NASCAR Sprint Cup: New contenders arise each week

jutter@charlotteobserver.comApril 5, 2014 

— What’s the old adage? If you can’t beat them, join them.

That’s certainly true in NASCAR these days with perhaps an important expansion:

“If you can’t beat them, join in a technical alliance with them.”

Over the past decade, the teams of Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing have produced a majority of the wins and championships in the Sprint Cup Series.

That’s not likely to change anytime soon. What has changed is their collective growing influence on the rest of the field, which has in turn – intentionally or not – improved the parity between the “haves” and “have nots.”

Entering Sunday’s Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, there have been six different winners in the season’s first six races and the only team with more than one win is Stewart-Haas Racing, which gets engine and technical support from Hendrick.

But look beyond the wins, and you’ll see a growing list of surprise contenders each week.

In two of the past three races, both drivers from Richard Petty Motorsports – Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola – have finished in the top 10. RPM gets chassis and technical support from Roush Fenway.

In the past two races, A.J. Allmendinger – running with the single-car team of JTG Daugherty Racing – has finished 11th or higher. JTGD is in its first season with a technical alliance with RCR.

“I think the depth of the field this year is really strong, at least it’s been a lot stronger than it’s been the last couple of years, I think,” said Allmendinger, in his first full season driving for JTGD.

“At the top you are still going to have your same normal guys, but I think just 20th, 25th on back all the way into the 30s, every team has gotten a little bit stronger.”

The expansion of technical alliances is certainly a contributing factor. Another perhaps unintended one: NASCAR loosening its grips on what teams can do to affect the set-ups of their cars.

“NASCAR did a very good job of looking at its rulebook over the winter. It really opened a wide spectrum on set-ups and you can actually tailor your car more to the driver than to the rulebook,” said Tad Geschickter, co-owner of JTG Daugherty.

“More and more of these big teams are creating an opportunity for teams like ours to take part in these technical alliances. Where I had four engineers before, now with the Childress alliance I have access to 44.

“The alliance has been a tremendous help for us and for the sport as it increases the parity among teams.”

The alliances work both ways and not just in terms of financial benefit. By including “satellite” teams in discussions regarding on-track performance in practices and races, the entire organization’s database of information increases.

“I look at it as an opportunity to learn more, understand new ideals,” said Hendrick driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., talking about Hendrick’s alliance with SHR. “It’s a good partnership that works both ways.

“You sort of build those relationships throughout the year with those guys and it all works back and forth.”

Also organizations and their technical partners can coordinate testing among all teams which then share information to better each team’s pool of available data from which they draw.

“I am never happy when we go to the race track and our two cars are as distant apart as they were last year with Aric running in the top 10 and Marcos struggling and crashing and just not finishing races,” said Sammy Johns, RPM’s director of competition.

“From my seat, that is troublesome because we are putting the same effort into both cars. This year, with the additional engineering we have added and the personnel and equipment we are able to have both cars running together on the race track and working the best together that I have ever seen.”

The competition for wins – which thanks to a NASCAR offseason change in the Chase format – is for all practical purposes now the benchmark of determining championship eligibility.

With a swath of top-level drivers without victories this year, a seventh different winner this weekend is very well possible, but not necessarily just from those ‘expected’ to win in the past.

“I think so far the competition we've seen is probably the best. I said it last year, that I thought the competition was the best I’ve seen in forever. This year looks like it’s going to, in my opinion, eclipse that,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition.

“As good as everything looks right now, we’d have to really, really stub our toe to make any changes midstream right now. But we want to keep looking at it and bringing the best racing to the table that we can week-in and week-out.”

Utter: (704) 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.

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