NASCAR: Matt DiBenedetto’s Fairy Tale Is Actually A Nightmare

USA Today Sports
USA Today Sports /

Matt DiBenedetto’s sixth-place finish in Bristol is being treated like a fairy tale when really it should be acknowledged as the nightmare that it truly is in NASCAR.

NASCAR had something happen in Bristol on Sunday that doesn’t happen often in the sport. A driver (Matt DiBenedetto) from a small team (BK Racing) had a top-10 finish at a track that wasn’t named Daytona or Talladega. The finish led to an awesome celebration by DiBenedetto and his team and the aftermath has been this fairy-tale-esque feel for the moment.

Although the moment was great, it is sits far closer to the nightmare side of the scale than it does the fairy tale side of the scale in the world of NASCAR.

The Haves vs. The Have-Nots

NASCAR is not like other sports in that on any given Sunday, one should not expect anything to happen. In NASCAR, on any given race day there are about 12 drivers who are expected to win a race out of the field of 40. After those 12 drivers you have maybe eight or so that could win and you wouldn’t be totally shocked. Then there is the rest of the field, which consists of about 20 drivers (nearly half of the field depending on how many cars run that weekend) and if any of those 20 drivers won it would truly be surprising to the majority of NASCAR fans.

Sports has always been a case of the haves vs. the have-nots.

In the NFL the team with the better starting QB or the stout defense is in a better place than the teams that lack those. In the MLB the teams with elite starting pitching usually dominate those without it (regardless of their offensive power). In the NBA the star power (multiple stars on one team) usually rises to the top (Lakers, Heat, Cavs, Spurs, Warriors etc.).

Despite those being common threads in those sports, on any given day, any give team can beat anyone. Last season in the NFL the leagues two best teams (record wise), the Carolina Panthers (15-1) and the Arizona Cardinals (13-3) each lost games to teams that did not finish the season with a winning record. This season in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors set the NBA record for the best season all-time by going 73-9. However, three of their nine losses came to teams that finished the season under .500. In fact, the combined wins of those three teams was just higher (79) than the total number of wins the Warriors had all season. Lastly in MLB this season, the 0-9 Atlanta Braves recently got on the winning board in a sport where you’re truly only as good as the performance you get from your starting pitcher.

The point here is that in any other sport, on any day, the underdog could win or the top team could fall. However, in NASCAR that simply isn’t the case and DiBenedetto’s sixth-place finish is a scary reminder of how distant the top is from the bottom in the sport.

A Four-Team Show

NASCAR runs 36 races in a season and the only time you truly believe that anything could happen is the four times a season that they run in Daytona or Talladega. The nature of those races and the fact that it’s more than likely a dozen or so cars will wreck often times leads to the smaller teams finishing a bit higher than usual. These results often aren’t because a smaller team raced better or out-performed the larger teams, it’s simply the result of larger teams wrecking out of the race.

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Over the last 58 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, 57 of those races have been won by Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske or Stewart-Haas Racing. Those four teams are comprised of 14 drivers and 12 of them (counting Jeff Gordon and Chase Elliott as one driver) have accounted for those 57 wins (Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart have not won in the last 58 races). The on blip on the radar came courtesy of Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing.

In any sport the cream is always going to rise to the top but NASCAR is the only sport where half of the teams go into each season knowing they almost have no chance of winning a race. Most weekends half of the drivers in the field take the green flag with the mindset that a top-20 finish is where they want to be when it’s all said and done.

This is where NASCAR is failing. This is where NASCAR is failing themselves, the drivers, the teams, the fans, the sponsors and everyone else in the sport. In football, basketball, baseball, hockey etc., teams go through ebbs and flows. A bad team can get better through the draft and through free agency, maybe the hiring of a better coach, a change in their scheme or play-calling. NASCAR teams cannot do that because in NASCAR is all comes down to money and teams without money cannot magically make it appear.

Breaking Down The Financials

The 10 most valuable teams in NASCAR (based on monetary worth) were released earlier this season. HMS, JGR and SHR were the top-three on that list, each worth about $200 million or more with HMS topping the list at $375 million. The 10th-place team on the list was BK Racing at $24 million and Front Row Racing was just ahead of them at $26 million. That means that teams who didn’t make the list like Tommy Baldwin Racing, Germain Racing, HScott Motorsports, The Motorsports Group, Go Fas Racing, JTG Daugherty Racing, Circle Sport-Leavine Racing, Premium Motorsports and Hillman Racing all are worth less than $24 million. That means 11/20 teams in NASCAR (which makes up almost all of the drivers) are worth less than $26 million.

Let’s for arguments sake say that the nine teams not on this list are all worth $20 million. If that were the case, all of the teams not in the top-10 plus BK Racing and Front Row racing would have a net worth of $230 million. That figure would come in just above what SHR is worth, just below what JGR is worth and nowhere close to what HMS is worth. Even adding the 8th (Richard Petty Motorsports – $55 million) and 7th (Chip Ganassi Racing – $75 million) ranked teams, it would not being the combined value of the teams ranked 7th-20th to match the value of HMS at number one.

Some will say that money is not everything but in NASCAR it really is. Think about this; a team like HMS has upwards of 30 engineers that work for their team of which many of them travel with the team each weekend. A smaller team like HScott Motorsports (Michael Annett and Clint Bowyer) has five engineers. Two travel with each driver each weekend and one stays back at the shop. This is just one example of the struggles of the have-nots as compared to the haves.

Leveling Out The Field

The major issue facing NASCAR is that they don’t have a system built it to make bad teams better or allow for underfunded teams to become better. The charter system helped but it’s simply not enough. I’m not saying that every single car should be running with the abilities that a HMS car has but if there was a way to do it, why not do it?

Why not have it so that every driver is given the same quality equipment? Why not make it so that a HMS Chevy is the same as an HScott Motorsports Chevy? From there it then becomes the job of the driver, pit crew and crew chief to elevate it to the next level. What’s wrong with a race weekend where 25 drivers have a legitimate chance to win instead of 12?

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Stories like the one with DiBenedetto in Bristol are great and you can’t help but feel awesome for him and his team. However, those stories should not be secluded to once or twice a season and have to do with top-10 finishes as compared to wins. DiBenedetto’s fairy-tale run was just that for him but it also shines a light on a more nightmarish side of NASCAR and something needs to be done about that.