Oops? Looks like NASCAR is releveling the playing field for the championship playoffs
By Mike Mulhern
Two major stories are breaking on the stock car tour just as the sport's stars are gearing up for the 10-race NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff chase.
-- Suddenly Jimmie Johnson, Mr. Five-Time, for his five NASCAR championships over the past six years, doesn't look like such a prohibitive favorite to become Mr. Six-Time.
That's because of a sudden new NASCAR rule banning -- or limiting -- one of the rear-end chassis tricks that Johnson and his Rick Hendrick teammates have been using this season.
Whatever the device that Johnson and his teammates may no longer use is unclear, even to rival teams, because NASCAR has not laid the piece out for review.
-- And James Finch, a 20-year-plus veteran NASCAR team owner, who this year has been fielding Chevrolets for Kurt Busch, says unless there is a big change in economics in this sport "I'll have to hang it up at the end of this season."
Finch says the new 2013 NASCAR stockers will obsolete his entire fleet of race cars. "I'll have to throw everything away," Finch says.
Finch has no major sponsor this season, and his hauler here is painted stark black. He used Hendrick engineering, at a price of course, and he leased Hendrick engines, at a price too of course.
Finch is not the only veteran car owner complaining about the price of racing: http://bit.ly/Nwmh0P.
James Finch (L) is Always upbeat and fun-loving....but he concedes things are not fun this season on the stock car tour, and he may well have to quit (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Some other team owners have suggested various ways NASCAR could cut costs, including limiting the number of tires teams are allowed to use each race weekend, and cracking down on the exorbitant cost of leasing engines from the only four NASCAR engine builders.
There have been complaints from some teams that NASCAR should crack down on the sport's manufacturers, whom they say are either limiting the availability of 'good' engine parts to only the star teams and/or are leasing engines that are highly subsidized by the Detroit car makers.
Even the sport's defending champion, Tony Stewart, is facing hard times, just learning that Office Depot will not be returning as sponsor next season:
"It is a big void. It is unfortunate.
"It's part of life, it's part of a bad economy. Been listening to all the politicians speak about how they are going to make things different...I haven't seen anything get any better yet.
"It is just hard. I'm appreciative of everything Office Depot has done for us. They were the first company to come on board when we started this deal. It was a hard decision for them to have to back away from it.
"I understand as a business owner what they are faced with. You can't blame them. I understand 100 percent why they had to do what they had to do."
Defending champion Tony Stewart isn't wearing a happy face as the regular season comes to a close. He needs two big sponsors for 2013 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The technical device that Hendrick teams and others have been using, which NASCAR is now banning, or limiting in some unclear fashion, is a major story, according to several rival teams. NASCAR officials insist it's not a rules change, but crew chiefs say the effect -- no matter how it is described -- is substantial.
"The problem is," one crew chief says, "is that it's unclear just what NASCAR is approving these days. They don't lay out the parts for review."
And exactly what NASCAR is now no longer allowing to be used is unclear.
Johnson and Gordon are dismissing the new rule -- which they describe as an 'interpretation' -- as relatively inconsequential. Others, who have not been as successful in the getting the device to work, were equally dismissive of Johnson and Gordon's shrugging it off.
Teams have been using a loophole in the rulebook definition of 'bushing' in making the trick work, to help the car turn much better in the corners. The effect was most obvious in Johnson's victory at Indianapolis in July.
Rival team owner Jack Roush said the use of the device was first noticed by his team when Jeff Gordon crashed at Darlington in May. The crew chief for one of the tour's top teams says the device has been used by some teams, or at least one team, "for more than a year," though that isn't easily confirmed.
NASCAR, beginning with the first playoff race next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, will limit such rear-end 'bushings' to just a quarter-inch in thickness.
Some teams have been using a large device, five to six inches thick, that includes that bushing, installing a 'soft' one on one side of the rear-end and a 'harder' one on the other side, to help the car turn more effectively.
The trick bushings have been ruled legal by NASCAR when the issue was raised by Roush and others.
However Brad Keselowski three weeks ago at Michigan called the huge bushings 'a gray area' in the rule book, and pointedly questioned the use of them.
After Johnson's Brickyard 400 victory, Roush said he went to NASCAR and asked about the legality of the device, before he was willing to invest time and money in development.
The Hendrick engineered/powered teams won eight of 11 tour races from Darlington in May until Watkins Glen in early August, when the device suddenly became so controversial.
Johnson's take: "NASCAR made it known they are just putting parameters on what is going on. There is no change.
"We will adjust and do our best job.
"There has been a lot of discussion about it. A lot of people think it is just Hendrick or big teams that have been working in this area. I was in a conversation with Phil Parsons last week -- A smaller team; they have been doing this for a while.
"NASCAR is just making sure people understand the parameters... to make sure no one is going above and beyond."
And even legendary Richard Petty could use a little sponsorship too to keep Richard Petty Motorsports humming along (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)