The Frontstretch: NASCAR’s Attempts To Legislate Parity Backfire by Kurt Smith -- Friday October 23, 2009

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NASCAR’s Attempts To Legislate Parity Backfire

Kurt Smith · Friday October 23, 2009


Imagine a chess league with 10 players. Player 1 excels at all facets of the game and wins many of the titles. Player 2 is very good, and is so good with his knights that he occasionally defeats Player 1. Players 3 through 5 have similar specialties with bishops or rooks, but are merely very good at the rest of the game, and so do not often surpass Player 1. Players 6 through 10 rarely have an impact.

The league decides to shorten the season, so that it is not decided before the last match with Players 1 or 2 running away. But because Player 1 excels, he still wins important matches and in fact now has to win fewer of them. Similarly for Player 2, who now only has to beat Player 1 in one key match rather than in three or four. So Player 2 wins a couple of titles.

Because Player 2 now seems to have an unfair edge, the league decides to take away his knight advantage by allowing knights to only move forward. This severely hurts his chances at defeating Player 1, and now he struggles to win against lesser players who were not so skilled with their knights.

Then the league tries to help lesser players get better by removing four of the pawns from the board and one each of the bishops, knights, and rooks, which in theory takes away weapons from stronger players. Now the advantages of Players 3 through 5 have been reduced, and Player 2’s knight advantage has been lessened even further. But they are still better than Players 6 through 10, who are still merely average at most areas of the game. And Player 1 has lost none of his edge.

So the result of the league’s numerous attempts to give all the players a chance to win, regardless of ability, is that now Player 1 completely dominates, any chance that Players 2-5 had to challenge him has been severely diminished, and the weakest players remain weak and have fewer opportunities to improve their game.

Meanwhile, longtime fans of this league cannot believe how much an established contest has been perverted in the name of making it more exciting. They grow disenchanted in large numbers at the lack of respect for the tradition and endless meddling, and at Player 1’s perpetually unchallenged superiority.

I think you get the picture. It’s long been a contention of this writer that NASCAR legislates parity too much. The cars are equal and strictly enforced to be so, team ownership is now limited, questionable cautions get thrown when the field spreads out, the points system resets after 26 races, and testing has been banned.

And still one team and one driver are running away with it.

Until someone steps up their game and beats them, the 48 team is their other 42 opponents’ problem, not NASCAR’s.

In 2003, Matt Kenseth stunk up the show, if you consider winning a title with remarkable consistency to be an olfactory transgression. So the Chase was implemented in 2004, with the idea that fans would love the idea of bunching 10 (and later 12) drivers together with 10 races to go, preventing anyone from riding a large lead to the championship.

But the sanctioning body didn’t seem to realize that a big lead can be built up in six or seven races, too…especially if, as Denny Hamlin noted after his DNF in Charlotte, most of the top 12 teams falter to inevitable bad luck. One messy restart has effectively demolished what little chance Juan Pablo Montoya had to win it.

Johnson and the 48 team have so mastered the format that the Chase is looking more ineffective in its intention than it ever has. Last year Jimmie Johnson’s lead was so large by Miami that he needed to finish just 37th to win it all. In most every season of the Chase so far, one team has built a large enough lead that the last race is usually just a formality.

In 2005, NASCAR made two parity-motivated rule changes. The second round of practices was eliminated and the spoiler height was lowered. But they didn’t ban testing, so Jack Roush Racing with five cars was able to get a handle on the spoiler height and put all five cars in the Chase that season. NASCAR leapt into action at this supposed outrage and limited the number of cars a team could field. (Although they also, to their credit, brought back the second and third practice sessions.)

Roush Fenway Racing has to give up a car this year, while Hendrick Motorsports runs four cars and supplies engines, chassis, and tech support to two others. I’m not bemoaning this development in light of how well Stewart-Haas has been running. Good for them. Does NASCAR need to place limits on Hendrick and Stewart-Haas? No, they need to let Jack Roush field as many cars as he likes. Instead he must abide by a symbolic rule with a loophole big enough to drive a hauler through.

