It has provided a decidedly unexpected high number of surprising, first-time winners. In so doing it has suggested that, perhaps, competition on the circuit has reached a level of equality it hasn’t had in years – or, as some might argue, ever.
When Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400 (the sports books took a beating), he not only won for the first time in the 167 races of his career, he also became the fourth inaugural victor of the season and the 14th different winner in 20 races.
This year’s first-time winners include Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500, Regan Smith in the Southern 500, David Ragan in Daytona’s Coke Zero 400 at now Menard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Have you noticed that these guys have not only won races, they have also been victorious in some of NASCAR’s biggest and most prestigious events?
Which, by the way, is something absolutely no one could have predicted. That adds to the season’s singularity and, to be honest, it’s made things entertaining for everyone. Most of us like surprises.
The record for most winners in a single season was tied at 19 in 2001, during which 36 races were run, the same amount for 2011.
Logic dictates that the odds are good the record will be broken given that there are 16 races yet to be run. The current season is not much past halfway over.
Unless the trend that has been established so far is disrupted we can anticipate more winners – and the odds are good none will be that much of a surprise.
After all, there are those who have won multiple times in their careers, some of whom have won championships, and yet haven’t been victorious this year.
They include Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Joey Logano, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Jamie MacMurray and others. Would anyone be truly surprised if any, or all, of them had won by now?
The point is they still have plenty of time to do so and increase the number of different winners.
Even if this season’s doesn’t provide a record it has, for some observers, indicated NASCAR is presently enjoying something for which it always sought – equal competition; the ability for virtually any driver to win a race.
Today that appears to be more truth than hype. The numbers prove it.
While this is certainly not the only reason for this, it assuredly is a major one: The so-called new car, its technology and accompanying NASCAR legislation, have been established to the point where dominance by one team over all others is unlikely.
Several crew chiefs have expressed this opinion. They have said that it might have taken a while, but the majority of teams now understand the nuances of the car. NASCAR’s cessation of repeated rule changes has helped.
Given that the car is singular, with just minor differences among manufacturers’ models (front ends and engine packages come to mind), and the same sternly enforced rules apply across the board, crew chiefs say there’s only so much teams can do.
They can push the envelope as much as they dare but creativity is long gone. NASCAR’s punishments have assured that.
Make no mistake. Equal competition does not mean teams are now equal per se. That’s not the case by any means.
There are still the haves and have-nots, separated by sponsorship money and the equipment and in-shop talent, among many other things, it brings.
But it does suggest that this season is more equally competitive than others passed.
Bayne won with a part-time team that relies on assistance from a major organization. Smith was victorious (and has done well for a good part of the season) with a one-car outfit that is based in Denver, Colo.
Were either considered likely candidates for victory? Hardly.
Ragan is indeed part of a NASCAR powerhouse organization but, let’s face it, he was considered the weak link in a chain of formidable, winning competitors.
It’s the same thing for Menard. Funny thing, but both drivers have won while some of their teammates have not.
Again, this is not to suggest the car, and all that comes with it, is the only reason for this. Give credit where it’s due. Ragan and Menard have proven they have the talent to make the most of what they have.
In years past many drivers never had such an opportunity. A handful of teams with major sponsorship – and sometimes a sizable disparity among car models – allowed them to dominate others.
This was particularly true during the 1970s, the first full decade of NASCAR’s modern era. The number of different winners over those 10 years never reached double digits.
Hard as it may be to believe there were only five different winners in 1975.
That’s because you could count the number of teams expected to win on one hand. Equality never approached existence.
That began to change in the ‘80s when new, ambitious owners with sponsorship entered NASCAR. It carried through the following decade. There were multiple seasons with anywhere from 11-14 different winners.
Today it has risen to a new level. That is, certainly for NASCAR, a good thing.
** I’ve heard it said over the years that the only reason Menard has established a NASCAR career is that he can always bring major sponsorship via his father John.
His dad, incidentally, has been an integral part of motorsports for decades and his rewards, at least those publicized, haven’t been many. He spent 35 years competing at Indy before his son, appropriately, brought him the laurels.
It is true he’s had the financial means to support his son – and gain exposure for the family business over the years – and what, pray tell, is wrong with that?
It’s been long established in motorsports that fathers who have been a part of it in some form nearly always nurture the sons who follow them. They have done so by whatever means available to them.
These fathers have had names like Petty, Allison, Earnhardt, Andretti, Keselowski, Menard, Ragan – and far too many others to mention here.
Their reward has been to see their progeny succeed.
If you saw John Menard’s reaction to his son’s victory, you know it is a great reward, indeed.
** Menard’s victory means that he’s presently in the No. 2 position to earn one of the two “wildcard” entries into the Chase.
The top 10 will make it along with two drivers who have won the most races and still rank between 11th and 20th in points after Richmond, six races from now.
Denny Hamlin, who fell a position to 11th after his 27th-place run at Indy, has a victory.
Menard is 14th in points and, of course, has a victory. Ragan, once the only victorious driver among the top 20, is now 16th in points, just seven behind Menard and 41 in arrears to Hamlin.
Meanwhile, Tony Stewart, who had his good moments at Indy, rose from a tie for 10th with Hamlin to ninth in points.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also ran well at Indy for a time, finished 16th – his sixth consecutive finish out of the top 10 – and is now on the fence at 10th in points.
With time passing away some drivers clearly have work to do. Gotta admit it will be interesting to see how it all evolves.