Nuts for Nationwide · Bryan Davis Keith · Thursday July 21, 2011
For those fans out there that believe in, and in the significance of, the Nationwide regular competing unmolested for the Nationwide Series championship, the last week has brought two pieces of positive news. For one, ESPN demonstrated some (albeit minor) improvement in their broadcast of the 200-miler from Loudon this past Saturday, dedicating time both early and throughout the broadcast to discuss the ongoing Nationwide Series championship battle and the ever-tight battle between Reed Sorenson, Elliott Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. even as Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Buschwhacker Inc. were busy leading all the laps.
And though this note has been largely ignored since his contractual situation has become the hottest story in NASCAR, Carl Edwards acknowledged that he would not contest a full Nationwide schedule in 2012, the first time since 2005 that he will not enter the Nationwide season planning to run a full slate.
Neither of these are hugely significant episodes, nor are they anywhere near enough to restore faith in the (lack of) direction of NASCAR’s AAA. But nonetheless, they are tangible evidence of the impact NASCAR’s long overdue decision to alter eligibility for the NNS crown is having. With the departure of Edwards from the ranks of Cup drivers pulling double duty, the days of such double duty that Greg Biffle started back in 2004 have now come to a close; now, the only regulars on tour will be the drivers that actually call the Nationwide Series home.
More importantly though, Saturday’s telecast showed, if only in glimpses, just how much of a revitalization the battle for the Nationwide Series championship has gone through even just this year. After enduring a horrendously boring and predictable string of seasons that saw Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski take turns beating up the school kids for their lunch money, now the series is hosting a compelling three-wide battle for the crown, with three compelling stories that all represent the diversity of competitors tackling the ranks.
There’s Reed Sorenson, who turned a part-time gig with Braun Racing a year ago into a full-time gig after filling in for the sick Brian Vickers. There’s Elliott Sadler, the longtime Cup veteran who moved down a level to seek a return to competitiveness. And then there’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the traditional development prospect who rebounded from a disastrous start to 2010 to post Rookie of the Year honors. Three very different drivers, three different roads, and all running neck-and-neck (not to mention Justin Allgaier’s not too far behind either).
It’s fitting that the 2011 season produce such a championship battle. After over half a decade of having the “we need Cup drivers” mantra shoved down the throats of Nationwide regulars and fans alike, suddenly the battle for the championship is doing just fine without them. It’s hardly a surprising development…the last season before Kevin Harvick started the Cup onslaught in the series saw Martin Truex Jr. win by less than 100 markers over Clint Bowyer. Not the closest points margin, but a thrilling battle in which Bowyer made up ground on Truex for over a month leading up to the finale at Homestead. And who can forget the memorable 2003 season that saw Vickers, David Green and Bobby Hamilton Jr. waging war all the way to the final laps in south Florida?
2011 has thus far been precisely the season the Nationwide ranks needs to be having, at least on paper. Already NNS regulars have won more races this year than in all of 2010. There is no runaway favorite. Two non-Cup operations are in the thick of it against the Roush Fenway Racing juggernaut (though with Hendrick and RCR backing, they’re admittedly not underdogs). Even if on-track much of 2011 has been similar to 2010 and other recent seasons, at least at the front of the field, the overarching storyline when all is said and done is undeniable…these Nationwide Series regulars can do this racing thing, and do it well.
That’s immensely significant in that, even after only half a season, it’s having any kind of impact on TV broadcasts. ESPN seemed to be almost pouting after NASCAR’s announcement before this year that the Cup crew would no longer be eligible for contesting the championship, making public statements that they were committed to covering the story at the front of the field, no matter who it was. We’ll find a way to keep the Kyle and Carl show on somehow!
And truth be told, there’s no guarantee that the few golden moments of actual title chase coverage that were seen Saturday will continue. Making a blanket statement that things are getting better based on a few minutes of a multi-hour broadcast is asinine.
But remember the network in question here. This is a network that despite multiple incidences, even including this past Saturday, of broadcasters having obvious conflicts of interest with the sport they’re covering because, well, they own the cars competing, has kept them in the booth. This is a network that for all the stories in the Nationwide Series has continually elected to beat dead horses (Kyle’s 100 wins being halfway to Petty, even if only 22 are in Cup, Danica). And this is a network that, while proving successful in maintaining current TV ratings, has changed absolutely nothing since their return to the sport that could constitute support for a series whose business model is failing.
That they even threw a few championship bones viewers way this past Saturday in Loudon is a pretty big deal.
Two stories that may not necessarily have been a big deal. But they’re two relevant signs that the move to alter Nationwide championship eligibility requirements in 2011 is one that will change the sport for the better.
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