It wasn't that long ago that single car teams ruled the world of NASCAR. Richard Petty accumulated 200 wins and seven championships on his own. David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison ... the list goes on and on.
But today the single-car team is an endangered species. Every race and every spot in the Chase for the Championship is occupied by the big teams. Hendrick, Roush, Childress, Gibbs -- these names have become as big as the drivers themselves. How did it get this way?
Somewhere along the way, someone smarter than his fellow owners figured out that more cars made more sense, and that teammates didn't even have to get along, which is good because they seldom do. In fact, they often end up like brothers fighting over who gets the most attention from Mom and Dad.
But regardless of whether say ... Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin get along, they still can help each other tremendously on and off the track.
It all comes down to money. Big teams not only get better prices on parts, they also spread that cost two, three or even four ways. For example, every team must have a metal brake in their shop. The one car team is paying for the entire cost. The four-car team is paying one-fourth per car. As the rooster in Foghorn Leghorn once said, "It's ... I say it's all mathematics, son."
The bigger teams have more leverage with parts suppliers via sponsor agreements and testing agreements that give them parts at discounted prices. The smaller teams? Not so much.
The bigger teams can fly several pit crew members in on Sunday mornings for the races and save on motel, food and other operating expenses. They can negotiate favorable room rates because of the volume, too. Smaller teams sometimes have to ask for local help at the track (just like the old days), simply because they have to take shortcuts somewhere just to keep up financially.
Also, NASCAR limits the number of tests that a team can do in any given year. There's no way a single car team can have data for every track on the circuit. But the four-car team can spread out and cover four times as many tracks, then share the information among its drivers and crew chiefs. When the four-car teams show up at a track the single-car team didn't test on, it has a huge advantage before it even unloads off the truck.
On top of that, even at tracks where the single-car teams test they are still at a disadvantage. Let's say handling is an issue for every car that is there. The single-car team must guess as to which way to go on the setup to adjust. It's hit and miss. The four-car teams can try different things and if one of them finds something, all of them have found something.
As if that wasn't enough, the smaller teams are left out by the manufacturers, who apply Ronald Reagan's trickle down theory to information. Ford will work more closely with Roush Racing because Roush has a larger staff of engineers and support personnel. Some of the best stuff that is found takes its dear sweet time trickling down to the one-car teams.
Back at the shop, the four-car teams might employ as many as 50 full-time engineers on staff (not counting part-timers and interns). The Wood Brothers, by contrast, have two.
As if that weren't enough, the one-car teams are at a disadvantage finding talent behind the wheel. Many of the multicar teams have started driver development programs, funding young drivers in NASCAR's support series and bringing them along slowly to replace veteran drivers.
The big teams also have Busch series and Truck series teams, so they have even more data to share. Some of it is apples and oranges, but much of it is transferable to the Cup teams.
It truly has become David versus Goliath, only Goliath is the one with the slingshot, and three engineers telling him how to use it.
It's not a helpless cause. There is still the element of guessing. After all, sometimes the big teams get so much data they are not sure how to interpret all of it and apply it. Every once in a while a one-car team will come home with a top-five finish or even a victory. When that happens, know that it was the equivalent of a small-time independent college making the national championship game in football or the horse with no name competing in the Kentucky Derby.