Kurt Smith · Friday May 15, 2009
At Darlington this past weekend, three of the top five finishing cars were from Hendrick Motorsports. The other two got their engines from Hendrick. A part time Hendrick team finished seventh, making six out of the top seven either Hendrick or Hendrick-affiliated teams. It was domination from one team that has rarely been seen in a single event.
Looking through the glasses of NASCAR’s never-ending push for parity, it’s easy to look at the Darlington results and conclude that bigger teams have too much of an upper hand in this sport. That’s what glasses do. NASCAR’s well-meaning solution has been to place a limit on how many cars a team can field.
Jack Roush is going to soon have to make a decision about whether to let go of David Ragan or Jamie McMurray, assuming he wants to hold on to Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards, which is a safe assumption. As a result, one of those two drivers will be out of a ride and a team will be looking for work in what is not a promising economy. And none of that is going to make Robby Gordon any faster.
When you think about it, Roush Fenway Racing is being punished for putting more money and resources into winning. And that, apparently, is only unacceptable if it works. Michael Waltrip Racing had a pretty expensive first season when one considered the results. NASCAR has denied it, but it’s hard to argue with Jack Roush when he says the rule is directed at him.
The limit on a number of cars was decided on in 2005, after Roush Racing put five cars in a 10-car Chase. At the time, the furor over multi-car teams was far more prevalent than it is today. Back then NASCAR’s most popular driver drove for a two-car outfit. It was believed that this was the reason they couldn’t keep up. This was only partly true. What actually happened in 2005 was that NASCAR made two rule changes with the intention of helping smaller teams: lowering spoiler height to produce more side-by-side racing, and eliminating Saturday practices to save teams money.
As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. As a government aiming for the big guy often does, NASCAR ended up hurting the little guy. Teams that had more cars could do more testing in place of practices, and Roush figured out the spoiler height on intermediate tracks before anyone else. Greg Biffle had the best year of his career by far in 2005.
Similarly, in 2007, NASCAR pioneered the new car, another innovation intended to help smaller teams by requiring fewer cars over a season. And Hendrick Motorsports won half of the races that year.
In the continuing effort to help the struggling teams, NASCAR eliminated testing in 2009, another attempt to save smaller companies money. To see how well that has worked, re-read the first paragraph of this article.
I had written, just last week in fact, that acquiring engines and tech support from a larger entity doesn’t guarantee that a lesser team will run well. And I stand by that. Haas/CNC was running with Hendrick equipment last year to 35th and 43rd positions in the standings. But given that Tony Stewart thanked Rick Hendrick on camera following his team’s 3-4 finish at Darlington, I have to imagine that Hendrick’s assistance of the Stewart-Haas team is worth something.
Which leads me to the conclusion that not only is the four-car per team limit not going to help smaller teams, it’s also unenforceable to any effective degree.
What is NASCAR going to do about teams supplying engines to smaller outfits, if Stewart-Haas cars are now considered part of the Hendrick stable? Will they all be considered one team? That would make EGR-Childress an eight car team at the moment, when you add John Andretti in the 34 and David Gilliland in the 71. Roush and Yates/HOF would be a seven car team. Michael Waltrip, Red Bull and even JTG/Dougherty and Robby Gordon all get their engines from Toyota Racing Development, making them effectively a nine car team. Can NASCAR put a limit on support a team can provide for another team? Where would that limit be?
And Hendrick, of course, would be a six car team, as many have already asserted. This wasn’t much of a concern when Haas was barely making races, but now with Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman in the top 10 every week, it’s raised some eyebrows. On the surface, it seems to bear out the need for some restriction on competition.
But when NASCAR lowers the boom with the four car rule, Hendrick Motorsports, the team that put five cars in the top five last week through ownership or tech support, will not be affected at all. What Hendrick is doing now for its success falls well within the limit soon to be imposed.
And if NASCAR decides to disallow engine support of smaller teams, since it seems to make a team a six car operation in effect, who would that hurt? Not the bigger teams. So that is not likely to happen. And so, once the four car rule is implemented, Roush Fenway can simply move the equipment for the 26 team into a Yates complex. Which would basically make the rule a big waste of time and money for teams. Kind of like restrictor plates.
The most baffling thing about the four car rule is wondering what NASCAR is trying to do to the current level of competition. Even if such a rule could be enforced, do fans really want to see half a field of backmarkers and start-and-parkers in the name of lessening larger teams’ dominance?
Speaking for myself, I’d rather see four good teams field 36 good cars than see three-quarters of the field be at least two laps down at the end of every race. I’ve gone into more detail in other articles about this subject, but the short version of the point is this: multi-car teams have brought more parity to this sport than any rule change ever will, except for possibly using restrictor plates at every race. There are now as many as 20-25 drivers that can win on a given week. That should be encouraged, not discouraged.
This isn’t even considering the employment factor. Without a four car limit, we wouldn’t likely be questioning where Brad Keselowski is going to wind up now that Mark Martin is sticking around another year. And Keselowski, with his performance at Darlington, has made a statement. He isn’t going to languish in the Nationwide Series for much longer. If Rick Hendrick wants to start another team and employ dozens of engineers, mechanics and crew members to give a great young driver a competitive ride, why stop him, especially in times like these? Why put a rule in place that HMS will likely try to find a way to skirt anyhow that may result in Keselowski driving a car that doesn’t match his ability?
Lifting this rule might also help what ails the Nationwide Series. If Roush Fenway could put a sixth car on the track, he’d have a reason to put someone besides Kenseth or Edwards in his Nationwide cars. That could be another up-and-coming driver in a series that currently does not have enough of them. As it is now, he might as well not bother. What would be the point of developing a driver to ultimately drive for someone else?
I don’t doubt NASCAR’s sincerity in wanting to level the playing field. Heaven knows they’ve done some crazy things trying to accomplish that. But some teams will spend more money than others. Multi-car teams are not to blame for that.
More likely, the problem is that success is attributed only to wealth, rather than a team spending it wisely to hire the right people and get the best equipment. Stewart-Haas is demonstrating right now what a difference that makes. Just using Hendrick equipment certainly wasn’t enough last year.
Fans appreciate excellence in sports. NASCAR should resist the urge to place limits on it. Let the other competitors find a way to knock down the dynasty. The history of every sport shows that they will.
— First note concerning Jeremy Mayfield: I’m not convicting Mayfield without hearing all of the evidence, but Kevin Grubb’s story notwithstanding, denials from a public figure after testing positive for drugs are usually PR responses to anticipated fan backlash. I can’t think of one athlete who was ultimately telling the truth about being falsely tested. But then again, the Tim Richmond mess may be a reason for doubt.
— Second note on Mayfield: as one of my favorite commenters (thanks Gordon82Wins) pointed out, several crew members have been suspended without much fanfare, but when it is a driver—who would be far more dangerous than a crew member while hallucinating—there seems to be more concern about the validity of the drug testing and so forth. I don’t mind questioning the accuracy of drug tests, but I would hope no driver gets preferential treatment simply because his name is better known.
— NASCAR announced this week that they are looking into why ratings are down, including checking into timing of commercials, track spacing (?), and even whether the rain-shortened Daytona 500 left a residual effect. I don’t mean to be so testy, but why not try just watching? Ask yourself, am I annoyed by this gopher that has absolutely nothing to do with racing?
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