The Frontstretch: Want To Stop Hendrick? Here's Five Ways To Do It by Thomas Bowles -- Monday November 16, 2009

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Want To Stop Hendrick? Here's Five Ways To Do It

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday November 16, 2009


In his 25th year in Sprint Cup, Rick Hendrick hasn’t just reached the peak of his sport … he’s carving a new mountain upon which all others must climb. With just one week left in 2009, his driver Jimmie Johnson stands poised to win a fourth straight title, with team cars Mark Martin second and Jeff Gordon third in points in what’s poised to be the first 1-2-3 finish by a car owner in NASCAR history. It’s a run of dominance the likes of which the sport hasn’t seen in the modern era, perhaps ever.

And here’s the scary part (or thrilling, depending on which side of the fence you’re on) — it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.

Johnson, Martin, and Gordon are signed to long-term deals that will keep them in the fold until they retire. Behind them, not only has the Stewart-Haas “B” team composed of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman been successful, both Chase-making drivers have solid sponsorship and the team holds two open slots for more drivers (Kevin Harvick? Danica Patrick?) to enter the powerhouse down the line. The NASCAR equivalent of auto racing’s New York Yankees, Hendrick shows no signs of holding anything in his poker hand other than the ultimate royal flush.

There’s just one problem with this competitive machine of dominance on and off the
track: the rest of the sport has failed to cash in. Ratings, at-track attendance, and enthusiasm have waned against the yearly yawn-inducer the Chase has become – a parade to showcase one team’s inevitable success.

So while credit should be given where credit’s due – Hendrick’s simply worked the system better than anyone else – the worries remain about how their philosophies and personnel, if left unchecked, could hurt the long-term health of the sport. At the very least, Homestead and the rest of the offseason becomes a mind-boggling question for the rest of the Sprint Cup garage: How can they ever be stopped?

Well, I think I’ve found some answers — and I guarantee you plenty of people are going to find them crazy. That’s fine, because some of it’s tongue-in-cheek and I know the chances of them being adopted are slim to none. But without any type of restrictions in place, one wonders if there’s any way we can step back from the power of a select few and diversify the NASCAR landscape – a formula that led to the sport’s unprecedented growth until a few short years ago. No one else is coming up with solutions these days, so I figure going radical is a whole lot better than simply saying nothing at all.

Step #1: Add adjustability back into these race cars.

One area in which Hendrick reigns superior over all its rivals is engineering. With the testing ban making it difficult to perfect the handling on the new car, computer simulations combined with precision chassis work have become just as important as a test at Rockingham or New Smyrna that may or may not relate to the handling of a car at, say, Texas Motor Speedway. That allows the Hendrick cars to hit the track at the top of their game at Friday practice, already in position to have a strong run a full 48 hours before the race even starts.

That’s a problem for the rest of the competition. Because for all the “parity” the new car is supposed to achieve, one of the top complaints from drivers and crew chiefs is a painful inability to adjust on the fly. If you start the weekend out to lunch, forget it; it’s just difficult, if not impossible, to get the car headed back in the right direction to contend. Taking the power away from the at-track mechanics, the CoT leaves it in the hands of wind tunnel experts, computer and engineering geniuses — but are they the ones supposed to be the face of the sport? When men like Jimmy Fennig and Doug Richert become aliens to a car they once dominated the sport with, when a race team hires a former engineer from Formula 1 to run their program — you know there’s been a titanic shift towards technology over mechanical innovation and intuition.

So in order to allow for other teams to catch up at the race track, there needs to be greater adjustability for the cars on-site, putting more control back in the driver and crew chief’s hands. Don’t mandate so many parts and pieces, and give mechanics leeway to do what they do best — come up with ways to make a car go fast. IROC cars lead to limited improvements, a lack of innovation that keeps the best-funded cars in the best position to succeed week in, week out — and Hendrick’s posse of perfect personnel on top.

Adding Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart to their information sharing pool this year has certainly helped Hendrick get a leg up on its closest competition in 2009.

Step #2: Truly enforce the four-team limit.

At the end of this season, NASCAR will require each car owner to cut down to a maximum of four teams he can “own” according to the records down in Daytona Beach. But in an era of consolidation, expansion is the name of the game instead with the sport’s country club elite. This year, Hendrick benefited from their chassis and engine support agreement with Stewart-Haas, leading to extensive information sharing amongst both teams. Roush Fenway actually one-upped HMS, with a total of seven cars under their umbrella when you include the two-car team at Yates; but with their “B” team struggling to achieve maximum funding, it was the HMS cars who stole the show.

