The Frontstretch: As The Nationwide Series Loses Its Identity, NASCAR Stands Silently By by Amy Henderson -- Monday May 3, 2010

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As The Nationwide Series Loses Its Identity, NASCAR Stands Silently By

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Monday May 3, 2010


Watching Friday night’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race from Richmond was a bit of an eye opener for me. No, I didn’t see some young talent and wonder why a bigger team hasn’t picked him up. I didn’t see a series veteran taking the younger guys to school. Watching the race, I saw just how bad it’s gotten.

I’m not trying to fool myself; I’ve known for a long time that it’s bad. I guess I just didn’t want to believe it was this bad. Like a case of dry rot in the framework of a house, thinks look OK if you don’t look too closely, but after awhile, you can’t ignore the damage – and by then, it might be too late to fix it.

Since the Nationwide Series took on its current incarnation in the early 1980’s, there have been Sprint Cup drivers interloping. Just look at the record books: the name at the top of the list is Mark Martin. But what’s different these days is the frequency that Cup drivers are looking to pad their statistics with Nationwide Series wins and championships. That, and the money involved as they do it.

In the ’80’s and ’90’s, Martin was the exception, not the rule. He ran a good, solid percentage of the Nationwide (then Busch Series) races, but never a full season. And he was different from many of today’s Cup stars running the series in that his Sprint Cup owner was not always the one fielding his race cars. Martin ran for many years for owner Bill Davis, before Davis’ days of moderate success as a Cup team owner. He ran some of his own cars, too. Though Martin began driving for Jack Roush’s Cup operation in 1988, he did not run a single Nationwide race under the Roush banner until 1993. That’s different from today: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Brad Keselowski are racing the full Nationwide schedule funded by the same car owners who foot the bill for their Sprint Cup teams as well.

A fan pointed out to me in the comments to a recent installment of Mirror Driving that Martin, Dale Earnhardt, and a few others had a tendency to cherry-pick races, running only the most lucrative ones in the series. Now, that is true – the drivers picked their favorite tracks, or races that were most worth their while. But what was different was that they never ran for the season title, and they didn’t win every single week. Instead, the regulars won often enough that the series’ integrity was not compromised.

Even in Martin’s most successful season in the Nationwide Series, 1993, when he won seven times, the race results tell a different story. Not entirely different: half of the first ten races were won by Cup regulars Martin, Earnhardt, and Michael Waltrip. But the other five of those season-opening races were won by Nationwide regulars Robert Pressley, Steve Grissom, and Ward Burton, a trio with just two Cup starts between them prior to 1994. In the next ten races of that year, series regulars won six times, and of the final eight races, they won five. Of 28 races, series regulars won 16 times. That’s just not possible today. In 2009, Nationwide regulars won just five times in 35 tries, with four of those going to Brad Keselowski, running on Hendrick Motorsports’ nearly unlimited budget.

If a race is a microcosm of a season, the disparity is evident as well. In Friday night’s race, just two series regulars managed to post top-10 finishes among eight Cup regulars. In the spring race in 1993, though Martin won the race, the remaining nine positions in the top 10 were all series regulars. In fact, there were just five drivers who drove Cup full-time in the field, and only Martin and Terry Labonte finished better than 30th.

Brad Keselowski won Friday night’s Nationwide race, and was one of eight Cup drivers to take the top-10 finishing positions.

Let’s compare that to Friday’s race, where there were a dozen Cup drivers, a full third of the field, and eight of them finished in the top 10. Only two – both running on the limited funding of small-time teams – finished lower than 30th.

So while many try to bring up Martin’s record numbers, it’s just not the same. Prior to this decade, the series was a viable entity on its own. It crowned a champion from its own ranks (for the record, the 1993 Busch Series champion was Steve Grissom, driving for a family-owned team.) By 2010, the family-owned operation has all but disappeared as they are priced out of the market by Cup owners. Also, the series in those days did not have to rely on Cup companion races to draw an audience. Now, NASCAR claims that they need the companion events and Cup drivers to fill the seats. The unfortunate part is they have thoroughly (and probably irrevocably) destroyed the series in the process of shifting to that philosophy.

The sanctioning body decided they needed more companion races at about the same time the huge influx of uninformed new fans exploded onto the scene, and demanded to see the Cup drivers because they were the only names these fans bothered to learn. NASCAR raked in the money and threw away their integrity in the process.

