For more than two decades, NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series has been dominated by four race teams: Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing. From 1990 through the 2010 season, the Cup champion emerged from one of those four organizations in all but two seasons. (Alan Kulwicki won the title in 1992 as an owner-driver, and Dale Jarrett captured the crown in 1999 while driving for Robert Yates.)
Sure, there have always been a few other teams that occasionally made some noise. Penske Racing picked up 18 victories in 1993-94 with Rusty Wallace behind the wheel, and had an eight-win season with Ryan Newman in 2003. Dale Earnhardt Jr. helped power his father's old team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., to 21 wins from 2000 through 2004. And, of course, Petty Enterprises (now known as Richard Petty Motorsports) continues to plug away, having been around since the earliest days of NASCAR.
But for the most part, the big four have ruled the sport since 1990. It has been similar to the run that the NBA saw in the 1980s and '90s, when the Celtics, Lakers, Pistons and Bulls gobbled up most of the championships and nearly all of the recognition. There are signs, however, that the big four's grip on the Sprint Cup Series is starting to loosen. Tony Stewart channeled his inner Kulwicki to win the 2011 championship as an owner-driver (though his Stewart-Haas Racing team has considerably more resources that Kulwicki's old outfit did). Last season, Roger Penske finally won his first Cup championship after 40 years in the sport, and in Brad Keselowski he has one of the brightest young stars in NASCAR.
Then there is Michael Waltrip Racing, which began in 2002 but did not start operating as a true full-time team until 2007. After five largely uneventful seasons, MWR broke through last year by placing both of its drivers in the Chase, with Clint Bowyer winning three times and finishing second in the point standings.
"Last year we snuck up on everybody, but all of us had a lot of hope and anticipation for the 2012 season," Waltrip said earlier this year. "We knew as a group we had the best cars we'd ever prepared. We had the best crew lineup and the best driver lineup. So we were very confident that we would be more competitive in 2012, but I didn't talk a lot about it. People think I'm weird anyway. If I said where I thought we were going to finish, you'd have really thought I had a screw loose."
Suddenly, the big four is no more. That group is still going to win a majority of Sprint Cup races (though Childress is in danger of falling from the ranks of the elite), but we definitely are starting to see some cracks in this modern-day Mount Rushmore of NASCAR. As recently as 2008, those four teams won 32 of the 36 Cup races (89 percent). Over the past two seasons, they have won 44 of 72 races (61 percent).
Usually we rate the individual drivers each week in the Power Rankings. But those rankings are unchanged after the Sprint All-Star race (and the top spot might not change the rest of the season, given the way that All-Star-winner Jimmie Johnson is going). So, this week we're going to take a quick look at how the major players among the Sprint Cup teams stack up.