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Did You Notice? … A Cost-Cutting Idea, Toyota’s Five-Year Plan That Wasn’t, And Points Projecting

*Did You Notice?…* What this new point system does versus the old format? Let’s take a look at how the two compare four races into NASCAR’s Chase:

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Kevin Harvick is the one Sprint Cup driver who has clearly benefited with the new points system.

*Current Standings*
Carl Edwards – 2,161
*Kevin Harvick – 2,160 (-1)*
*Jimmie Johnson – 2,157 (-4)*
Brad Keselowski – 2,150 (-11)
Matt Kenseth – 2,149 (-12)
Kurt Busch – 2,145 (-16)
Tony Stewart – 2,142 (-19)
Kyle Busch – 2,141 (-20)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – 2,118 (-43)
Jeff Gordon – 2,114 (-47)
Ryan Newman – 2,107 (-54)
Denny Hamlin – 2,082 (-79)

*Standings With Old Format Used*
Carl Edwards – 5,642
*Jimmie Johnson – 5,638 (-4)*
*Kevin Harvick – 5,631 (-11)*
Brad Keselowski – 5,613 (-29)
Matt Kenseth – 5,600 (-42)
Kurt Busch – 5,591 (-51)
Tony Stewart – 5,586 (-66)
Kyle Busch – 5,562 (-80)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – 5,489 (-153)
Jeff Gordon – 5,484 (-158)
Ryan Newman – 5,453 (-189)
Denny Hamlin – 5,370 (-272)

(Remember, under the old format drivers would start at 5,000, with a ten-point bonus for every race won. Since Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, the wild card entries were left with no bonus points they were each given a total of 5,000 to start.)

On the surface, these numbers seem fairly similar. Just one position changes hands, with Jimmie Johnson moving past Kevin Harvick for second on the strength of his Kansas victory. Surprisingly, the margin between Edwards and Johnson remains the same – four points – while Harvick, who has one top-5 finish in four Chase races drops to third, 11 off the pace. Brad Keselowski, this year’s “Cinderella” sits fourth, 29 points behind.

But here’s where the big difference comes in, showing how much harder bad days are to make up under this new system. For Keselowski, if we were playing under the 2010 rules should he go out and win Charlotte on Saturday night, leading the most laps he could take over the point lead as long as everyone else finished third or worse (without a laps led bonus). Here’s how the points would work out:

Brad Keselowski (wins, leads the most laps) – 195
Carl Edwards (if he finishes third, without leading a lap) – 165
*Point Swing:* 30

Assuming Johnson and Harvick finish below Edwards, too, that puts Keselowski in the driver’s seat. But let’s take a look at that scenario under the new system:

Brad Keselowski (wins, leads the most laps) – 48
Carl Edwards (if he finishes third, without leading a lap) – 41
*Point Swing:* 7

As you can see, that’s nowhere near enough for Keselowski to take over the points lead. In order for Edwards to give up his spot, he would actually have to finish _seventh or worse._ That means while the numbers look small – remember, Keselowski has just an 11-point deficit under the new system – looks can be deceiving. It appears these drivers are closer in the standings, but leapfrogging someone else has actually grown more difficult.

As drivers and teams figure out the nuances of this new system (remember, it takes a year or two for patterns to develop) my fear is the theme of minimizing bad days will get to their heads. How do you keep yourself from digging a hole in the standings? Playing it conservative, going for the top-10 finish instead of taking a last-minute risk that could bury you. Take a look at Harvick; under the new system, he’s much closer to Johnson despite leading just 11 laps and posting just a single top-5 finish. But unlike Johnson, Harvick has minimized his bad days; his worst result is 12th while Johnson has that ho-hum 18th at New Hampshire. In that race, Johnson got aggressive, made contact with Kyle Busch while charging towards the top 10 and that cost him. It was better for him to sit back, hold his position and wind up 11th or 12th; that would actually have the No. 48 sitting in the points lead right now.

Or how about Jeff Gordon? At New Hampshire, the No. 24 car had the speed to win but couldn’t take the risk of running out of fuel on the last lap. Your end result was the DuPont car putt-putting around, at about 80 percent speed in order to preserve the top-5 finish (good day) versus a 25th-place disaster. And with fuel mileage finishes possible at least twice, maybe three times more during the Chase you wonder how many times that’ll happen again.

The bottom line is while the new system is easy to read, it’s still not encouraging the risk-taking during the postseason that should accompany the run for a title. We’ll see how the Chase plays out, but like a rear-view mirror, this battle may look closer than it will appear three, even four races from now.

*Did You Notice?…* NASCAR has a rare opportunity to force owners to cut costs? With Clint Bowyer leaving for Michael Waltrip Racing, kicked out the door at the No. 33 car Richard Childress Racing will almost certainly cut back to three 2012 teams. (By the way, who can’t run a team for $13 million? In this economy? Talk about costs spiraling out of control… chances are Austin Dillon was the guy on the other side of the negotiating table, looking for his Cup ride and saying, “No amount of money is good enough to buy me three more years in Nationwide.”) Meanwhile, over at Roush Fenway Racing lack of sponsorship will almost certainly kill David Ragan’s No. 6, cutting their total from four cars to three with sponsorship for Matt Kenseth shaky at best.

