Questions about the Top 35 rule, issues facing the top teams, Car of Tomorrow, and more
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2008 Athlon Sports Racing annual
1. Has the Top 35 rule run its course?
Without question. Frankly, the rule should have never been around in the first place. It was designed at the end of 2004 to combat “field filler” operations — bare-bones Cup teams using provisionals just to start and park — and it was debatable whether such a drastic move was even needed to kill them off. There’s no doubt the rule did just that; within six months, it knocked out entire organizations looking simply to show up and collect a check each week.
But NASCAR circa 2008 is a whole different story. With 47 full-time teams now involved in the series, competition is at an all-time high. Each weekend, fully funded teams like Michael Waltrip Racing, Team Red Bull and The Wood Brothers come to the track loaded and ready to race — except that they have one hand tied behind their backs. For those outside the top 35 in points, the majority of Friday practice must be focused on qualifying, while teams with exemptions can work on race setups from the start. That creates a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario: if those “outsider” teams actually make the race, they have so much less practice time that it’s nearly impossible for them to dig out of the hole they’re in. It’s an ugly merry-go-round that never stops, and for those lying squarely on the top 35 “bubble,” the importance of maintaining their position has become so high that they wind up racing conservatively rather than letting it all hang out.
NASCAR’s motives are somewhat pure. It wants to protect both the sponsors and teams putting hard-earned money into the series each week. But isn’t sports about competition, not safety nets? To its credit, the sanctioning body at least made a change this offseason that allowed the non-top 35 teams to qualify together. But what good will that do in a system where the ninth-fastest qualifying time still could get sent home, just because the team didn’t have as many points as everyone else?
The Gatorade Duel 150’s at Daytona are now simply nothing more than a glorified math problem. How fun are qualifying races to watch when three dozen cars are automatically in the field to begin with?
Here’s the ugly truth: nowadays a major sponsor will go home each week — that’s just the way it is. But it’s time to let to the driving on the track decide which of those sponsors it will be. After all, isn’t qualifying part of the competition that makes a race weekend a ‘race weekend’?
2. Will a rivalry develop between Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
Originally, we would have said no — and then two incidents during the Chase got us thinking differently. Busch’s chances at a title went up in smoke courtesy of an “accidental” tap by Junior at Kansas, a boo-boo that would be 100 percent believable — if it hadn’t occurred on the middle of the back straightaway. The two wound up coming together again at Homestead, where Junior’s pit road spinout caused him to make contact with the No. 5 car. By then, title dreams for Busch were up in smoke, but that didn’t keep him from being smoking mad at Junior all over again.
Look, it’s no secret that Busch is bitter after being pushed out of a ride at Hendrick, an organization he thought he’d be in the rest of his career. It’s not all that often you see a man who finished fifth in points switching rides at the beginning of the next season, and in Kyle’s defense, he’s got reason to complain. The fact of the matter is, no amount of immaturity would have taken him out of a ride he excelled in if Mr. Popularity hadn’t been available.
But while Junior was adjusting to a brighter future, Busch got busy landing on his feet over at rival Joe Gibbs Racing, and that’s what makes this interesting. Not only is Busch out to prove he’s been wronged by the team that dumped him, but the kid might also have the equipment underneath him to make his case. In ’08 testing at Atlanta last Fall, Busch blew his old team — as well as everyone else — out of the water, posting the fastest time of anyone there in his new Toyota Camry.
That left no doubt that Busch is fired up, but will he do enough to piss off his replacement? A laid-back personality most of the time, Junior can be fiery on the radio but rarely on the racetrack; unlike his dad, he’ll say I’m sorry after a wreck instead of shaking his middle finger. Still, with the pressure to perform at Hendrick likely to cause more than a little stress next year, don’t be surprised to see a whole different Junior if he gets involved in a wreck not of his making; and right now, it’s not a question of if he’ll receive some payback from Busch. It’s a question of when.
3. What are the potential pitfalls of financial investors entering the sport?
George Gillett, Robert Kauffman and John Henry, we don’t mean to be rude. There’s nothing but respect for the millions of dollars you bring to the NASCAR table — and the all-too-gracious attitude you’ve displayed in spending what it takes to be competitive.
