Thomas Bowles · Sunday September 25, 2005
A quick look at the Top 10 in this year’s Chase for the Championship, and there’s no avoiding one of the biggest changes to hit NASCAR in the last ten years. As was the case in last year’s Chase, all of the drivers involved in the race for the points championship are from a multi-car team; in fact, five of them fall under the control of just one man, Jack Roush. Compare that with 1995, when six of the ten drivers in that year’s Top 10 were from a one-car operation. In this day and age of NASCAR, you need a two, perhaps even three or more cars to be consistently competitive in a sport in which the technology is far outracing the amount of personnel you can hire to work on just one car.
But as NASCAR deals with the growing consolidation and expansion of a handful of Nextel Cup teams, the consequences run deeper than just squeezing out longtime owners of just one car. With one car owner but several teams gunning for the top, the idea of team orders comes into play, and the result could be a growing problem that may run a whole lot deeper than occasional tempers flaring up after a wreck on the track.
Luckily, it appeared that on Sunday, team orders were avoided in the Rick Hendrick operation as Jimmie Johnson charged toward his 3rd win of the season ahead of Kyle Busch. The 20-year-old rookie gave Johnson everything he had on the two final restarts, nearly tapping Johnson’s rear bumper in the final lap while racing the 48 car to the checkered flag. Still, in Kyle’s post-race remarks he readily admitted his driving style does change slightly when it’s around a teammate, as he claimed he would never wreck that car or push it out of the way for the win, claiming “it was the wrong thing to do.” Again, not to say Kyle didn’t give 100% in those final laps on Sunday; but if Ford driver Greg Biffle was in front of Kyle instead of Jimmie Johnson, needless to say there would likely have been a lot more beating and banging coming to the checkered flag.
Beyond the simple race for the win, there were other small trends among the multi-car teams in the Chase on Sunday that appeared to be bad for the long-term health of the sport. Late in the race, the 97 car of Kurt Busch saw his Roush Racing teammate Mark Martin coming up behind him to challenge for the lead. Rather than put up a fight, Busch suddenly pulled over and let the 6 pull out front for a lap—- only to pass him back another lap later. Why the sudden pullout? Martin needed the extra 5 points for leading a lap in the race to get him as many points as possible for this year’s Chase for the Championship. However, instead of earning his way to the front, Martin simply benefitted from the fact that he had a teammate just ahead of him who could easily be “asked” to pull over and let the 6 car by for the lead.
Now imagine, if you will, if a one-car team like Mike Bliss happened to ever be lucky enough to make the Chase. What teammate would he have that was capable of pulling over and giving him the 5 bonus points he needed if Bliss was running in second place? How fair would it be for Bliss to be battling for a title against a Hendrick car that had not one, not two, but three cars protecting its position in the Chase, feeding it information and ensuring that the car not only led a lap, but finished higher than the other three teams no matter what. How could you compete? It’s almost like starting the championship Chase 50 points in the hole (5 points for leading a lap times 10 races), while acknowledging that each multi-car team you face will have the equivalent of 1, 2, 3, or more protector cars on the track doing everything possible to boost that car’s success. Not to mention that you’ll be faced with teams that have 10 tests over the final 10 races when you count all the tests the team owner has for the other Nextel Cup cars in his stable, as compared to the 7 tests you get if you’re the owner of a single-car team.
Still think team orders will never be a major problem? Flash back to the 2004 race leading up to the Chase, where Mike Wallace, driving a Ganassi-supported car and running in the Top 10, was basically ordered to slow down in order to keep from passing Jamie McMurray and ensure that driver’s spot in the Chase. Wallace refused, and so did car owner James Finch; needless to say, they lost their Ganassi support for 2005, but at least had the courage to respect the racing and not intentionally alter the final results.
Seems to me racing is about passing the guy in front of you and going as fast as you can, regardless of whether that car you’re trying to pass gets built 5 feet or 500 miles away from yours. With five cars from one team in the Top 10 for the first time in history, and more multi-car teams than there have ever been, such a motto needs to be respected more than ever before. When it’s not, then the sport begins to lose its legitimacy…let’s hope everyone pays attention to that as we head towards Homestead.
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