Ross Chastain is the protagonist in the biggest feel-good story of the 2018 NASCAR season. His check for being a part of that story, however, is nonexistent.
Chastain revealed Saturday night after winning the Xfinity Series race at Las Vegas that he wasn’t getting paid to drive Chip Ganassi’s No. 42 car. Yes, a guy who won a race for one of the biggest car owners in American motorsports in the second-biggest stock car series in the world didn’t get paid to do it. Insane, isn’t it?
“It’s never been about the money and I get laughed at, honestly, from inside the garage as far as drivers go,” Chastain said. “I’m not getting paid to drive this 42 car. That’s part of the deal. There was no extra money to get paid. There was a chance to do this and I wanted to make the rest work if this works out and the people who helped put this together, they didn’t make any money either. We bet on ourselves, it’s a coincidence it happened at Vegas but we literally bet on ourselves that we wouldn’t make any money now but it’d pay off.”
Chastain’s win came in his second start for Ganassi. He’s in his fourth full-time season at NASCAR’s second level and just missed out on the playoffs in 2017 while driving for JD Motorsports, a team that can scratch out top-10 finishes when the conditions are right.
That’s the ceiling for the underfunded JDM team and why Chastain jumped at the opportunity to drive for one of the best cars in the Xfinity Series for three races in 2018. The No. 42 had been driven to victory lane four times earlier in the season by Cup driver Kyle Larson.
But what seems insane for many of us has become pretty normal in NASCAR. While NASCAR stars earn in the healthy seven figures in income through their salaries and endorsements, there are dozens of drivers and even more crew members at the back of the garage racing for figurative and literal peanuts. Chastain’s desire to race for Ganassi for free and prove that he deserved a shot in an upper-echelon ride is something that many other drivers would leap to do.
“The sky’s the limit. That’s why we all keep working,” Chastain said. “That’s why everyone in this room keeps coming to the racetrack. We all want to keep progressing throughout our lives and our careers but then again we’re all very fortunate to be here … Everybody in this room, everybody at this racetrack that gets to come and their job is something that gets to do with race cars — granted [drivers] get the spotlights — but everybody in this room and everybody that’s helped put this race on this weekend is doing what they love. We don’t work in racing because we have to. We do it because we love it and we want to.”
And, frankly, everyone should get paid to do those jobs. Especially when you’re driving for one of the best teams in the series. But the wealth distribution among teams throughout NASCAR’s top three series has become a lot like it is in America. Those at the top are making most of the money while everyone else scrounges around for what’s left in the hopes of someday hitting the jackpot themselves.
That jackpot keeps getting smaller too, as evidenced by the apparent lack of money available to pay Chastain. While Ganassi could easily afford to pay Chastain out of his own pocket for the victory, he’s also running a business himself. And as the demise of defending Cup Series champion team Furniture Row Racing shows, even prominent NASCAR teams are just one lost partial-season sponsor away from being nonexistent. It’s impossible to both be profitable and competitive on what NASCAR pays teams in race winnings and points money alone.
Driver salaries have been a place where teams have cut costs in recent years. Retired drivers like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have been replaced by guys with far lesser salaries. And who knows how low those salaries could continue to go, especially for drivers outside of the Cup Series.
Given the circumstances, Chastain would have been foolish to not jump at the three-race opportunity CGR afforded him. Even without the benefit of hindsight, he made the right bet. But his lack of salary in a race-winning car should be a warning sign. Drivers who bring along corporate or family backing are already given chances over more deserving candidates because of NASCAR’s bleak economic reality. Chastain’s comments make it now all too easy to envision more teams choosing drivers based on how little they’re willing to be paid.
That possibility’s existence is not the sign of a thriving business model. But neither is the collapse of a championship team.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
Follow @NickBromberg on Twitter
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