The one thing that has brought more parity to the sport than anything else has been the prominence of multi-car teams, a business model perfected by Rick Hendrick. That’s right, as odd as it may seem, Rick Hendrick has brought more parity to the sport. Maybe only three teams have won 13 of the last 14 championships, but at least there have been eight different winners. And that’s with Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson winning nine of them.

If the four cars per team rule was announced today, people would be wondering what on earth Roush Fenway’s advantage is—with just two cars in the Chase and neither of them making much noise—that NASCAR feels the need to rein them in.

In 2007, the Car of Today was heralded as a new design where smaller teams could build fewer cars, there would be more side by side racing, more passing, and no tolerance for deviating from the strict spec, which would presumably put an end to any teams gaining an advantage through rule bending. Chad Knaus’s reign would end. Better competition all around was promised.

In two and a half years of the Winged Snowplow, it is obvious that qualifying and track position are now at a premium, because passing is much more difficult than was advertised. How many times have you seen a pit crew win a race for a driver by getting him out of the pits first? How many times have you heard “his car seems to like that clean air” as opposed to “his car runs really well in traffic”?

At the intermediate tracks especially, the leader pulls away to a big lead over and over while the rest of the cars fight an impossible aero push trying to pass each other. Which we were told was exactly the kind of boring leader getting too big a lead racing that the car was supposed to prevent. It’s so difficult to catch the leader these days that NASCAR changed a restart rule that had been in place for over 60 years. The team that finds the strongest aero edge will pull away from the field, and that team is often Hendrick Motorsports.

This year NASCAR banned testing on Cup tracks to help save smaller teams money in the struggling economy. This has cut down Roush Fenway quite a bit, since apparently testing was their greatest weapon. Richard Childress Racing has also suffered significantly, having one of their worst seasons in years. Joe Gibbs Racing doesn’t seem to quite have the mojo it had. Perhaps Joey Logano might have been better off with more opportunities to get a handle on this racecar. Only Hendrick Motorsports seems to have taken yet another limitation in stride, like they always seem to do. NASCAR is continuing its testing ban, seemingly unaware of how it swiped away one of fewer and fewer weapons that teams like Childress and Roush Fenway had in challenging Hendrick Motorsports.

And after all the attempts to create excitement, after all of the efforts to equalize everyone, one team and one driver are even more dominant than they had been.

This isn’t just NASCAR. Every sport is guilty of this, and it doesn’t work anywhere. The Yankees are still great and the Orioles still stink no matter how much luxury tax the Yankees pay. I’m a big believer in Tom Jefferson’s quote: The government that governs best governs least. If NASCAR had simply left the sport alone for the past six years, would it be in the trouble it is in now?

I’m sure he’d be running quite well regardless, but I doubt Jimmie Johnson would be crushing the field like he is if innovation was allowed, if teams could run and test with as many cars as they wanted, and if the 48 team had to be tops from the beginning of the season to the end, which they often aren’t. Whatever the rules are, someone is going to be better, and sometimes a lot better, than everyone else. That’s kinda the whole point of competition. An auto race never ends in a tie.

After the Brickyard disaster of a race in 2008, Robin Pemberton announced at the press conference that “not every race is a barnburner”. True. Nor is every championship battle. Yet NASCAR continues to legislate to try and make it so, with results that are the opposite of intention.

Even if every single race was a restrictor plate race, which in theory would make every car as equal as they could possibly be, one team can and will sometimes get a leg up and consistently spank the field, as I illustrated in a column last season. Nothing works as well in practice as it does in theory.

Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports are going to smell up the show until someone else in the garage steps up their game and beats them.

Until then, the 48 team is their opponents’ problem, not NASCAR’s.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
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10/23/2009 06:46 AM

Excellent article! With all their ‘parity’ rules, Nascar has essentially changed the nature of the game, then can’t figure out why fans aren’t buying it. The competition used to start with smart crew chiefs figuring out ways to make their car better. Nascar has legislated that out of existance with the COT and all their rules about sprongs and shocks. Fans used to be able to support a certain manufacturer, and that’s gone too. Unless someone can find a way to ‘root’ for decals. The huge amounts of money needed to run a race team have sponsors having authority in more basic decisions the teams make, taking even more power away from the actual teams. Making things ‘equal’ by demanding universal mediocrity isn’t the way to get people excited.