Some Cup drivers were all for it. After all, there was more money, more wins to pad the stat sites, and more chances at winning a season title. And they threw away their integrity in the process as well. They claim to do it in the name of fun and racing, but the racers who really feel that way are fielding late models and dirt cars or running a few Nationwide or truck races at their most favorite tracks. You don’t see them running for a season title in a lower series. Another thing you don’t see is a single Cup champion trying to take the title in what was once a true development series with a few veterans thrown in for good measure. Whether it’s to fulfill some need for attention, to feed a hungry ego, or something else, I do not buy and never will that a single Cup regular is racing for the Nationwide title just for fun.

It’s a bit of a paradox, because while I don’t think that any one driver winning “too much” is the least bit detrimental to the Sprint Cup Series’ overall health, I firmly believe that Sprint Cup drivers winning all the time in Nationwide is killing the series. If it hasn’t gotten to the point of no return, it probably will soon. NASCAR had better start rowing as hard as they can in the other direction.

The Nationwide Series can be a healthy series on its own, with its own stars and its own champions. NASCAR’s refusal to make rules to ensure that and to market the series as such are puzzling. I have had a series veteran tell me point blank that the veterans look at the championship they once fought for “meaningless,” and a development driver who should be a series star, and who is driving for a Cup owner, tell me before the season even started that he had no realistic chance of winning the title. That’s not a healthy series, that’s a dying series, and NASCAR continues to turn a blind eye. I find it telling that while lists Cup Statistics, I had to search high and low to find something as simple as the all-time winners’ list for Nationwide. Even NASCAR’s own media site doesn’t have them; there’s a menu for Nationwide statistics, but only a dead link for what should be relevant information.

A dead link for a dying series. A sad irony for another casualty of NASCAR’s popularity and the monster it created.

And another thing…

- Maybe it’s just me, but I found Saturday’s Cup race at Richmond to be one of the most disappointing of the season to date. The ending was written with 25 laps to go; surely, nobody thought there wouldn’t be a zillion cautions and that the ending wouldn’t be exciting only by their virtue?

- I’m looking forward to Saturday night’s race at Darlington… but does anyone buy for an instant that it’s actually the Southern 500?

- Finally, word is that the lawsuit by Kentucky Speedway to gain a Cup date has been put to bed. I bet Atlanta Motor Speedway let out a collective groan, as it’s likely they’ll lose a date to Kentucky in 2011.

Contact Amy Henderson

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Did You Notice? … Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Beyond the Cockpit: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on Growing Up Racing and Owner Loyalties
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NASCAR Writer Power Rankings: Top 15 After Darlington
NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
Open Wheel Wednesday: How Can IndyCar Stand Out?


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05/03/2010 03:02 AM

I agree with many of the points you make.
If the “Busch” series needs the Cup guys to draw a crowd could you imagine what the stands would look like without them. The crowd friday night was pathetic, like the majority of the Busch races.

Nascar and the tracks have hurt themselves with tickets prices also, I understand that these tickets cost more then my local short track, but when I’m paying the same price per lap or more for the Busch race as the Cup, I have a problem.

Nascar could also change start times of noncompanion races so the Cup guys could not do both. This would discourage drivers from racing for the championship and therefore racing in this series.

While Kyle might not be racing “just for fun’ as you say, he must somehow enjoy racing to do the Snowball 300, Anderson 400 and Winchester 400 just to name a few of the other races he does, I also believe he drove a truck for a couple years and did not get paid.

05/03/2010 03:39 AM

Let me first say I have never been a Mark Martin fan. I know this may be clouding my judgement. Does the “exception, not the rule” mean you would not have a problem if only 1 or 2 Cup guys were doing this instead of the 10+.

The 1993 season you used as an example had only 16 companion events and 11 of those were won by Cup guys, with Mark winning 7 of the 14 he entered.

While I also believe the Cup drivers are hurting this series, nothing will change until nascar does something and all they are worried about is the money they can make.

If this series would go back to the short tracks that helped build all of the nascar touring series they could grow and also allow the good young drivers the chance to be noticed.

One question.
If the cups guys were all driving cars THEY OWNED (like Harvick) or for someone besides their Cup car owner would you still have a problem? While I think this could thin the field of Cup drivers, you would still have a few that would build the shop an cars to race here.

