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2010 Season Preview: Enforcing the 4-Team Rule?

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.

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Bryan Davis Keith

Hey DansMom, thanks for your info, but I really do stand on my “35 guaranteed’ starting spots “based on last years standings”!

The 36th spot you mention, is to a “past champion”, not necesarily
what anyone did the year before. Heck, Bill Elliot has taken advantage of the past champion bit and his championships were many many years ago.

But, more succinctly, I have ZERO problem with a “past champion” being guaranteed a spot in any race!

That is only a SINGLE spot out 43 positions!

But to hold their “SUPER BOWL OF RACING”, and 35 of those starting that race is BASED ON LAST YEARS RESULTS”, is dumb at best!

Kinda like seeing the Detroit Lions in the playoffs!

After all, they competed ALL YEAR!

By the way, this new site looks good so far!

Bryan Davis Keith

Every attempt to limit team ownership so far has been easily skirted. Any future attempts to put a spending limit on teams will be just as easily skirted.

I don’t see how franchising helps the have-not teams, either. It would just be another way for NASCAR to profit by charging a huge fee up front to compete, on top of the expenses already involved in running a team.

Teams like Roush and Hendrick got where they are by being good at what they do. If you start to punish them by finding ways to limit their success, what message does that send? More importantly, do you really want the sanctioning body more actively involved in stopping certain teams from winning and helping others run up front?

If NASCAR really wanted to do something to help midpack and backmarker teams, they could stop selling their own exclusive sponsorships to corporations that lock out competitors from the same industry from team-level sponsorship.

Bryan Davis Keith

No matter the problem the answer is always the same with you guys — lament that the #1 racing series in the US isn’t an entry-level division and propose socializing Nascar as the solution.

A. How does it improve competition if those dozen or so cars supported by Roush or Hendrick instead struggle on their own?

B. How does it improve racing to punish the successful while rewarding the mediocre?

C. Why, in the face of the evidence of all human history, do you think that its possible to mandate equality of results in any field of human endeavor?

D. How does adding the cost of purchasing one of a restricted number of franchises (which will have to be 43 cars precisely since people paying money for a franchise will insist on a guaranteed spot in the field), improve matters for the marginally-funded?

Bryan Davis Keith

Y’all know I am a hard sell! But so what a team run more than 4 cars? NA$CRAP will never be a “level” playing field,
and will never have all 43 cars operating from the same competitive level. NEVER!

So if Hendrick had say TEN (10) cars, the racing might (heavy emphasis on might) get somewhat more interesting.

Maybe NA$CRAP needs to implement a “budget” ceiling, such as no more that $15million/team spent for the first car, and each subsequent car on the team could not spend more than $5mil.

Well, you get the idea. Don’t limit the number of cars, limit the total team dollars!

And remember, in the NA$CRAP scheme of things, 1st place is the only one that matter at the end, so if a team has 6 quality cars, this in itself would cause a problem, because ONLY one (1) can win!

Oh, I Sunday I saw an add on TV for “DAYTONA 500 QUALIFYING”!

HUH?

Gee, I don’t know why they hold qualifying when 81% of the field is already SET!

Bryan Davis Keith

Turnip, 81% of the field isn’t set. 35 cars are set AND Terry Labonte – a former champ – is guarenteed the past champions provisional so he is locked in the show even if his doesn’t qualify high enough or race-in through the dual. So that’s 36 of 43 for roughly *83.7%*

Besides the 500 qualifying is all about who starts on the front row for the GREAT AMERICAN SHOW!!!! (and who gets caught cheating)

Bryan Davis Keith

Can anyone name any endeavor, industry, or aspect of society that doesn’t have the “haves” and “have nots”? That’s the way things work here on earth with the human race. Why should anyone expect the rules of the universe not to apply to NASCAR?

Given the state of the auto industry and the economy at large how smart is it to have three Chevrolet teams working independently building their own engines and chasis? There is definitely a lot of duplication of dollars, efforts and time in such a structure.
Common sense would dictate that if a manufacturer wants to get the biggest bang for the buck they have one engine building effort. This is why eventually there will be one primary team (of 4 cars)funded by each manufacturer for building engines and chasis, most R&D efforts, and engineering support. That is the most cost effective way for a manufacturer to get the most per dollar that they spend with the greatest economies of scale.

Assuming NASCAR doesn’t go back on the four car limit, satellite teams are the way of the future.

Bryan Davis Keith

Engines are one thing. Teams have been buying engines from outside sources for years. But chassis’s and the remaining components should remain in house. That’s where a team’s real ability rises to the surface.

Bryan Davis Keith

I agree with M.B on this one. I want to see good cars race. So if that means having Hendrick back half the field and Roush the other half that would be fine with me. They are right in saying there have always been haves and have nots. So to those who complain, you would rather see five or ten good cars and 33 that stink than to have more competitive cars? Yeah that will make the racing better for the fans. Not!! How about Toyota, they all basicly function as one team. Why don’t we hear complaints about them? I say leave Roush alone and Hendrick too for that matter. As far as not wrecking each other I agree I would rather see close competion where they don’t wreck each other. Do you not remember the great finish at Dover in 2008 between Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth? They raced each other very hard and it was awsome to see, but they didn’t wreck each other. The fact that they were teamates didn’t make them race any less. The same was true for the Gordon & Johnson race at Martinsville a few years ago. That was a great finish too. These guys at Hendrick and Roush can race each other just fine. I would love to see more finishes like those two.

Bryan Davis Keith

As a person in the garage and former partner in a formerly successful team, I can’t agree with the limiting of the number of teams an owner may have. As a fan of free market society, I don’t want to try and limit an owners ability to make money, and as I agree that there have always been haves and have-nots but when we owned our team, the great equalizer was… testing! We would gather a bunch of have-nots and all split the cost of the test. It allowed us to win multiple races and compete with the big budget teams. Just my two cents

Bryan Davis Keith

I see a couple issues with the “satellite” teams and the selling of engines and chassis that’s being done by a few mega teams.
1. The rich will get richer. Why? Because they sell chassis and lease engines for profit. Those profits are above and beyond what their sponsors pay. That money can be used to make the team better via personnel hirings, more R&D, all the latest engineering goodies, etc, etc.
2. The BEST lessons learned while designing the most important parts of the race car are kept in-house. Satellite teams cannot just buy a chassis and engine and beat the mega team. They will have to make those components better through their own R&D, which of course takes $$$$.
Which brings me back to my first point. Satellites can’t compete money wise because they don’t sell these components and most importantly THEY CAN’T WIN AS OFTEN so they high dollar sponsors stay away!!

It’s all a vicious cycle that was a recognized flaw in capitalism a long time ago. You either accept it as the way things are, or you make rules to mitigate this flaw. All other major sports leagues have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to legislate this inherent flaw.
When will NASCAR follow suit?

Bryan Davis Keith

I don’t give care about how many teams have how many cars. For me, it is about seeing cars that have some semblance of the cars we drive every day, and the fastest of those cars racing on Sunday. The top thirty five rule and the look alike cars have destroyed racing. Now it is just a sad circus show with 4 semi ringleaders led by 1 clueless King of Nascar.

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