Ever since NASCAR made an announcement, changing the new Chase rules for 2014, there has been a common thread to the comments made regarding team performance:
Win and you’re in!
You can take chances every week!
Once you win, the R&D begins, and teams will get more aggressive!
To quote General Hummel from The Rock, “Well here and now, the lies stop!” OK, perhaps lies is stretching things a bit – but so is the reality of teams going all out, every single week, in the name of scoring more wins by running trick setups and pieces at the expense of reliability and longevity.
Some of them just don’t know it yet. The current poster child for the aforementioned strategy, so far is Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 SHR team. It was a foregone conclusion after Saturday practice in Phoenix, four weeks ago that Harvick and company were likely going to win the race unless a cactus didn’t fall on his hood. In the weeks that followed, Harvick’s car exhibited the speed he showed for that Phoenix win at Las Vegas, only to suffer a failed left-front hub. At Bristol, he was running fourth when the car inexplicably started smoking, crashed, and then caught fire, where Harvick promptly piloted it to where all the gasoline was. At Auto Club Speedway Sunday, he was one of many who suffered left-rear tire failures, crinkling the quarter panel of his Chevrolet.
To date, Harvick has but one win/Top 5/Top 10 courtesy of his performance at PIR, and sits a lowly 25th in points. To make “The Chase,” you have to have a win and be in the Top 30 in points, or at least in the Top 16 if there have been 16 different winners. Harvick is fortunate, for now as within the list of drivers between his position and 30th, the one that’s the only threat of leapfrogging him under normal circumstances would be Martin Truex, Jr. in 27th, who has had an absolute garbage season to date. But Harvick’s only 15 points ahead of 30th, a lead that easily evaporates should he have just a flat tire during a green-flag run at Martinsville or get caught out on a caution – to say nothing of the crapshoot that is Talladega a month from now.
Is it likely that Harvick would continue to struggle the rest of the season, to the point he’s mired below 30th place? Hardly. But what happens if he were to have himself a Hamlin, and miss a race as Denny did Sunday in Fontana at the last minute (or a month, like Hamlin did last year)? I’m not wishing ill-will on anyone, but injuries still are a part of the sport; being buried in the points takes away those options you do have should the unthinkable happen.
Lest you think I’m picking on Harvick and the No. 4 team, take a look at those who suffered tire issues at Fontana Sunday and tell me if you see a trend:
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Winner, Daytona
Kevin Harvick – Winner, Phoenix
Brad Keselowski – Winner, Las Vegas
Carl Edwards – Winner, Bristol
Yeah, tires shouldn’t blow out after 20 laps and the track sure is bumpy going into Turn 3, but notice who didn’t have tire issues. Kyle Busch, the winner, was in need of a strong run, as well as the two Stewart-Haas entries of Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart, respectively. Might teams that have won a race already been more inclined to push the issue, getting more aggressive than those with early season struggles not related to going for broke?
There’s another issue here as well for some teams that are on the cusp of making it: Sponsorship.
Do sponsors want to see their cars in “The Chase?” Absolutely. Do they like seeing them wadded up on a rollback? Not so much. Sponsors who are able to commit funds at this level care very much about their brands, and guard brand equity like a mother bear watches her cubs. If your car is consistently getting stuck in a SAFER Barrier, sitting in the garage with the hood up, or spewing smoke on the apron – with a motor oil or other automotive-related product plastered on the quarters – that could have a very negative effect during sponsorship negotiations midseason. That said, with multi-million dollar agreements being tenuous as ever today, many teams still count on prize money to help keep things afloat if they have to piecemeal a season together.
Then, there is the unseen element of momentum and morale. A win or two can cure a lot of ills, but conversely, a stretch of bad races starts the downward spiral of finger pointing, back biting, radioactive radio chatter, or simply questioning leadership decisions. I’ve wondered if teams will get too caught up in trying new setups, getting way out in the weeds trying to find something “trick,” and then lose sight of fundamentals and be playing catchup at precisely the wrong time. What good does it do to make “The Chase” if you’re just going to get run out after three weeks with the new elimination format?
Naturally, this season is all a work in progress, as it’s everybody’s first year with this new system. The changes add another level of gamesmanship and strategy far beyond the “win and you’re in” mentality that promoted victory at the expense of all else. Sure, that sounds romantic (and reckless) for the powers that be, but as much as they’re trying to make NASCAR like other sports, with ever-changing playoff formats and scoring methods, motorsports at its core is still consistency-based. Slow and steady, to win that nine-month race will almost always outweigh the burnout, fading-away execution that some teams may be tempted to employ.
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