Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: NASCAR Owners Consolidating Power As Kevin Harvick Chases History

Did You Notice? … Kevin Harvick is on pace for NASCAR history? Harvick has won five of the first 12 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races this season along with the All-Star Race. That puts him on pace to earn 15 victories in 36 races, shattering the modern era record of 13. (That’s held by both Richard Petty (1975) and Jeff Gordon (1998), both of whom went on to win the season championship in a rout).

How likely is Harvick to cash in? Here’s a look at all MENCS drivers who won five of the first 12 starts in a season and what their year-end stats were.

5 WINS IN FIRST 12 STARTS (MIN. 12 STARTS)

1954: Herb Thomas

Finished: 12 wins*, 1,252 laps led*, 2nd in points

1955: Tim Flock

Finished: 18 wins*, 3,227 laps led*, series champion (second place in laps led that year: 790)

1964: Fred Lorenzen

Finished: Eight wins, 2,375 laps led in just 16 starts (13th in points despite 62-race season)

1965: Junior Johnson

Finished: 13 wins*, 3,984 laps led* in just 36 starts (12th in points despite 55-race season)

1971: Richard Petty

Finished: 21 wins* (10 more than anyone else), 4,932 laps led, series champion

MODERN ERA

1972: David Pearson

Finished: Six wins, 12 top-five finishes in just 17 starts

1973: David Pearson

Finished: 11 wins*, 14 top-five finishes in just 18 starts (still 13th in points)

1974: Cale Yarborough

Finished: 10 wins*, 3,530 laps led*, second in points

1975: Richard Petty

Finished: 13 wins*, 3,158 laps led*, series champion

1976: David Pearson

Finished: 10 wins*, 16 top-five finishes in 22 starts (ninth in points despite eight races missed)

1977: Cale Yarborough

Finished: Nine wins*, 3,218 laps led*, series champion

1982: Darrell Waltrip

Finished: 12 wins*, 3,028 laps led*, series champion

1985: Bill Elliott

Finished: 11 wins*, 1,920 laps led*, second in points, won Winston Million

1987: Dale Earnhardt

Finished: 11 wins*, 3,357 laps led* (2nd best: 1,399), series champion

1997: Jeff Gordon

Finished: 10 wins*, 22 top-five finishes*, 1,647 laps led, series champion

2018: Kevin Harvick

Finished season: ????

– led series

As you can see, it’s a rare occurrence (just 16 times in 70 seasons and only the second time in 30 years). Ten of the 15 previous times, the driver went on to finish no lower than second in the standings. The other five times? The driver was running part-time so a championship would have been impossible.

The fact Harvick’s accomplished this feat in the modern era, where 20-25 cars have a realistic shot to win each week is beyond impressive. Add in stages, double-file restarts, pit strategy on late caution flags and… you get the picture. Among those peers who have never matched this sizzling start: Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Rusty Wallace.

If there was any doubt Harvick was a NASCAR Hall of Famer, I think this season is putting it to rest. There’s no question he enters Memorial Day weekend as the overwhelming favorite for the 2018 title.

Did You Notice? … The bizarre reaction to NY Racing’s return to NASCAR? This week’s Coca-Cola 600 entry list ballooned to 41 with the entry of the new No. 7 Steakhouse Elite Chevrolet. The team, formerly known as the No. 44 Team Xtreme car is owned by Johnathan Cohen and hasn’t competed at the Cup level since 2015.

In case you forgot, the last time we saw Cohen is when a March 2015 warrant was issued for his arrest. A failed Manhattan nightclub led to a $55,000 judgment he had supposedly not paid to two former business partners. That was after one of his race cars, stolen from a parking lot during the Atlanta Cup race weekend was recovered but without $100,000 in parts and supplies. Crew members claimed Cohen owed them money, chaos reigned and the team suspended operations just six races into the year.

Make no bones about it: the situation was a mess. On the list of new owners you’d choose to be on the entry list, Cohen wouldn’t make your top 200. That said… it’s a new team, a new car in an age where the charter system makes breaking into the sport near impossible. You’d think more supply in terms of cars and owners at the track is a good thing.

But not everyone sees it that way. Most notably, Chip Ganassi Racing partner (and influential Race Team Alliance Chairman) Rob Kauffman criticized the new NY Racing entry.

It’s an exceptionally strong response to a team that might not even qualify for Sunday’s race. NY Racing is one of five teams fighting for four part-time spots on the grid; the other 36 are guaranteed to Kauffman and the other owners holding charters. NY Racing’s purse money comes out of a fund that’s significantly less than what’s given to those full-time programs.

So what does it matter there’s more part-time teams? As Kauffman knows, the few charters changing hands these past few years haven’t exactly been worth tens of millions. There’s been little demand to buy while the sport struggles to simply fill the field with 40 cars.

