Is Richard Petty Why the No. 51 NASCAR Charter Remains as Big a Mystery as Area 51 in Nevada?

Car numbers have been synonymous with NASCAR drivers for decades. Dale Earnhardt drove “the 3.” Richard Petty drove “the 43.” These days, Bubba Wallace drives “the 23,” and Kyle Larson sits behind the wheel of “the 5.”

We’re less than a month away from crowning a Cup Series champion, and suddenly everyone is talking about “the 51.”

The what? And, as long as we’re at it, why?

The NASCAR charter system created 36 franchises in 2016

Cody Ware practices for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sept. 27, 2019. | Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Cody Ware practices for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sept. 27, 2019. | Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The remote Area 51 in Nevada is at the heart of conspiracy theories, many of which connect the military installation to extraterrestrial research in the aftermath of remains recovered following a purported UFO crash. The fact that the public cannot enter Area 51, which has existed for decades even though the government did not acknowledge its existence until 2013, adds to the intrigue.

NASCAR’s No. 51 charter is creating intrigue of its own these days.

The charter system started in 2016. NASCAR granted 36 franchises to owners of Cup Series cars that met certain criteria. That guaranteed those cars spots on starting grids each week without having to qualify. Also, teams possessing charters get priority in collecting purse money from races.

Teams are free to sell their charters just like Robert Kraft can part with the New England Patriots or Mark Cuban can deal away the Dallas Mavericks. Supply and demand sets the price.

And demand happens to be high at the moment.

The future of the No. 51 charter belonging to Richard Petty is a mystery

The top of the owner standings in the NASCAR Cup Series doesn’t show any surprises. Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, and a few of the other multi-car teams dominate the list. They’re focused for now on finishing off the current playoffs and prepping for the debut of Next Gen cars in 2022.

It’s toward the bottom of the list where things get interesting. A rule governing charters that NASCAR has not yet had to apply says that a car finishing outside the top 33 spots in three straight seasons can have its charter repossessed.

That’s where the No. 51 charter comes in. Rick Ware Racing operates the car under the “Petty Ware Racing” name. It runs on a charter owned by Richard Petty Motorsports, according to Frontstretch.com. At the moment, the No. 51 sits four points behind the No. 15 car, which Rick Ware Racing owns, and needs to reverse that to avoid a potential repo under the three-year rule.

There is a plethora of questions and a shortage of answers:

  • Does NASCAR have to repossess a charter?
  • If NASCAR sells that charter, is it done via a direct sale or an auction?
  • Where does the money from the resale go?

And then there’s the big question.

Would NASCAR really take away a charter belonging to Richard Petty, one of the sport’s iconic figures and part of a great racing family? It would be equivalent to the NFL telling the Rooney family to part with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The No. 51 NASCAR charter would fetch good money

Michael Jordan brought 23XI Racing into the NASCAR Cup Series this season. Trackhouse Racing has bought out Chip Ganassi Racing’s NASCAR outfit and could look to grow it soon, Kaulig Racing and GMS Racing will be startups in 2022, and 23XI is adding Kurt Busch but hasn’t secured a second charter yet. JR Motorsports has also talked about entering the Cup Series in the near future.

Putting a charter on the market would create a lot of interest, but it does raise the issue of whether NASCAR will invoke the repossession option at a time when business-to-business sales of charters have been booming.

Cody Ware has been the primary driver of the No. 51 car, and his average finish has been a modest 31st. Nine different drivers have been in the No. 15 this season. Assuming Ware can pick up a couple of points on the No. 15 in each of the final three races, then the issue of the charter would go away unless NASCAR suspects manipulation.

NASCAR would be only too happy to avoid a potentially awkward issue with Richard Petty Motorsports, which already has enough problems. (The No. 43 driven by Eric Jones did not appear to have a primary sponsor this season.)

As for Rick Ware Racing, the organization is entering a strategic alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing and is purchasing engines from Roush Yates Engines. It’s a sign that RWR is ready to start competing more seriously, but the team just might have a charter or two to lease for a year.

The chase to acquire it wouldn’t be as expensive as an outright purchase, but it sure would be fun to watch.

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