Bryan Davis Keith · Thursday October 14, 2010
Talking to Brad Keselowski, you’d never know anything was wrong with the Nationwide Series.
Speaking to FOX Sports’ Lee Spencer, the current NNS points leader remarked the series “[is] still profitable. It has sponsors. We may not have everything we want, but we’re OK.”
“My perspective is they’re [development drivers] there because we’re there and because the Cup drivers bring the attention and credibility to the sport, to bring some sponsorship and to bring a desire for them to compete against us and prove themselves.”
It’s amazing how a driver like Keselowski, only a few years removed from toiling at the back of the field with the vastly underfunded Keith Coleman Racing operation, can seemingly have lost so much perspective since getting behind the wheel of a fully-funded ride with Cup backing. Then again, who in their right mind would go around saying things are broken when they’re fully sponsored and leading the championship standings by nearly 400 points over second place?
And it’s not like Keselowski is alone among Cup drivers trying to mount a defense of their continual pillaging of NASCAR’s development ranks. Any number of them will argue that they’re the reason the series draws a crowd, that the series draws sponsor dollars, that there’s plenty of drivers making it through the ranks.
Let’s make one thing very clear. The Nationwide Series is not healthy. It may well still be the number two form of American motorsports, but celebrating that a national touring stock car series is able to score better ratings and attendance than an open-wheel series that runs a largely international field who only drive Hondas and whose shining star is a driver known more for her looks and lip than her ability to turn left (or right) is really clutching at straws. Frankly, that’s not much of an accomplishment. And looking at any of the measures of health that Keselowski points to as indicators that the Nationwide ranks aren’t that broken, his rosy red picture of the series he’s made his playground (while his Cup team lags behind) is about as upside down as his car at Atlanta.
Let’s take a look at the sponsorship claim. Nationwide is still the title sponsor…and the deal they signed back in 2008 was 40% of what NASCAR was looking for. Penske Racing, which is fielding the first and fourth place cars in the series, have one car sponsored for all but six races by someone they poached from another Nationwide team, and the other is losing their sponsor at the end of this season. Roush Fenway Racing has still been unable to secure full-backing for two of their four NNS cars. Phoenix Racing cut back to a partial schedule because they couldn’t find a sponsor. Diamond-Waltrip Racing was forced to release Trevor Bayne for lack of a full sponsor for 2011. Richard Childress Racing’s shutting down their Nationwide program only four years after winning the series championship. Baker/Curb Racing has no sponsorship for either of their two cars. And that’s not even getting to the middle-tier operations in the back that can’t even dream of a full season sponsorship package.
NASCAR brought about the CoT car to the Nationwide Series despite dire economic conditions because it was sure to entice new ownership to come in. As of Charlotte, the last race for the new car in 2010, the number of new teams that have surfaced to field the new car? One. Don’t forget that the CoT is also parking another full-time team, the No. 26 of K-Automotive, for Charlotte. In short, the ownership influx is a push.
And as for the development drivers only being able to race because Cup drivers bring legitimacy and sponsorship to the series, forget about that joke of an argument. Brian Vickers and Martin Truex, Jr. would likely have a word or two to say about the Nationwide Series needing legitimacy through Cup drivers running roughshod over development drivers… as they both owe their careers in Cup to winning Nationwide Series championships before Roush Racing and Greg Biffle came up with the double duty for Cup drivers idea.
And those sponsors they bring? Well, they’re not being brought into the sport… they’re moving to the Cup drivers. This isn’t growth of wealth, it’s reallocation. Discount Tire was already in the sport before Brad Keselowski signed them. Carl Edwards’ Copart was associated with KHI and teams in the Truck ranks. Fastenal was previously with JR Motorsports and Bobby Hamilton Racing. And as for the entire idea of trickle-down, find me a Nationwide regular that’s got a sponsor thanks to one of them.