05/03/2010 06:27 AM

I can’t believe we are still playing this same song. I for one don’t care how many Cup drivers are in the Nationwide Series; but for the people that don’t like it – NASCAR is the one responsible for allowing it; not the drivers. In fact, I think that in these economic times, the SPONSORS probably play just as big a role as NASCAR – they want more bang for their buck.

05/03/2010 07:39 AM

When does Danica come back to Nationwide?

Seriously though, Run the Cup race earlier and piggyback the Nationwide race shortly there after. Make each ticket worth a doubleheader of admission – therefore closer to the value of the price.

mitch wilson
05/03/2010 10:40 AM

whats the deal with the dirt tracks at nascar tracks, the world of outlaws used to run these tracks, texas no longer runs the series, eddie gossage does nothing to promote the dirt track atTMS, the series was born in texas ,but since the death of founder Ted Johnson.Its used for an SMI parking lot during cup races. Use the track dummies….

05/03/2010 11:04 AM

This topic certainly is old news . And i can’t help but notice that the Frontstretch “ writers “ always give up any shred of credibility on these questions by referencing way back in the eightys . Cup drivers have entered the lower series in droves over the decades .
Real race car drivers love to race . Real race car drivers race as often as possible . Add to that the fact that they love to race on certain tracks no matter what type of race car they’re in . Now add all of that up and see if you can see any reason other than money for the Cup drivers to be running in the lower series . The money has NEVER been the motivation for any Cup driver to race in a lower series . But the possibility of winning races and championships sure has .
I would suggest that maybe you should re-watch the Nationwide race though , because i certainly saw some young drivers that could easily be picked up by a Cup team . Or have you forgotten that Brad Keselowski got his start in Cup exactly that way .

Rob in NC
05/03/2010 11:09 AM

I still say it’s very simple to solve. The rule should be that a driver can only collect one paycheck per weekend. That way, if a cup driver wants to run a N’wide race, they can, but they don’t get the cool $50k for doing it. It wouldn’t fix everything immediately, but it would be a good start.

05/03/2010 11:23 AM

Mark Martin was the start of it all. I remember watching him in the “Busch” series at the time saying he doesn’t belong there. Much the way I say the same thing now about the Cup regulars.

I saw the start of the Nationwide race on Friday night and the crowd was pathetic. Watched about 10 more laps and then turned it to something more worth while. Nascar’s needs to re-examine their thoery that Cup guys in the series brings higher attendance. One might say it is doing the exact opposite. My view is that people are tired of the same people winning every week and will wait until Sunday’s to watch the Cup guys.

When will Nascar realize that the casual fan is not who they should be catering too. Its obvious by allowing so many Cup guys in the NW series that this is what they are doing.

It will take Nascar losing more money for them to wake up. As usual, its all about the money.

05/03/2010 12:33 PM

to start wcfan is apparently a kyle busch fan lol. if any one out there believes these drivers such as kyle busch arent in it for the cash they are sadly dilussional. i bet kyle is operating his truck team and driving it so it can lose money. the only reason other than money that these cup regulars run the lower series is to pump up an already oversized ego. when your a cup regular and you win the nation wide title its a joke. what not good enough to win a legitamate cup title? none of the past cup champions run for a nationwide title and they dont even run those races. but boy you take edwards, harvick, and busch they are all so proud that they could beat developement drivers week in and week out with their unlimited budgets oh what a proud moment that must be for them. look at me i cant compete for a championship in cup so i have to race for one down here. good job you are beating the developement drivers that are honing their trade. YOU LOOK LIKE A JOKE BOYS. its simple to solve if you want to race nationwide thats fine but you can only run one race per weekend. you pick

05/03/2010 12:53 PM

While I agree that in the 1990s drivers were more likely to “cherry pick” the races, that may not have been entirely true for Mark Martin. Earnhardt was sponsored by GM Goodwrench (a company with locations everywhere), Martin was sponsored by Winn Dixie, a south-east based grocery store chain. Winn Dixie would not pay to sponsor the car an entire season to see Mark race at New Hampshire where dont have any locations.

I agree, nationwide series is slowly dying thanks to the cup regulars coming in and taking all the winnings. Where is the incentive for a truck series team to move up to Nationwide when when they are going to be outspent 10-1 by Penske, JGR, and Roush?

