That's History! NASCAR's Checkered (Flag) Past, One Story at a Time · Amy Henderson · Monday June 19, 2006
There's been a lot of excitement this week about David Gilliland's upset win in the Busch Series race at Kentucky on Saturday night. I admit it; I was on my feet, hollering like a banshee for the unknown, underfunded rookie to win. Sure, in part, you had everyone rooting for the underdog in that situation. I wonder, though; were there others like me who have just been wanting someone (anyone!) to beat the Cup drivers over in the Busch Series?
Just a few years back, the Busch Series wasn't like this. Sure, a few Cup guys have always run Busch races, but there were fundamental differences; they didn't greedily compete for the Busch championship, and there were only a handful running in each race. Contrast that to 2006, where seven guys are attempting to win both titles, and some races find half the field made up of full-time Nextel Cup drivers. Love it or hate it, the changes have everybody talking.
For or against, the history of Buschwhacking bears looking into. The NASCAR Busch Series as we know it officially began in 1982 as the Budweiser Late Model Sportsman Series. (Prior to that date, NASCAR ran a similar series, the Late Model Sportsman Division.) The first race was held in February of 1982 at Daytona – and the race winner that day was none other than – guess what – a Buschwhacker! The victorious driver that day was the late Dale Earnhardt.
Throughout the 1980's, the Busch Series went on to develop its own stars apart from the Cup series, with names like Tommy Houston, Sam Ard, Jack Ingram, and Larry Pearson. These drivers raced for championships of their own; running full Busch Series (then Grand National) schedules, they were not simply sticking around in order to have a stepping stone to a career in the then-Winston Cup series; they were in the series to stay, and they were there do race. These Busch-only drivers weren't alone, though. Cup star Bobby Allison became the first driver to “sweep” a race weekend in 1984, winning the Busch Series Mello Yello 300 and the World 600 at Charlotte. Darrell Waltrip was the first road course winner in Busch, and Earnhardt was a shoo-in to run a few races a year in the series. Busch Series, champions, though, never came from the Cup garage. Veterans Ard, Ingram, and Pearson accounted for the first six titles, establishing a firm identity for the growing series.
However, the focus of the Busch Series began to change somewhat heading into the 1990's. When young Rob Moroso won the 1989 series championship, the series began a shift towards becoming a proving ground for up-and-coming racers. Moroso was killed in a 1990 accident in his street car, but he set the table for young drivers like Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, Kenny Wallace, Joe Nemechek, and Johnny Benson, all of whom competed in the Busch Series in the early 1990's on their way to Nextel Cup careers. These drivers still had to race the likes of Earnhardt, Mark Martin, and Dale Jarrett in the Busch Series, but none of these Cup stars interfered in the championship battles that Labonte, Nemechek, and Benson would go on to win.
However, with the success of these drivers upon graduating to the Cup series, the die was now cast as to how the series would be used in the growth of NASCAR. The tide of the Busch Series really began to turn in the late 1990's, when Cup car owners realized they could own their own teams in the Series as a place to both preserve and develop their future Cup talent. In 1998, the Busch Series champion was the Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He repeated his title run in 1999, both times beating what would become Roush Racing driver Matt Kenseth, who finished second and third in both those years. Since that time, only one team whose ownership is completely independent of a Cup owner has won the series championship – ppc Racing with driver Jeff Green in 2000.
In 2001, following the death of Dale Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick was tapped a year earlier than planned to begin his Cup career. Harvick took over the Richard Childress Racing Cup ride, but also finished the season in his RCR Busch ride – winning the championship along the way and changing the face of the Busch Series. In the last five years, Cup influence on the Busch Series has continued to skyrocket as a result, both behind the wheel and behind the checkbook as teams look to create a farm system as well as a practice ground for their current and future Cup drivers. It's not the same Busch Series that Ard, Ingram, and Pearson dominated twenty years ago. That’s why seeing an underdog Busch Series team and driver is refreshing; for while the Cup involvement in the Busch Series has meant progress in some form, it’s always nice to be reminded of a simpler time, when teams who cared about only the Busch Series beat the best of the best in Cup. Celebrating the Busch Series upset of the year; now that’s history.
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