NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: What Should Be Done About Multi-Car Teams?

In Kansas this last weekend, the top-five finishing cars drove for Roush Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. Those two teams also produced three more drivers in the top 15, for a total of eight drivers from two teams. Of the remaining seven, five were from Richard Childress and Red Bull.

One week before at Dover, the top three drivers all drove for Roush. Three of the top 10 drove for Childress. Three of the top 15 drove for Hendrick.

Note one other thing: in both races, all of the top-15 cars finished on the lead lap. By comparison, 20 years ago in the Dover fall race in 1988 – remember, this is a 1-mile, relatively short track – only the top-five finishers were on the lead lap.

When some of us are critical of current day NASCAR and nostalgic for the way things once were, sometimes we are rebuked by folks who remind us that back in the ’70s and ’80s, winners often won by more than one lap. They have a point. Let me go on record saying that the prominence of multi-car operations in NASCAR today isn’t one of the things with which I have a beef.

The furor over the dominance of multi-car teams reached its peak in 2005, when half of the Chase field consisted of Jack Roush’s machines. Especially in a season where the immensely popular Dale Earnhardt Jr., driving for a much smaller operation, failed to make the Chase, it seemed unfair to many fans that two powerhouses with twice the ability to practice, test and learn seemed to dominate the circuit. And so, responding to these complaints, NASCAR announced they would be knocking down the multi-car operations, starting with Jack Roush.

Roush’s five teams had a huge advantage in 2005, but what is less recognized is NASCAR’s own role in handing them that edge. Before the start of the 2005 season, NASCAR, in their never-ending effort to induce more side-by-side, competitive racing, mandated a lower spoiler height on the car. That same year, the impound rule was implemented, eliminating the two practices following qualifying at most tracks. Both moves were intended to help smaller teams have a chance, but the combination of the two backfired.

The lower spoiler height had the biggest impact on the 1.5-2-mile speedways where the aero setup is critical. Because teams did not have the extra practices to get the setup right – and two practices every week is a lot of opportunities – the advantage fell to the teams who were able to test more during the week and collect more information. As a result, Roush Racing dominated on the intermediate tracks, winning eight of 14 races. Greg Biffle had the year of his life, winning six races, four of them at the intermediates. He finished second in points that season after never having finished higher than 17th. He has not finished better than 10th since, although he may this year.

Jack Roush rightly complained that the subsequent rule change to limit the number of cars on a team was directed at him. NASCAR insisted it was not, but that insistence was difficult to defend when Roush was initially the only team affected by the rule change. One couldn’t blame Roush for gaining an advantage from a new set of rules in 2005 – an advantage, by the way, that was mostly gone just one year later. Roush placed just two drivers in the Chase in 2006… and Earnhardt made it driving for a team that had caught up on setups.

It is difficult to see smaller operations struggling and sometimes closing their doors, especially the teams that have a rich tradition. Few NASCAR fans, especially the core fans, aren’t rooting for Petty Enterprises to be winning races and challenging for titles again.

But that is not for NASCAR to legislate. NASCAR’s goals with the current car – safety, lowered costs, uniform design, improved racing – may have been noble in nature whether they have achieved those goals or not. To look at the results, it hasn’t helped the smaller teams very much. So what can NASCAR do?

A better question is why do they need to do anything. Because of the proliferation of multi-car teams, we have seen an increase in race winners every season, which, if I’m not mistaken, is something NASCAR can point to in their efforts to provide “parity” to the sport.

In 1975, long before Rick Hendrick’s experiment, eight drivers won races in a 30-race schedule. Two of them – Dave Marcis and Benny Parsons – won only one race. Darrell Waltrip won just two. Granted, that was a dominant season for Richard Petty, but in 1976, there were also only eight race winners, and in 1977, there were seven. In 1997, there were 11 different race winners, even with Jeff Gordon taking the checkered flag 10 times in 32 events. In 2003, the year whose championship outcome NASCAR decided was no longer acceptable, there were 17 winners. Nine teams won races in 2003… more than the total number of drivers that won in most seasons in the 1970s. In 2007, a year in which Jimmie Johnson won 10 races, Gordon won six and HMS won half of the events on the circuit, there were still 16 different race winners.

More drivers winning equals more drivers’ fans being happy and continuing to watch, and more drivers for new fans to root for. This has helped to grow the sport immensely. The biggest factor in making races more competitive with more potential winners, more than any custom-car legislation from NASCAR, has been the rise to prominence of multi-car teams. For that we have Rick Hendrick to thank, like him or not. He wasn’t the first to try it, but he was the first to make it work. That is how a sport evolves. It’s like the premium that became attached to relief pitching.

It’s a misguided idea for NASCAR to limit the number of cars an owner is allowed to run on the racetrack, however good their intentions. Suppose we get down to that level of three per team as NASCAR has promised. Who will replace the extra Hendrick and Roush cars? Will Morgan-McClure return? Or PPI? Doubtful. What is more likely is that the big guys will run the increasingly popular “satellite” operations, giving engines and chassis to a “different” team. And not only won’t the essential problem have been solved, but the quality of the racing will suffer. Satellite teams generally don’t keep up with the big boys.

The new car design may have helped bring the cars in the field closer together, and we can laud or dispute the merits of that. I still think the new car is an eyesore. But the best teams are still the best teams, and the only real way to make them all completely equal is to put restrictor plates in the cars at every race, IROC style. You can imagine what that will make NASCAR look like. And even then, the best aero package will win, not the best driver.

Multi-car teams may have put a hurting on Petty Enterprises, the Wood Brothers and Bill Davis, which is lamentable, but they have also put many more competitive cars on the track, which overall is worth the trade-off. The sport gains more fans and bigger purses for all. Without having a real solution yet, maybe the sport should leave it be for now.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Wow, I never thought the idea of Paul Menard leaving DEI would send a ripple of racing news waves proclaiming it to be the organization’s death knell, including from some at my own stomping ground. I know Menard carries a sponsor with him and all, but come on people, the guy’s had one top 10 in 68 Cup starts. Any CEO of a potential sponsor probably has a relative who could match that.
  • The idea of Rusty Wallace possibly driving a DEI car, even if it turned out to be BS, was of course too juicy for anyone to ignore. My only question was: who would Brad Dougherty argue with in the studio without Rusty there?
  • It’s impossible to pick a favorite at a restrictor-plate track, especially the way the new car has affected things starting last year. I haven’t seen too many races as weird as the one we saw this spring, with two cars hooking up and zooming to the front every three laps or so. It’s going to be a while before they get the car right here. Until then, no predictions. Except a big wreck maybe.
  • Everything that could have been said about Paul Newman has pretty much been said this week, so the only thing I’ll add is that I thought The Color of Money was a great, underrated movie, and it was great entirely because of Newman. Oh, and my mom loved him. Had a picture of him smoking a cigar over her washer and dryer for years. So long, Eddie.

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