NASCAR has taken a lot of criticism the past five years over the new Sprint Cup car it unveiled in 2007.
Teams and drivers have complained that it’s hard to handle – hard to set up, hard to adjust and hard to drive. It’s been a challenge for Goodyear to construct the right tires for the new, boxier model.
And it’s difficult to pass with the new car, putting even more emphasis on track position and pit strategy.
All of those are valid arguments and problems NASCAR will hopefully resolve with the new version of the car in 2013.
But there is one promise – or prediction – that NASCAR officials made about the new car that has rang true, at least this year.
It has made the Sprint Cup Series more competitive and given more teams a chance to win than ever before.
Paul Menard became the 14th different driver to win a Cup race this year when he won the Brickyard 400 on Sunday.
That surpasses the number of winners from last year and matches the total from 2009.
In just 20 races.
With 16 more events remaining, this year’s field stands a strong chance of matching the NASCAR record of 19 different winners, which has been set four times (1956, ’58, ’61 and 2001).
When you consider that such recent winners as Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Reutimann and Jamie McMurray haven’t won yet this year, there is a good chance the record could fall.
There also is a good chance that someone such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton or Martin Truex Jr. could snap a long winless streak. Or that someone such as Marcos Ambrose might win his first Cup race.
Now that teams have fully adjusted to the new car and all its quirks and idiosyncrasies, it has created incredible parity in the sport, giving more teams than ever a chance to win. Coupled with such rules as double-file restarts and green-white-checkered finishes, which were both implemented in recent years, the Sprint Cup Series is truly as competitive as its ever been.
Whether through fuel mileage, pit strategy or the new two-car draft at Daytona and Talladega, this season has produced some of the biggest upsets in the sport’s history, and more upsets than in recent memory.
Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500 and Regan Smith winning the Southern 500 were both shockers. Though to a lesser extent, David Ragan, Menard and Brad Keselowski also scored surprising victories.
The new car has made it both easier and harder to win a race. Harder, it seems, for perennial winners to break through. But easier, it seems, for teams not used to winning to put everything together, gamble at the end and pull off a monumental upset.
In essence, the new car has closed the gap between the haves and have-nots, spreading the wealth – and victories – throughout the field.
Consider that mighty Hendrick Motorsports, which won 13 races just two years ago, has just three wins so far this year while superpowers Roush Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing have four each – all with multiple drivers.
Four other organizations have at least one win.
Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch lead the series with three wins each. At this rate, the top winner may have only five or six victories – the least since 2006.
And with NASCAR’s new points system, the race to make the Chase is still wide open, with as many as a dozen drivers and teams currently outside the top 10 still with a chance to make it.
And though five-time champion Jimmie Johnson is second in points, a clear-cut favorite for the championship has yet to emerge, with at least a half-dozen drivers looking like serious contenders.
Though NASCAR should make some significant changes to the car, making it easier to drive, set up and adjust, giving it more brand identity and making it more appealing to fans, it needs to make sure it doesn’t go too far.
It must make sure that it doesn’t tweak it so much that the series swings back the other way, favoring the top teams again and losing its most redeeming qualities.
Fierce competition and parity.