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Cup Enjoying Ride of Competitive Balance
NASCAR issued a statistical package this week that cited the Sprint Cup Series' competitive balance and the level of competition seen in the season's first six races.
Among the numbers used to paint the picture: An average of 13 leaders per race, and 31.5 lead changes per race -- the most, after six races, in series history. Lead change records have fallen in three of the six races, Daytona, Phoenix and, most recently, Martinsville.
For what it's worth, on the eve of Saturday night's first Cup race in Texas' 15-year history, the Samsung Mobile 500, the record for lead changes at Texas is 33, set this past November.
In general, the average margin of victory this season is just .720 seconds, with the greatest margin being Carl Edwards' 1.246-second margin over Tony Stewart at Las Vegas; the narrowest being Trevor Bayne's .118-second margin over Edwards at Daytona.
Prior to Kevin Harvick's win at Martinsville last weekend -- his second consecutive victory -- there were five different winners in the first five races for the first time since 2005. Seven different teams make up the top seven in the point standings and the top-four drivers in the standings all run different manufacturers.
Kurt Busch, who has the Penske Racing No. 22 Dodge in fourth in the standings, almost said it's business as usual.
"It's what NASCAR always strives for, is the parity amongst manufacturers [and] the teams, of course," Busch said. "It could be just random circumstances that we have the situation we have with points right now. For us being the only Dodge camp, we have to go out there and carry that banner the best we can, make sure they're being held up to the standard that they need to be, and that is comparable with the rest of the group.
"We have a championship car, we have a championship team -- we just need to continue to do that. Right now, the Roush cars seem to be pretty strong with Edwards winning right out of the box [at Las Vegas] and watching even the 6 car [David Ragan] gain some speed. That shows that those guys definitely have an edge right now.
"But you're always competing against the Chevrolets. They always seem to be the cars to beat just because of quantity. There are that many more of them than the rest of us and the Toyotas. I mean, Kyle [Busch, current championship leader] is up there running strong. He's been the one to be more competitive at all the tracks this year than anybody else next to Carl Edwards, and that's why he's leading the points. It comes down to just raw speed."
Is this season really more competitive? Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Steve Letarte, after accruing 10 wins with former four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, before this season was switched to working with driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and he said that colors his perspective.
"It's hard for me to really compare anything because when you come with a new driver, everything starts to re-set so much," Letarte said. "But I feel that the competition in the Sprint Cup Series is as tough, or tougher than it's ever been. Every year it gets tougher, I think.
"I think the owners get stronger, which makes teams stronger, which makes drivers stronger. If you go back 10 years where there were no international drivers to now we have international drivers, and I think we're pulling talent from the drivers to the crew chiefs to the engineers from more of a global state and I think it shows -- competition is extremely tough."
"I think that the series has always been competitive and obviously we started off the year with five different winners and all the different organizations seem to be strong so I think that is just a great sign for the health of the sport to see all the different organizations competitive," Harvick said. "But really since the Chase [for the Sprint Cup] has started it's just been so competitive to get into those top 10 or 12 spots -- whatever the year has been on the Chase side.
"It seems like from race one to 26 has been everything that you can do to get into [the Chase] so it's just that everybody is digging from lap one to do everything that they can for their teams and their sponsors to make it happen."
Maybe the most telling fact, if you believe numbers tell a story, is that last year's two top race winners -- Denny Hamlin (eight wins) and five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson (six) -- remain winless this season.
In the Cup garage, as might be expected, opinions don't exactly follow the numbers.
"I'm just calling it like I see it, but I think you've still got to beat the 48 [Johnson] every week," Greg Biffle's crew chief, Greg Erwin, said. "He's won the last five championships and those guys have just got it. They can say what they want about equality -- that anybody in the top 20 can win races at any given time -- but you've got to win five or six to keep up with those guys."
Jamie McMurray's crew chief on the No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, Kevin Manion, stood only 3 feet away and shaking his head.
"I beg to differ with Greg," Manion said, smiling. "I think the 48, for sure if you're talking who your competition is; but the competition is pretty strong and that's good -- it keeps you on your toes and it keeps you working.
