Seven drivers have visited Victory Lane in seven races and not one is named Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne or Denny Hamlin. In case you didn’t notice, those all happen to be Hendrick and Gibbs drivers. Along with Kyle Busch, they dominated the Sprint Cup season in 2013. Gibbs and Hendrick won seven of the first eight races last season on the way to winning 21 of 36.
After seven races in 2014, each organization has won once. It’s because the playing field has leveled, and it’s not because Dale Earnhardt, Jr. drove his car over it. Several rule changes in the offseason, including no mandated ride heights for pre- and post-race inspection, changes in side-skirt clearance and a higher spoiler have helped create closer racing than we’ve seen in a long time.
The changes have also brought teams who were a step or two behind last season, such as Penske Racing, right to the front. Penske has already matched its win total from 2013. So has Stewart-Haas. Meanwhile, Ganassi Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports have inched closer to breaking through.
Sprint Cup hasn’t seen this kind of parity in a long time, maybe since the early 2000s when there were more organizations and less powerful super teams. Seven different winners in seven races doesn’t tell the full story of this season, either. Eighteen drivers have already recorded top-5 finishes and the top 26 in points have at least one top 10.
Better than any statistic I can throw at you, however, is that the racing is good. Really good. Texas, maybe more than any cookie-cutter track the series goes to, has become known for parade-style racing. It’s probably where the term “aero push” was coined. The extremely high speeds, combined with the stringent rules packages of the past, created that aero push and often kept cars in order like they were boxcars on a railroad track.
That wasn’t the case Monday in Texas, though. Jeff Gordon’s two-tire strategy on the final pit stop probably would’ve been a race-winning move in 2013. Joey Logano, even with four fresh tires, would’ve had a hard time making a move in Gordon’s wake. Instead, Logano rode on Gordon’s bumper from the restart to the white flag before pulling out and making the race-winning pass. Aero push didn’t keep the fastest car from winning at Texas on a weekend when the track record was set.
Possibly the biggest factor in the improved racing is NASCAR placing tolerances back in the hands of the teams. The sport’s solution to create closer racing in the past was to regulate everything from camber, to ride heights, to air pressures, to the color of Jimmie Johnson’s shoelaces. The problem with doing that is it places crew chiefs and engineers in a very small box and minimizes some of the ingenuity that fans love about the sport. NASCAR finally opened that box this season, especially with letting teams determine their own ride heights, which impacts a number of other things, including springs. If Chad Knaus wasn’t already sleeping on the floor at the shop, he probably is now, because everything is wide open again, and Hendrick, while still really, really fast, hasn’t found the secret to dominating the competition — not yet, at least.
The parity and close racing has been refreshing. There were 18 lead changes Monday at Texas in one of the better races we’ve seen at that track. That was the second-lowest number of lead changes this season, which speaks about the competition across the board. There were a race-record 33 the week before at Martinsville and 35 the week before that at Auto Club.
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The Hendrick and Gibbs drivers that haven’t won aren’t going to stay out of Victory Lane altogether. We can’t count on Earnhardt, Jr. to poop out parts at Johnson’s windshield every weekend or for Gordon to lead every race and keep losing. Still, Sprint Cup isn’t the Hendrick and Gibbs playground we’ve grown accustomed to. It’s wide open, for the first time in years and it’s not because of a new rule — but because NASCAR threw out the old ones.
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