There is no question about the fact that many NASCAR fans have become disenchanted over the past decade with the sport they once loved. New leadership at the top, the Chase format, and two new title sponsors have turned the now-Sprint Cup Series into an entity many cannot recognize when compared to the 1980s and ’90s. One of the trends that has been particularly unpopular is the dominance of the larger teams, and the perception that the smaller organizations no longer stand a chance of even getting close to victory lane. However, while these underdogs certainly face uphill battles unlike any they’ve seen before, there is evidence that the sanctioning body has actually made rule changes that have helped the “Davids” challenge the “Goliaths” of the sport. Whether parity was the intended goal or not for such rules changes can be debated, but the end result has given them a chance to succeed.
This season, 10 teams receive support from another larger organization in terms of technological assistance, engines or both. This is only up slightly from 2006, the year NASCAR announced its four-car team limit, when nine teams shared such alliances. However, the quality of the partnerships has definitely increased. Today, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing, or Roush Fenway and Richard Petty Motorsports. This was not the case four years ago when MB2 Motorsports received Hendrick engines but clearly lagged behind them in performance. The same could be said for Hall of Fame Racing, which on paper was supported by Joe Gibbs Racing, but appeared to be no more than the red-headed stepchild of the team on the track.
What fed the change? When some of the larger organizations lost the ability to expand to their heart’s content, many resorted to utilizing smaller teams more effectively to gain valuable input from more resources. Joe Garone knows those changes firsthand; he’s the General manager of Furniture Row Racing, a team that has a unique alliance in which it receives engines from HMS but technical support from Richard Childress Racing. He believes that the four-car limit instituted by NASCAR does, in fact, benefit some of the smaller teams – if the right situation is found. “From a small team’s perspective,” he says. “Being strong enough to be able to contribute back to a bigger organization is key to making it work.”
The degree to just how deep the partnerships go may depend on what the smaller team is trying to accomplish. Garone recalled the reasoning behind his team’s very first alliance with the now-defunct PPI Motorsports. “In the very beginning,” he says, “When we decided that we were going to bring FRR into Cup, we wanted to align ourselves with an established team to accelerate the time it takes to get off the ground.” Pat DiMarco, NASCAR Program Manager for Ford claims that Front Row Motorsports is in the same situation. “They (FRM) get the Roush-Yates engines, but they are not a satellite operation.”
For more established teams, such as the Richard Petty Motorsports that are looking to win right now, technical alliances are more common. “RPM has, at their disposal, the ability to use whatever equipment Roush Fenway uses in terms of what is purchased from them. They can buy that equipment and hit the ground running,” explained DiMarco.
Maneuvering around the four-car limit isn’t the sole force driving the more intricate alliances nowadays. “Back in the older days, testing was unlimited,” recalled Garone. “So we can go to as many racetracks as we could afford to go to and gather a lot of information. In recent years (with the testing ban), it becomes more important to align yourself with a larger group of teams to gather information… whether it’s from private testing on non-sanctioned tracks or wind tunnel testing.”
So the testing ban and four-car per team limit implemented by NASCAR may have created an environment in which it is beneficial for teams with larger resources to align with their smaller counterparts. But some would suggest that there are other factors outside of the sanctioning body that have played a role.
“The economy, to a certain extent with sponsors not being as predominant as they once were for many teams, makes it a lot easier to buy your cars and engines from somebody who has proven technology than it is to try to ramp up from the bottom and try to get to the top,” explains DiMarco. Such is the case for FRM, which quickly turned into a three-car team with engine support from Roush-Yates.
Whether it’s because of the rules developed by NASCAR, the state of the economy, or most likely, a combination of the two, both DiMarco and Garone agree that the sport has done the best job it can in creating parity without limiting how much money teams can spend. From a manufacturer’s standpoint, it is actually the new car that has brought everyone to a more even playing field than 10 years ago.
“At that time, my job was to walk into the trailer and lobby for something like a spoiler cut or more horsepower or a bigger intake… etc.,” says DiMarco. “Now, NASCAR has basically said ‘Here are the rules and you guys can fight it out amongst yourselves.’ Back in 2008, Roush was dominant, Hendrick was the force last year, and now it’s Gibbs as well as RCR.”
While that does seem like parity, it is among the larger teams. So is it really fair to say that “parity” encompasses the smaller teams as well? Those working for FRR are not complaining. “Personally, one of the things that I think is so great about NASCAR is that it is very close on the competition side, and it makes the teams work really hard to achieve more separation and gain an advantage,” claimed Garone. “Let the athletes shine: like the drivers, pit crews and race teams themselves, they are what generates the advantage.”
So if there are still ample opportunities for smaller teams to make it in the Sprint Cup Series today, why are most of them start-and-park entries, or back markers at best? Garone, who has managed one of the more competitive one-car teams over the past few seasons, provides some insight into FRR’s philosophy that has helped them succeed. “In the beginning, it was and still is all about the enjoyment of trying to compete in an environment that is something we all like to do. That is at the heart of what drove us into Cup,” he said. “You also have to understand where we are in an unusual situation where the owner is the sponsor, and when we first came to a Cup race, he saw all the people and thought about the marketing and branding opportunities.”
There is no argument that the landscape of NASCAR teams has changed considerably from 15 years ago when, in 1995, single-car teams such as Morgan-McClure Motorsports, Bill Elliott Racing, Rudd Performance Motorsports, the Wood Brothers and Bahari Racing all finished the season in the top 12 in the points standings. NASCAR, however, should not be to blame for this trend, as they have actually taken steps to try and assist the smaller teams weather the nature business cycle of the bigger teams getting stonger while weeding out the weaker ones. So while the sport may not ever again see the degree of success experienced by teams with limited resources that was common in the mid-1990s, it is still not impossible for David to slay Goliath.
Owners who institute solid, long-term plans for their teams, and form alliances with the correct organizations can absolutely survive, and even thrive in today’s Sprint Cup environment.