Once upon a time, not all that long ago in the grand scheme of things, everything was going splendidly in the world of NASCAR. The sport was doing what it was intended to do: making already wealthy people wealthier.
Being a team owner was a pretty sweet gig. It was like having money trees growing in your backyard and spending one’s days plucking freshly grown large denomination bills into a bushel. In fact, when their shoulders got sore, some of them would give up harvesting for the rest of the day knowing there’d be plenty more to come tomorrow.
There was no rocket science involved in growing from a two-car team to four. One just had to find the right sponsor and make sure said sponsor was cool with the team’s intended driver. It wasn’t hard getting sponsorship back then when NASCAR was the Next Big Thing. In fact, of all the next big things, NASCAR was the nextest, biggest and thingiest. The sky was the limit and corporations were eager to sign on and stick with a team that enjoyed even moderate success. In same cases, those sponsors stuck by teams that had little success at all.
(Yes, those days are long gone. You’ll note Kyle Larson and the No. 42 team are second in the current points standings yet the team’s long-term sponsor, Target, won’t be back next year. Is that a reasonable call on Target’s part? You’ll note the nation’s two biggest retailers, Amazon and Wal-Mart, don’t get involved with auto racing. Target, like Red Bull and Sprint before them, has decided to spend more marketing dollars on soccer. Right now, soccer is the next big thing though no less an authority than Homer Simpson is on record as saying Americans will never embrace professional soccer.)
Back in the dearly departed good old days, NASCAR got uneasy with some of the team owners. They didn’t mind some other snouts at the trough but nobody was going to shoulder them aside before they’d had their fill. In open-wheel racing, a few team owners controlled too much of the field. They developed a mindset the open-wheel series weren’t going to have much of a circuit without race cars to compete at their events. The sanctioning bodies, on the other hand, felt the team owners with all their brightly colored high-dollar sponsored cars weren’t going to have much of a chance to strut their stuff without big name races to participate in. And thus, the sport of open-wheel racing got strangled like the goose that laid the golden eggs and still hasn’t recovered from the schism.
While the salad days were still at the cool ranch, NASCAR decided on a rule that no team owner could own more than four teams. With a nod and a wink, the team owners said that nobody did. On paper, at least one of Rick Hendrick’s teams was owned by his father, Jimmie Johnson’s team was owned by Jeff Gordon, and presumably his wife’s hairdresser owned the No. 5 team. “We’re serious this time.” NASCAR countered. “We’re the sheepdogs, not the lambs, and as such, we won’t be silent.”
Roush Fenway Racing was the only organization that actually had to divest of a team to meet the new rules. Now RFR is down to two teams, of course. But the limits did keep outfits like Rick Hendrick’s and Joe Gibbs’ from growing beyond four teams. And that has caused some problems. Take rookie sensation William Byron, who’d been under the Toyota umbrella driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports, a close affiliate (ahem) of Joe Gibbs Racing. But with four star drivers at JGR and Daniel Suarez ahead of him in line, there was no room for Byron to advance. So he defected over to the Chevy/JR Motorsports/Rick Hendrick camp where at least one if not two Cup seats open up next year. My guess is that the coach wasn’t happy to see such a challenging prospect switch allegiances.
There’s also a problem right now in that NASCAR is having trouble finding full fields of competitive cars. Thus, perhaps they’ve become a bit more lenient in policing how many teams one individual actually has control of. It’s never been any big secret. Until this year, SHR was a satellite team of Hendrick’s while Furniture Row Racing was closely aligned with Joe Gibbs and company over the last few seasons.
When Jimmie Johnson referred to Tony Stewart as a teammate, nobody blinked an eye though in fact such a thing was very much against at least the spirit of the rules. In other news this week, Ryan Blaney will become a third Penske driver next year and Paul Menard will move over to the Wood Brothers with sponsorship from his dad’s company. That’s where he’ll be a defacto teammate of Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Richard Childress, who lost Menard, says he still plans to field three cars next year. My guess is if he can find a sponsor he’ll bring grandson Ty Dillon into the fold.
There was also a bit of tension at Indy last week. For much of the race, quasi-teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. had been gaming restarts. Whoever had the lead would take the less preferred line for the restart under the unspoken agreement the second-place driver in the preferred line would yield position to the leader going into turn 1.
While it was successful to a point, Kyle Busch decided it was “every man for himself” time and bully for him in that regard. He felt that Truex’s car was decidedly faster than his (as it has been most of the season) and he wanted more than a handful of laps to try to catch and pass him after a late restart. There’s nothing that turns my stomach more than the notion one driver would “let” his teammate win because of the Playoff implications. Long story short, Truex and Busch collided. Truex got the worst end of the deal but both drivers were eliminated in a race they’d dominated. My guess is young Mr. Busch was not thrilled as it made the total over a year since he had won a Cup race.
