Race Weekend Central

Holding A Pretty Wheel: The Magic Number Is… Not Four

And the number shall be three. Maybe Monty Python was onto something when it came to counting.

Three might have been the magic number on which to release the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, but it also seems to be the magic number for race teams.

You’d think that a successful three-car organization could easily become a successful four-car organization if the sponsorship and talent were in place, but it doesn’t often work that way. Even the powerhouse teams like Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing have struggled at times to keep four teams at an equal level. For years, the Hendrick No. 25 was speculated to be a research and development car because it was often woefully behind the other HMS cars no matter who drove it. Roush Fenway Racing had five teams at one point, but not all of them were equally competitive.

Then there’s Richard Childress Racing, for which a fourth team has been nothing but trouble. Not only has the organization been unable to sustain a fourth team, but its attempts to do so have also negatively impacted the organization’s other teams. Stewart-Haas Racing added its fourth entry this year, and it has not been easy — Kurt Busch won a race and made the Chase, but Tony Stewart was having an uncharacteristically poor season even before missing three races following the tragedy in New York state and Danica Patrick has made minimal progress in her sophomore season. Only one SHR driver was in the top 10 in points before the Chase reset, the rest were mired in 20th or worse.

While recent history shows that four teams for an organization is a tough row to hoe, it’s hard to pinpoint just why that’s happening. It’s not a lack of money, equipment, or preparation. Teams have to have money to expand in the first place, and they have the equipment in place long before the season starts for the extra team. It’s not because teams are not hiring talented drivers or crews, either.

If sponsorship is in place, the additional team should not be stretching an organization’s resources too thin. Teams hire adequate personnel to accommodate the expansion, and they purchase and build equipment for that purpose. They aren’t, generally speaking, poaching the existing teams for everything, though there are sometimes personnel shifts.

In short, there’s no glaring reason why a four-team organization should be any different from a three-team operation in terms of success – but it almost universally is different.

Richard Childress is just one of many owners who have struggled to make four cars run well at the same time. (Credit: CIA)
Richard Childress is just one of many owners who have struggled to make four cars run well at the same time. (Credit: CIA)

Look at Hendrick Motorsports, which arguably has had the most success with all four of its teams, and even in that organization, not everyone is performing at the same level. Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have been the two best drivers in the Cup Series for much of this year. But Jimmie Johnson‘s team has been off its game since its last win back in June, and Kasey Kahne, despite the occasional stellar performance and a win at Atlanta, has largely been out to lunch this season. And HMS is the best in terms of having four cars all performing at expectations.

It is possible that the problem lies in an organization either spending too much time trying to fix one team and letting the others slide a little, or, conversely, pouring resources into a title contender or two while the car that’s the most behind gets overlooked until it falls further behind. This could be especially true with the Chase, where organizations are very likely to shift as many resources as possible towards trying to win a title, even if it is to the detriment of another team under their roof.

Joe Gibbs Racing will be the next organization to enter the four-team fray in 2015 with the addition of Carl Edwards‘ No. 19. Should the struggles of most other four-team organizations be a warning to JGR of what the move could cost in the long run? Or can the team buck the trend and not have a team or two noticeably ahead of or behind the rest? It’s likely that somebody’s performance will suffer next season (my money’s on Denny Hamlin), based on other teams’ past attempts. One thing is for sure: all eyes will be on JGR’s transition.

There really is no good reason for why four cars are not better than three, but in NASCAR, someone almost always takes a hit in performance when an organization expands. That’s not a reason not to make a move, if the pieces are all in place. But it could be a warning to owners, drivers, crews, and fans that somewhere, something’s gotta give… it’s just a question of what that is.

About the author

Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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JohnQ

Great thought provoking column. Just because one does not have the answer is no reason for not posing the question.

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