Having new owners attempt to qualify, in theory I’d argue shows there’s some interest in others breaking into NASCAR. The thought would be you can build your team by qualifying weekly and racing without a charter; then, you can secure a spot full-time by purchasing one. So if NY Racing wants to play against Chip Ganassi, why not? They have every right to be there if their car is NASCAR sanctioned and legal. Last time I checked, the field was 40 cars, not 36. And maybe there would be a buyer willing to pay more for spots down the road if there were weekly DNQs again.

But Kauffman and the RTA don’t want others to have a seat at the table unless they do it their way (i.e. – buy a charter and pay a fee). Hiring a new executive director, Jonathan Marshall, last week is the latest move in what appears to be a power struggle as NASCAR goes up for sale. The longtime owners want their piece of the pie protected and are increasingly bonding together in a way they feel is in their financial interest (wrapped into the sport’s long-term financial interest).  For decades, NASCAR was a family-owned benevolent dictatorship but the RTA seems to be itching for some sort of NFL owner’s meeting with shared decision-making authority.

You know, I feel like we’ve seen this movie before. Team owners increasingly consolidate their power at a time the sanctioning body seems vulnerable. The resulting battle for leadership leads to division among rich men. Power struggles ultimately lead to philosophical differences and a split of a major racing series.

See: CART/IRL, mid-1990s. It’s happened once and it can happen again. The rise of RTA’s power and influence is worth watching.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….

  • My comment on the new MENCS handling package: I’m somewhere in the middle. There’s no question the racing produced the best All-Star Race we’ve seen in a decade, probably more. There were 12 lead changes in 93 laps Saturday night, one less than what we saw in 267 laps at Kansas a week earlier. For the first time all year, Nielsen ratings were flat year-to-year (no decline) and it felt like NASCAR officials were ready to hold a party in the streets. Fans overall appeared happy, although I think everyone ran with it a bit too quickly. Bravo to everyone involved for taking a serious stab at a product that needed help.

But happy doesn’t mean completely fixed; that’s important. For some, the cars were too slow and comments from the stands reflected that fact. One person attending I spoke to (who attended with several friends) claimed his section felt the cars were “running in place” even though they were often side by side. The excitement of the actual passing was sometimes lost in translation, he said, due to slower speed. The leader also had (albeit a smaller) aero advantage everyone still noticed. This source claimed his section left the race with mixed reviews.

That’s just one opinion but it also shows you this race wasn’t 100% OMG NASCAR IS SAVED FOREVER!!! Overall, is this race a step in the right direction? Absolutely. There’s no question NASCAR’s on the right track, especially with the spoiler and duct work. Bravo. But restrictor plates to me are the lazy fix. We need to take what we learned here, go back to the drawing board and come up with a happy medium long term. Putting plate racing on all the cookie-cutter tracks I predict would get old quickly. Making sure there’s a mix of handling and tire falloff at each track remains critically important.

NASCAR needs to make sure this package is perfected and implemented right. Desperation should not lead to moving up the timeline even though….

  • …. One of my short-term fears here is what happens now. Fans have seen a cookie-cutter package that works significantly better and what comes next? A Coca-Cola 600 with the old package that could easily be a ten-second runaway for Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. or somebody else. When people realize the shiny new toy is at least several months away (those few XFINITY races notwithstanding) will they be more likely to turn off the product they have in front of them?

Probably not for the playoffs, I suspect. But it may make NASCAR more vulnerable to some ratings dips as the regular season slogs into summer.

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Russ

Kaufman’s comments ought to open the eyes of those who havn’t realized, up to this point, that the goal of the team owners is to prevent their slice of the pie being reduced. Started with the Top 35 and the Charter system institutionalized it.

pb

Rob Kauffman would do well to remember how being out of his depth driving at LeMans nearly got a man killed. Kauffman was there because of his checkbook, not talent. He would also do well to remember his role with MWR, now out of business thanks to his leadership. Then, Rob Kauffman should be quiet and realize that he has never built a race team and, in fact, has no clue what grass roots fans like. Fans love an underdog story. His Bernie Ecclestone act is a bad look.

JDinNC

Too bad when you finish the 2018 Harvick stat line for 2018 it may end “finiished 4th in championship due to final winner take all crapshoot playoff system.” I’m not a Harvick fan, but if he and his team continues to kick everyone else’s butt this season, he deserves to be champion, not have it taken away in the final race because of the contrived final championship race format.

Bill B

Yes, that would be the final ironic twist and the main reason the current system is flawed. Hey, at least with all the playoff points and stages, assuming he doesn’t totally collapse, it’s highly probable that he will be in that final 4. Having been a Gordon fan, and feeling that he got robbed in 2007 (he was leading the points by an insurmountable amount after 26 races), this current format would have been much more fair.

