Is Hendrick Motorsports dominating the 2021 season as an owner-winner?
But is this anything new? Or is it simply cyclical ups and downs inherent to the sport?
A couple weeks ago, I posted a graph showing how many different owners had won races at this point in the year relative to other years. That data was just through 15 races, so I thought, in light of increasingly perturbed fans complaining about Hendrick Motorsports, that I’d look at seasons.
I was curious about whether you could actually see ‘owner-winner domination’ in the numbers or if it was more of a feeling we have.
And what does ‘domination’ really mean, anyway?
The Number of Winning Owners is Decreasing
Luckily, ‘owner-winners’ is easy to define, so let’s start there. The bar graph below shows the number of distinct winning owners each year from 1970 to the present. One must be careful with this chart because the number of races wasn’t constant over time. There were 48 races in 1970 and 1971. All other seasons are between 28 and 36 races. We’ve been at 36 races since 2001.
So what does this graph show us?
- The largest number of owner-winners was in 1990, where 14 owners won across 29 races.
- The next highest number of owner-winners was 13, which was in 2001 (36 races)
- We haven’t reached 13 owner-winners since 2001. The closest we’ve come is 11 — which happened the very next year.
- Although there have been ups and downs in the numbers, overall, they have decreased.
- The number of owners has also gone up and down over the years since 2001.
- For the last three seasons, just six owners have won all 36 races.
- The lowest number of owner-winners we’ve had in one season is 5, which happened in 2015
Some owners, however, have only won a handful of races. Trying to include all of them in one graph got messy. So I’m only calling out teams that have won at least 15 races to date. That leaves us with 19 owners to worry about. (As usual, all data thanks to the wonderful folks at racing-reference.info.)
The graph is still messy. But bear with me.
You can see swathes of color reflecting each owner’s time as a force in NASCAR. The bright pink bars are the Wood Brothers; the tan hashed bars are Junior Johnson’s team.
Fewer ‘Other’ Owners are Winning
One thing the above graph shows clearly is that the ‘other’ bars have gotten much smaller over time.
- In 1992, 17/29 races were won by the dominant owners, leaving 12 won by the ‘others’.
- Since 2003, the ‘others’ have won no more than 6 races.
- In the last three full seasons, the maximum number of races won by ‘other’ teams is 3
It’s a little easier to see things if we examine owners’ records individually. Let’s start with Petty Enterprises (represented in as close to Petty blue as I could get). They were the dominant team in the early 1970s. In 1971, they won 22 races out of 48. But as time went on, they won less and less.
This is the typical pattern for teams in the early years of NASCAR. They start winning, they spend a few years winning even more, then they taper off. Unlike Petty (and the Wood Brothers, whose record I show below), most teams in the 1970-1990’s folded once they stopped winning.
I hope the sequence below makes it a little easier to see. I’ve added in one dominant owner for each slide. The graphs for Petty and Wood Brothers are repeated, then Junior Johnson in tan. Finally, the green bars show the heyday of Richard Childress.
As I mentioned most of the teams from these earlier days no longer exist. This was the time of the one- or two-car teams, when each car depended on a single sponsor. Cars that weren’t winning couldn’t find sponsorship.
A Changing Business Model
Owners started having more and more teams under one roof and the sport got increasingly technical. Owners built infrastructure: instead of working out of a garage, they created multi-building campuses. They started separate teams for research and development. They hired cadres of engineers.
Their funding sources diversified, too. There was a lot more emphasis put on B2B value from sponsorships instead of just sponsoring the car. The result is that, even when teams stop winning, they keep going. A number of owners took on investors who look at racing as a long-haul enterprise. The prime example of that is Roush.
They dominated the mid-2000s so much that NASCAR limited how many cars a single owner could have to four. And because they’re still around, they might even be able to make a comeback if the scuttlebutt about Keselowski being offered an ownership stake comes to pass.
Let’s compare the current ‘big’ teams for the years 1994-present. Again, I’ve put them in a slideshow so you can build the graph up a little at a time.
We start with Hendrick, which has an interesting profile. They’ve had several ups and downs — although ‘down’ for HMS is only winning three races in a season. Although HMS has had two of the sport’s absolute greats on their payroll, they’ve also had really strong supporting drivers who might not contend for a championship, but might win a couple of races each year.
Take a look through the slides. I’ll wait.
Something to keep in mind is that Penske has, until very recently, been a two-car team competing against teams with three or more cars. So 1994 and 2003, the two years Penske won the most races or tied for winning the most races, are real achievements.
You can sort of see from the last of the graphs above which owners were most dominant, but we can do a little better.
I define excess owner wins to be the difference between number of races the most-winning owner won and the number that the next-most-winning owner won. The color codes are the same, but I couldn’t get the legend to work right, so find them in the caption.
- 1999: Hendrick, Roush and Gibbs each won 8 races. Roush won with Jeff Burton and Mark Martin; HMS had Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte. Gibbs won with Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart.
- 2003: Hendrick and Penske tied with 8 races each
- 2017: This one is open to interpretation.
- Either Visser and Gibbs tied at 8 races each or…
- Since Furniture Row was sort of a 5th Gibbs car, Gibbs won that year with a +12
Winning and dominating are not the same thing, as the above special cases show. If you win eight races and another team wins eight races, neither was dominating. If we define “domination” as having won at least five more races than your nearest competitor-owner, then…
- Hendrick dominated in five out of the last 27 years
- But note that the last year in which they dominated was 2007
- The last year they won more races than anyone else was 2014
- Roush dominated once (in 2005)
- Gibbs dominated four or five times, depending on how you view 2017.
- Either way, the first time they dominated was 2010
- They’ve been the most dominant team in the last six years.
By this definition (which I admit is somewhat arbitrary), neither Penske nor SHR have ever ‘dominated’. I mentioned Penske’s challenges with having fewer cars than the other teams. SHR has leaned heavily on Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers.
Is Hendrick Motorsports Dominating?
So far, yes. But remember:
- There are 22 races left to go. We’re not even halfway through the season yet.
- They’ve been through several good/bad cycles. They haven’t dominated since 2007.