Can you imagine a Robby Gordon or even a Team Red Bull competing against this onslaught of data? The fact TRB made the Chase was a true miracle in itself. Sure, the argument can be made that individual personnel can inevitably make a difference; if the No. 83 pulls off the fastest pit stop, what does it matter that Chad Knaus had five crew chiefs helping him over the course of the weekend? But the more information you have, the better chance you have at success, as we’ve learned all too well these last few years. There’s a reason why Hendrick’s “teamwork” motto gives them a leg up on a sport that’s supposed to be based on the results of individual cars. It’s legal under the rules, but it leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth – after all, it’s one car, not four, that gets credit for the victory in the end.

But breaking apart the multi-car giants are easier said than done. With the teams owned by private contractors, can the sport control what really happens behind the scenes? In baseball, franchising leads to parity, as small-market teams can get the Yankee owners, the Steinbrenners, to make changes for the good of the league. But in NASCAR, that power ceases to exist … a misstep that could inevitably lead to its downfall.

Step #3: Restrict team sponsorship.

Speaking of finances, one way in which Hendrick gets a leg up on the competition is money. Just look at the deals for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. alone, with PepsiCo’s AMP Energy combining with second sponsor National Guard to give them more money than most two-car teams have to work with combined. Other cars benefit from a host of associate sponsor deals that allow them to be primaries for just a handful of races, adding on an extra $5 – $10 million other teams simply do not have. That can be used for anything from extra wind tunnel time to an extra engineering/simulation department – especially critical in an era when testing at NASCAR-sanctioned tracks is banned for a new car nobody has a handle on.

As for the smaller teams fighting Hendrick, forget an engineering department – they’re just struggling to find enough money to go to the track these days. But there’s a way to funnel back some cash without instituting a salary cap … or even franchising. NASCAR, the all-powerful czar it is, simply has to make a rule that any car on the starting grid cannot market more than one company on a car over the course of a season. You can have all the special paint schemes you want … as long as it’s for just one product. Not four, not five, not six: one. Maybe we can still allow all the small stickers on the front side of the car, the ones for the official Beer of NASCAR, Coffee of NASCAR, Diaper of NASCAR … whatever. But no more of these patchwork deals where five companies give a multi-car giant $10 million apiece for five races instead of doing a full-time deal with a smaller, top 25 team for $6 million.

“How can you do that?” you’re saying. “So many people would lose their jobs!” And you’re right; reducing the funding for a superteam like Hendrick by half would result in more, massive layoffs. But sometimes, you need short-term pain for long-term gain. Making the sport cheaper allows for more owners to get involved, leading to new, startup operations where those with pink slips can eventually be reemployed. And while some sponsors would simply leave the sport, others would actually go sign with organizations they wouldn’t otherwise give a second look.

It’s a radical change, but one that might be needed in a sport where to the victor go the spoils … and there’s nothing left for anybody else.

Step #4 – Find Someone To “Rattle Their Cage.”

For those newer fans, that’s the words Dale Earnhardt used to describe his blatant spinout of Terry Labonte, a signature move that won him the 1999 Night race at Bristol. But since the Intimidator left us, there’s no one out there willing to follow in his footsteps.

At the beginning of the Chase, we heard from Denny Hamlin how Kyle Busch had a lot of scores to settle. Oh really? Seems like Kyle’s been wrecked far more often than he’s dared try to wreck anyone else. Even Juan Pablo Montoya, considered the most aggressive driver in the Chase, has been relatively tame during a playoff that’s turned into a Hendrick coronation.

Instead, what we see nowadays is 31 guys walking on eggshells around 12 “would be” champions who try desperately to stay out of each other’s way. Now, I’m not saying someone should slam into Jimmie Johnson in the last lap of a restrictor plate race and cause a 20-car wreck. But what if Montoya gave Johnson a little love tap at Martinsville to send a message he means business? It’s not like the three-time champ doesn’t dish it out every once in awhile (witness his April tangle with Denny Hamlin at Martinsville as the latest example).

The name of the game at Hendrick is that everyone works together, plays nice, and tries not to get their hands dirty unless they absolutely have to. In order to shake things up, you’re going to have to take them out of their element, issue a different type of challenge they haven’t seen. I always think back to a certain Richmond race in early 1986, when Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip were fighting for the win. Earnhardt, in a blatant maneuver, took out both he and Waltrip’s car in what led to a devastating crash. Clearly shaken by the incident, Waltrip cried both foul and dirty – but NASCAR didn’t suspend the Intimidator, and suddenly the man had gotten to his rival’s head. Earnhardt went on that year to win the second of what would be seven championships … while Waltrip never won another.

Can the same thing happen over at Hendrick? Who knows if someone doesn’t try …

Step #5: Break up Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.

The Johnson-Knaus pairing is quickly rivaling Gordon-Evernham as the best in the modern era, with more wins (47) and championships (soon to be four) than anyone else. They have one of the best relationships in the Cup garage … but don’t all good things come to an end at some point?

