How do you beat the Big Four in NASCAR, or for all you college basketball fans out there, the Sweet 16?
That's how some people in the Sprint Cup garage refer to the 16 drivers on the four super teams of the sport -- Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing.
Those four teams accounted for all 12 slots in the Chase last season, but things may be changing. After the first three races, the Big Four hold down only seven of the top 12 spots in the Cup standings.
Four other teams take up five of those slots -- two by Michael Waltrip Racing (David Reutimann and Waltrip), one by Penske Racing (Kurt Busch), one by Stewart Haas Racing (Tony Stewart) and one by Hall Of Fame Racing (Bobby Labonte).
It's early, so doubts remain about whether these teams can continue to compete with the Big Four. But it is an indication that a few teams may be gaining ground on the Sweet 16.
"It would be nice to see some of these cars continuing [to race well] week in and week out," Waltrip said. "We all know the four teams that take up 16 spots. If you can infiltrate those 16 finishers, then you're going in a good direction."
Waltrip's team, now in its third season, has shown dramatic improvement this year. Reutimann ranks fifth in the standings and Waltrip is 12th. Marcos Ambrose, whose No. 47 Toyota has an alliance with MWR, ranks a respectable 20th in his first full Cup season.
Waltrip said his goal from day one was to compete with the Big Four, measuring MWR's success against those four teams.
"Those organizations have been around a long time." he said. "That's who you have to focus on beating."
The Big Four had 15 cars in 2008 (RCR added a fourth driver this season in Casey Mears). Fourteen of those cars ranked in the top 16 in the standings at the end of the year.
So far this season, only eight of the top 16 spots go to Big Four drivers. And 11 teams are represented in the first 17 spots in the standings.
It's a positive sign of increased competition, but NASCAR hasn't reached total parity just yet. Stewart's team has a partnership with Hendrick, and Stewart isn't new to the top 12. He finished there in 10 consecutive seasons at Gibbs.
Hall of Fame is aligned with Yates, which has a partnership with Roush Fenway, making Labonte a satellite driver for RFR.
In the most important category, the Big Four still are 3-for-3 in Victory Lane this year.
But having more drivers from different organizations race competitively is something NASCAR hoped the new car would help produce.