Brett Poirier · Tuesday October 1, 2013
Every once in a while, I like to pop in an old NASCAR race to remember what was. The most recent race I put in was the 2001 Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It’s a classic with the surreal ending of Kevin Harvick — in his third career start — edging the Goliath of the sport at the time, Jeff Gordon, to the finish line by inches three races after Dale Earnhardt’s death. It’s difficult to not be moved reliving that moment.
But lap 67 was pretty entertaining, too; so was 104, and 21. Even without the storybook ending, the race was unbelievably compelling. Gordon had the dominant car early, but lost a lap when the caution flew after he pitted. He spent the rest of the race trying to make up the ground. Where was his free pass? His wave-around?
Meanwhile, underdog Dave Blaney, driving for Bill Davis Racing, raced to the lead and looked like he was going to run away with his first career win. But he had a pit problem that dropped him back, and then, in one of the most heartbreaking moments I’ve ever seen in racing, a left-rear tire rolled right off his No. 93 Dodge after a pit stop, leaving his car dead on the backstretch. The ending, after that speaks for itself. A car from Dale Earnhardt, Inc., Richard Childress Racing, two from Hendrick Motorsports and one from Robert Yates Racing were left to fight for the win in the final laps in Blaney’s wake. No one knew who was going to win down the stretch. It was magic.
That plot is something we’ve been seeing less and less of as time has passed. Blaney was an underdog on that day in 2001 because he had never competed for a Cup win before. In his rookie season in 2000, he didn’t miss one show and finished 31st in points. His run that day really came out of nowhere. That used to be the definition of underdog — someone who really isn’t expected to win. That term has broadened since. How many cars did you count as underdogs at Dover last weekend? I counted 40 — everyone except the Nos. 20, 48 and 18. If 40 of the 43 cars that started Sunday’s race went to Victory Lane, we could’ve labeled them “surprise winners.”
Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports have put a stranglehold on the 2013 season. Every other team in the garage is second-tier at best and that includes a pair of organizations that used to be at the top not too long ago, Roush Fenway and Penske Racing. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dale Earnhardt, Jr. before the race at New Hampshire and I asked him how his team elevates itself to the level in which Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth reside. In the first part of his answer, he said that he wasn’t surprised at all at Kenseth’s success because he knew the caliber of driver Kenseth was. He knew that he wasn’t ever going to reach his potential at Roush Fenway.
When did the gap between Gibbs and Roush Fenway become that great? Since when do you have to drive for either Hendrick or Gibbs to compete for a championship? It’s certainly true this season. After three postseason races, two Gibbs cars and one Hendrick are what’s left to decide the title. If you believe any different, you must not have watched much this season. A Hendrick or Gibbs driver has won seven of the last nine races and all three in the Chase so far.
The gap between the haves and the “have nots” is becoming greater by the season. Gordon won the championship for Hendrick in 2001, but his teammates finished 17th and 23rd in the standings. Hendrick didn’t exactly have things figured out like they do today.
Meanwhile, drivers such as Ricky Rudd and Dale Jarrett (Robert Yates Racing), Sterling Marlin (Ganassi), and Tony Stewart (Gibbs) were all in the championship hunt. On a given day, a driver from nearly any team could win a race. One of the greatest aspects back then was how many different teams showed up each week with a shot at winning.
Now, let’s move forward to 2013. Here is the breakdown under the current monopoly:
Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing
We expect to win every damn race and we should.
Second Tier A Group:
Penske Racing, Roush Fenway
If Hendrick and Gibbs are off, we are ready to swoop in.
Second Tier B Group:
Stewart-Haas Racing (Hendrick satellite), Michael Waltrip Racing, Richard Childress Racing
We’ll have a couple of shots at winning, but we’ll also have days where we can’t crack the top 20.
Richard Petty Motorsports, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Furniture Row Racing
We are really behind the top teams, but if all of the stars in the universe align, maybe we can steal a win.
We’re fighting for 25th and just happy to be here.
The Second Tier A Group has four wins this season and the Second Tier B Group has six. The Third Tier has none and the Fifth Tier has one at Talladega. The other 18 races have been won by four teams from the First Tier.
The Sprint Cup Series is becoming as predictable as the Nationwide Series. Part of the problem is there are less organizations in the sport than ever, and too many of them are leaning on one another just to stay in the Second Tier. Penske and Roush Fenway share engines and chassis while Furniture Row has partnered with RCR. Stewart-Haas is essentially the Toro Rosso to Hendrick’s Red Bull — except the difference isn’t quite that great.
Teams such as Richard Petty Motorsports and EGR not only lack the engineers and technology the top teams have, but also receive much less support from their own manufacturers and less sponsorship dollars. With everyone far behind or leaning on one another, the race results can pretty much be pre-determined. Well, fans don’t want to watch sporting events with outcomes that have already been decided, hence the dropping attendance and television ratings.
The Generation-6 car was supposed to at least level the playing field initially because everyone was starting with something new from the same spot. Instead, it has done the opposite. Organizations that were in contention for the title last season, Michael Waltrip Racing and Penske Racing, have each taken a step back this season. The limit of four tests per organization hasn’t seemed to hinder Gibbs or Hendrick, either.
The separation between organizations isn’t quite at Formula 1 level yet, where Red Bull can hardly ever be touched. But NASCAR is creeping closer and closer to it.
There are seven races to go and many fans are upset that only two organizations — three teams total — still have a shot at the title. The fans that watched closely could’ve predicted that, though, after Race 3 at Las Vegas. It’s all much too predictable. Kansas is next and 41 drivers will be underdogs there — either Kenseth or Johnson will most likely win. I’m looking forward to it… better yet, maybe I’ll just pop in another tape of an old race.
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