Let’s not forget, just a few short years ago Knaus went public about his struggles to get a contract extension over at Hendrick. Hurt feelings were quickly patched up and a deal was struck, but it’s not for a lifetime; in fact, it’s only through 2010. And how many times this decade have we seen a driver like Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, etc. tire of their current situation and opt out of a place they could have easily stayed forever?
Someone, somewhere is going to make a move on Knaus. The only question is whether it’ll be the right price, the right opportunity, and the right time to do it.

So, there you have it … five ways to stop racing’s version of the Yankees. But for those looking for this reign of superiority to end … know that might not be enough. After all, guess who won the World Series over in baseball this year?

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Bill B
11/16/2009 07:52 AM

I think that first point – “lack of adjustability” – also factors in to why the races are so boring. What I miss is seeing someone that wasn’t running that well at the start become better by the end. It still happens but not like it did in the past. As you stated, too many weekends you can kind of see how cars are going to finish on Sunday by how they run in practice.

11/16/2009 08:18 AM

Tom , adjustability isn’t going to solve any problem . The COT was designed for no adjustability . Therefore it would have to be completley re-designed if ajustability were allowed .
Once you’ve learned a little more about NASCAR , you’ll understand that limiting the number of teams that one organization has is virtually impossible . For instance , Toyota supplys teams with engines . The Yates Roush group also does . Would the teams who receive those engines be considered B teams ? Where would the money come from for those teams to start their own engine programs ?
Resticting sponsorship is already in the works . Its called the economy . Sponsors are bailing everyday . And the idiotic Chase , the Lucky Dog , the COT , the constant rules manipulations , the sagging tv ratings , and the increasingly empty grandstands are regulating sponsorship very effectivly .
The fact that Johnson is about to win a fourth consecutive Chase title ( not to be confused with a real NASCAR championship like Richard , Dale , and Cale won ) doesn’t mean that anything has to be changed . It means that EVERYTHING has to be changed .
The fans dislike of Johnson/Knaus/Hendrick , the hatred of the format , the hatred of the tv coverage , the hatred of France/Darby/Helton , the hatred of the rules package , the hatred of the race schedule , the venues , the ticket prices , the overblown hype , the phony caution flags , the overlooking of certain teams cheating . I’d say theres a lot more to address than just Tom Bowles fluff column about his favorite team .

11/16/2009 08:43 AM

Ditto on the meaningless Chase trophy . Nobody cares if Johnson wins 4 championships in a row . Mostly because nobody cares about Johnson or Hendrick . Also because nobody cares about this dumb Chase idea .
Instead of running on and on about one driver and one team , try being a leader instead of a follower . Direct attention away from Johnson and Hendrick , direct attention to all of the many interesting , important , and very much overlooked aspects of the sport .
By wasting so much ink on a driver who isn’t very popular along with a contrived championship that no one takes seriously , make it your journalistic quest to save the sport of Nascar from the hoard of writers
who are driving the sport into the ground by hero worship of everything Hendrick .

Carl D.
11/16/2009 09:32 AM

The only way to achieve parity is to limit the money that can be spent per team. Unfortunately, there’s no way to police that, especially when you consider that Hendrick has a criminal history and Brian France in his pocket. Folks, get used to the Rick Hendrick show for the forseeable future. Or do like me and quit watching.

John Potts
11/16/2009 10:48 AM

All good solutions, Tom, but they have about as much chance of happening as the suggestion to use stock bodies. NASCAR will only react when they start losing money and/or popularity (i.e. the chicken or the egg).

Don Mei
11/16/2009 11:02 AM

Some good points but unfortunately the kinds of restrictions you espouse in some instances would constitute illegal restraint of trade. I think philosophically the objective should be to get the other teams up to the Hendricks level rather than tearing them down. Formula One went through this during the Schumacher era when Ferrari was winning everything. What finally changed that was a combination of annual rule changes by the governing body and the other teams raisng their game to Ferrari’s level. Thats very hard to do, as you said, within the confines of a spec car like the COT (POS).

Bad Wolf
11/16/2009 12:49 PM

Stock sheetmetal, bias plies, stock production blocks and as much stock production parts that can safely go into the car. If speeds go down to 150mph or under so much the better, no more plates and the racing is once again safer on the speedways made for these speeds.

Maybe we could once again get to the point of pushing the drive trains to the ragged edge and wait with baited breath for the leaders engine to go up in a cloud of smoke. The fans could again base their choice of car by the performance on the track, and know that it does translate into what they can get on the showroom floor.

If we go back to the future the sport can once again regain it’s former glory.

11/16/2009 01:19 PM

Let the track promoters play around with the rules a little bit. Wouldn’t more people watch the beginning of the race if Johnson has to start shotgun on the field? How about if the defending champion were to have an extra two or three hundred pounds of weight in the car? Knaus and Co. are still plenty good enough to win a few races like that, but they might not run away from the field as easily, and if they could pull off wins with the deck stacked against them, more fans would respect their accomplishments. I know I would.