Those moves, in turn would settle the 2012 landscape of Cup cars to resemble the following:

*Hendrick Motorsports (4 cars):* Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne
*Michael Waltrip Racing (3 cars):* Clint Bowyer, David Reutimann, Martin Truex, Jr.
*Richard Childress Racing (3 cars):* Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard
*Roush Fenway Racing (3 cars):* Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth
*Joe Gibbs Racing (3 cars):* Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano
*Stewart-Haas Racing (3 cars):* Ryan Newman, Danica Patrick (part-time), Tony Stewart
*Penske Racing (2 cars):* Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski
*Richard Petty Motorsports (2 cars):* A.J. Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose
*Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (2 cars):* Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya
*Front Row Motorsports (2 cars):* David Gilliland, Kvapil/Yeley split

*Single-Car Teams:* JTG Daugherty Racing (No. 47), Furniture Row Racing (No. 78), Tommy Baldwin Racing (No. 36), FAS Lane Racing (No. 32), Phoenix Racing (No. 51), TRG Motorsports (No. 71), Germain Racing (No. 13)
*Gone:* 1 Roush Fenway car, 1 Richard Childress car, 2 Red Bull cars (four teams)
*Added:* 1 Michael Waltrip car, 1 Stewart-Haas car (part-time)
*Net Loss:* -2

As you can see, right now we’re down to just 34 full-time teams next season; and of that group, only 25-27 are set with sponsorship for 2012 and beyond. That leaves up to 9-11 start-and-parks per race – nearly a quarter of the field – along with a big, million-dollar question out on the table: how do you create new opportunities for owners? How do you convince people, in this bad economy to invest in NASCAR over even IndyCar racing, whose entry list has swelled to a record high 34 for Las Vegas this weekend? (Think about that for a minute; there’s a higher number of fully-sponsored programs in open-wheel.)

My opinion, considering the circumstances is for NASCAR to go radical, seizing the opening and further reduce their “cap” on how many teams can be owned by one person. Right now, the limit is four but why not cut that number back to three, starting in the 2013 season? Sure, it sounds contradictory at first, limiting expansion on a shrinking grid for the owners already in place. But the move is based to keep the overhead down, allowing new ones to compete much easier while leaving room for growth in an aging establishment. Considering you need a multi-car team to be consistently successful these days – and it costs roughly $20-$25 million per team – a startup owner, to be competitive is faced with four-car teams pooling roughly $75 – $100 million to battle against them. And who in the world can raise that amount of money in this economy, let alone compete against the information sharing that exists with those programs?

That’s why it’s important to act now, striking while sponsorship problems have affected even NASCAR’s rich and famous. Rick Hendrick would be the only owner forced to cut back by a three-car “cap” beginning in 2013, and in some ways, that’s only fair; Jack Roush was punished by reducing his load from five cars to four in 2009, even though he had sponsorship in place for all his vehicles. Hendrick can pawn off that fourth car somewhere, either to a satellite team (Phoenix Racing?) or another program that comes up through the ranks. Certainly, the weird, “B” team relationships like Roush Fenway – Richard Petty Motorsports and Hendrick – Stewart-Haas cannot be prevented.

But at least, by forcing teams into separate shops and causing some type of official owner separation, on paper to the outside, unknowledgable observer no one would be running with more than three teams. It’s less intimidating, less costly for an owner to get in and you’ve trimmed the fat of these megateams, throwing about 50-75 people off the payroll so a potential new owner doesn’t think he needs to hire 400 employees to be successful. It’s short-term pain, in the form of pink slips but how can other opportunities become available when only four or five teams can ever offer them? Maybe those limits give Tommy Baldwin Racing an opportunity to grow, picking up people that were released and pooling additional funding together to fight against the megateams. Better competitive balance and lower costs will encourage growth; NASCAR can’t control the spending habits of the owners, but they can control how many cars they have so why not use that restriction in the face of a failing business model?

*Did You Notice?…* All the panic when Toyota entered the Sprint Cup ranks? Within five years, American patriots feared a foreign automaker would be dominating the NASCAR circuit, piling up championships while running Ford, Chevy, and Dodge out of town. If you believed some prognosticators, right now we’d have a grid of 25 Toyotas, a rundown 1995 Ford Taurus, some Chevy Luminas and, well, that’s about it.

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Toyota’s five-year foray into the Sprint Cup Series hasn’t left them with the championship results they would have expected by now.

Except that hasn’t happened. Chevy collected their ninth straight manufacturer title Sunday, making Toyota 0-for-5 in their bid to reach the top of the NASCAR ladder. They also have yet to win a single Cup Series championship – Jimmie Johnson controls that hardware – and have just two drivers in this year’s Chase, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, with neither one looking capable of breaking that ugly streak.

Instead, what Toyota has done, after five years of up-and-down results is draw the line at how many teams they’ll support. Right now, their goal is to provide TRD engines for just six programs in 2012: three at Joe Gibbs Racing and three at Michael Waltrip Racing. JTG Daugherty and Germain Racing will likely be forced to beg for scraps. That leaves an opening for Ford, Chevy, and Dodge to expand, picking those programs up should they so choose.

Will it work for Toyota? At least it brings their two megateams into tighter focus going forward. But it also assures the feared “foreign takeover” of this sport isn’t happening anytime soon; with Chevy at well over a dozen programs, I think it’s safe to say the Bowtie Brigade remains firmly in control. And can you imagine if Toyota pulled out of the sport right now? We might struggle to have half a starting grid next season; so hopefully, ill will towards the foreign manufacturer will finally start to fade away. They’re here to stay… and they’re not here to decimate the starting grid.

_Editor’s Note: Looking for Quick Hits? This column got a little long, so those will be placed in Tom’s “Athlon Sports”:http://www.athlonsports.com column out tomorrow morning. Be sure to check it out!_

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