Jeff Gordon up through the esses.
By Mike Mulhern
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.
As the morning fog clears from the rivulet hollows and rustic valleys surrounding this legendary hilltop track -- an atmospheric world where time seems almost frozen, where campers at their campfires fight for space with ghosts of history -- this sport is trying to pick up the pieces from the surprising withdrawal of Chrysler-Fiat's Dodge division.
Why would Dodge pull the plug?
Well, let's consider the state of the sport as the championship playoffs approach. Therein might lay part of the answer.
To put it very bluntly, if you're not driving a Chevrolet, your chances of winning a NASCAR championship are virtually nil.
Since 1976 General Motors teams have won 30 of the 35 Cup titles.
Read that again: 30 of the 35.
And odds are GM is about to make that 31 of 36, with Jimmie Johnson prepped to win his sixth title over seven years for Chevy.
Look just at this season's scoreboard: Chevrolet has won more than half the races so far, 11 of the 21. Toyota has five wins, Dodge three, Ford two.
Chevrolet should easily have six men in the 12-man chase, maybe even seven.
And it's not just one Chevy driver dominating; the brand has six different winners so far. (Toyota has four different winners, Ford two, Dodge one.)
That's no anomaly. That's the way it's been in NASCAR for years now.
Well, at least one part of the Chevrolet camp is dominating, the Rick Hendrick side.
Can Ford's Greg Biffle make something happen in the playoffs? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Chevrolet's run of success, under the Hendrick banner, has naturally provoked a lot of talk. Not just among rivals but among fans, some pointing to what they claim as a NASCAR 'bias' in favor of Chevrolet.
Now there is no denying that the France family has a long memory, and the Ford and Dodge pullouts in the early 1970s (which nearly killed the entire sport) has not been easily forgotten. And the Frances can rightly -- perhaps justly -- remember who in Detroit jumped into this game to save the day: Chevrolet (albeit under the table for several years).
And Chevy didn't just play for the headlines; for years it worked at building a grassroots NASCAR operation. Consider how many different drivers -- low-dollar independents as well as factory-backed stars -- have run Chevrolets or other GM cars over the years. Some years well over half the field ran Chevys.
Ford's Carl Edwards: has to win. Panic City? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Fast-forward to now.
Part of the Chevy success currently is simply in numbers: the marque has 14 full-time Cup teams running, to Ford's eight, Toyota's six, and Dodge's two. (That's one reason Ford signed Roger Penske, to get more championship-caliber teams.)
Hey, you wanna play this game? Get up off your billfold.
Part of the Chevy success too is that the marque clearly has some of the best drivers in the sport and some of the best crew chiefs.
Part of the Chevy success too might be that its men in Detroit -- that army of engineers -- are some of the best in the sport too.
And Chevrolet is in racing just about everywhere in the sports world (except Formula One, perhaps oddly).
The first thing that catches your eye here at the moment is the dramatic surge that Rick Hendrick's Chevy guys have had over the past three months, since someone hit that switch in May: Hendrick men have won at Darlington, at Charlotte, at Dover, at Michigan, at Daytona, at New Hampshire, at Indianapolis, and at Pocono.
And it appears to be more than just some crab-walking chassis under the Hendrick Chevrolets.
Mr. Five-Time, about to become Mr. Six-Time (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
It has been such a devastating surge that rivals are having meetings together to try to figure out how to deal with whatever is going on in that part of the Chevrolet camp. Maybe Chevy rival Richard Childress, who hasn't been enjoying any of the Hendrick Chevy success, needs to join those meetings too.
Let's look at the big picture:
Chevrolet has won six straight NASCAR championships, and about to make that seven.
Ford, since the late Alan Kulwicki's 'Underbird' 1992 title, has won only three NASCAR championships, in 1999, 2003 and 2004.
Since Kulwicki's charge, the scorecard reads General Motors 16 championships, Ford three, everyone else zero.
Either Chevrolet is doing everything so much better than Ford, or there is something curious at play here.
Toyota, on the tour since 2007, has yet to win a Sprint Cup championship (though it came within a couple of gallons of gas in 2010 in Denny Hamlin's tank of its first).
Dodge hasn't won a Cup championship since 1975, nearly 40 years ago...when Richard Petty was a glorious 38 and in his prime.
Caveat: Taking Jimmie Johnson out of the equation the past six years, and the picture is a bit different -- Ford's Matt Kenseth would have won the title in 2006, Ford's Carl Edwards would have won the title in 2008, and Toyota's Denny Hamlin would have won the title in 2010....perhaps. (Jeff Gordon would have won for Hendrick and Chevy in 2007, Mark Martin would have won for Hendrick and Chevy in 2009.)