It’s just that, well, you’re a different breed of “car owner” than what we’re accustomed to seeing. Bud Moore, Junie Donlavey, Junior Johnson — now these were men who cared about the traditions of our sport, mostly because they lived it. Along for the ride since NASCAR’s inception, these famous entrepreneurs succeeded at racing’s top level without the seemingly unlimited funding it takes to be competitive nowadays. Most important, though, when the going got tough, they dug in their heels. Diehard racers to the core, by no means would they ever just pack up and leave, for NASCAR wasn’t just a job for them — it was part of their soul.
Where the hesitation comes in with men like Gillett, Kauffman and Henry is whether they entertain that same type of love for a sport they’re approaching as little more than part of a business. Some might argue that these men couldn’t even name 10 drivers in a 43-car field as recently as six months ago; now, all three wield enormous power over the top level of the most prestigious stock car organization in the world.
That’s not to say these men can’t be successful. But what if they bite off more than they can chew, losing more money than expected right off the bat? Will they stick around and gut out their losses, or will they simply cut and run, leaving a trail of broken hearts and shattered dreams in their wake? Such a nightmare scenario of crashing and burning in NASCAR can already be condensed into two words: Bobby Ginn. In February, Ginn was the maverick owner with a five-year plan whose driver nearly stole the Daytona 500; by November, he was the maverick scam artist with a list of out-of-court settlements a mile long.
You can’t really blame people like Ray Evernham, Michael Waltrip and even Jack Roush for taking these guys on — NASCAR’s a game of who has the most money these days, and they’ve got to do what it takes to keep up.
For their sake, we just hope those checks keep coming in.
4. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back at DEI, and what happens now?
The worst thing any fan can hear from the insiders is “we may never know the truth.” In this case, though, the issues between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his stepmother Teresa look to be increasingly complex, far beyond the power struggle that has played out in the media. There’s a saying that family quarrels have a bitterness unmatched by others, and when it comes to a lifetime of differences, no one can adequately explain that story better than both parties, each giving their side. Unfortunately for the gossip hounds, Teresa has chosen to keep her mouth shut; that’s her prerogative, and until that changes all we can tell you is that this move came down to basic, irreconcilable differences in philosophy — nothing more, nothing less.
Now, DEI looks to the future, and to do so it must first come to terms with the past — and that goes beyond digesting the fact that Junior is gone. Last July, DEI ingested a sprawling operation in Ginn Racing, and as of November it was still struggling to integrate that merger into every facet of its program. Luckily for DEI, that merger came packed with one heck of a secret weapon: Mark Martin. Even at 48, Martin possesses the type of leadership skills and insight this organization needs to formulate a plan of cohesive success. Having taken youngster Regan Smith under his wing in ’07, Martin hopes to do the same type of tutoring this year with co-driver Aric Almirola.
But the individual who really could benefit from Martin’s teachings is the other Martin. Martin Truex Jr. emerged as far more than Earnhardt’s sidekick in ’07; once his buddy became a “lame duck,” Truex stepped up and took the leadership role to heart over at DEI. However, a frustrating Chase seemed to cause him to revert to the Truex of old, letting emotions get the better of him one too many times. For DEI to step it up, Truex needs to bring it down a notch — driving with his head and not with his heart. If he can learn to be patient, there’s nowhere to go with this four-car program but up — especially now that the loss of Joe Gibbs Racing has bumped it up the ladder at Chevrolet.
5. Are team orders ruining racing?
It’s on the verge of happening. Fans may remember the ugliness of 2004 at Richmond, when we believe that this all began. In a desperation move, Chip Ganassi Racing angrily demanded that James Finch’s car driven by Mike Wallace should “slow down” in order for Jamie McMurray to pass. At the time, Ganassi gave technical support to Finch’s group, and with a berth in the Chase at stake for McMurray, it figured competition be damned.
Luckily for the good of the sport, Wallace didn’t give in, but the price tag proved high, as the small-time team lost its partnership with Ganassi soon after. You’d think that ugly incident would have sounded the NASCAR alarm, but ever since that day, it seems the problem has gotten 10 times worse.
