Dynasty (n.): A group that maintains power for a significant period of time.
In America’s major sports, that word used to cause a sellout automatically – just mention it and a certain team in the same sentence. The Yankees, Red Wings, Packers and Celtics have given their stick ‘n’ ball brethren records that may never be broken, earning millions of fans by stomping their competition as if they were fans disguised as professionals. But sometime around the 21st century, the word “dynasty” became about as archaic as a VHS machine. Now, “parity” is the DVD player installed on every street, with leagues bending over backwards with rules like salary caps, free agency and all sorts of changes meant to keep the lid on one team running roughshod over everything.
There’s just one sport seemingly bucking the trend these days… one where cars drive around in circles at a breakneck pace. For despite all its huffing and puffing about the Car of Tomorrow and its insistence on attracting new blood into the sport, NASCAR doesn’t aim to break the word “dynasty.”
It’s simply ruled by them.
Nowhere was that more evident than on Saturday night, when 50-year-old Mark Martin won his second race in the past month while crossing the finish line unchallenged at Darlington. Martin’s victory wasn’t easy, but the last 10 laps were a lot less stressful considering he already knew his teammate said he didn’t have “anything for him” over the radio. Yes, that was the ultimate points racer Jimmie Johnson talking, one of six Hendrick-affiliated cars to finish in the top-seven spots during the race. The sextet didn’t just tame the Lady In Black… they tamely came across in a single-file parade that signified their organization’s dominance of the 2009 season to date.
A quick look at the stat sheet backs up that claim. One of four “dynasties” that combined to send three teams apiece to the Chase last year – Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing are the others – that number in ’09 is set to be wildly out of balance. Five Hendrick-affiliated teams sit inside the top 12, compared to 3, 1 and 1 for the other members of the Big Four. Three of those Hendrick “cars” are sitting fourth or better, with Jeff Gordon out in front ahead of Stewart-Haas’s Tony Stewart and Johnson. The organization (including Stewart-Haas’s numbers) also leads the series in wins (four), top fives (24), top 10s (38) and laps led (1,213). They boast the best old guy (Martin), the defending champ (Johnson), the winningest active driver (Gordon), and heck, even the best rookie we’ve seen this season under contract (Brad Keselowski, who won at Talladega in, you guessed it, a car that was former Hendrick equipment).
If that’s not dominance within a series, I don’t know what is. And for a team that’s won more races and championships than anyone else this decade, Saturday was another example of how the ball’s been bouncing their way. Yes, there were other contenders throughout Darlington’s 500-miler. Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch were just some of the other possible winners outside of HMS that could have broken through – if they didn’t die from their own self-inflicted wounds first. But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, and it’s very clear that when it comes to success stories in 2009, Hendrick seems to be holding most if not all the ammunition.
“You look at the depth on the teams, the drivers, I think that explains a lot,” said Johnson after the race. “We’re all very proud of what our equipment has done.”
Of course, “our” equipment now includes Stewart-Haas, the exciting if not ominous success story of 2009. For despite all of Stewart’s surprising success as an owner, only the foolish of fools thinks he’s acting alone. Driving Hendrick-supported chassis with engines and equipment equal to his counterparts at HMS, the free-flowing information is such that you might as well call SHR the team Hendrick gets to build now that a four-team limit – imposed in 2010 – will keep them from getting bigger in-house.
Of course, the “B” team concept is nothing new in a world where dynasties rule the day. Jack Roush – the Hatfield to Hendrick’s McCoy – has spent years developing “B” teams like Yates Racing that were separate in name only, given equipment and technical support from his team but unable to translate it into on-track success. Hendrick had itself a similar scenario with Haas CNC Racing – until Chevrolet plucked Stewart away from Toyota with an ownership role and a price tag that ruled out failure as a potential option.
“It’s a great help,” said Johnson, admitting the benefits a second Hendrick-affiliated team has for their program. “For a lot of years Haas has been there, has been a part of Hendrick Motorsports, helping us in a variety of ways, working together. And now to have Tony and Ryan [Newman] and the depth that they have in their race team, it’s really great.”
“The information flows different directions… it’s cool to be in a teammate situation [with them],” he added, before catching himself in front of the cameras. “Granted, we’re not teammates. But to actually talk about racecars, be a little more in depth with Ryan and Tony….”
As mentioned above, Hendrick’s doing nothing wrong, really, with their affiliation with Stewart-Haas… it’s the success that’s making an impact. Assuming Dale Earnhardt Jr. can somehow get his act together (Side note: Hendrick even has the storyline of the year’s biggest disappointment. Talk about dominating every aspect of your sport!) there’s a possibility of six affiliated cars in the Chase, setting a new record in an era where the Car of Tomorrow was supposed to produce the “parity” spoken about in the other major sports NASCAR is so fond of emulating lately.
Well, so much for that. Now, with six cars in control, you’ve got that many more opportunities for a Johnson – Martin scenario to unfold in the final laps of Saturday night’s race. And while we all commend Johnson for saving his racecar and coming home with the best finish possible, what message does a last-minute radio transmission of backing off send other than, “Turn off the television, we’re set for the night!” While truthful, that’s not exactly the last-lap dramatics NASCAR’s hoping to convey through good, clean competition. Yes, you can blame the point system to a certain extent… but when the trophy goes to the same shop, isn’t keeping both cars in one piece the epitomy of perfect teamwork? You’d like to hope Johnson might be a little more aggressive with a Roush rival in front of him.
Regardless, the Stewart-Haas/Hendrick connection is what appears to give us a reason to be concerned. In a sport where copycats are the rule, not the exception, Hendrick – ever the successful innovator – has now created a virtual model for success that goes beyond the four cars they have in-house. Trust me, the other Big Four members are taking notes… for the quicker they have eight “teams” to keep up, the better positioned they can be to contend against the Hendrick juggernaut.
The question now, though, in the wake of Hendrick’s overwhelming success is whether they’re a “dynasty” that’s capable of being slowed down to the point other teams and owners could join the battlefield. In the past, one driver could make a difference and bring a team from the depths of despair to the cusp of championship contention. A man named Earnhardt once did that to a small outfit owned by Richard Childress, just as a man named Ernie Irvan saved Yates Racing in the difficult time after Davey Allison’s death. But can one driver, one team fight a six-car or seven-car behemoth that only has room to grow? Are these “dynasties” on the verge of becoming unstoppable?
In the past, that would only be marked as a good thing. But now, “parity” is the name of the game… and fans are responding accordingly. The sport that keeps growing, the NFL, is one that’s had over half its teams make the playoffs in the last three years.
What will happen to the sport who has the same teams always winning its titles? What will happen if it’s four owners supplying equipment to the equivalent of 32 cars under their umbrella? The rich can only get richer under that scenario, while the poor… well, “dynasty” never really had much of a place for them.
“We hope it stays that way,” said Johnson when asked about the organization’s early season success.
I’m not sure everyone is on board with that.
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