NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Where is NASCAR on Hendrick Dominance?

Given NASCAR’s history nearly since its beginnings, and especially recently, it’s curious that NASCAR remains arms folded and passively silent as Hendrick Motorsports opens up can after can of unseasoned whoop-ass on the competition. Last Sunday at Las Vegas it seemed as though they had an even bigger edge than they have had, with the Nos. 24 and 48 cars eating just about everyone’s lunch and the No. 5 car not far behind.

Bill Elliott didn’t need to win four championships in a row for NASCAR to start tearing his cars to shreds nearly every race. Roush Racing didn’t need to place three of his cars in the top-three spots in the standings for NASCAR to start squeezing them. Toyota didn’t need to win over 70% of the races in the Nationwide Series for NASCAR to force them to put tapered spacers in their engines so everyone else would have a chance.

Yet after HMS has won its fourth straight title, finished 1-2-3 in the standings, placed five of six drivers in the playoffs including satellite teams, and scored countless wins including two of this year’s first three, NASCAR is still not considering unwieldy changes to the rulebook to put a stop to their unheard of domination. Winning four straight titles is a phenomenal achievement, but the No. 48 team has had some help from the sanctioning body in their reluctance to slow down achieving teams when it comes to HMS.

I haven’t seen NASCAR turn this much of a blind eye to one team’s domination since DEI was winning every restrictor-plate race. Is there a common denominator there? Just a thought.

The No. 48 team is scrutinized, as all consistent winners are. NASCAR has lowered the boom on them for rule violations in the past, sometimes severely. In this regard you could say they have been at least somewhat consistent in a world where consistency is very difficult. Other than in Carl Long’s case, I can’t think of many obvious incidents where one team was unduly punished over another. (Feel free to call me on that, because I know it sounds implausible.)

Rule enforcement we’ve seen. What we haven’t seen is NASCAR wailing and gnashing its teeth in fist-pounding outrage over what certainly constitutes a stunk-up show by Bill France Jr.’s standards. One team has won over a third of the races in the past three years – and that’s not even counting wins from satellite teams. I expect if Roush Fenway were enjoying this kind of success, NASCAR would snap into action with a symbolic rule change to neutralize whatever their advantage might be, if the past were any indication.

Clearly Roush Fenway, but Joe Gibbs and Richard Childress also were hurt by the testing ban in 2009 that continues this season. It took RCR almost the entire season to start running well, Kyle Busch certainly did not have his usual mojo at intermediate tracks and Carl Edwards didn’t backflip once after nine wins in 2008.

Somehow HMS managed to overcome this. Maybe having six cars to share information helped. Certainly, NASCAR should be enforcing the four-car team rule more strictly, given their grave concern about it after 2005. At the very least, one would think that the total obliteration of the field that Hendrick has enjoyed of late would provoke NASCAR into lifting some of the restrictions that handcuff their competitors. The testing ban especially cripples teams trying to improve on speedways where aero is critical.

Very often in the past NASCAR has been big and bold in its efforts to socialize the playing field, as anyone who follows the sport well knows. A story is told (it is hearsay, but I still believe it) that when Bill France Jr. met with Toyota executives during their negotiations to enter the sport, he put a restrictor plate on his desk as a demonstrative way to say that he would do what is necessary to keep anyone from dominating. Remember this the next time someone insists that the plate is for driver safety. Or refer them to this article by Clayton Caldwell – an explanation for why NASCAR insists on keeping the plate that is far more plausible than the often parroted one.

In 2008, NASCAR made good on its promise to Toyota, when the sanctioning body mandated that tapered spacers be placed in Nationwide engines with a certain size cylinder bore spacing. At the time Toyota was the only manufacturer that had such engines and thus were the only team affected. Toyota, or more correctly, one Joe Gibbs Toyota, was running roughshod over the rest of the Nationwide field at the time (and still continued to after the rule change), but that car wasn’t even held up as an example of rule-bending… instead an engine in the No. 99 car run by Michael Waltrip Racing – a car that hadn’t even won a race that year – was cited.