At Dover this season, a glimpse into a repulsive future was offered to all of us; at the end of the race, Casey Mears reluctantly pulled over for his teammate Kyle Busch at the request of the Hendrick organization, giving Busch five more points in the battle for the ’07 title. At the time, Busch’s car was a mangled mess, damaged in an earlier wreck; but even though Mears had four fresh tires, his shot for the win became secondary to “being a good teammate.” When that move went public, the garage reaction was even more revolting. Not only did people feel Hendrick was in the right, but they also claimed that the team was merely doing what was necessary to keep up with the Joneses. Why, just one week earlier, Greg Biffle had done the exact same thing for Roush Fenway Racing at New Hampshire — all in the name of giving Carl Edwards that three-point boost for the title.
But what’s good for the team isn’t good for competition. What’s going to happen one year when Mears is leading the final race of the season at Homestead, but Jeff Gordon’s running second and needs to take the win in order to complete his Drive For Five?
At this point, there’s virtually no doubt Mears would pull over, cutting the fan base in half with the white flag of surrender. Now, if you’re NASCAR, how do you police this? We don’t have the answer yet, but throwing up your hands and doing nothing about it — the sanctioning body’s response to this so far — is not going to help correct this problem.
6. Car of Tomorrow: Success or Failure?
NASCAR’s latest method for tightening its control over the sport came in the form of the much-heralded (and ballyhooed) Car of Tomorrow. The CoT made its debut at Bristol last season to not-so-rave reviews. Race winner Kyle Busch went so far as to say the car “sucked” in his Victory Lane interview.
The car, which was implemented to provide a safer machine to the competitors while increasing competition and saving owners money, has widely been panned by drivers, teams and fans alike.
While the first two CoT events, at Bristol and Martinsville, witnessed .064- and .065-second margins of victory — not unusual for a short track finish — the other 14 CoT races proved hard to watch.
With aerodynamic adjustments off-limits to the teams, the cars were cookie-cutter recreations of one another with no aero differences. While that may sound like a recipe for great racing — bunch the field up and the drama goes up proportionally — it instead made it hard for drivers to pass, as Matt Kenseth pointed out.
“If everybody is running the same speed, how are you gonna pass?” he asked. Good question.
Drivers, teams, officials and NASCAR understand that the car is still a work in progress and will most likely improve the financial conditions that owners now face. The racing itself will also improve a bit over time as drivers and teams continue to perfect the nuances of the piece.
In the short term, though, NASCAR must deal with a backlash from fans who accurately see a series that once rewarded ingenuity transformed into a resurrected IROC Series.
So the answer seems to be that the Car of Tomorrow Era is off to a shaky start, and that the directive from the sanctioning body will continue to be a less-than-popular one. But the car is not going away, so like it or not, this is the face of the sport, circa 2008.
7. Which driver at Roush Racing stands the greatest chance of losing his ride as the company condenses from five to four teams by 2009?
Trick question! The answer is none. In case you haven’t noticed, the two-car team that was Yates Racing has quietly transformed into a little dinner joint we like to call “Roush B.” Ever since former owner Robert Yates announced his retirement, the organization he led to the ’99 Cup championship has now deteriorated into little more than the new right arm for Jack Roush’s future R & D projects. Consider these facts:
Within 48 hours after transferring the deed to his son, Doug, the open seat in the team’s No. 88 (now No. 28) car was magically filled for 2008 — by none other than Roush Fenway Truck Series driver Travis Kvapil. Kind of funny how that worked, considering the team already seemed to have a driver in place. Kenny Wallace was busy subbing for an injured Ricky Rudd at the time; up until Yates’ retirement announcement, he appeared all but a shoe-in to get the ride the following year.
But Wallace was kicked off the ship of the future, and soon afterwards, a lot of old-time Yates employees jumped off to join him on shore. The team quickly announced a move from their shop in Mooresville, N.C. to a building right next to the main Roush Fenway facility down the road in Concord. Right away, the new neighbors figured Doug Yates would need plenty of help, so they wasted no time sending a housewarming gift — a new co-owner. Former Roush Fenway GM Max Jones pledged to work together with Yates to oversee construction of chassis delivered by — you guessed it — the Roush Fenway program next door.
