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When the Sprint Cup Series comes to Martinsville Speedway this weekend, it will usher in a new era -- one that seems awfully familiar.
NASCAR will remove the rear wing from the current car configuration (once known as the "Car of Tomorrow") and replace it with a spoiler -- you know, that blade on the rear that the old car had. The thing that pretty much all the fans loved. The wing was not a popular thing -- mostly because it looked really weird, but also because it was perceived to not produce very good racing. Some even blamed the wing for the rash of cars getting airborne (see: Carl Edwards at Talladega, Ryan Newman at Talladega, Joey Logano at Dover and Brad Keselowski a couple weeks ago at Atlanta).
So the spoiler is being welcomed back with open arms. Fans and competitors alike are hoping more cars stay on the track when they spin, and they're hoping for better side-by-side racing.
But will the spoiler have another, perhaps unintentional, effect?
Since NASCAR went to the CoT full-time in 2008, four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has won 17 races. Include the CoT races in 2007, when NASCAR was running both models part-time, and 22 of Johnson's 50 career wins have come with a wing. He's also won three of his championships with the wing playing at least a small part.
Meanwhile, since 2008, the following drivers have just one win:
- Jeff Gordon, he of four Cup titles.
- Dale Earnhardt Jr., he of 18 career Cup wins, including the 2004 Daytona 500, and two Nationwide (then Busch) Series titles.
- Newman, he of 13 career wins, including the 2008 Daytona 500.
Greg Biffle, who boasts Truck Series and Nationwide Series championships, has won just two races since the full-time implementation of the rear wing. Meanwhile, Kyle Busch (13) and Edwards (11) are the only drivers other than Johnson to win double-digit races with the rear wing.
Take into account Johnson's four straight Cup championships -- an unprecedented feat -- and the fact that he's won three of the first five races this season, and would you blame competitors and fans if they thought going back to the spoiler would equal the playing field?
Look, I'm not saying the No. 48 will completely fall off the map once the spoiler comes back this weekend. Johnson has won five of the last seven races at Martinsville, and crew chief Chad Knaus is arguably the smartest mind in the garage. Add in the fact that Johnson drives for Rick Hendrick -- an owner who's won eight Cup titles with three different drivers since 1995 -- and I seriously doubt the return of the spoiler will relegate Johnson to the mid-20s every week.
Remember, Johnson has 28 Cup wins without the wing. He just wasn't as dominant as he's been the last few with the wing.
The spoiler will even the playing field -- and might even lead to a resurgence for the drivers mentioned above. There might be a period of adjustment for the No. 48 team, but it won't last longer than a few races, and I expect Johnson to become a force again. Will he win his fifth straight title? I don't know, but I bet everyone in the garage area is hoping he doesn't.
Johnson's already in everyone's head -- Kurt Busch admitted as such after finishing third at Bristol on Sunday. At this point, everyone else is going to grasp for any advantage they can get, even if it feels like they're grasping at straws. The spoiler is one such straw, but if it makes the other drivers more confident that they might be able to actually beat Johnson, then more power to them.
Just remember this: Johnson and the No. 48 team aren't going away, no matter how badly we might wish otherwise.