The Frontstretch: Nationwide and the Never-Ending Identity Crisis by Bryan Davis Keith -- Thursday April 28, 2011

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Nationwide and the Never-Ending Identity Crisis

Nuts for Nationwide · Bryan Davis Keith · Thursday April 28, 2011


The discussion of the Nationwide Series needing to find a new identity for itself has been at a fever pitch since, well, it became the Nationwide Series in 2008. Problem is, it’s two months into 2011, and that very same discussion is ongoing. Progress has not been made; rather, every attempt has simply rung hollow.

Nationwide Insurance has tried numerous cash incentive programs for its series regulars, only to have Sunday’s full-timers contesting the entire NNS slate as well, either taking the cash home themselves or keeping the recipients out of Victory Lane. Last season’s special Nationwide Dash 4 Cash program? None of those four races was won by a Nationwide-only regular, leaving it money… well, best not spent. Meanwhile, NASCAR has tried to remedy the problem, taking away points for drivers not eligible for the series championship, yet all that’s done is created a weekly sanctioned “Best Of The Rest” race. The auto manufacturers (some of them anyway) have used the new NNS COT to reintroduce muscle car models to stock car racing, though inconsistencies among what the carmakers are running (really, a Mustang vs. a Camry?) make it difficult to reclassify the series. Plus, there’s the fact that these new cars are still, for their new noses, anything but stock cars. Instead, they’re still machines that still largely have their raciness determined in the shop as much as the man behind the wheel.

Those who are not supportive of the preponderance of Cup drivers double-dipping and dominating NNS competition have long derided the series as “Cup Lite,” meaning every single change that everyone from the title sponsor to the sanctioning body have thrown at the former Grand National ranks has proven incapable of shedding that abrasive reputation. The new identity remains elusive.

Or does it? Reading through reader comments after this past weekend’s Nashville race that saw the series’ first standalone weekend reduced to the Carl and Kyle show, one that caught my eye was an interesting reframe of the identity argument, that maybe it wasn’t “Cup Lite” that was the issue. This reader instead remarked that maybe it was the “minor league” moniker that the Nationwide ranks ultimately need to be shedding.

After all, for all the comparisons that many, including this writer, have made between the Nationwide Series and AAA baseball, the two are far from synonymous. AAA baseball sure as hell isn’t televised every weekend on national TV. AAA baseball doesn’t feature unique equipment or playing field characteristics that make the game different from what goes on in major league ballparks, while the Nationwide Series has its own cars, combined with its tapered engine package force drivers to run the car differently on the racetrack. And the Potomac Nationals are not going to be taking the field at Nationals Park in D.C. for a warmup game before the beloved Nationals take the field.

No, the Nationwide Series poses a situation unique to professional sports. With the field determined not by franchise rosters but by who hauls a car out to the track, there is no set-in-stone progression for drivers coming up…or down…the ranks. It’s a largely companion entity, playing on the same field as the big show a day earlier. And in an era where driver development is being done more and more based on the pocketbook rather than potential behind the wheel, it’s left the series with an existential crisis; just why the hell is it here?

It’s a question that’s becoming harder and harder to answer. Owners are running out of answers to it; the famous short track of Richmond is of this writing facing a short field, even with seven start-and-park cars on the entry list. Sponsors are running out of answers to it; even 2007 series champion and top-5 fixture Carl Edwards has run a number of races this season with nothing more than Ford decals on his No. 60. The same could be said for the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team that’s leading the owner point standings, as they came within a razor’s edge of not racing at Nashville due to lack of backing.

And while TV ratings may well have leveled off for the series, attendance is another story. From the paltry crowd of 15,000 at Charlotte Motor Speedway last May that didn’t even warrant the track opening its upper deck to this past weekend at Nashville that saw less than 20,000 fans show up to NASCAR’s premier event of the weekend, race fans are skimping on appetizers (and on a lot of recent weekends, the main Sunday course as well).

Sure, the economy has a role to play in the current attendance downturn…but so does the product. And the product as is isn’t working.

Because whether one considers the Nationwide Series the minor leagues or its own entity, the face of the series are the handful of Cup regulars that show up nearly every weekend. They’re the ones on TV. They’re the ones winning races. They’re the ones staying (mostly) sponsored. With the points chase an afterthought and ESPN routinely omitting scores of race cars in the field from their broadcast coverage, any argument that the Nationwide regulars are truly the face of their series ring hollow.

Which begs the question…how are Cup drivers the answer to putting the Nationwide Series on stable ground. Because take a look at what’s being seen on Sundays…the Cup Series isn’t on stable ground, either!