No offense to Jack Roush, but how much more obvious can you make the fact that you just expanded from five cars to seven? Now, all he has to do at the end of this season is have the Yates/Jones group “purchase” one of the teams currently in his possession. Like clockwork, the cars move one building down the road and — voila! — Roush is technically down to a four-car organization, washing his hands of this whole NASCAR team limit rule.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the elder Yates was OK with letting this happen. No doubt, it’s a sad state of affairs for a team that used to run circles around Roush no more than half a dozen years ago.
8. How will Dale Earnhardt Jr. fare at Hendrick Motorsports?
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his intention to leave Dale Earnhardt, Inc., last May, Rick Hendrick realized the potential of teaming his wildly successful organization — a company that boasts four Cup titles over the preceding decade — with the sport’s most recognizable, popular and marketable personality.
Although some have questioned Earnhardt’s true driving ability and where it stacks up against the greats of the sport, the 32-year-old does boast 17 career Cup wins, two Busch Series titles and three finishes of fifth or better in the Nextel Cup point standings. That’s more than many drivers — some thought to be more naturally gifted and in better equipment — can claim.
Junior left DEI to win championships, and the fact of the matter is, Hendrick Motorsports is the perfect place to go to achieve that goal. While he will have to learn to fit into the system at a company known for its white-collar approach and clean-cut, wholesome reputation, it should only be a matter of time before he finds his niche within the organization and learns to succeed working within its parameters.
How many princes can live in the same kingdom will be the larger issue with a group that includes Cup champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. But Hendrick is a leader of the highest caliber, and if anyone can make everyone play nice, it’s him.
Don’t expect Earnhardt to set the circuit ablaze this season, but he will rack up his share of wins in the next few years and should win the championship that proved unattainable at DEI.
9. Have the latest changes to the Chase format worked as expected?
It’s a mixed review of sorts. To a man, each driver liked the new way in which the playoff format was “seeded” in ’07; the extra bonus points for wins made finishes more exciting, as the extra incentive to go all out for a regular-season race trophy paid off.
But it seemed like having 12 drivers compete for the title made far too many people feel like they had a chance at the Chase, diminishing the focus on the racing at each individual event. Certain title contenders also pulled so far ahead of the 13th-place bubble that by the last month of the regular season, they spent a four-race stretch literally twiddling their thumbs. That’s a consequence of the 10-point win bonus; if a “locked-in” Chase driver doesn’t have a car that could win the race, why would he bother to take any chances? A fifth or a seventh wouldn’t really matter for Jeff Gordon in the grand scheme of things, since it wasn’t going to earn him a better playoff “seeding.”
So if the Chase still has to exist — and it looks like it’s not going anywhere — early results seem to be better with 10 drivers gunning for the title, not 12.
Check out this Richmond drama if the field had been cut by two in ’07: Clint Bowyer would have made it in by the skin of his teeth, at ninth in points by 19 over Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch. Those two would have tied for the 10th and final spot in the Chase, giving us an unlikely field of 11 contenders, with Kevin Harvick missing the boat by only five points.
Now that’s one heck of a battle for the playoffs. Instead, fans were treated to three straight hours of seeing if Brian France would simply change the rules and let longshot Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the Chase in 13th.
Such nonsense didn’t happen, and now the question is whether France has one more rule change left in him. Let’s see if he’ll use it for 2008.
10. Should Greg Biffle have been awarded the win at Kansas last season?
In one of the craziest races seen in quite some time, Greg Biffle was flagged the winner of the LifeLock 400 at Kansas Speedway last season. The event had been shortened by a lengthy rain delay and chopped from 400 miles to 315 on account of impending darkness.
After a late caution that would have taken the race into a green-white-checker finish, NASCAR decided to call the race then and there, with Biffle leading the field but running on fumes.
Coming to the checkers/yellow behind the pace car and at caution speed, Biffle’s car slowed, appearing to have run out of fuel. When Biffle dipped to the apron of the track, second- and third-place Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson cruised by, crossing the finish line ahead of Biffle.
Biffle claimed he was not out of fuel, but just conserving enough gas to do a few victory burnouts. He never did, though, as NASCAR asked his team to push the car directly to Victory Lane instead.
While Biffle and team claim otherwise, it seemed obvious that he was, in fact, out of fuel, and because he could not keep a “cautious pace” gave up his spot in the running order.
