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NASCAR's championship playoffs? Hate to say it, but if you're not in a Chevy, you might as well pack up and go home

NASCAR's championship playoffs? Hate to say it, but if you're not in a Chevy, you might as well pack up and go home

Jeff Gordon up through the esses.



  By Mike Mulhern

   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.
   Chevrolet dominates.
   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.
   Consider 16-3.
   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)


   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.

   Gordon's view:

   "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."

   Stewart's view:

   "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)


Mike, I've been reading your site for a few

Mike, I've been reading your site for a few years and love how you alternate take to the mainstream NASCAR media.

Cutting power is a must for these cars. I mean it's ridiculous that if you were to buy a 2013 Ford Fusion, it won't even come with a V6 anymore let alone a V8 that's in a NASCAR "stock" car. At least Chevy's new SS will have a V8 option, but like you have said many times before, why is Chevy keeping their 2013 car under cover still?

As for Stewart/Hendrick thing, do they really share that much information? I would be shocked if Stewart's teams have access to their main Hendrick databases, but I guess I could see that. What happened to NASCAR's rule limiting a team owner to four cars? How about a new policy that an owner can only provide engines or support to a total of 6 or 8 cars total?

A final point, thanks ESPN/ABC for putting nearly all the races on ESPN this year as you have in prior years. Instead of watching a race on basic TV, I get a day full of paid programs on my local ABC. So instead of buying more NASCAR related items, I have a fancy drink making blender type thing, a shammy that makes you go "wow" and multiple fitness DVDs (not really but you get the point).

Thanks again for your passion for the sport Mike, Dean

alternative, eh? hmmm. let me see if i can find

alternative, eh? hmmm. let me see if i can find my old buddy r. crumb to do some art for us lol. maybe some art of that new chevy ss.


One minor correction to your story, Chevy has won the last seven championships. Tony Steward was driving a Chevy when he won the last title prior to Johnson's five straight.

sorry. forgot about 2005. i'll correct.

sorry. forgot about 2005. i'll correct. thanks...

Excellent article

Mike: simply well put. The Chevy/Hendrick domination is one of the reasons people have turned off the sport. It's like the movie Groundhog Day. The same thing over and over. Why would you watch if you already knew how it is going to end? Dodge leaving is the first shot across the bow. This time it will be teams. Only when there are 30 Chevy teams competing for the top 10 will NASCAR make a move. And then, it may be too late.

Mike, without meaning to, I think you've hit on

Mike, without meaning to, I think you've hit on the reason for declining viewership and declining ratings overall. I've been listening to and/or watching Nascar for all but six of my 50 years, and I can truly say that the Chevy "under the table" relationship with the governing body has ruined this sport.

It doesn't matter what sport it is, people just despise a team that never seems to lose. In addition, when that team gets a little behind, there's always a last-minute rules change or change in the points format, or even something as simple as a change in tire compounds that comes to their rescue. Then, voila! They magically dominate the sport for months or years to come.

I have always been a manufacturer fan, not a "driver" guy. Matter of fact, I am of the opinion that the machines are 70-80% of the reason that one team wins consistently vs. a driver. The facts bear this out by sustained slumps by Earnhardt (Sr.), Gordon, Petty, and other (best-ever) drivers when they were off in the engine or chassis department. So you can't convince me that Chevrolet doesn't enjoy a significant mechanical advantage every single year.

Quite honestly, I'm beginning to question my time commitment to this sport given its current direction. I can't stomach many more disappointments like last year when Stewart "miraculously" found the speed to win 5 of ten chase races "when he admitted they didn't deserve to even make the chase" and still win despite the tie. It just doesn't get any more heartbreaking than that for me.

I'll probably watch next season just to see the new cars and whether Penske will make an impact for us. Otherwise, if the novelty wears off quickly, I may just go fishing on Sundays instead.

thanks. not sure what all this means, but the

thanks. not sure what all this means, but the numbers are pretty stark. i mean ford vs chevy should be pretty even up, but it's not. what's up with that? and roger, well, i hate to point it out but i will -- roger has been doing this nascar stuff for 40 years and still hasn't won a cup championship. that's telling to me.

