For over two months, the NASCAR engines of your favorite race teams have turned silent, drivers and teams left idle during a offseason filled with rules changes and nervous anticipation regarding the future of our sport.
But as the last week of January dawns, that future is sitting on our doorstep. Speedweeks for NASCAR lies just two weeks away, with both the Bud Shootout and Daytona 500 qualifying ushering in a 62nd season for the number one racing series in America. That means it’s time to get the blood racing and ask the tough questions to figure out just exactly how this year’s going to work out. This week, we’ll get you thinking on six big questions facing NASCAR in 2010; as we try and find the answers, the staff you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and most of all… a sense of humor. After all, we’ll all need to laugh if these predictions blow up in our face come November…
Today’s Season Preview Topic: 2010 marks the beginning of the four-team rule… but is there really a rule to follow? With another year of owner consolidation, NASCAR enters the season with at least 14 teams receiving chassis and engine support from just two people: Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick. Is that healthy for the sport, and if not, is there a way to stop these partnerships from happening?
Tom Bowles, Did You Notice? (Wednesdays): Last week’s theme from the NASCAR Media Tour could be summed up in a single sentence: “Loosen up the rules and let the drivers drive.” But what no one dared to say is whether the drivers themselves would be willing to step up to the plate… especially when there’s three, sometimes four teammates racing around them.
Fresh off the first 1-2-3 points finish by an owner in season history, that’s a major issue the sport may have to address moving forward. The new four-team rule has done nothing to stop the “engine and chassis” deals Jack Roush, Rick Hendrick, and others are making with other, smaller teams – connections that consolidate the 43-car field into the arms of a few. After sitting through a year of Hendrick dominance, Roush recognized the advantage they had with two-car “satellite” team Stewart-Haas Racing, so he cleaned up his own with an RPM-Yates merger that gives him four extra Fords to pool information from. Add in chassis and engine support for the Wood Brothers and three-car Front Row Motorsports, and you could even make an argument 18 of 43 cars on the grid are being outfitted by just two men.
With today’s “teamwork” philosophies, how is that going to up the aggression? When’s the last time you saw two cars at Roush or Hendrick try and take out each other for the win? There’s a hidden hierarchy within these organizations, and whether it’s the regular season or inside the Chase, that pecking order doesn’t jive with making contact with your teammate on the last lap. That’s why NASCAR came up with an owner cap in the first place… to make sure the sport maintained the basic concept of “a team sport with individual cars.”
But in a way, that theme was shattered the second two-car teams started outperforming one; and now that owners are circumventing a basic four-car rule, is it already a decade too late to regulate? In my opinion, the only way to stop the madness is for the owners who caused it to sit down, hash it out and agree to break up their dynasties for the good of the sport. But who in the world would ever agree to that? There’s a small chance the free market will eventually correct the problem; but when too much power in the hands of a few leaves the business model broken for everyone else, it’s going to make it nearly impossible for any new owner to break through inside that inner circle.
In the meantime, let’s just hope the wing and spoiler changes cause enough commotion the some of the underdog teams are able to steal a few top 10s. If they don’t, I worry the same ol’ dominance by the same ol’ teams could lead to a whole lot of boredom the second 2010 gets going.
Vito Pugliese, Voice Of Vito (Wednesdays): 2010 marks the watershed year for the four-team rule. Roush Fenway has shed the No. 26 car for the second time in a decade, while Richard Childress is safely under the limit with three (since Jack Daniel’s removed its support from the No. 07 entry.) Meanwhile, more than a dozen teams are supplied engines and chassis by either Roush Fenway or Hendrick Motorsports, leading many to ponder just how effective is a “rule” when it is essentially unenforceable?
