- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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When NASCAR officials announced last week that team owners soon would be limited to four cars per season, they pitched it to the public as a way to increase competition on the track and access to the circuit.
After all, all five of Jack Roush's cars are in the 10-car Chase to the Nextel Cup Championship field.
Reasons NASCAR's chief executive Brian France: "That means the opportunities aren't there for young drivers. It means opportunities aren't there to create the next Rick Hendrick and have the success."
This season's results surely lend some credence to France's competitive balance angle. After Kyle Busch's victory Sunday, cars run by Roush and Hendrick (who has four cars on the circuit) have won 23 of the 35 races.
But the rule change comes with another line of thinking, too. Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College, is skeptical that competitive balance is the most important thing to NASCAR.
"I don't think they have any evidence that suggests that this rule is going to make for more balanced competition," Zimbalist says. "And I don't think that limiting the number of cars a team owner can have increases the chances that there will be more new, young drivers coming up through independent owners. It's getting more expensive all the time to field a car; and if there is anyone who is going to be giving young drivers a chance, it's more likely to be guys like Roush and Hendrick."
Zimbalist suggests the real reason for NASCAR's rule change is concern from the organization's officials that multiple-car owners such as Roush and Hendrick wield too much power.
That might be an issue for NASCAR, whose France family owns a controlling interest in many of the tracks on which its races take place, as well as the facilities' catering services, the Motor Racing Network (which broadcasts races on the radio) and a stake in collectibles company Action Performance.
So what would've happened if Roush had grown his team to seven cars? Or more?
"What if Jack had all 43 cars?" team owner Cal Wells of PPI Motorsports told The Associated Press. "I know that's probably an extreme, but where does it stop? Five cars? Seven? Ten? Twelve?"
Zimbalist says that if a group of team owners with a high percentage of cars wanted to take their business to other tracks to earn a bigger piece of the revenue pie, their strength in numbers would increase the likelihood of success. Or, taken one step further, team owners who could consolidate power might be more likely to set up a rival organization, a possibility if they're after a bigger payout.
NASCAR awards 25 percent of its race revenues to the teams and drivers, 65 percent to the tracks and 10 percent to itself.
But, Zimbalist, who penned an opinion piece for the New York Times on the topic, says "At the end of the day, NASCAR doesn't do anything except set up the rules. If I want to start a baseball league, I have to find the owners, build the ballparks and lure the best players. In NASCAR, the owners, the facilities and the talent are already there."
NASCAR officials publicly disagree with Zimbalist's reasoning.
"The primary purpose of this rule change is to enhance competition and lower barriers to entry so more people can compete in the sport," spokesman Ramsey Poston says. "This is good for the industry as a whole and exactly what the antitrust laws were designed to promote."
NASCAR is very aware of suggestions that it might occasionally bump up against antitrust regulations. Last year, the organization settled a suit with Speedway Motorsports Inc., the parent company of Texas Motor Speedway, which accused NASCAR of breaching its promise to bring a second race to the facility, instead awarding a race to a track in the NASCAR family.
As part of the settlement, Texas Motor Speedway wound up getting its coveted second race.
In July, Kentucky Motor Speedway, which does not currently stage a NASCAR race, sued NASCAR based on the same reasoning.
Roush's five teams are grandfathered through 2009. In an AP story, Roush said he is too invested in the sport to think about taking NASCAR to court over the rule that will force him to cut back.
"I'm not sure what they're trying to do is legally right or is defensible in a court of law, but I want to be in this business," Roush said. "I don't want to jeopardize my sponsors and my drivers and our prospects in the near term, and too much distraction through an adjudication process would certainly not be in NASCAR's interest and would almost certainly not be in my interest and would very likely not have an outcome that I could be happy with."
Although Zimbalist says he is not being paid to represent its interest, he has served as an expert witness in a case for the law firm of Waite, Schneider, Bayless & Chesley and Houston, which currently is suing NASCAR on behalf of the Kentucky Motor Speedway.
Stephen Ross, a law professor at the University of Illinois with no interest in any NASCAR antitrust case, also has served as an expert witness for the firm. Ross, who is writing a book that in part analyzes NASCAR from legal and economic perspectives, says he believes NASCAR has no ulterior motive for its new team car limit.
"I know of nothing that suggests that a guy like Roush is thinking about starting a rival league," Ross says. "So I think the claim that they are doing this because an owner might put more and more cars on the track and might break away to form another league is relatively implausible. Now, if I were told that there was a document in NASCAR offices that spelled out that this is what they were afraid of, then I might change my tune."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.