Did You Notice?… NASCAR’s top nine team owners in Sprint Cup have come together to form their own, separate “organization?” Of course you did, as it’s been the top story of a slow news summer. Rob Kauffman, co-owner of Michael Waltrip Racing will head up a new Race Team Alliance (RTA) that includes the top nine funded teams in the sport. Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske, Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates and MWR make up its initial membership.
That’s a powerful number, equivalent to 26 of the 43 full-time cars competing on the Cup Series circuit. All those not involved are single-car outfits (like Furniture Row Racing) heavily dependent on the larger teams for support or underfunded, multi-car teams like Tommy Baldwin Racing simply trying to drudge up enough backing each week to keep coming to the racetrack. The fact these owners are coming together immediately forms a powerful entity, the likes of which was never seen during two eras of heavy-handed NASCAR dictatorship in the form of Bill France, Sr. and Bill France, Jr.
The goal of these owners, they claim is to reduce costs, a noble effort in an age where NASCAR sponsorship pricing has remained steady but interest, viewership, and future growth in the sport has taken major hits. The “jump to conclusions” (thank you, Office Space) theory for many following the sport, though is that these owners have unionized, coming together for their own agenda NASCAR must support… or else.
Its formation, should it hold in my view instantly minimizes the power of NASCAR and Brian France. Could you imagine, per se the sport passes an engine rule change for next year these multi-car owners don’t like, designed to get new faces and investors involved that could one day challenge their dominance at the top. If this RTA organization says, “If you make this change, we’ll all go ‘on strike’ and not show up at Daytona” how could NASCAR continue to function? What, is BK Racing going to go out there, with three-year-old equipment funding 43 cars to run the Daytona 500?
In the past, when driver unions or similar formations have taken place strong leadership down in the oval office of Daytona has torn them to shreds. The Frances, for years have been known for that type of totalitarian environment but let’s face facts: Brian, no matter what you think about him is just not that type of leader. There’s no true response from NASCAR on this alliance because they have no response. These owners, this RTA after years of unchecked growth is now more integral to the survival of NASCAR as a sport than the leadership of the sport itself.
How the RTA functions going forward, then, as it solidifies could determine the landscape of NASCAR for the next decade to come. If a goal is to reduce costs, well, will these nine owners do that, eventually letting all other teams in the RTA (which is their stated goal) when that reduction increases parity and thus, allows other organizations to creep into their stranglehold on the front? Other owners winning races spreads growth in the sport but also gives Ganassi, Hendrick, Roush, etc. a financial hit when these race teams are a major source of their functional income. Can these multi-car owners, with no guarantee of franchising and their continued future place in the sport allow others to enter their country club of success, knowing it’s good for business in the long run but bad for their own, personal bottom line in the short term? It’s not only possible, but probable they could reach that type of conclusion; after all, the New York Yankees, in Major League Baseball recognize the luxury tax as a major evil to allow all teams, big and small to remain competitive and keep fans filling stadiums for years to come.
Or are these owners too greedy, looking to solidify their stake in the sport and the financial stake that comes with it in the face of potential opposition? After all, there’s no “franchising” in NASCAR, which means failure costs them a fortune in a series where “bankruptcy” or going belly-up goes unprotected. It’s part of a list of open-ended, unanswered questions that could go 1,000 different directions. Are these owners willing to make a major sacrifice, or are they drawing a line in the sand, preparing to protect themselves as stock car racing reaches out to other investors, manufacturers, and potential owners to get them involved? We do know, based on how IndyCar has worked over the last decade leaving the bargaining power in the form of a select few owners, where the sport’s CEO (remember Randy Bernard?) has been fairly ineffective doesn’t really do much to move the needle – except when you’re pointing to the ground.
Kauffman, whose MWR organization is smack in the middle of the pack when it comes to both results and financial success is viewed as a moderate leader with potential. But, let’s not forget, he’s also at the epicenter of a cheating scandal last Fall in which the financial greed of making the Chase overwhelmed his organization into making decisions that forever tainted the competition. That’s not exactly the perfect track record on which to trust. So I’d say yes, the RTA bears watching but with a skeptical eye. Actions, in the next six months will speak louder than any “nice nice” words we hear from people trying to say all the right things right now for what is an unprecedented formation within the world of stock car racing.
