Jr. with his crew and car, is ceasing operations at the end of this season. And this, while the team is just on the cusp of going for a second consecutive title.

What is unique about NASCAR, and its race teams, is that they are all run very much like mom-and-pop grocery stores. The governing body is still run by the France family, and teams are independent entities, hiring drivers as contractors. There is no franchise system like there is in, say, Formula 1, where teams are required to have exactly two cars at every race, and every car is guaranteed to run subject to certain rules enforced by the FIA, the world governing body of motor sports.

But in recent years, race teams in NASCAR have become increasingly corporate in nature. Teams now run sometimes three or four cars in a division, gathering all sorts of data that can be shared. Engineers are often relied upon for big decisions, not grizzled mechanics in overalls.

NASCAR has been part of my youth, since I grew up in Mississippi. But it also was a great model for the management of competition. In spite of the odd outlier (a Southern 500 was once won by a stunning 14 laps), races have been close and quite enjoyable by supporters.

A few things have changed in the last two decades, and have, frankly, contributed to the decline of the sport. The rise of the multi-car team put pressure on smaller operations like Furniture Row.

But what has hurt NASCAR is the same factor that has hurt many athletic competitions. The saturation of the sport on television, especially with broadcasts in high-definition, gives the viewer a better entertainment experience at home than going to the race track. NASCAR, especially, reveled in its traveling-circus ethos as families would sometimes take the camper out to the track and tailgate in the infield for an entire weekend. Sometimes with a couple of weeks of vacation, fans could follow along the NASCAR trail between various points in the Southeast.

That’s changed, with races in Nevada, California, Arizona, Chicago, Kansas, Indiana, and New Hampshire on the schedule.

But whatever the multitude of reasons for the closure of the race team is, there is one immutable takeaway: if a championship team in a competition closes so soon after its championship season, is any team safe in NASCAR?

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