By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
For the first time since Johnny Benson a decade ago, the defending NASCAR Truck Series champion won’t defend their title with the team they won the championship. That’s the case for Brett Moffitt, who won’t be returning to Hattori Racing Enterprises in 2019 as announced Wednesday via statement by Shige Hattori, and it’s an absolute crushing blow to not just Moffitt, but the state of NASCAR.
“We are extremely proud of what we achieved with Brett and winning the championship together,” said Hattori. “Our organization’s relationship with him back to 2012 and we’re thankful for what he has meant to our team and the effort he put forth.
This past season was full of adversity and we faced numerous challenges in getting to the racetrack each week. Our entire team is working hard to put the best possible program together for next year and we’re excited to compete in 2019.”
The sport has already lost Furniture Row Racing on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series side, and now the likelihood of the Truck Series having to compete without their defending champion due to losing their ride instead of climbing up to the Xfinity Series speaks loud volumes the sport hasn’t seen.
Unlike Benson and Ted Musgrave after winning the 2005 title, where their championship-winning teams exited, HRE will stick around as their plan of finding a new driver that brings financial goods can keep them afloat is underway.
Did they sell out? To many, yes but without sponsorship these days, teams can’t last in NASCAR.
Even back 15 years ago, Todd Bodine was on the cusp of fighting for a championship in the Xfinity Series (then known as the Busch Series) with Herzog Motorsports’ No. 92 Chevrolet, but the team couldn’t last much longer without sponsors and in July, they released Bodine and later ceased operations.
It has happened before, but Hattori was lucky that his No. 16 Toyota Tundra didn’t see that fate when it seemed on multiple occasions their long and winding championship journey could’ve ended prematurely.
In Hattori’s miracle season with Moffitt onboard, they scored six wins and had a perfect 13-for-13 in the top-five/top-ten category in 23 starts. Let’s not forget, he’s a restart machine that rivals if not passes NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday, especially when its crunch time. It has won fans over and by winning the championship with Hattori, his stock should be fine.
Again, he faces a roadbloack, which top-tier team is left vacant?
The Toyota camp doesn’t seem to have any openings in Trucks as DGR-Crosley and Kyle Busch Motorsports have pretty much secured their 2019 lineups, so does it mean he has to leave the brand that’s propelled his racing career?
He really has no other choice, but that’s up to Moffitt. It won’t be the first time because he drove for Front Row Motorsports, a Ford team, for most of his forgotten 2015 Cup Rookie of the Year campaign. So, I don’t see why he doesn’t race for another manufacturer if it means he gets to race in 2019.
Which begs another question, if Moffitt ends up with a new Truck Series team, will he succeed?
Let’s look at the other instances where the defending champion drove for another team the following season.
Benson moved on to Red Horse Racing in 2009 after Bill Davis Racing shut down at the end of the 2008 season. For Davis, it was bittersweet after years of struggles and manufacturer swapping that proved costly in the end. Benson appeared to be settling in just fine with multiple top-five finishes, but a Supermodifieds crash in Michigan derailed his racing career and never got to see how he’d pan out with the team. The multi-national series champion would make his final NASCAR start at Texas Motor Speedway in June 2010 for KBM, finishing 10th.
Three years prior to Benson winning the championship, Musgrave had to find a new ride after a fallout between Ultra Motorsports and Ford led Jimmy Smith to take his ball and go home after he too finally won the championship after years of heartbreak. Since then, Musgrave’s arrival to Germain Racing, where he stayed for two years, wasn’t stellar despite finishing top-10 in the points standings in both years.
Musgrave only won one race at Texas in 2007, but his stint was overshadowed with his run-in with Bobby East at The Milwuakee Mile, which led to his suspension and kickstarted the career of Brad Keselowski. After the season, Musgrave would disappear from the sport while Keselowski has become one of the top drivers in Cup of the 2010s.
Back then, the Truck Series was considered as a “Renaissance” series, where career longevity can be expanded like those two drivers had. Now, outside of Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter, it’s a young man’s sport. Unlike Benson and Musgrave, 26-year-old Moffitt on the other hand, is still young and a top talent that top teams in either Trucks or Xfinity Series should fight for, but at what cost?
Talent is one thing to have, but teams like Richard Childress Racing and JR Motorsports are more interested in finding paid drivers to eliminate the fear of finding sponsorships. That’s why Michael Annett is signed with them for another year. While the No. 9 is available as reigning Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick will drive for RCR this upcoming season, JRM will likely find another driver with sponsorship bucks to take over.
If Dale Earnhardt, Jr. couldn’t get Ross Chastain before ultimately getting a deal with Chip Ganassi Racing, what makes me think Moffitt has a chance? Watch it be a guy like Cody Coughlin get that No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro, but you get my drift.
I fear that Moffitt isn’t going to be a top contender not just in Xfinity, if he decides that’s a good career move, but in Trucks no less because there are no true options left.
Even if sponsorship was to come Moffitt’s way like it did at Hattori in races the team was in jeopardy of not showing up like Bristol in August, would any of them stick with him?
That’s the state of the sport today, there’s more unknowns than answers, but the sport has become for almost a decade what open wheel racing is notoriously known for, having paid drivers who won’t provide monstrous results. Wednesday’s announcement of Hattori not keeping Moffitt due to interest of putting the best program possible should end any last ounce of denial.
Fans lend their voices all the time as to why guys like Annett, Ryan Reed, and now Cup rookie Matt Tifft shouldn’t be given opportunities. They have valid points because they hardly compete for wins and at times have underwhelming results compared to their teammates.
However, we can complain all we want, but the way to get to the sport isn’t the same as it was decades ago where talent (ex. Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon) or even sponsorships willing to stick around with the team (ex. Lowe’s and AcDelco) was the norm. With some exceptions like Chastain and Arris from 2017-18, this style of business is all but gone.
Talks aside, Moffitt and Hattori will celebrate their championship at the series banquet Saturday. Once the celebration is over, Moffitt’s future will remain unknown as Hattori’s team will soldier on into the renamed Gander Outdoors Truck Series and prepare for Daytona in February.