Now let’s look at perhaps the most important measure of the sport’s health…attendance. Consider the final five races remaining on the Nationwide Series circuit, based on annual attendance averages since 2007. For tracks that host two dates, the annual average projection has been calculated by using spring attendance:
Charlotte Motor Speedway: Annual average down 65.7%
Gateway International Raceway: Steady since 2007
Texas Motor Speedway: Annual average down 49.6%
Phoenix International Raceway: Annual average down 24.4%
Homestead Miami Speedway: Steady since 2007
Keep in mind these stats are based on NASCAR attendance estimates, which are generous to put it lightly; anyone that believes there were actually 52,000 people at Gateway earlier this summer probably also believes there was debris on the track back when Jimmie Johnson was handed the win at Atlanta in the fall of 2004. And even with NASCAR’s best case scenario playing out, attendance over the final five races is down an average of 27.94%. Not exactly representative of Keselowski’s stating “we’re OK.”
Based on the steady decline of attendance, the lack of sponsorship, and the flow of ownership leaving rather than entering the sport (CJM Racing, PPC Racing, Lewis Motorsports, Frank Cicci Racing are among the many to bite the dust), there’s only one conclusion that seems reasonable; something in the Nationwide Series needs changing.
And for a while this season, it seemed like change was finally going to come. With Keselowski, Edwards and Kyle Busch mowing down the field, the momentum was there for NASCAR to finally crack down on what has become an epidemic problem in the Nationwide ranks; that a select group of Cup drivers had turned a vital part of the stock car racing infrastructure into their personal playground, the future of that series be damned. Talks of finally putting a cap on Cup driver participation, on preventing them from running for the championship, were actually going somewhere substantial.
Then Carl Edwards came along and told everyone that he enjoyed Nationwide racing too much. And that title or no title, he and his sponsors were coming back full-time in 2011.
Suddenly NASCAR got cold feet. How could they possibly freeze out one of their cherished stars? How could a fully sponsored Carl Edwards be a bad thing?
Now, with only five weeks left in the season, NASCAR’s Nationwide Series town hall was nothing more than a marketing session. One that honestly couldn’t have gone well…because is there really any answer to this question?
Nationwide Independent Owner: What can I tell a sponsor to sell them on my car when I run on 10% of the budget of a Cup team with a lesser-known driver? When Carl Edwards and his friends are going to run in the top 5 35 times a year, hogging the purse money and the TV time, points or no points, where’s the incentive for a sponsor to get on my car?
The sheer number of teams, be it TriStar Motorsports or Jeremy Clements Racing, that have strung 2010 seasons together on the backs of sponsors that pick up nothing but partial tire bills, or others like K-Automotive that thanks to personnel constraints have all but given up on marketing out of necessity, speaks volumes as to how this question really has no answer.
And it goes a long way to demonstrating that as much as drivers like Keselowski and Edwards would like to have everyone believe that their continued full-time campaign in NASCAR’s minor league is a win-win for everyone, it’s not.
Because it’s not like all the extra seat time is producing results for them at the Cup level. Carl Edwards hasn’t won a Cup race, hell even been relevant in Cup racing, since 2008. And as for Keselowski, his resume in the No. 12 Cup car features 13 top-20 finishes. That’s only two more than David Stremme etched in the same car one year ago… a performance that cost him the ride.
There’s also the fact that combined, the last decade’s worth of Cup champions have started a total of four Nationwide races in 2010. If there’s one thing Cup champions have in common, it appears to be focusing on the big prize rather than Saturday’s low-hanging fruit.
Maybe Carl and Brad, the only two Cup regulars to announce intentions that they’re racing Nationwide full-time in 2011, just aren’t ready to handle the demands of Cup. Maybe Jimmie Johnson is just that much better. If that’s the case, here’s hoping these two get over themselves and commit to running AAA.
Because a Nationwide regular legitimately winning the series crown would bring more legitimacy to the sport than Brad and Co.‘s moonlight ever will.
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