Longing for a trip back to Victory Lane? Welcome to the club
Three drivers have won 22 of the 34 Cup races in 2008. Which means only a handful of drivers have this new car thing figured out, writes Terry Blount.
Updated: November 9, 2008, 4:03 AM ETBy Terry Blount | ESPN.com
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Winning is an exclusive club in NASCAR. Always has been.This season is more like a secret society, and only a few know the password to enter. Unless a winless Sprint Cup driver goes to Victory Lane in the last two events, the 2008 season will have the fewest winners this decade. Twelve drivers have posted at least one victory, which doesn't sound so bad. But take a closer look.Three drivers have won 22 of 34 races -- eight each for Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch and six wins for Jimmie Johnson. Three drivers inside the Chase -- Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth -- rank among the winless.Isn't this one of the things the new car was supposed to fix? Is that going to happen? "Absolutely not," Kasey Kahne said. "I think less drivers have an opportunity to win races. Only certain teams have gotten the COT [Car of Tomorrow] to where it drives right."This isn't just sour grapes from Kahne. He's one of the 12 lucky guys this season. Kahne has two victories, and he didn't have any last year when many races still used the old model. "But with the old car, a lot of teams had it where it drove right," Kahne said. "If there are only a couple of teams that have it where the COT drives right, it's going to be awful tough to beat those guys because your car isn't driving nearly as well as their car is."Sixteen drivers won a race the past season, the year before the new car became the only car in the series. Seven of those drivers haven't won this season.The most glaring zero in the win column is Gordon's, which would mark the first time since his rookie season of 1993 that he failed to win a race.Have we? Don't think so.Johnson has 87 percent of the Hendrick victories. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has one win and the other two (Gordon and Casey Mears) have zeroes.Busch has 80 percent of the JGR wins. Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin each have one.And Edwards has 80 percent of the Roush Fenway Racing victories. Greg Biffle has two wins, but the other three RFR boys -- Kenseth, David Ragan and Jamie McMurray -- are winless.The new car was designed to put more emphasis on driver skill and less on the mechanical setup. The car is harder to turn and needs a loose setup to gain any advantage on an opponent. That plays into the hands of some drivers like Edwards, but it doesn't suit others like Gordon."It's just so competitive out there," Edwards said. "We had our [winless] year in 2006. Dale Jr. had one last year. It's a really competitive sport and the difference between winning and losing is such a slim margin."We ran great in 2006, but if you let one [potential victory] slip away, it may be the only chance you have for a while. We never got there."A lot of drivers won't get there this year, but winning isn't everything. A guy can still make a move up in points."If I can't win it, it really doesn't matter to me after that," Harvick said. "You go out and race as hard as you can for wins, but anything after first really doesn't matter as far as I'm concerned."
A dozen winners are the fewest since 1999, when 11 drivers posted a victory. The new car is a work in progress, but for now, winning isn't a realistic option for most drivers. "This car was supposed to create more parity," said Kurt Busch, who has one win this year. "But what it's done is let a select few win all the races."In this car, if you get hot, you're hot. Carl Edwards has doubled his win total in one season. But we're struggling. The car hasn't worked out as NASCAR planned."It could be much worse. Only seven drivers won a race in 1977 and 1978. The 1975 season had eight winners, but Richard Petty won 13 of 30. The 1976 season had only eight winners.
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezFour-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon could go winless for the first time since his 1993 rookie season.
Jeff Burton, who has two victories this year, believes people need to show a little patience. "It's important to note the dynamic of these cars," Burton said. "It's a big learning curve on trying to understand how to run it. The longer we have the car, more people will be successful."In the short term, my fear is it's actually less competition. Some people hit it right and some don't. But in the long term, I think it will create more opportunities for more people to win."Harvick thinks his winless season is nothing more than a one-season oddity."I'm not a huge statistician," Harvick said. "I don't know if the winners this year are high or low numbers and don't really care. It's just circumstances. The great thing about our sport is it's very unpredictable, but I think 15 to 20 guys still can win races."Kahne doesn't believe it. He won twice in three races but hasn't won in the last 20 events. Most of the time, he hasn't come close to challenging for a victory. "It's a very fine line because of the challenges that the car has presented to the teams," Kahne said. "When one team finds the right combination, it can be contagious and it seems teammates can really feed off of that success. I think that we've seen it at Hendrick and Gibbs and Roush this season."
It's important to note the dynamic of these cars. It's a big learning curve on trying to understand how to run it. The longer we have the car, more people will be successful.
-- Jeff Burton
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.