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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Are NASCAR’s Cost Cuts Helping or Just Another Smokescreen?

NASCAR recently announced that the sanctioning body would now conduct postrace engine teardowns at their Concord facility, the latest in a series of measures designed to cut costs. I’m not really sure how this one saves teams any money, unless NASCAR is planning on delivering the inspected engines to the teams they were taken from. It might save teams and officials a little time at the track, but the cost savings can’t be much. NASCAR has implemented several rules designed to cut costs, from banning testing at sanctioned tracks to the current car itself.

But do any of them really work?

NASCAR tinkered with cost cutting a few years back when the one-engine rule first rolled around. Instead of separate engines for qualifying and practice, teams now run a single engine all weekend with a starting position penalty for changing one. In theory, it has probably saved teams money, most notably those who use leased engines. But if the powers that be hoped for a leveling of the playing field, they failed – as they did with the Car of Tomorrow. The teams who had money were able to redirect it into finding more ways to outrun the competition, and the ones who didn’t, well, they still didn’t have the money to truly improve. If anything, having to build a fleet of new cars – albeit ones that could be raced at a variety of tracks – put further strain on them.

This year’s test ban shows much of the same results. The teams with more resources are simply channeling the money into other areas to overcome the lack of testing, while the rest… still don’t have the money.

On the surface, it seems like a simple matter – money buys wins, wins buy points and points buy championships. The owner points standings back the theory up. While there are a few surprises near the top, there aren’t any really small teams in the top dozen. David Reutimann and Michael Waltrip racing are surprising in that they have had little success before this year, they aren’t exactly strapped for cash, with Toyota backing and well-to-do sponsors. The same goes for Kasey Kahne, whose team has more sponsorship dollars than teammate AJ Allmendinger’s. Allmendinger’s team, with limited sponsorship and probably limited in-house resources compared to Kahne’s, is overachieving because the driver is carrying the team. Even Juan Pablo Montoya’s standing isn’t exactly a rags-to-riches tale… Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has Target to pay his bills.

The highest truly smaller team in the standings is the No. 96 of Bobby Labonte in 26th, and the lowest of the really wealthy teams is the No. 20 of Joey Logano in 35th, and Logano is a very raw rookie. That in itself is telling – the haves do have the occasional dud – Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Earnhardt Ganassi have cars in 22nd, 23rd and 24th respectively, but the have-nots have little, if any presence in rarified air, with perhaps Allmendinger as the lone exception.

It’s more complicated than simply having the money for more and better equipment. The big teams have the luxury of being choosier with personnel. Not only can they hire the most talented pit crew members away form smaller teams with larger salaries, but they attract – and keep – the best engineers, crew chiefs and drivers. It isn’t only about the salaries, of course. Drivers want to drive for winning teams, and rarely leave them once there. So it becomes a vicious cycle, the richest teams buy better cars, attract better divers and crews and win more, thereby attracting more top drivers and crewmen, and so on, while the others struggle to keep up in a NASCAR where it’s no longer about simply building a fast car and putting a fearless driver behind the wheel.

And so far, NASCAR hasn’t found a way to curb the problem. In the Sprint Cup Series, it becomes more difficult with each passing year for an underdog team to win a race, let alone make the Chase or contend for the title. That’s too bad, because everyone loves an underdog.

The bottom line is, NASCAR’s cost cutting measures have cut costs, but the problem lies in the fact that the big teams are just able to funnel that money saved elsewhere, while the small teams just cover costs more easily. In the end, the competition suffers, because the parity NASCAR was aiming for never quite materializes, and the racing itself begins to suffer on the heels of test bans and crew reductions.

Parity in today’s NASCAR is a problem with a thousand failed solutions, with a real solution no closer than it was a decade ago, and all the while the gap grows wider. It’s time for NASCAR to stop kidding themselves and institute real measures to bring parity, or to let the survival of the fittest claim the teams who can’t keep up. Any way you slice it, it isn’t about simple speed anymore, nor even talent – it’s about the money, because money buys both speed and talent. Desire and hunger might buy hard work, but they don’t pay the piper.