A.J. Allmendinger’s situation shows NASCAR’s broken hiring model

In 2023, Allmendinger drove for Kaulig in the Cup Series and was fairly competitive, as he won at the Charlotte Roval and finished a solid 21st in points. So why is he being demoted? 

One word: money.

Allmendinger will still run select Cup races in 2024, but a lack of sponsorship will prevent him from running the full schedule. Kaulig’s No. 16 machine will instead supposedly be shared by multiple drivers. This should never happen for a driver who is still capable of competing at the highest level, and it’s NASCAR’s biggest problem today.

In every other sport, competitors are signed because the team considers them the best available option for the job. In auto racing, though, there is a prerequisite: you must bring a paycheck with you. It wasn’t always this way — sponsors once primarily attached themselves to race teams rather than drivers, which allowed those teams to make their hiring decisions solely based on talent.

That began to change, though, in conjunction with NASCAR’s decline in national popularity and the loss of longtime full-season Fortune 500 sponsors such as Lowe’s, Mars, Inc., Target and the Miller Brewing Company. Replacing them have been much smaller corporate brands, brands that are often package deals with one driver in particular. 

The lack of part-time opportunities in today’s NASCAR is another factor, with the playoff format in all three series requiring drivers to run every race to be eligible and with the Cup Series discouraging additional entries on the grid beyond the 36 chartered teams. Seldom are drivers ever released midseason due to poor performance, so if you can’t land a full-time seat at the start of the year, you’re all but out of luck.

Sure, NASCAR has never been a true meritocracy, given that the cost required to compete in the sport is much higher than the average family income, undoubtedly leaving countless potential superstars to fall through the cracks over the decades. However, there used to be a structure in place in which all you had to do was get your foot in the door and opportunities would come as long as you earned them.

The sport’s current state — in which a competitive Cup driver like Allmendinger is demoted to part-time due to sponsorship issues — is unacceptable. Gone are the days in which you could look at the Cup Series field and consider it a showcase of the 36 (previously 43) best stock car racing drivers in the world and it’s a shame.

NASCAR and its teams can, and must, do better.

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