05/03/2010 01:19 PM

With Budweiser leaving the 9 car that leaves them open to sponsor NASCAR’s top series (hear me out- I know this will NEVER happen)

With Budweiser sponsoring the top series in NASCAR this allows for the marketing possibility of “Bud Light.” Where Cup Drivers can select a 6-pack of races to moonlight in the lower series. (no more than 6) and whichever driver scored the most points in those 6 races wins the “Bud Light Trophy”.

For those of you that think I work for NASCAR marketing.. maybe I should. That’s a heck of an idea!!!!

05/03/2010 02:00 PM

I guess to some degree I have to agree that cup drivers need to stay in the cup races but,If they own there own team then why not race?? So to stop a lot of this BS Don’t let cup drivers run in Nationwide unless they own there own team?

05/03/2010 04:13 PM

I don’t mind seeing the drivers run two or even all three series . My friends and family don’t mind . It gives us a chance to see great drivers in action more than once per weekend . And as far as i know , the Nationwide drivers themselves don’t mind competing against the best . Not to mention the fact that if they run well against , or beat the Cup drivers , they get noticed by said Cup drivers and sponsors .
You know why it’s been going on as long as there have been two distinct series ? Because it’s never been considered a problem . Because it isn’t .

05/03/2010 04:35 PM

The Nationwide Series may be losing its identity as a AAA or feeder series… but it looks like a pretty good impression of what a lot of fans have been asking the Cup tour to be: many of the top drivers in the sport, who are running for wins instead of the championship. Shorter races ensure more action and less riding around conservatively for the first hundred or two laps. Lower budgets than in the Cup series. Greater manufacturer parity and, beginning later this year, resemblance (although not perfect, but a good step in the right direction) to actual stock automobiles. A point system that makes sense. And, of course, no six-car superteam! Make the Sprint Cup series more the Nationwide and you’ll resolve the ills in both series.

05/03/2010 04:36 PM

Yes I am a Kyle fan, he is one of a very few who gets up on the wheel and tries to win every race he is in.
If Kyle is in it only for the money, why did he race in the truck series for no money? If I’m not mistaken he did this for a couple of seasons.
Some of these guys just like to race.

05/03/2010 11:12 PM

What was once the Busch Series is now the “Bush League” series. I’ve been calling out nas$car to do something about this for awhile. I don’t see anything positive coming out of situation. WHO WANTS TO WATCH CUP LIGHT? And Robin, with all the cup drivers dominating the “Bush” series, how do very good young drivers like Kligernan get better if they can’t get into real good cars” In it’s present incarnation, the series is unwatchable.

Jeff P
05/03/2010 11:41 PM

Ask Harvick, Jr., & Kyle B. (i know he’s an owner in the truck series) why they have to drive their own cars. They all have said on the record that it’s the SPONSORS that demand the name recognition a Cup regular can give them along with the assurance their BRAND will get TV time.

NASCAR has the power to control this by making rules to keep Cup regulars out of the races, and declare it a true “minor league” series. Incredibly, they don’t seem to understand (or care) that not doing so is causing fans to leave in droves. They claim Cup drivers are putting fans in the seats, but really they are appeasing the owners and sponsors who likely (and wrongly) tell them the series will die without those drivers.

Like most businesses, it’s not just one bad decision that sinks the ship, but a string of missteps that put her under. History will show a certain France managed to take a business on a giant upswing and run it right into the ground.

But what really continues to amaze me is that nobody in the France family is smart enough to recognize what’s happening and make a move to right the ship with the only thing that will save her. NEW Leadership!

05/04/2010 06:41 AM

Midas, there are plenty of good young drivers in the Nationwide series that are connected to the major teams – Justin Allgaier (4th in points) driving for Penske with Verizon as sponsor (for the whole season); Trevor Bayne (MWR), Colin Braun (Roush), Steve Wallace (RWR), James Beuscher (Phoenix Racing)and they are all in “good” cars. So I still don’t buy the fact that the CUP drivers are pushing out all the young talent.

05/05/2010 02:50 PM

Dig a hole and cover it up, it stinks!!!!!!


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
Fans To Decide Format of Sprint Unlimited at Daytona
UNOH and Kentucky Speedway Extend Sponsorship Agreement
Earnhardt Out For Charlotte and Kansas After Talldega Concussion
Piquet, Jr. Wins K&N East Opener

Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.