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The Cool-Down Lap: Bristol a Picture of Parity in NASCAR

Grumblings about NASCAR have been prevalent the past few seasons – and rightfully so in many cases. Complaints about vanilla drivers and racing, the Car of Tomorrow, the Chase, the schedule and other issues in the sport have started being addressed by the powers at NASCAR. Although, many dissenters argue that much more needs to be done. But one pillar of the house of discontent often goes unaddressed, and that is parity. While massive race teams like Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing gobble up and associate themselves with other teams to create super-conglomerates, the less well-funded teams often cry about the insurmountable barriers they must climb to gain entry in the Cup Series. However, if you watched the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Saturday night and also look at the numbers this season, parity is very existent and the lack thereof is not a problem at all.

Evidence of this in today’s NASCAR isn’t buried out of visibility like fluids on hotel-room sheets that you need a black light to spot. Short tracks like Bristol and Martinsville are known not just for the beating and banging in their bounds, but also for how rapidly leaders can catch the tail end of the field and lap cars. Saturday, early leader Jimmie Johnson started lapping non-start and parkers before lap 20, but other slower cars hung on to the lead lap for much longer. A green-flag set of pit stops late in the race interrupted by a caution flag filed down the number of cars on the lead lap from about 20 or so to 13, spoiling the fun for an unusually large group of cars on the lead lap than what is expected at a short track. And no, unlike other races this season, the high number of lead lap cars could not be blamed on the Lucky Dog and wave-around rules. There were few cautions. So few, in fact, that at one point Tony Stewart, in his fully funded first cousin to Hendrick machine was the first car off the lead lap – and he was multiple laps down in 28th place.

The tail end of the lead lap is not the full tale of the tape in this case.

While television coverage tends to focus on the leaders, the top five or on the cars left in contention for the 12th-place Chase spot in most races, they tend to miss the close racing through the pack. If you have the pleasure of watching DirecTV NASCAR Hotpass, you see the accordion effect of racing in the pack. While watching Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s channels Saturday night, this was very evident, as each driver both gained and lost positions constantly (at least until Stewart fell out of contention). And in watching those drivers race mid-pack, you notice how one slip up by a driver allows several more to tumble on by them, especially in the unfriendly confines at Bristol, which resemble more a dryer full of wet clothes from the in-car cameras than a racetrack. Sure, the big leaders of the night checked out for long periods of time (though both Johnson and Kyle Busch were run down under green-flag conditions), but the story through much of the pack was one of close action and paid less attention to the size of the checkbook funding the team.

The biggest tale of parity in the Sprint Cup Series is told in the points standings. Yeah, those points that haven’t been compressed yet by the Chase for the Cup format. Outside of Kevin Harvick’s 279-point lead over second-place Jeff Gordon (make that “The Winless” Jeff Gordon) and Gordon’s 72-point lead over third-place Kyle Busch, the top 12 in the standings are remarkably close. Busch has a 57-point lead over fourth-place Carl Edwards (also without a win this year – or last) and then there is a 40-point drop off to 10th-place Kurt Busch, who was in the top five for much of the season before a run of bad luck recently.

After Busch there is an 18-point drop off to 11th-place Greg Biffle. There is finally separation in the points from Biffle to 12th-place Bowyer, who sits 175 points out of 11th. Bowyer has a 100-point cushion over 13th-place Jamie McMurray, but then the points compress again. McMurray leads Mark Martin by just one point, Ryan Newman by 18, and then four more drivers are within 100 points of McMurray, going all the way back to his teammate Juan Pablo Montoya in 19th.

Outside of the points, the numbers for wins and top 10s illustrate parity in today’s Sprint Cup Series. Denny Hamlin and Johnson are tied for the series lead with five wins a piece and, barring a sweep in the next two races by either Busch or Harvick, will share the points lead at the beginning of the Chase in New Hampshire. After Kyle Busch and Harvick, McMurray and Kurt Busch have two wins each and four other drivers have scored one. 10 drivers have won this season, but only six of the 12 Chase drivers have done this, meaning that a large number of drivers will enter the Chase in two races with zero bonus points.

The small number of winners may not illustrate parity, but the fact that neither Hamlin nor Johnson has the dominant lead that Harvick has is telling. In fact, both drivers fell in the standings at Bristol after poor finishes. Johnson’s 35th-place run sent him reeling back to ninth place in points, his lowest position since being 12th in points following his February win at Auto Club Speedway in California 22 races ago! Dissenters also could complain about the large points lead held by Harvick, but Harvick and Gordon alike have separated themselves points-wise from the field by scoring 11 and 10 top-five finishes, respectively. The next closest drivers in the top-five category are Hamlin (nine), and Johnson and Kurt Busch (eight). Most other drivers in the top 12 in points have only five or six top fives. Harvick also has bridged his points lead by running at the end of each race and having an average finish (8.8) of almost four spots better than the next-highest in Gordon (12.1).

In this oddball 2010 season, most still point to Johnson as the odds-on favorite to win the championship, mainly because he has won five race and has, um…what is it? Oh yeah… Won the last four of those puppies! But his inconsistency could doom him if it enters the Chase.

What’s even more odd is the fact that Harvick is not one of the first three drivers that many think of when they think “dominant drivers” in 2010. Who has quietly helped Richard Childress Racing climb back to all-star status?

Could a winless Gordon or Edwards steer through wrecks and end the Homestead-Miami race the driver with the trophy? Could Kyle Busch or Hamlin bury the inconsistency that has haunted them, pull off a few wins, and wrest the Sprint Cup from Johnson and Rick Hendrick’s hands? The point is, we don’t know. We have no idea. And while drivers outside the top 30 have no shot of catching these guys this year or next, we do know that one slip up in technology, a change in scenery, or a few wrecks can turn the points inside out next year. Ask the RCR camp. Ask Montoya. Ask Marcos Ambrose. Ask McMurray. That’s parity.

New teams entering the Cup Series have a hard time catching up to the others and many teams in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series lag behind, but parity is very apparent in the Sprint Cup Series. And this year it has been fun to watch.

Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.

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