Remember Kyle Busch? Once a big NASCAR star. This season he must be on sabbatical (Photo:Getty Images for NASCAR)
Now Matt Kenseth or Greg Biffle or Brad Keselowski may yet surprise us this fall. But the odds are against them.
And every driver in this garage knows it. In fact at least one top driver for a non-Chevrolet team is refusing to sign a new contract because he says he is convinced he has no chance of winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship unless he's in a Chevrolet.
That's rather damning, isn't it?
Now consider if you're the head of one of the world's major auto manufacturers, what would you be thinking about NASCAR racing and having a level playing field for this game?
Like, how much do you want to spend to be just more cannon fodder?
Denny Hamlin...and now to a backup for Sunday's race. Toyota's best hope for a title run? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
No wonder an anti-Hendrick/anti-Chevrolet backlash appears building momentum in the stock car racing garage.
If Chrysler-Fiat-Dodge execs are saying 'thanks, but no thanks' to NASCAR, what message does that send to others looking at this sport?
In fact, here might be a perfect time to ask the question what happened to that Volkswagen-to-NASCAR project? Why did the Germans say no? Who botched that deal?
Juan Pablo Montoya (L) and Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
That's just part of the story.
Here's some more food for thought:
Hendrick men and Hendrick-engineered drivers like Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman have won eight of the tour's last 11 Sprint Cup events. Six of the seven Cup teams working under the Hendrick umbrella (Kurt Busch, with James Finch, considered part of the Hendrick R&D arm, is the seventh) could easily make the 12-man chase.
And explosive Jimmie Johnson and steady teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. are clearly on a roll. The two are battling Ford's only two winners so far this season, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, for the top spot in the standings. The only other two men with a decent shot at the title, Dodge's Brad Keselowski and Toyota's Denny Hamlin, both have their issues; Keselowski, fallout from the Dodge debacle, and Hamlin, a worrisome number of DNFs and engine worries.
If anyone other than one of those six wins this year's NASCAR championship, it will likely be someone in a major surprise...such as Stewart last year. And Stewart's 2011 title run was quite improbable, something not seen since Kulwicki's 1992 rally.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. : best finishing average so far this season, and better than even Carl Edwards' amazing 2011 run. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Looking at the numbers -- finishing averages, over the year's first 21 events:
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 9.190.
2. Greg Biffle 9.571
3. Matt Kenseth 9.714
4. Jimmie Johnson 10.286
5. Martin Truex Jr. 11.333
6. Tony Stewart 11.687
7. Kevin Harvick 11.905
8. Clint Bowyer 12.095
9. Brad Keselowski 12.190
10. Denny Hamlin 12.524
11. Carl Edwards 14.667
12. Kasey Kahne 14.905
Here's a benchmark -- last season, over all 36 events, Carl Edwards had the best finishing average, 9.306.
Here's another benchmark -- last fall during the chase, Tony Stewart won five times and had a finishing average of 6.3.
Here's yet another benchmark -- last fall during the chase, Edwards, though he didn't win, had a sizzling finishing average of 4.9.
So which of this year's contenders can step up their game for the playoffs like that?
Roger Penske (L) and Brad Keselowski. Penske has been working toward a NASCAR Cup championship for years. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Well, here's another way to size up the upcoming playoffs:
How have these contenders finished, on average during their careers, at the 10 chase tracks? Who has the best career record at these tracks?
Chicagoland: Tony Stewart (followed by Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer).
New Hampshire: Denny Hamlin (Johnson, Gordon and Stewart).
Dover: Carl Edwards (Johnson, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth).
Talladega: Brad Keselowski (Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Stewart).
Charlotte: Jimmie Johnson (Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Stewart).
Kansas: Greg Biffle (Johnson, Keselowski, Gordon).
Martinsville: Jimmie Johnson (Hamlin, Gordon, Earnhardt)
Texas: Matt Kenseth (Hamlin, Johnson, Stewart).
Phoenix: Johnson (Gordon, Stewart, Hamlin).
Homestead: Carl Edwards (Harvick, Hamlin, Johnson).
So history would say that we should have seven different winners in the 10-race chase.. with Johnson winning three times, finishing second three times, finishing third twice, and finishing in the top-four at each track except Talladega -- and becoming Mr. Six-Time, probably rather handily.
We'll see how history bears on the future.
A NASCAR Sprint Cup motor. Stout. But expensive. And too few engine builders left around any more. The oligarchs own the game. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
THE NASCAR NOTEBOOK
At the very heart of the current, and long-running, NASCAR dilemma -- of the rich-getting-richer and too many independents forced to start-and-park -- is the NASCAR engine oligarchy.
Building a race car itself, rolling chassis, is not that hard, really, with all the specs NASCAR lays out.
However under the hood it's a different story.