Fact of the matter is, Sunday features Carl vs. Kyle, Brad vs. the world, etc., and for longer distances in more recognizable race cars. Yet Sunday TV ratings continue to fall, new sponsorship has all but disappeared, and attendance continues to dry up. Again, there’s the economy, the unpopular first-gen COT, a host of factors that can be blamed for the sad state of affairs in the Cup Series.

But the product has to be considered among those issues. And the product in Cup is courtesy of the same drivers and teams dominating the Nationwide ranks. Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing are among the class of the field. Kyle Busch leads laps like there’s no tomorrow. Carl Edwards is Mr. Aww-Shucks.

Seriously, how can anyone sit there and argue that the faces of a failing series are the answer for another racing series because they’re in less recognizable race cars competing against a weaker field for a shorter period of time?

The Nationwide Series needs a new identity. Make than any identity. But if they’re going to build one, minor league or otherwise, Cup regulars need not be part of it. Their work day is Sunday, and any one of them not named Jimmie Johnson isn’t getting that job done. They’d do well to remember that.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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04/28/2011 09:23 AM

I never really understood why they changed to a COT. Once the Cup series had the new car, the Nationwide series was identified with the old car.

Now the Nationwide series has the car the Cup series should of had in the first place.

04/28/2011 11:30 AM

Yes, the Nationwide series is failing, and it should be obvious to even the most optimistic.
Along the same lines, if all is so great why aren’t there more truck races? Its probably not to drive up interest.
Somehow, Nascar has got to rekindle interest, and having 450 mile parades, with orchestrated lead changes, concluded by 50 lap races isnt the answer.

Doug in Washington (State)
04/28/2011 01:55 PM

I’m not sure the NW series even has a reason to exist anymore. 3 Touring series? All 3 of which are having trouble getting full fields to attempt the distance?

Here’s my take:

Combine the Cup and NW races into one series.

The cars are already pretty much the same- a lot of NW COTs are old Cup COTs with the NW body on them, so it’s not a huge issue to make them purely identical. I don’t care which body they use, I like the NW ones better but it doesn’t matter.

You’d have a 60-race season, the current 36 Cup races (or so) and 24 of the NW races.

You’d have 2 races on most weekends, not necessarily at the same track (like having a Saturday race at IRP and Sunday at Indy) but close enough that it’s not a burden to run 2 locations. Do all qualifying and practice on Friday for those 2-site weekends. The rest of the races are of course at the same track, which means each team will probably need 2 haulers (little teams without backups can switch engines if need be) but you already have to pack the current NW and Cup (and Truck sometimes) haulers in at the same time anyway.

Run the Saturday races at a shorter length using the Tapered Spacer engine (and smaller carb possibly) and the Sunday race would be longer using the “Cup” engine package.

The Truck series becomes the sole “AAA” series. Run it mostly standalone, but fill out the schedule by adding the “lost” NW races into it to make a 32-race schedule. Increase the starting grid if more than 36 trucks start showing up regularly.

Crazy? No worse than any of the other “Fixes”. And just as much chance (none) of happening.

Chris Lowe
04/28/2011 03:04 PM

The only way that NASCAR will ever fix the nationwide series is by fixing there schedule, I mean does the Nationwide series really need to race 34 times a year, no do they need to be at every track with the cup series No, drop 4 dates off of the schedule first of all, and give the Nationwide series some standalone events at more tracks that the cup series dont run it would not hurt the nationwide series to run races on the other side of the country when the cup series is running on one other side, send the Nationwide series to tracks that the cup series don’t run that is how you can cut the cup guys from running Nationwide.

Doug in Washington (State)
04/28/2011 05:27 PM

The thing is, the Cup guys already run the standalone races. Sure, it’s not as many, but they still dominate. There’s no Cup race at Nashville. No Cup race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Or Iowa. Or Indianapolis Raceway Park. Or Road America. But who won all those races? Cup regulars. Well, except Circuit Villenevue, but Boris isn’t a NW regular either.

I don’t think the location of the races is the problem when Carl, Brad, Kevin, and Kyle are catching Cross-Country flights to race Standalone NW races.

04/29/2011 12:10 PM

I just read an article from Doug Demmons and about threw up. Is he an actual Nascar reporter or just a shill?

He apparently considers stand alone events with Cup drivers different from companion events with Cup drivers because he seems to think attendance should be great at the stand alone event whether Cup guys are there or not .

So because attendance was poor at Nashville, his reasoning is that the Cup guys saved the show.

Its no wonder anymore why he doesn’t allow comments on his articles. Obviously people saw the entry list and decided to stay home or save their money to support the fairgrounds track since it sounds like the fairgrounds has better racing anyway.

Sorry to the staff for adding this about another article but I had to get this off my chest. Changes are need in the NW series regarding Cup guys or else it will be history before too long and garbage articles like that only hurt the cause.