The reason I mention Childress’s situation is it’s paramount to the core issue with teams that beg, borrow and steal to be supplied by the two main vendors in NASCAR: expenses spiraling out of control. The seemingly unrelenting crushing costs of operating a semi-successful (i.e., not parking after 10 laps) Sprint Cup operation precludes teams from constructing their own chassis, developing their own engines and testing them either on the track or with multi-million dollar simulation equipment. There is a reason the unemployment rate has crested 10% for the first time in nearly three decades, and its effect on the motorsports community when coupled with the recent struggles of the U.S. auto industry is glaringly present in the world of NASCAR.
Doug Turnbull, Hot/Not (Tuesdays): In one way, the system is healthy: it makes the cream of the Hendrick and Roush organizations run better, and it gives their satellite teams at least a fighting chance (much more in SHR’s case) at contention. But long-term, the sport’s facing a serious, life-threatening disease: even big, well-funded teams like Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Penske Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing will fall behind these gargantuan mega-consortiums.
Mike Lovecchio, Frontstretch Race Blog: The only people benefiting from the satellite systems led by Hendrick and Roush are those teams directly involved in the partnerships. This is an ever-growing epidemic that NASCAR must address, and adjust in the very near future. A potential Chase in 2010 with 10 of the 12 teams affiliated with Hendrick and Roush would affect the sport as negatively as any of the problems we’ve mentioned from previous years. The upper and middle classes in NASCAR are quickly evolving, but Roush and Hendrick are close to making up the entire upper class – this can’t happen.
Toni Montgomery, Marcos Ambrose Driver Diary (Fridays): This rule was skirted before it even went into effect thanks to all the satellite teams. It’s interesting that honestly, teams had several years to figure out how to work the gray area on this one. I’m not sure that it’s healthy, but it’s the reality and it’s made even more so thanks to fading economic support. Really, it if wasn’t for the mega-teams, we might not have full fields.
Amy Henderson, Holding A Pretty Wheel (Fridays): As much as it pains me to say it, it might be time for the F-word in NASCAR – franchising. Even as the very thought makes people cringe, it might be the only way to bring any kind of financial parity to the sport. All the template, mechanical, and on-track rules will never help a backmarker contend – but by franchising, NASCAR could theoretically impose a spending cap of some sort. And at this point in the game, that might be the only way to bring the superteams back to Earth.
Mike Neff, Full Throttle (Wednesdays): If the rule book allowed teams more flexibility to make changes to the cars, it might be unhealthy to have two owners supplying almost half of the sport. However, since the new car design puts everyone inside a box and has very little room for modification, it really isn’t a bad thing and actually might be a good thing. You’ve got organizations that were not able to keep up in the past who are now going to be on an even playing field with the big guys.
Matt Taliaferro, Fanning The Flames (Thursdays): Healthy? From a competition standpoint, hardly. The problem lies in Hendrick, Roush and Joe Gibbs pricing everyone else out of the sport. They have the market cornered on everything from sponsorship to employees to technology, and until a franchise-driven structure comes to the sport, it’s hard to foresee anything changing.
Until then, we’ll see a pyramid-structured support system that witnesses “The Big Three” delegating resources to “JV squads” dependent on how much those second- and third-tier teams can afford to pay the piper.
Bryan Davis Keith, Nuts For Nationwide (Fridays): Four-team rule? There is no rule to follow. Face it, SHR is Hendrick. The end. Is it healthy for the sport to have so much of the field concentrated in two camps? Probably not, but it can be fixed. If NASCAR would get away from so much damned technology and go back to stock cars and equipment that doesn’t cost $25 million a year to run, there wouldn’t be so much incentive to consolidate and follow the leader.
Beth Lunkenheimer, Tearing Apart The Trucks (Fridays): With just two teams supplying chassis and engine support to more than a third of the teams in the Sprint Cup Series right now, small teams trying to break in are virtually locked out without receiving the same support. While that does severely limit the growth of the series, it’s hard for NASCAR to stop the partnerships from happening. Sure they can put a rule in place to limit it, but the teams will just find another way to share their resources. With the expenses that come with fielding a competitive car in NASCAR these days, nothing short of sharing the costs with others will allow anyone that’s not already well-established in the series to continue to race.