Well, Toyota can’t say they weren’t warned. But one would think that after that, that Chevrolet might at least be breaking a sweat waiting for the iron fist of NASCAR to “equalize” them. They aren’t. Where was the outrage of the sanctioning body when Chevrolet won 26 of 36 Sprint Cup races in 2007? In the season where HMS announced that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be racing for them the following year, they won half of the events… domination that few teams have matched in an age where there is much more parity. And people around the sport were salivating at how well Junior would finally do given this kind of equipment, and how the ratings would climb.

Compare that to 2005, when Jack Roush placed five drivers in the Chase. NASCAR reasoned that Roush’s success was due to its running five cars, rather than to a combination of rule changes that ultimately benefited multi-car teams. So as of the end of 2009, Roush Fenway was forced to give up a car, putting Jamie McMurray and crew in search of work in a rotten economy, which fortunately at least worked out for Jamie. All this was done in the name of stopping a Roush juggernaut that in 2009 placed two drivers in the Chase and was clearly not a factor in the title run, and hasn’t won a championship since 2004.

Meanwhile, that Hendrick Motorsports placed three drivers in the top three in the standings is of no consequence, despite that in addition to running four cars they are supplying engines and tech support to at least two others, both of which also made the playoffs. In a technical sense Hendrick placed five cars in the Chase just like Roush did, and the reaction of NASCAR is complete docility.

So the No. 48 team just keeps on rolling, with the Nos. 24 and 5 just a tiny step behind. If Jack Roush is paranoid, he has reason to be. NASCAR cracked the whip on his team for success in 2005 that wasn’t even close to what Hendrick accomplished in 2009. Roush didn’t even win the championship that year, for crying out loud.

Lest you think the purpose of this article is to start a movement to cut down HMS, it is not. Nobody here is faulting Rick Hendrick for the great success that he has had. I’m not even in favor of limiting the amount of cars a team can field.

Nor do I condone any of the reining in of other teams that have overachieved in the past. NASCAR should not be coming down on any advantage Hendrick may have by adding more restrictive rule changes to a rule book that is already too thick. Legislation like that is a part of the credibility problem hanging over the sport right now. For better or worse in the ratings, it is up to the other teams to catch up to Hendrick Motorsports on the track. If anything, NASCAR should be lifting rules that prevent them from doing so.

What I am pointing out here is that in the past, changing the game to knock down strong outfits has very often been NASCAR’s response to one team’s success. More often than not, NASCAR has not exhibited the patience and confidence to let lesser teams catch up to the elites in the sport.

One should sincerely hope that the motivation for NASCAR’s sudden laissez-faire on racing domination isn’t because Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and now Danica Patrick all drive for Hendrick Motorsports or their offshoots. Because as we’re now seeing, even if the dominant team is employing the most popular drivers in the sport, it’s still possible to smell up a show.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Far lesser crew chiefs than Steve Letarte would have taken four tires with the lead and 35 laps to go in Vegas. Once Gordon explained it after the race I understood it somewhat, since track position is so important these days, but it still baffled me at the time. A reader in Matt Taliaferro’s column beat me to saying it, but I swear that Chad Knaus gets into other crew chiefs’ heads.
  • ESPN made a big deal last Saturday of showing how Danica had progressed in the Vegas race, in increments, from starting 37th to running third. They neglected to mention that the field was cycling through pit stops at the time, the kind of occurrence that sometimes enables drivers like Robby Gordon to lead Cup races. I wondered how many people fell for that. Or if that had ever been done for John Wes Townley.
  • NASCAR has decided to come down on those dastardly start-and-park teams, instituting a new rule on Monday that a car that exits early from a race without being in an accident will be scrutinized. I say we call this the Carl Long rule. Who wants to bet on a field not getting filled this year because of this? Seriously, NASCAR, bad idea.
  • But NASCAR has made a good decision recently… that ghastly wing is finally coming off, at Martinsville or Texas I believe. I don’t know how it’s going to change the racing, but at least the cars will look better. That wing always looked like it was slapped on at the last second… oh, wait….

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