Likewise, pit crew members from both teams were less than thrilled by the accident. There was some sarcastic clapping, a few vile words exchanged, a couple kindergarten sandbox worthy shoves and a few threats. No actual punches were thrown, at least that I saw. No blood was spilled. The “fight” wouldn’t have even drawn a sideways glance in the stands at a youth hockey game. At one point, someone might have said “Go away or I’ll taunt you some more,” but maybe not.
In the end, that didn’t matter. The front and rear tire changers for the No. 78 team, Chris Taylor and Lee Cunningham, each got suspended for three races. NASCAR didn’t suspend them. The No. 78 team they work for didn’t suspend them. Joe Gibbs Racing suspended them. Not only did JGR just suspend them, both Taylor and Cunningham are suspended for three races each. That’s a major penalty equivalent to having a tire fall off a car after a pit stop.
Now hang on thar just a cotton-picking minute there, Bubba-Louie. Officially the two argumentative, sarcastic crew members work for Joe Gibbs, but for all intents and purposes, they belong to Furniture Row. Further, it looks like those two were in the right, at least by the obviously outdated rules I learned years ago. A team’s pit box on pit road is theirs, at least for that event. Someone else can’t go striding in there to express a contrary opinion or question someone on that team’s parentage. If you do “trespass” and get tossed physically out of that pit box, don’t look for NASCAR to bail you out. Even when wishing to discuss strategy with another crew chief, most of the team bosses will wait at the edge of the box to be acknowledged and waved in before walking over to the pit box. Failure to do so is like storming into another team’s trailer in the garage area uninvited. If the folks inside decide to toss you back out head first you, not the tossers, will likely be fined. I hate to use the term but the pit box and trailer are NASCAR’s version of “safe spaces” at a microaggression aware grade school.
And who drives for the No. 18 team? The aforementioned Kyle Busch. Busch has never been shy about confronting other drivers in vividly profane terms after incidents he’s involved in. He’ll run the length of pit road to find that SOB who he felt wronged him, and then throw a punch if he doesn’t get flattened by members of the other team first. In one infamous race, Kyle Busch wrecked a driver competing for the title in a Truck race under caution even as his team owner, spotter, and crew chief told him not to do it. And how many times has JGR suspended Kyle Busch for a race for his temper-borne antics? Precisely zero. Oh, NASCAR has sat his ass down a few times, but not his ever-patient car owner. That’s just Kyle being Kyle. All of us are praying on him eventually maturing just a wee bit because we love the hell out of that feisty little rooster.
Meanwhile, the No. 78 team is also competing for a title. (Recall even if they are the red-haired stepchild JGR team, they are competing against “teammates” for the top prize and to be frank, they’ve been beating JGR like a gong all year.) Due to the vagaries of NASCAR’s Playoff system it isn’t possible to say Truex is an odds on favorite to win the championship though he has been racking up stage points like The Who’s Tommy used to run up pinball scores. The loss of two highly skilled members of his pit crew will doubtless make things more difficult for Truex the next three races. Doubtless if the No. 78 team was the only JGR outfit in contention for the title the team wouldn’t have imposed this penalty.
But according to Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch and the alleged aggrieved party in this whole hullaballoo, the penalty was necessary to maintain team order. He pointed out that no JGR employee should talk to another JGR employee the way he was spoken to out of respect for the team. But like the song goes “here in the real world….”
Of course, Stevens knows something about three-race suspensions having already served one earlier this year, and if Cunningham and Taylor deserve their penalties, than as lead instigator, Stevens ought to be serving another one to be fair. And if Stevens is, in fact, correct and the No. 78 outfit is a JGR team, than that is in clear violation of NASCAR’s rule that a team owner can control no more than four Cup cars. (Editor’s note: JGR employs the pit crews that they then supply to the Nos. 77 and 78 of Furniture Row Racing as part of a team alliance.) Maybe all six JGR teams should be banned from the playoffs this year now that this egregious and abhorrent violation of the rules has come to light. At very least, perhaps Joe Gibbs himself ought to have his hard card pulled for three weeks for his duplicitous conduct.
In other forms of auto racing, particularly Formula 1 and sports car racing, team orders have intruded on natural competition. Team orders have changed the outcomes not only of races but of championships. Fans of those other disciplines of racing hated those shenanigans and my guess is that NASCAR fans would be equally put off by team orders determining the results of races and crowing champions. At a time NASCAR is already trying to stem a mass exodus from the grandstands they can little afford even the appearance of backroom politics deciding races.