Dans Mom
10/23/2009 07:12 AM

NASCAR: The one sport where dominance is taboo

Ghost of Curtis Turner
10/23/2009 07:57 AM

Well said!!!

10/23/2009 09:21 AM

So nascar put in the oh-so-exciting Auto Club Speedway in the chase…a california track well-suited to one california driver…and we wonder why the fans think nascar plays favorites?

And the testing ban only HELPS the big-money teams. Hello, McFly?!?

don mei
10/23/2009 10:16 AM

Good article; you put your finger on the essence of why the sport is heading downhill.

10/23/2009 10:28 AM

I wonder how many fans feel as I do…on the I watch or don’t I? And then we turn the race on…and then start channel surfing through the entire snooze fest. Now..I wonder..when they base the tv it on how many tv’s actually turned on the race and watched the entire thing? Or is it based on the race was turned on and despite the time spent channel surfing..and NOT watching the still counts as “a viewer” and amps up already dismal ratings? Does NASCAR even care..or at this point are they “taking the money and running” knowing the end is in sight for this “cash cow” unless they make a few changes to the racing?

10/23/2009 11:11 AM

Great article,Sad but oh so true!

Bill B
10/23/2009 11:18 AM

Actually the testing ban and lack of ability to adjust the COT has resulted in an arrested developement of the series. Teams are pretty much stuck where they were when testing was banned.

There are a lot of practical benefits to the COT and not allowing testing but if good racing isn’t one of them then what’s the point.

10/23/2009 11:47 AM

This from a 45 year Stock car fan, last Sunday morning a friend called me and told me who won the race on Sat. night, I forgot it was even on and would not have watched it if I had.Does this answer any questions about the state of Nascar!!!

Kevin in SoCal
10/23/2009 01:23 PM

Lydia, if you dont have a ratings box, then your viewership of a channel means nothing. Only those households that are picked to monitor their TV watching habits are the ones that are counted, and then the data is averaged to apply to everyone across the nation. Its sort of like taking a poll of 1000 people, and then saying the results are how the rest of the country feels. You can go to the Nielson ratings website to learn more.

10/23/2009 01:24 PM

Aside from the cars, parity itself is a big part of the reason why passing is more difficult. In the old days, if one car was .5 second a lap quicker than another, it wouldn’t have been too hard to make that pass. But today, no matter what types of cars they drive, it’s always going to be very difficult to pass the car in front of you if you’re going almost exactly the same speed.

Kevin in SoCal
10/23/2009 04:17 PM

NASCAR should have made the Chase to be 5 races with the top 5 drivers. That would require a lot more actual racing instead of points-stroking to make sure you’re one of the 5 drivers. Plus with only 5 races left, there is less of a chance of one driver running away with it.
Under the previous points system, by the time there were 5 races left, it was usually down to 2 or 3 drivers anyway.

10/23/2009 05:09 PM

Thanks for the info Kevin I know how it works..but is it based on just turning to the channel..or actually watching entire race? Big difference…If it’s based on just turning on the race..and then changing stations…the ratings are even worse then imagined.

Bruce Simmons (NBaP)
10/25/2009 12:22 PM

I don’t think The chase is ineffective, it only exemplifies how the first 26 races of the season went, barring odd ball circumstances.
Though it looks like an ace bandage is needed for all the knee jerking that NASCAR does to keep parity alive, (Anyone remember Calvin Ball?) it’s the nature of motor sports in general. The better, more inventive teams will keep the sanctioning bodies on their toes.
But is it me, or are there more cars on the lead laps these days than previous years? maybe parity is working to some degree.
Besides, if they just left well enough alone, rather can grumble about the application of parity, the fan population would be voicing their opinion about the lack of parity.
LOL, there was this one fellow that I saw on other blogs that felt that parity will never be achieved until every single car in the field leads a lap … in each race they’re in!
Some folk takes the premise of parity a bit too far. Seriously? Every car? I want some of what he’s taking!

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