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Happy Hour: NASCAR’s Attempts to Legislate Parity Backfire

Imagine a chess league with 10 players. Player 1 excels at all facets of the game and wins many of the titles. Player 2 is very good, and is so good with his knights that he occasionally defeats Player 1. Players 3 through 5 have similar specialties with bishops or rooks, but are merely very good at the rest of the game, and so do not often surpass Player 1. Players 6 through 10 rarely have an impact.

The league decides to shorten the season, so that it is not decided before the last match with Players 1 or 2 running away. But because Player 1 excels, he still wins important matches and in fact now has to win fewer of them. Similarly for Player 2, who now only has to beat Player 1 in one key match rather than in three or four. So Player 2 wins a couple of titles.

Because Player 2 now seems to have an unfair edge, the league decides to take away his knight advantage by allowing knights to only move forward. This severely hurts his chances at defeating Player 1, and now he struggles to win against lesser players who were not so skilled with their knights.

Then the league tries to help lesser players get better by removing four of the pawns from the board and one each of the bishops, knights, and rooks, which in theory takes away weapons from stronger players. Now the advantages of Players 3 through 5 have been reduced, and Player 2’s knight advantage has been lessened even further. But they are still better than Players 6 through 10, who are still merely average at most areas of the game. And Player 1 has lost none of his edge.

So the result of the league’s numerous attempts to give all the players a chance to win, regardless of ability, is that now Player 1 completely dominates, any chance that Players 2-5 had to challenge him has been severely diminished, and the weakest players remain weak and have fewer opportunities to improve their game.

Meanwhile, longtime fans of this league cannot believe how much an established contest has been perverted in the name of making it more exciting. They grow disenchanted in large numbers at the lack of respect for the tradition and endless meddling, and at Player 1’s perpetually unchallenged superiority.

I think you get the picture. It’s long been a contention of this writer that NASCAR legislates parity too much. The cars are equal and strictly enforced to be so, team ownership is now limited, questionable cautions get thrown when the field spreads out, the points system resets after 26 races, and testing has been banned.

And still one team and one driver are running away with it.

In 2003, Matt Kenseth stunk up the show, if you consider winning a title with remarkable consistency to be an olfactory transgression. So the Chase was implemented in 2004, with the idea that fans would love the idea of bunching 10 (and later 12) drivers together with 10 races to go, preventing anyone from riding a large lead to the championship.

But the sanctioning body didn’t seem to realize that a big lead can be built up in six or seven races, too… especially if, as Denny Hamlin noted after his DNF in Charlotte, most of the top-12 teams falter to inevitable bad luck. One messy restart has effectively demolished what little chance Juan Pablo Montoya had to win it.

Johnson and the No. 48 team have so mastered the format that the Chase is looking more ineffective in its intention than it ever has. Last year Johnson’s lead was so large by Miami that he needed to finish just 37th to win it all. In most every season of the Chase so far, one team has built a large enough lead that the last race is usually just a formality.

In 2005, NASCAR made two parity-motivated rule changes. The second round of practices was eliminated and the spoiler height was lowered. But they didn’t ban testing, so Jack Roush Racing with five cars was able to get a handle on the spoiler height and put all five cars in the Chase that season. NASCAR leapt into action at this supposed outrage and limited the number of cars a team could field. (Although they also, to their credit, brought back the second and third practice sessions.)

Roush Fenway Racing has to give up a car this year, while Hendrick Motorsports runs four cars and supplies engines, chassis, and tech support to two others. I’m not bemoaning this development in light of how well Stewart-Haas has been running. Good for them. Does NASCAR need to place limits on Hendrick and Stewart-Haas? No, they need to let Jack Roush field as many cars as he likes. Instead he must abide by a symbolic rule with a loophole big enough to drive a hauler through.

The one thing that has brought more parity to the sport than anything else has been the prominence of multi-car teams, a business model perfected by Rick Hendrick. That’s right, as odd as it may seem, Hendrick has brought more parity to the sport. Maybe only three teams have won 13 of the last 14 championships, but at least there have been eight different winners. And that’s with Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Johnson winning nine of them.

If the four cars per team rule was announced today, people would be wondering what on earth Roush Fenway’s advantage is – with just two cars in the Chase and neither of them making much noise – that NASCAR feels the need to rein them in.

In 2007, the Car of Today was heralded as a new design where smaller teams could build fewer cars, there would be more side by side racing, more passing, and no tolerance for deviating from the strict spec, which would presumably put an end to any teams gaining an advantage through rule bending. Chad Knaus’s reign would end. Better competition all around was promised.

In two and a half years of the Winged Snowplow, it is obvious that qualifying and track position are now at a premium, because passing is much more difficult than was advertised. How many times have you seen a pit crew win a race for a driver by getting him out of the pits first? How many times have you heard “his car seems to like that clean air” as opposed to “his car runs really well in traffic”?

At the intermediate tracks especially, the leader pulls away to a big lead over and over while the rest of the cars fight an impossible aero push trying to pass each other. Which we were told was exactly the kind of boring leader getting too big a lead racing that the car was supposed to prevent. It’s so difficult to catch the leader these days that NASCAR changed a restart rule that had been in place for over 60 years. The team that finds the strongest aero edge will pull away from the field, and that team is often HMS.

This year NASCAR banned testing on Cup tracks to help save smaller teams money in the struggling economy. This has cut down Roush Fenway quite a bit, since apparently testing was their greatest weapon. Richard Childress Racing has also suffered significantly, having one of their worst seasons in years. Joe Gibbs Racing doesn’t seem to quite have the mojo it had. Perhaps Joey Logano might have been better off with more opportunities to get a handle on this racecar. Only HMS seems to have taken yet another limitation in stride, like they always seem to do. NASCAR is continuing its testing ban, seemingly unaware of how it swiped away one of fewer and fewer weapons that teams like Childress and Roush Fenway had in challenging HMS.

And after all the attempts to create excitement, after all of the efforts to equalize everyone, one team and one driver are even more dominant than they had been.

This isn’t just NASCAR. Every sport is guilty of this, and it doesn’t work anywhere. The Yankees are still great and the Orioles still stink no matter how much luxury tax the Yankees pay. I’m a big believer in Tom Jefferson’s quote: The government that governs best governs least. If NASCAR had simply left the sport alone for the past six years, would it be in the trouble it is in now?

I’m sure he’d be running quite well regardless, but I doubt Johnson would be crushing the field like he is if innovation was allowed, if teams could run and test with as many cars as they wanted, and if the No. 48 team had to be tops from the beginning of the season to the end, which they often aren’t. Whatever the rules are, someone is going to be better, and sometimes a lot better, than everyone else. That’s kinda the whole point of competition. An auto race never ends in a tie.

After the Brickyard disaster of a race in 2008, Robin Pemberton announced at the press conference that “not every race is a barnburner.” True. Nor is every championship battle. Yet NASCAR continues to legislate to try and make it so, with results that are the opposite of intention.

Even if every single race was a restrictor plate race, which in theory would make every car as equal as they could possibly be, one team can and will sometimes get a leg up and consistently spank the field, as I illustrated in a column last season. Nothing works as well in practice as it does in theory.

Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports are going to smell up the show until someone else in the garage steps up their game and beats them.

Until then, the No. 48 team is their opponents’ problem, not NASCAR’s.

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