My Jim Mora Playoffs Reaction

Ah, p-p-p-PLAYOFFS?

That NASCAR even has a playoff system is a good percentage of the problem with the sport. The format does not work for racing and has done nothing but create artificial points battles; fans see through it and have boycotted the Chase. That Tony Stewart by his own admission didn't deserve to make the playoffs and then won five of the ten races just to get a points tie has no legitimacy as a championship format. Stewart's five wins should have put him so far ahead that the others had no choice but to fight far harder for the win every week.

The engine oligarchy has been real for nearly two decades, but the problem is that going to a smaller engine or more "modern" design aren't necessarily the answer, either - all that would do is feed the technology arms race and the spending that are the biggest problems in the sport. Limiting how much teams spend needs to be a priority; working to open up more engine shops is also a priority NASCAR needs to see.

Good point on the 1970s deal by Chevrolet - they had dealerships sell parts to racers at cost good enough to race (reportedly below-market) and the cars themselves were aerodynamically solid for the era - those who think the cars look alike today should compare Bobby Allison's 1972 Monte Carlo to Richard Petty's Dodge of the era; and for all their boxiness the mid-70s Monte Carlos made downforce, and thus ran better on the intermediate superspeedways - famously Cale Yarborough and Junior Johnson found this out running the slick '77 Olds Cutlass before finding out the "short track" Monte Carlos ran better on flatter tracks because of downforce.

Ford and Toyota need to reexamine their approach to the sport and better back more teams, while NASCAR needs to get their head out of the clouds and start paying attention to team spending.

Crazy Talk Mike!!

Great article Mike!
I think you hit the nail on the head.

Looking back over the last 4 decades one thing has been consistent, manufacturers have left. When NASCAR started letting non-stock heads & blocks become the norm (80s & 90s if I remember), it finished off the remaining few. What is "stock" about the cars now?

Wasn't it in the mid 70s when NASCAR made the engine transition from big-blocks to small-blocks? NASCAR has been at another engine transition crossroad for years. Either a common engine or stock engines.

Personally, I hope for the return to stock engines in the 4.6-5 liter range. I think it could bring more manufacturers to the sport & return reliability as a factor in races. It is a sad day when I read that Richard Petty is having to beg to remain in NASCAR.

To Brian France's credit, he has given me more free time on the weekends.

Thank you Mike for persevering for the sport.

Couldn't agree more

I have numerous friends who stopped watching and attending NASCAR races due to the Chevy dominance. They are Ford and MoPar guys. Most guys are brand loyal. If NASCAR doesn't find a fix for this they will become a IROC style series that will dwindle away into nothing. IMO these cars shouldn't make more than 700hp max and chassis should be standardized with no modifications allowed. Another alternative is to have a weekly open house in the top five finishers garage and an open engine tear down after each race. Thanks for another poignant article.

Mike, have you not considered that chevy's

Mike, have you not considered that chevy\'s dominance can be pointed directly to Hendrick Motorsports? It\'s not a manufacturer that is dominant it is a TEAM. Look at Forbes list of most valuable teams. Hendrick has an operating income approx. 14 million.... Nearly double that of its nearest competitor. It has a whopping 12 million more to work with annually that MWR. Hendrick should be dominant with that money.

Link: http://www.forbes.com/nascar-valuations/

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This is the way NASCAR wants it, I\'ve know for years Chevy was favored, how in the hell can a private entity (NASCAR)claim no bias and the cars are all even when it\'s clear they are not. NASCAR what a joke, I remember Tommy Kindal killing the Camero\'s in IROC and all the whining the Chevy guy\'s made. What about Mark Martin winning the (last race of the year) Championship I believe 1999 and NASCAR claiming they found an unsanctioned part on his engine, disqualifying him and Dale Sr. was handed another Championship, WHAT A JOKE!

I quit watching this trash years ago and what about Danica\'s amazing pole and 8th place at Daytona another bunch of B.S.

As a matter of fact I try not to buy from any of the sponsors of NASCAR if I can avoid them!

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