Too few people -- read here Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush, Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress and Roger Penske -- effectively control all the engines that run in NASCAR.
Now it looks like there will be one less oligarch in this game.
And Penske's decision to buy/lease Ford FR9 motors from Roush and Doug Yates in 2013 has provoked some raised eyebrows among rivals.
First, no one seems to know what it will happen with that huge 80-man NASCAR engine operation Penske has. That's a lot families who may be kicked out on the street when the breadwinner gets pink-slipped. Certainly some of those 80 are now actively searching for jobs. (And what might that mean for Brad Keselowski's title hopes with Penske?)
Toyota, much like Ford, has gone to a one-engine-shop operation.
And speculation is increasing that Chevrolet may soon go to that business model too, with Hendrick taking over the full NASCAR Chevrolet engine building program.
In the one-engine business template a good one for NASCAR racing?
Is anybody in Daytona paying attention?
And the car makers themselves -- Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota and Dodge -- have let it play out like that....much to the detriment of this sport.
Joie Chitwood (L), after running Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is now running Daytona International Speedway. Maybe he should be promoted to a bigger role in the sport. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
NASCAR executives seem either disinterested or clueless in how to change that dynamic. Maybe it's time to find some people who can think outside the box. (Maybe it's time for Daytona to see that someone like Joie Chitwood is a talent far beyond just a track boss.)
Two more points here, after talking with car owners and Detroit officials:
NASCAR needs to make some major changes in its engine template:
-- less horsepower. Why not a five-liter (302 c.i.)? At today's 2.5 horsepower per cubic inch, that would cut these 900 horsepower monsters back to a more manageable (read Goodyear) 750...and even more, if the electronic fuel injection computers are programmed correctly.
-- fewer exotic engine parts.
-- maybe even something as dramatic as engine designs that actually mirror some of the engines out on the street in trucks and passenger cars.
The NASCAR engine of the future is a project that should have kicked off back some 20 years ago, when Robert Yates first proposed it.
NASCAR engine parts are supposed to be freely available for purchase by anyone who wants to build a Sprint Cup engine and go racing.
However that may be rather Pollyanna. And how tightly NASCAR officials police that rule is unclear.
Maybe somebody at NASCAR headquarters needs to quietly and secretly research that situation.
This sport needs more solid, independent team owners, and wrestling control away from the engine-building oligarchs might be a good first step.
Crew chief Darian Grubb (L) led Tony Stewart to the 2011 NASCAR championship....and then got fired by Tony Stewart (R). Maybe Rick Hendrick wasn't too happy with Stewart over that move. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jeff Gordon made a curious observation here the other day.
This season Tony Stewart and his crew may be a bit handicapped, to hear Gordon tell it, when it comes to getting all that engineering data from Hendrick computer banks.
Remember: Darian Grubb -- the long-time Hendrick loyalist and the man who helped saved the day a few years back for Johnson as substitute crew chief when Chad Knaus was sidelined -- was unceremoniously dumped by Stewart last November just moments after leading Stewart to five wins in the year's last 10 races to take the title.
Well, word now is that Hendrick himself didn't like that move by Stewart. Gordon says that Stewart's team is now no longer invited to the weekly Hendrick meetings.
"We don't have them in our meetings on Tuesday as often as they used to be.
"But it's still an open book, and when we need to reach out to them, they are great. And when they need to reach out to us, we are just as open.
"But they are not involved in our meetings as much as I actually would like them to be, as much as they were last year."
"Darian had a unique relationship with Hendrick; that is kind of where we were invited into their meetings.
"The information still is an open book back and forth; we are still sharing the same amount of information.
"The only component that is different is we are not involved in that Tuesday meeting.
"The relationship is still really good from both sides. We feel like we are an asset to them and we definitely know that they have been an asset to us for sure."
Carl Edwards loves to have a good time. But swimming in Lake Lloyd? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
In the wake of last weekend's deadly lightning strike at Pocono Raceway, which killed one fan as he stood by his car and sent nine more to area hospitals, Watkins Glen officials were taking no chances:
When a bad storm, with lightning, rolled over the hilltop track, officials scurried through the campgrounds to order fans to evacuate to their cars.
Last Sunday at the track three hours south, a severe storm warning had been issued at 4:12 p.m. ET. However the race wasn't ended until 4:54 p.m., at the 240-mile mark.
At least two bolts of lightning crashed down on the track just five minutes later. Brian Zimmerman, a 41-year-old fan from nearby Moosic, was killed.
The tragedy led to some heated questions about this sport's emergency policies when bad weather strikes, and NASCAR officials have been studying the issues.
In the wake of that deadly lightning strike at Pocono, NASCAR and track bosses are taking a closer look at safety issues for fans (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)