Parity won't solve all of Sprint Cup's woes as fans grow restless
A sport once defined by Jimmie Johnson's dominance seeks a new identity. Parity could be it but that does not satisfy some restless NASCAR fans who view this era as much for what the sport isn't as for what it is.
Twenty-one drivers, nearly half a starting field, have won at least one Cup race since Johnson celebrated his record fifth-consecutive championship in 2010. They provide an antidote to Johnson's reign when he won nearly 20 percent of the Cup races and fit NASCAR Chairman Brian France's goal "to have the most competitive and close competition as we possibly can.''
While fans share France's goal for the sport, some see the long list of winners akin to a magic act -- one that leaves them questioning how the result happened rather than applauding the accomplishment.
Such is parity's curse where there isn't one dominant driver to focus on, so attention turns to other issues.
A debate that began this spring and lingers is the lack of cautions in Cup races. A vocal minority of fans, including track owner Bruton Smith, want NASCAR to order cautions during races to bunch the field for restarts to create added excitement.
"Just throwing a caution because the race is 'boring' to someone or doing things like that, I think that's a dangerous road to go down,'' Carl Edwards said last weekend at Daytona International Speedway.
"I think if somebody is good and they go out and win every race by a lap for a year, then they ought to be held up for that and say, 'Hey, that's great.' And if it makes the race a little bit more boring, we get a little bit less sponsorship dollars or a few less people in the seats, that's just the way it is. That's real competition. That's the way things can go sometimes. You can't fabricate competition, I don't think.''
Some fans disagree. They're fine with impacting the integrity of an event for their enjoyment.
Then again, they're likely to question the integrity of a sport that allows a winner to fail a post-race inspection and keep the victory, while a team that fails a post-qualifying inspection loses its starting spot.
If it's not the lack of cautions, another frequent topic this season has been the racing itself.
Lead changes have declined for all but four of the first 18 races this season compared to last year. The sharpest drops are at Daytona and Talladega where tandem racing ruled last year and created more lead changes. Even with those races not factored, lead changes are down 20 percent from this point last year.
That doesn't mean it's all bad this season. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. rejuvenated his fans. His victory last month at Michigan, ending a four-year drought, returned the focus to the track.
No other driver has grabbed the sport's attention based on their performance. Tony Stewart, who won Saturday night's race at Daytona, and Brad Keselowski have come closest. Stewart's eight victories are more than any driver since the end of the 2010 season. While he has his detractors, he gained fans by the way he captured last year's championship, winning five of the 10 Chase races to beat Edwards.
Keselowski has won six races since the end of 2010 and no longer is known as the driver who tweeted during the Daytona 500 delay. With a few more victories, this period could be known as the emergence of Keselowski.
Even with the success of Stewart and Keselowski, balance rules the sport. Six drivers have combined to win 31 of the 54 races since Johnson's last title -- Stewart, Keselowski, Kyle Busch (five victories), Matt Kenseth (four), Kevin Harvick (four) and Johnson (four). Those six drivers each represent a different team.
To compare, Johnson and Denny Hamlin won 23 of 54 races in the final season-and-a-half of Johnson's run atop the sport in 2009-10.
"With all of those different winners it just tells you that the drivers and the cars are all so equal now that it's all about who just gets out front and can go,'' Hamlin said of a season that has 12 winners in 18 races. "I feel like there hasn't been as much passing here in the last few weeks due to the harder tires that we've had to change to. "Right now, I think anyone who puts themselves in the right strategy has got a chance to win as long as you've got a car with decent speed. That's why I think you've seen so many different winners."
While parity shows that their driver might have a chance to win, it doesn't seem to excite a fan base as much as when there is someone to root against. With so many different winners since last season, is there really someone to root against from consistently winning with the zeal fans once had for Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon or Johnson?
For those who enjoy this parity, the question is if it will continue when the new cars for each manufacturer debut next season. When the current car debuted in 2007, Hendrick Motorsports won the first five races with it and nine of the 16 races it was used, helping Johnson to the championship.
France admits that "it would have been a fair argument at the time to say we didn't have the rules package just right for that particular car.''
France says that even with all the different winners in the last 19 months and a race to the Chase that features Jeff Gordon and Edwards, among others, on the outside, the sport looks forward. He says the sport's goal is to use "a lot more science than art for us to keep up, solve issues, create rule packages on intermediate tracks and alike that produce closer, more competitive racing.''
The racing needs to improve or fan complaints will grow louder. If so, it might not matter how many different drivers win races because the post-Johnson era could be known to fans for what it didn't provide.