NASCAR, make one more tweak

1/18/2012 - NASCAR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- NASCAR needs to tweak one more rule as it prepares for the Daytona 500, and it has nothing to do with tandem racing.

But it does have something to do with multiple cars.

Because of a little-known clause in the four-car cap per team rule the governing body established in 2006, two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip may not be able to participate in the Feb. 26 opener. He's shooting for starting the race for the 27th consecutive year.

It's the same clause that would keep Dale Earnhardt Jr., if he desired, from fielding a Sprint Cup car out of his Nationwide Series garage for the 500 or any other race.

Because Earnhardt already drives for a four-car team at Hendrick Motorsports, adding a Cup car to JR Motorsports would give him an association with five teams under the rules, as NASCAR president Mike Helton explained during last week's test at Daytona International Speedway.

Waltrip faces the same problem at Michael Waltrip Racing. Because he owns three cars, his only option is to field a fourth car out of MWR even though he currently doesn't have sponsorship, or find a single-car team -- with Toyota, he says -- willing to give him that ride for the 500.

There aren't many options for the latter.

"I've run 26 of them in a row and I'd like to run the 27th while I feel I can still win," Waltrip said during the three-day test at Daytona last week. "We were fortunate enough to win the Truck race here a year ago and my last [Cup] race at Talladega we got a top-10, so I feel like if I can get something put together to race the 500, it would mean a lot to me personally."

NASCAR came up with the four-car cap after the 2005 season in which Roush Fenway Racing put five cars in the then-10-driver Chase. The rule was supposed to keep the big teams from monopolizing Victory Lane and make it easier for the one- and two-car organizations to compete.

Since then, the top series has moved closer to parity, with 15 races won last season by organizations that field one or two cars, compared to one in 2007.

But the rule shouldn't keep a driver such as Waltrip from occasionally attempting a race. In an economic climate in which the sport is in danger of seeing fields smaller than 43 cars, and the number of start-and-park teams seemingly grows every week, NASCAR should make an exception that allows for this situation.

Perhaps the governing body could allow more than the cap if the driver competes in no more than three races. Perhaps it would be as simple as to say a team can go over the cap for the 500 if the driver is a former winner of the race.

And let's be real, RFR really is a five-car team -- six a year ago -- with its engine/chassis association with two-car Richard Petty Motorsports. Hendrick Motorsports calls itself a four-car team, but the organization supplies engines and chassis for the two cars at Stewart Haas Racing and the crew chiefs exchange information on a weekly basis.

That makes them a six-car team in my book.

To penalize Waltrip because he wants to run at least one more Daytona 500 doesn't seem fair.

"It comes from a list of defaults, but it's basically any of the major components that would tie the teams together," Helton said. "So certainly a driver/owner situation, either way you look at it, would tie those groups together."

While NASCAR is coming up with gimmicks to stop tandem racing, it could take a few minutes to relax the cap rule. After all, Waltrip is one of the biggest supporters of a return to pack racing.

He said time and time again during testing to be patient with all of the rule changes, that NASCAR was doing the right thing trying to eliminate the two-car dancing.

Waltrip has been a good promoter for the sport, one of the best at maintaining sponsorships for his organization in tough times. He deserves a shot at the 500 if he desires.

And he desires.

Maybe he'll use his magic to convince a sponsor to put him in one of his own cars so NASCAR doesn't have to adapt the rules for the 500.

But he really shouldn't have to any more than Earnhardt should be restricted if he wants to start a Cup team. NASCAR could tweak the four-car cap rule just as easily as it tweaked the size of the restrictor plate and grille opening multiple times during testing.

"It really would [stink] if I didn't get a chance to drive in the 500," Waltrip said.

Chad Knaus was scheduled to return this week from a vacation to South Africa that caused him to miss the Daytona test. The absence of Jimmie Johnson's crew chief sparked speculation by some that the workaholic might be planning a career change, but that's not the case.

"There's nothing to read into it," said Steve Letarte, who oversaw Johnson's No. 48 team and Earnhardt's No. 88 team in Daytona.

Johnson concurred.

"He's been texting and emailing, so there still is that communication taking place," he said. "It's worked out well for Chad to take some time for himself, and I'm really happy that he has decided to do this.

"As we all know, he doesn't give himself much personal time."

Everyone needs personal time, even Knaus.

NASCAR hopes to get the package teams will take to Daytona within the week, but there still could be changes after the teams arrive.

One of the biggest concerns is stress on the engines.

"Right now our Ford engines are only good for about 9,100 RPM, and it looks like with what they are seeing we need 9,500 to make it work," RFR owner Jack Roush said. "So that sends us back to work on it unless they change the gear rule.

"If they bring the chip and/or keep us with the gears we've got, then we've got a lot of work to do on the engine."

As much as fans dislike tandem racing, they probably would dislike more a 500 in which engines are blowing left and right.

Kasey Kahne says the heat is dying down over his expressing displeasure on Twitter with a woman breast-feeding in public. He did an admirable job of handling a question about the situation during a break in the test.

"I took a little time off Twitter, and I just got going again now," he said. "I'm glad we're racing again. I just talk about racing like I've always done on Twitter."

In case you missed it, Earnhardt revealed at Daytona that Matt Kenseth owes him $2,500 from a bet they made at a New Year's Eve '70s party.

The bet called for Kenseth to keep the Fu Manchu and "pork chop" sideburns he grew during the offseason through the Daytona test. Kenseth was prepared to do so until learning he had a photo shoot in which the new look had to go.

"Back when he was younger he could have had enough beers in him where he wouldn't have remembered that [bet]," Kenseth said with a laugh. "I guess he remembered it."

For fans who didn't get to Daytona to meet their favorite driver, mark Saturday at the Charlotte Convention center adjacent to the NASCAR Hall of Fame on your calendar.

More than 50 drivers from the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series -- as well as the current Hall of Fame Class that will be inducted Friday -- will be on hand for autograph and question-and-answer sessions. Doors open at 7 a.m. for the distribution of wristbands.

This is a throwback to the Winston Cup preview that used to be held in Winston-Salem, N.C., every January.

Maybe by then, Waltrip will be closer to a ride for the Daytona 500.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.