STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
The fact that a mere three teams have won 86% of the races run
(25 of 29) this season on NASCAR's Winston Cup tour is a
powerful testament to the advantages enjoyed by multicar teams.
Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets have won 11 races and Roush
Racing Fords have won seven, as have the Fords of Robert Yates
Several factors make teamwork an overwhelming force on the tour,
but the primary benefit is the ability to share the fixed costs
of research and development and the high-tech machinery for
making racing parts. Another big advantage: the sharing of
technical information among the team's drivers and crew chiefs.
A multicar team is structured so that each driver has his own
crew, cars and equipment, but all the crews share information.
Race strategy is generally the least important factor because
every driver on the team is out to win. The most notable
exception came in this year's Daytona 500, when Jeff Gordon and
teammates Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven ganged up on Bill
Elliott to draft past him and finished one-two-three,
Competition among the big teams will intensify next season when
owner Jack Roush beefs up his stable of drivers from three to
five--two more than Hendrick has and three more than Yates--by
adding Johnny Benson and Chad Little. But Hendrick general
manager Jimmy Johnson isn't worried about being outnumbered by
Roush drivers. He is concerned, though, about the additional
R-and-D capability Roush will gain from the additional corporate
funding of two major sponsors, at a going rate of about $6
million each per season, and several associate sponsors, who
spend up to $1 million each.
Johnson points out that single-driver operations can still win
races. "Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace are entirely capable of
winning," he says. "So is Geoff Bodine." Still, by next season
five team owners will control 15 of the top drivers.
A new techno war is brewing that will heighten the big teams'
advantages over the small teams. Next year Ford teams will
switch from the Thunderbird to the Taurus. The Taurus's
departure from stock configuration, recently approved by NASCAR,
is so radical that Chevrolet teams view it as a green light to
make drastic modifications of the Monte Carlo, mainly a redesign
of the rear fender and trunk area.
Any major redesign allows the big teams to unshackle their
aerodynamicists. Hendrick, for instance, has the top man in
NASCAR, Gary Eaker, while for most single-driver teams,
aerodynamicists are an unaffordable luxury. Next season it would
not be a shock to see multicar teams win all 33 Winston Cup races.
THE ICEMAN STAYS COOL
It's easy to live up to the nickname Iceman when you're
consistently finishing at or near the top in Winston Cup races
en route to the points championship, as Terry Labonte was at
this time last year. But Labonte has remained his unflappable
self even as his branch of the Hendrick Motorsports team has
fallen apart in the second half of this season. "It's been a
little disappointing" is the worst Labonte will say.
His longtime friend and crew chief, Gary DeHart, resigned on
Oct. 1 after an altercation with a teammate. According to
Hendricks staffers, DeHart's outburst was the result of stress
caused by his team's dismal performance this summer and fall
while trying to defend the championship without two key
mechanics from last year.
Labonte was atop the point standings in mid-July, but his
average finish over the next 10 races was 22nd. He won the
DieHard 500 at Talladega on Sunday--a race in which a dozen top
contenders were caught in a massive 21-car pileup. The win left
Labonte fifth in the run for the Winston Cup, 525 points behind
leader Gordon, with three races left in the season.
"Gary had been under a lot of stress," says Jimmy Johnson. "I
don't think we were as prepared to defend the title as we should
have been. He worked around the clock trying to fix things, but
it was just too many jobs for one person."
Besides "absolutely terrible luck," Johnson blames the Labonte
team's decline on rules that currently allow Fords a slightly
lower roofline than Chevrolets. Labonte, though, doesn't buy
that excuse. "It's hard for me to say that we're at a
disadvantage when Jeff [Gordon, Labonte's teammate] has won 10
races and is leading the points in a Chevy," says Labonte. "I
wish he had a Ford."
No complaining. All ice. Even now.
CRASH-PROOFING THE IRL
Last Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the Indy Racing
League season mercifully came to an end. Eliseo Salazar won the
Las Vegas 500K, and Tony Stewart won the series title. There
were no additions to the long list of drivers injured during the
open-wheel tour's first two seasons, although five drivers were
involved in accidents, including Roberto Guerrero, who must be
thanking his lucky stars that he was able to walk away from a
high-speed tumble across the Vegas infield.
This season, seven racers suffered major injuries, most of them
the result of rear-first crashes in which the heavy, rigid
gearboxes and bell housings (the components that connect
gearboxes to engines) did not deform enough to dissipate energy.
For the Vegas race, the IRL mandated that extra foam padding be
mounted around drivers' heads in the cockpits and that thicker
attenuators--cubes of aluminum honeycomb meant to give way, thus
dissipating the energy of crashes--be placed near the gearboxes,
which sit at the rear of the cars.
Driver Willy T. Ribbs, assessing the safety situation while
mulling over a return to Indy car racing after five years of
driving sports cars, says that the IRL "has the safety of the
front end of the car handled, but the rear end of the car is so
strong that in rear-first crashes the shock is transferred to
IRL executive director Leo Mehl promises that the league will
redesign its cars to improve safety next year. There's no time
to waste, not with the league planning to add two high-speed
ovals, Dover and Atlanta, to its '98 schedule.
The number of $660,000 race cars Paul Tracy wrecked during this
year's 17-race CART season. Three of the crashes occurred either
on the parade or the first lap of a race. Tracy was fired by
Marlboro Team Penske owner Roger Penske last Thursday. No reason
was given for the driver's dismissal.
Why does Jeff Gordon (right), with 10 victories and 4,321 points
so far this season, lead second-place Mark Martin, who has four
wins, by just 110 points in the Winston Cup standings? Blame
NASCAR's intricate scoring system, which rewards steadiness more
than excellence. The winner of a Winston Cup race receives 175
points, while the runner-up gets 170; drivers earn 31 points
just for starting their engines. If the Formula One point
system--which awards 10 points for a win, six for second and
nothing for finishing below sixth--were applied to the Winston
Cup series as shown here, Gordon's dominance of the 1997 season
would be reflected in the standings. Also, six-time winner Dale
Jarrett would leap ahead of Martin.
Position, Driver WINSTON CUP POINTS
1 Jeff Gordon 4,321
2 Mark Martin 4,211
3 Dale Jarrett 4,166
4 Jeff Burton 4,041
5 Terry Labonte 3,796
6 Dale Earnhardt 3,794
7 Bobby Labonte 3,687
8 Bill Elliott 3,536
9 Ted Musgrave 3,322
10 Rusty Wallace 3,242
Position, Driver FORMULA ONE POINTS
1 Jeff Gordon 141
2 Dale Jarrett 102
3 Mark Martin 80
4 Jeff Burton 71
5 Terry Labonte 44
6 Bobby Labonte 37
Rusty Wallace 37
8 Dale Earnhardt 33
Ricky Rudd 33
10 Ernie Irvan 27
Check out more racing news from Ed Hinton at www.cnnsi.com