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 racecars
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.
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 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 a while (witness his April tangle with 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 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 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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