Here’s a question that has no real tangible answer: Are NASCAR teams racing under the same management really equal?
Watching races in recent weeks has led to this curious question. There was no better reason to ask it than last week at Dover. Jimmie Johnson clearly had the best car on the track, yet his Hendrick Motorsports teammates finished 10th, 12th and 26th.
OK, the results weren’t horrible for the other three, but consider that Johnson led 298 laps. Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon combined led one lap, and that was Martin under caution. It’s extremely difficult to believe Johnson is that much better than two future Hall of Fame drivers.
I do believe the equipment is equal. Rick Hendrick would have it no other way. But where’s the information sharing? Yes, it should be every man for himself come race day, but one would think Hendrick would like a little more sharing if one team discovers something during a race that makes the car run a lot better.
This, to me, seems like it goes further than that. Johnson’s car was so much better than the rest of the Hendrick cars from the start of the race. So this wasn’t just in-race adjustments that came about through driver and crew chief interaction.
The Lowe’s team crew chief, the renowned Chad Knaus, obviously had a superior setup before the race. Maybe I’m out of the loop more than I think, but multiteam crew chiefs theoretically are supposed to share information leading up to a race and then implement what they can to match their drivers’ styles.
Johnson and Gordon both have said they like different setups, but I find it hard to believe that Gordon wouldn’t have been better than he was all weekend had his crew chief, Steve Letarte, and Knaus shared notes. If they did share notes and Letarte was privy to all the information available, then the 24 team has some serious issues.
Don’t get me wrong: Johnson and Knaus go out each week to beat Gordon, Martin, Earnhardt and everyone else. And they should. But it also benefits the 48 if the other three teams are running well. The more teammates Johnson gets in the Chase, the better off he will be.
And that’s not to mention the bottom line. Hendrick pours in millions more than he has to so his teams can be the best. If his crew chiefs are hoarding information, well, I can’t imagine that’s what the boss would want.
The Carl Long situation has divided the NASCAR media. I wrote shortly after the journeyman driver and his team were slapped with the most devastating penalty in NASCAR history that while the penalty was severe, it had its merits.
I still hold to that, in the fact that NASCAR wanted to send a stern message to its competitors that even though there aren’t 43 full-time teams this year, it won’t allow teams to cheat just to make the field and earn starting money.
However, I do feel that the point has been made and that, in this country of second chances, maybe NASCAR could cut the penalty in half and still get the job done. And, like several writers I respect, I wonder if NASCAR would have been so bold if the guilty party had been one of the sport’s stars?
Remember a few years ago when the term “field fillers” first made it into the NASCAR lingo? Well, they’re back, and the same question comes up all the time: Is it right for a team to qualify for a race, run a handful of laps and park the car?
There’s certainly nothing illegal about the practice, but it sure doesn’t feel right. It seems to send the message that it’s OK for a team to intentionally lose. Trust me, NASCAR officials detest the practice and it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see measures taken to eliminate it.
What can be done? The most obvious fix would be to shorten the fields. Would fans really notice if 36 or 38 cars started a race? The purses would be a bit better for the full-time teams. Or NASCAR could implement a minimum speed to make the race, a certain percentage from 30th on back as it relates to the pole sitter.
Of course, if the economy turns around and sponsors return to the sport, the field fillers will be gone. No one would complain about that.
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...