Did You Notice?… Tuesday showed us a potential loophole in NASCAR’s penalty system? At Daytona, Kurt Busch was caught in postrace inspection for a panhard bar issue. Officially, it was diagnosed as a P2 violation, part of the sport’s new system that clarifies fines, points deductions and other punishments doled out for breaking the rules. As a result, because the Z-height measurement between the center of the panhard bar mounting bolt (located at the left truck trailing arm) and the center of the panhard bar mounting bolt, located at the right rear sub-frame mounting bracket, exceeded three inches the team endured a $10,000 fine (applied to crew chief Daniel Knost) and lost 10 driver/owner points.
Sounds like a normal penalty, right? Of course. But how, exactly is Busch being penalized aside from the fine? His regular season points standing, since he’s all but earned a spot in the Chase doesn’t suffer. Even with the penalty, Busch remains around 150 points up on 31st-place David Gilliland; Gilliland may not even score 150 points between now and the end of the regular season. $10,000, what the No. 41 team was hit with is pocket change as opposed to the millions they could win by taking home the Cup Series title.
Facing that type of imbalance, why wouldn’t a team looking for an inside edge come September test the gray area now? If you get caught, there’s nothing to lose; Busch’s “criminal record” will have no impact once the points get reset this postseason. Why not play in the danger zone, see if you get caught and if not, well, you know what tricks of the trade to use for the final ten races?
There’s an easy fix to this problem for NASCAR: make all penalties that incur during the regular season impact a driver’s potential postseason standing. For example, if Kurt got a P4 penalty and had 20 driver points taken away, apply said penalty now and once the points are reset for the postseason. There’s no better way to derail cheating than hitting the teams where it really counts, right? Otherwise, with the way the Chase structure is – a system where you can “lock in” a postseason bid up to six months early – the door is wide open to play sort of when it comes to the rules on occasion.
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off:
– With Richard Petty Motorsports remaining with Ford, Toyota still has a prime opening or two if they want to expand their NASCAR Cup operation. But why not pour money into BK Racing instead, making them the other “factory” team with Michael Waltrip Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing? You’ve got a three-car team there, surviving in an era where lower-tier teams struggle to get to the track each week and three rookies to boot: Alex Bowman, Ryan Truex, and Cole Whitt. There’s no better way to invest in NASCAR’s future than to invest in the drivers leading them into the future, right? There were indications, when Swan Racing closed up shop Toyota was increasing their presence with BK and their 2015 inclusion into a factory program would be nice to see.
– Brian Vickers, second at Daytona Sunday is the defending race winner at New Hampshire. Marcos Ambrose has dominated Watkins Glen in the recent past. Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, and Tony Stewart haven’t won. It’s still so easy to get to 16 winners… so those who are points racing, like three-car Richard Childress Racing have to be getting a little nervous, no? I applaud RCR’s strategy, which has gotten all three of their drivers in Chase position if the season ended now. If you can’t beat ’em, top-10 ’em to death, right? But at some point, RCR may have to take a big risk to ensure they don’t get shoved out by others visiting Victory Lane.
– Wouldn’t it have been nice if Tony Stewart just went off a little further on Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.? No one wants to deal with the media circus generated by a “good vs. evil” rivalry within the world of NASCAR these days. But what caused the sport to grow? “Good vs. evil” rivalries, generated in fans’ heads involving Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, etc. The choice of drivers, increasingly these days is to keep their mouth shut, a sound of silence that is far more damaging than the “sound bite of the season” that would pop up all over the country in its place.
– There are plenty of people complaining NASCAR should have ran all 160 laps on Sunday, waiting out the rain for several more hours. That’s fine; we’re all entitled to our own opinion. But when so many of them criticized NASCAR for not postponing the Daytona 500 after a lengthy rain delay, resulting in the “12 Hours of Daytona” five months earlier that’s a double standard. Which was worse? Because you can’t have it both ways…