Andy

that’s why NASCAR last year was holding its collective breath that Truex held off Cryle Busch at Homestead….

SmarterThanYo

If Kyle Busch had beaten Truex at Homestead, he would have been the champion with 6 wins to Truex’s 7. That is hardly a devastating result. Especially compared to the years double digit winners were denied championships, including Jeff Gordon, Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace. The old system was flawed; the new system is flawed. Individual sports championships, including golf and tennis, are always flawed. Winning events, especially major events is more important in tennis and golf than the points championship and it should be that way in NASCAR too. Ask the average sports fan who won the Cup in NASCAR last year and you will either get a blank look or a guess. And that’s as it should be. All this arguing over championship points is silly and parochial. Nobody cares.

Dave in Ohio

Rob Kaufman is an idiot. Without checking back, I think this will be the first time this year that more than 40 cars will be competing for a spot in the (already reduced) 40 car field. Short fields indicate a weak sport and devalue the charters, overfull fields indicate a strong sport and add value to charters. What is more classic Na$car that a small barnstormer trying to run with the big boys? You could fill volumes with teams that ran cup races whenever they had the money through out the history of Na$car. THE WOOD BROTHERS ran part time when they could not afford full time, for pete’s sake. Does this IDIOT think the WOOD BROTHERS are not a legitimate team because they could only afford to run part time? Look where they are now.

All this from a guy who dreamed up the RTA as a way to pocket millions selling the charters awarded to his closed and failed race team. I guess it’s ok to fail and close the doors on several teams in the midst of a huge cheating scandal than it is to only run the races you can afford. What an idiot. Did I mention that?

Al Torney

Your remark that up to 25 teams have a realistic shot at winning is itself not realistic. Currently there are only a handful of teams that are competitive. Actually the Stewart-Haas Team, Penske two Joe Gibbs cars and the Furniture Row Team are the only consistent competitors after 12 races. We can also throw in Kyle Larsen but he is a loose cannon. Hendrick teams, Childress, Roush, McMurray, Erik Jones, and Suarez are having hardly competitive at all. I know Dillon won the 500 but where has he run since?
Penske and Ganassi where major players in the open wheel fiasco. They are well aware of the consequences of going down that road. Especially with the downward spiral of NASCAR popularity. Now is not the time to rock the boat. Big Bill ruled the sport with an iron fist, Bill Jr. was a tad more forgiving but still pretty firm. Bill Jr. took the sport to the top. One thing they had in common was they attended the races and kept their attention on the pulse of the sport. One has to wonder who even runs the sport now. The RTA was created to protect the owner’s investment in the sport not to advance the sport. That has yet to work. We certainly do not see people lined up to buy franchises.

I keep thinking back to the day when The Childress-Earnhardt juggernaut was the team to beat and Richard said it was tough being out front because it was hard to know what to do to stay there. When you are behind you know what has to be done to advance. The teams currently trailing Stewart-Haas will get better and will give them a good run in the end. Harvick will remain competitive but their domination will end.

As far as the All Star package went my feeling is that the short segments contributed to the perceived closeness of the competition. We have to see how it plays out on a long green flag run in a points paying race. The answer may be to leave the cars alone and just have mandatory cautions throughout the race like they did in the truck series. After all that is what competition cautions and segment racing are anyway. Besides once the teams get to work on any changes that are made the results will always be the same in the end, single file racing.

SmarterThanYo

Kevin Harvick is a sure Hall of Famer, because with the current voting standards, any driver who ever wins a race will probably get into the HOF, not to mention one who never won a race, but who somehow blazed a trail for anyone willing to use soft porn as a racing credential. Yet, to declare him champion at this stage of the season is silly. He has the fastest car now. Who knows how long that will last? Truex just barely made it last through Homestead last year and was falling fast into Kyle Busch’s clutches when the season ended. The Penske cars are good, Busch and Hamlin are good, and the rest of SHR is good. The old championship format allowed for a season dominator to lose based on a few bad finishes. The new championship format does the same. The only difference is that through 4 seasons, the current format has led to the most deserving champion in every case. Can we make it 5 in a row or will the odds finally catch up with the favorite?

If NASCAR were a sport based on an athlete’s performance alone, I would agree Harvick is in a class by himself now. But since driver is always secondary to car, Harvick could turn into something very ordinary by November. That is the reality that NASCAR fans and media types consistently fail to see about their sport and why the question of whether drivers are athletes at all keeps coming into play.

The fastest car trumps the most talented driver every time.

DoninAjax

A good car needs a good driver. A bad driver in a good car is still a bad driver.

Russ

But its a heck of a lot easier for a average driver to win in a great car than a great driver win in an average car.

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