The rule book, which leaves plenty of room for interpretation, states:
“…cars will be scored on the basis of their respective track position. No passing will be permitted, as long as cars maintain a reasonable speed considering the conditions that exist on the track. The determination of respective track position and a reasonable speed are judgment calls that will be made by NASCAR Officials.”
Get that last part? “Reasonable speed (is a) judgment call that will be made by NASCAR Officials.”
How a driver can be flagged the winner without having crossed the start/finish line first remains a mystery. Although the field was frozen with Biffle in the lead, he could not keep a cautious speed, which truly is the central point here.
The singular objective in racing of any form is to complete the full distance of the event before all other competitors. Biffle did not.
So no, Greg Biffle should not have been awarded the Kansas win, but because the guys in race control seemingly fell asleep at the wheel, his victory will stand.
11. Why did Joe Gibbs Racing defect from Chevrolet to Toyota?
Three reasons: pecking order on the GM food chain, lots of cash and foresight.
JGR, although successful to the tune of 58 wins and three Cup titles in 16 seasons in the sport, would never supplant Hendrick Motorsports as GM’s top dog. At Toyota, the Gibbs powerhouse brings the swagger and success the new manufacturer desires. In short, JGR will receive the best resources Toyota has to give.
Some of what Toyota can give may have already been delivered. Gibbs was the recipient of a reported $60-$75 million to jump the GM ship. In a sport that is strictly a business six days a week, the bottom line demanded that Gibbs make the decision.
Lastly, Joe Gibbs is a man of vision. Whether winning Super Bowls or Cup titles, he has obviously mastered the art of motivation and leadership. If Gibbs’ transition results in wins and championships, other owners — Roger Penske and Ray Evernham come to mind — will wish they had had the foresight to capitalize on Toyota’s new way of doing business.
12. Is it time for NASCAR to revamp the schedule?
This topic is one that demands a feature unto itself but can be summed up quickly enough. The simple answer is yes, NASCAR needs to shake up the logistics of the schedule to better accommodate the teams and the fans. After all, 14- and 17-race streaks could be divided up to give everyone a well-deserved break.
NASCAR’s larger problem centers around the stagnation of the Chase and its venues. A 10-race playoff stretch is much too long to hold the attention of a fanbase already weary from a 26-race regular season. Further, said events need to be rotated among all of the circuit’s venues to ensure a renewed interest in a playoff format whose legitimacy and entertainment value are questioned by many as it now stands.
The unfortunate truth, however, tells us that changing the venues and/or dates may prove to be difficult at best. With Chase-hosted tracks basing their year-long marketing programs around the fact that they host a coveted spot on tour, the call would depend in large part on the blessings of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., and Dover Motorsport, Inc.
Like many issues alive within the sport today, the question is easier to answer on paper than to enact as policy.
13. What tracks are in jeopardy of losing a date now that Bruton Smith owns New Hampshire International Speedway?
The obvious answer is New Hampshire itself. When Smith, the owner and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., bought the one-mile oval from Bob Bahre in November 2007 for $340 million, the assumption was that he would move New Hampshire’s September date — the event that kicks off NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship — to Las Vegas, where the billionaire could host a spectacle in a city known for spectacles.
SMI owns and operates seven race tracks that host Cup events: Atlanta, Bristol, Infineon, Las Vegas, Lowe’s, New Hampshire and Texas. Atlanta, Bristol, Texas and, currently, New Hampshire each have two dates, and Smith has made his desire for a second date in Vegas widely known.
While New Hampshire is candidate No. 1 to forfeit a date, it also makes a case for itself to retain its events because of its location. NHIS, along with Watkins Glen and Pocono, are the only tracks in the coveted Northeast market to host Cup races. Also, if Smith were to upgrade the facility, installing lights and variable banking, the quality of racing would improve as well.
Atlanta is a candidate to give up a date as the South is well-represented, and the track has difficulty selling out both races. One of its dates could go to Vegas, with the new date swapped with NHIS to accommodate the first Chase date.
What Smith plans to do with his two new dates remain a mystery, but his track record (read: North Wilkesboro) points to a track being purchased for its dates, not its specific events.