John C.
11/16/2009 01:28 PM

I think Carl D is right on…those drooling over hendricks sucess ignore his past and Brian is just following the footsteps of his Father and Grandfather of favoring the Chevy boys.

11/16/2009 03:06 PM

The Intimidator/T. Labonte spinout was a low point in racing IMO. I can live with a nudge/get them loose and they leader winds up top 5 but that just trashed TL’s whole race.

It’s pretty obvious the 48 team has found something legal enough to play with and still stay within the rules. It’s up to the other teams to figure it out and compete with them.

Why stop at four car teams? Two car teams would essentially put the teams equal and possibly promote more owner-driver situations. It will keep the manufactureres from favoring one team to the exclusion of others (once they/we bail themselves out of their day jobs).

Break up JJ/CK? How would that ever happen until one gets bored? After watching Evernham’s star self-destruct, do you really think CK is dumb enough to head down that path?

11/16/2009 03:31 PM

It is up to the teams to bet Hendrick.I think with Petty going to ford will help Roush with more data or better date Petty has some good people and Kane’s a good driver so his feedback will help. Rcr cutting back to 3 teams should get them going the right way next year so it may not be HMS run away next I hope.And hopefully na$car will make so management at the top.Maybe brain will meet a cop he can’t buy next time.A lot of hope I just wrote hmm maybe not not let’s just 2010 title to Jimmy now and have some real racing next year winner take all the $$$$ everyone gets enough to pay the tire bill

The Turnip!
11/16/2009 04:13 PM

“Want to stop Hendrick”?

“Way #6”!

I know how to bring the Hendrick team to it’s knees!

have him sign more drivers like Jr.!

Only then will the other teams have a chance!

11/16/2009 07:13 PM

“The fans dislike of Johnson/Knaus/Hendrick , the hatred of the format , the hatred of the tv coverage , the hatred of France/Darby/Helton , the hatred of the rules package , the hatred of the race schedule , the venues , the ticket prices , the overblown hype , the phony caution flags , the overlooking of certain teams cheating .”

Well said Ryan. You just summed why I went from someone who didn’t miss a practice to someone who absolutely could care less about NASCAR. It completely amazes how a sport can be ran into the ground since the 2001 Daytona 500.

11/16/2009 07:25 PM

Oil Causes This Week’s Earnhardt Woes
November 16th, 2009
(By Sarah Farlee, Senior Staff Writer) “We had an oil leak before the restart,” said Earnhardt, Jr. from the seat of his car behind pit wall. “We had oil on the side of the car and I spun out in the oil.”
“I hate it for everybody that got caught up in that, it was a big mess,” Earnhardt added. “We have something broke on the motor and we can’t find it. It’s been leaking the whole race.”
Why was Jr. put & left on the track with this dangerous situation?
It is time Hendrick let Jr. go, show us what a fair-minded & wonderful man he is, like JJ says. RH said that Brad K. wasn’t out of reach. Good! Bring him back and let Jr. go! RH could be using some of the money Jr. is bringing into HMS and hire a top tier crew chief for him. Since he hasn’t I can only guess that he doesn’t want Jr. running up front. Marybeth

11/16/2009 07:36 PM


11/16/2009 08:09 PM

Mark, do you print these articles out? How could an internet column be a waste of ink?

11/16/2009 09:12 PM

Oh you were so close…

Other cars benefit from a host of associate sponsor deals that allow them to be primaries for just a handful of races, adding on an extra $5 – $10 million other teams simply do not have. That can be used for anything from extra wind tunnel time to an extra engineering/simulation department – especially critical in an era when testing at NASCAR-sanctioned tracks is banned for a new car nobody has a handle on.

No one has touched the story of Windshear Inc. It’s the most advanced wind tunnel in the entire United States and it’s located in Concord NC and it’s a subsideiary of HAAS Automation which has a “technical alliance” with HMS.

That 5 to 10 million isn’t the difference when you OWN the machine. And windshear was paid in full before ground was ever broke.

The no testing rule while great in concept for saving money was an absolute boon for HMS and SHR racing.

Until teams can have realistic testing back on the circut tracks they’ll be no stopping the likes of HMS or SHR.

Bad Wolf
11/16/2009 11:57 PM

Just for the record, Gene Haas is also a felon. He was convicted of tax evasion and was sent for a stint in the federal penal system.

I’ve ran Haas CNC bedmills and they are a fine user friendly machine, for the most part made in the USA, but Gene Haas is a felon. I wonder if he and Rick go out for beers much.

11/17/2009 02:36 PM

Jeff Gordon, 6 time NASCAR champ combined total points. (Get rid of the Chase)


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