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NASCAR veteran Matt Kenseth, whose contract with Joe Gibbs Racing is up after this season, is in the market for a new ride, and Stewart-Haas Racing's Kurt Busch might be, too.
Both drivers, former Cup champions, have said they're not worried. But with NASCAR's popularity well down from what it was at the turn of the century and sponsorship dollars increasingly hard to come by, younger drivers are not cashing in like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson, to name a few.
"A lot of these young drivers are taking smaller contracts," Earnhardt said Saturday at Watkins Glen. "You've got to look at guys like myself. There's sort of been a major shift in how much drivers are getting paid."
Earnhardt pointed to NASCAR's new charter system as having a telling effect. It ended the practice of disclosing winnings after races.
"A lot of these veteran drivers are getting paid multi-million dollars, and a lot of these guys coming in are getting a fraction of that," he said. "You've got a lot of young guys coming in being offered and accepting contracts that are a fifth to a tenth of what veterans are getting paid. And, that's money that can go into the team, you know? These sponsors aren't giving teams the money that they used to."
NASCAR Cup weekend at Watkins Glen was condensed into two days instead of the customary three, a move to give drivers and crews more time at home _ and to save money.
"Everybody's got to dial it back," Earnhardt said. "Everybody's got to realize that they have to accept some of that fallback and difference. And that's the same with the drivers' contracts.
"It took a while, but when we had our major reset when the recession hit and everything sort of changed and the value of everything changed, the trickle-down effect, I think, is coming down through the drivers' contracts and it's making a big difference in the decisions these owners are making. You can't pay a driver five to eight million dollars a year if you ain't got but $10 million worth of sponsorship. That ain't going to work."
Earnhardt, who joked that sometime years ago he admitted to being overpaid, says he likes the transition the sport is undergoing.
"That's a shift that's going to be better for the sport and get those salaries into a realistic range for how much money we have from corporate America," he said. "All those things have to change, you know? Drivers' salaries included. Yeah, all those drivers out there in the garage are going to say that's easy for him to say. Drivers are having to sort of understand that change is coming down the pike if it hasn't happened to them yet, it's going to happen to them.
"And the young guys, they don't know any better. They want to race and they're taking whatever they can get."