"And I'm not picking on manufacturers by no means because I know Chevrolet's really strong, but it seems like the Roush camp in general -- which is pretty much the whole Ford camp -- with Doug Yates [of Roush Yates Engines] and them guys' motors and the new bodies, it seems like [the Fords] have really been someone to beat this year."
Earnhardt Ganassi's competition director Steve Hmiel certainly showed his 30-plus-year career when he offered his assessment.
"It's certainly more competitive than it was 30 years ago," Hmiel said. "I don't know that more people have an opportunity to win than they ever had, but I'll tell you this: halfway through a tire run, a fuel run or whatever you call it -- you look at the scoring and you say, 'we're within a half-tenth [of a second] of the leader but we're 22nd.'
"So I don't know what 'competitive' really is. I think a lot of people confuse being competitive with having many different winners. There may not be a lot of different winners -- though I wish everyone would win -- but it's very competitive now, more than ever, because the cars are so closely matched. It's just wild.
"To be that close to the leader and to only be running 22nd tells you there are a lot of good race cars here, with a lot of really smart people working on 'em that have a lot of horsepower and good pit stops. It depends on how you define 'competitive.' There probably aren't any more people in position to win than there were before, but there are a lot more really fast cars now, than what there used to be."
It creates a fine line between winning and, heaven forbid, running 22nd.
"It's the communication between the driver, the crew chief, the engineers and the people at home [in the shop]," Hmiel said, citing a couple examples. "I think Matt Kenseth [currently ninth in points with three consecutive top-six finishes] is an absolute genius at how he runs these races -- and the 48 car is the same way.
"And the communication that Jamie McMurray has brought to our 1 team has been fantastic. So I think the difference between being pretty darn fast and really darned fast, the difference between finishing 20th and finishing first or fifth is the way you work together to make your race car faster during the race -- actually during the weekend to begin with, because qualifying is so important -- but during the race is an even bigger part.
"It's all about talking, talking, talking -- and having the courage to have hard conversations without anybody getting offended. The biggest problem you have is there are egos around here -- believe it or not and sometimes they get in the way of things. But the smartest people do the most listening and pay close attention to what their competitors are doing and what they did and what the results are."
Even with five different winners this Cup season, there have been a good number of other people who've been in position to win. Why haven't they?
"You don't make mistakes on pit road, you don't have engine failures, you don't get speeding penalties, you don't make stupid pit calls at the end of the race," Erwin said, having been victimized by a number of them. "And that's the difference between [finishing] top-five and 15th."
"It all starts on your first day [on the race track]," Manion said. "Even though we don't qualify [Thursday] at Texas -- it depends on where you qualify and if it's a predictable race, where you count on this many cautions, and like Greg said, no mistakes, no penalties and usually if you qualify up front, you'll finish there."
But it won't be easy.
"I think it's more and more intense every year [and] there's more and more pressure to run well," Letarte said. "But more than that is how are you going to run well? It's more than just trying to find the right shock and spring -- it's operational, it's systems and how you organize your people and how you produce your product and how you manage your manpower.
"It's major conceptual changes within the garage area to try to get ahead. As the new car has been created and the rule book has gotten a bit smaller on area in which to work, we have taken that effort and moved it in other places in the company to try to find advantages."
"There's very little difference, really, between winning and running 15th or 20th," Mark Martin said from his vantage point in 10th in the standings. "There's a little bit in speed and a little bit in track position, but the cars are relatively close nowadays. You squeeze every ounce of [lap] time out of every single component in the whole sport -- you can't leave anything alone. You've got to squeeze every bit of it from pit road speed to pit stops to restarts to handling and everything."
Even though he broke the five-winners-in-five-races streak, Harvick knows just how little it means and how competitive this series is as he looks to win at Texas -- a track at which he's led only five Cup laps in his career -- for the first time. He's learned what he did a weekend ago means nothing, now.
"It's just really kind of a Cup mentality, I guess you could say, just because there are so many guys in this garage that can win," Harvick said. "And if you want to sit and gloat on how good or bad you did last week or the week before, you are in trouble; because there's going to be somebody at home working harder to beat you and somebody at home that gets over doing bad last week and they're going to come out and beat you this week.
"So it's just something that this series is so hard that it will beat you right back down to earth really fast. If you want to get up on a high horse and think you're doing really good because it will beat you down instantly -- a lot of times the next week."