Kevin Rutherford · Friday September 20, 2013
Guess it’s time to start bidding adieu to the title of this column, eh?
Wednesday, Nationwide Insurance announced it would no longer act as the title sponsor of NASCAR’s second-tier national series after its contract expires at the end of 2014. The insurance company is currently in the sixth of a seven-year contract to sponsor the Nationwide Series, having taken over for Anheuser-Busch starting in 2008. Instead, Nationwide will focus on other opportunities within NASCAR, including as the presenting sponsor for the Betty Jean France Humanitarian Award and within the Sprint Cup Series, as well as retaining its standing as the sport’s official sponsor for auto, home, life and business insurance.
That means NASCAR will need to find a new sponsor for its No. 2 series by the end of next season. But while that gives the sport a fairly large window of time with which to work, let’s not be too hasty in saying it’ll be an easy replacement.
The Nationwide Series is currently at a crossroads. Though new young drivers like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Larson have emerged in recent years as bona fide contenders — with more certainly on the way — the series continues to be mired in a fairly unappealing position. It has an assumed identity as a feeding series for the Sprint Cup Series, a distinction it’s held since its inception in the ’80s, but is it really anymore? Sure, the circuit has its younger racers and its journeymen thought to be on a lesser tier than those on the Cup level, but those drivers very rarely shine. Instead, the series ends up as more of a ‘Cup lite,’ with many of the top series’ drivers coming down to race almost weekly.
Is that a series that’s desirable for a major sponsor? This isn’t an investment taken lightly; it’s an effort worth millions and millions of dollars that lasts over the course of multiple years. Busch, the series’ original sponsor, remained such for 25 years. Nationwide’s tenure pales in comparison at just seven years, but that’s still a hefty contribution. You can bet NASCAR’s not going to be looking for a title sponsor that comes in to just try things out for a year or two before bailing if things aren’t going the way they like.
These days, there simply isn’t much to write home about with the Nationwide Series. Cup regulars have won all but six races this season. Some of its teams don’t even seem to care much about its driver title, putting a pronounced effort behind the fairly boring owners points championship. The fans are coming out even less than in the Cup Series, with many racetracks’ stands looking like ghost towns once the green flag flies. This weekend’s race at Kentucky is important; it’s a standalone event with no full-time Cup drivers. If it’s an exciting race, the series shows it can still get it done. If not, what does that say about the series as a whole, even if there were more races like it?
It’s true that the series will always have more trouble establishing a prominent identity than the Cup Series inherently; after all, as a feeder series, it’s going to have a higher rate of turnover among its drivers. Young talent comes and goes regularly, either because of a promotion or a demotion. Series competitors that actually stay in the series over the course of, say, a decade are much rarer than in the Cup Series.
Nonetheless, the Nationwide Series has definitely lost a lot of the flair that it once possessed, even when drivers were still coming and going. Fans are tuning out after watching drivers like Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch win every week. More are continuing to watch, but their patience is wearing thin — one look on Twitter or on a fan forum is all one needs to know that.
Such a volatile, unproven circuit may not be the kind of series that even a Fortune 500 company will want to sponsor. Declining ratings and interest have seen to that.
It’s too early to say for sure whether or not NASCAR will have a major issue finding a sponsor; if it’s nine months from now and there’s still no replacement, that’s when my concerns could be proving true. For now, it’s easy to remain optimistic because, again, NASCAR has until the end of the 2014 season to find a new title sponsor for the series.
I just hope they announce one soon. These column names aren’t easy to come up with, you know?
-Trevor Bayne and his Roush Fenway Racing team didn’t exactly have a great start to this weekend’s Kentucky 300. En route to the Sparta, Ky., track, Bayne’s team hauler caught fire on I-75 late Thursday morning. According to the Knoxville News, the car was not damaged. No word on what caused the blaze.
-The standalone race this weekend — coupled with an off-weekend for the Camping World Truck Series — has created a number of opportunities for part-time drivers to get rides in equipment generally piloted by Cup regulars. Kevin Lepage will drive Johnny Davis’s No. 4 usually driven by Landon Cassill while Drew Herring will be in Joe Gibbs’ No. 54. Meanwhile, Ryan Blaney, Joey Coulter and Matt Crafton — all Truck regulars — will drive the Nos. 22, 18 and 33, respectively. Jeb Burton will also make the jump from the Truck Series, piloting the No. 34 for Turner Scott Motorsports.
Looking Ahead: Kentucky
Stats (Entered Drivers):
Most Wins: Austin Dillon (2)
Most Top Fives: Elliott Sadler (3)
Most Top 10s: Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler (4)
Most Poles: Austin Dillon (3)
Entered Past Winners: Austin Dillon
Top Average Finish: Austin Dillon (2.7, 3 races), Matt Crafton (3.0, 1), Drew Herring (4.0, 1), Elliott Sadler (5.2, 4), Sam Hornish Jr. (5.7, 3)
Kentucky Nationwide Debuts: Joey Coulter, Dakoda Armstrong, Jeb Burton, Jeffrey Earnhardt
Season Debuts: Jeb Burton
Series Debuts: Jeb Burton
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