S.D. Grady · Thursday June 28, 2007
The last time I visited my local A-ball park, I enjoyed watching the up and coming stars of major league baseball. Some of the players clearly needed a little bit of work before making the big timeâ€”others were not as talented. Still, it made for an enjoyable evening of competition and I came away from the venue thinking about what would happen when the boy wearing the No. 13 entered Fenway Park for the first time.
Besides providing low cost entertainment to the public, this is the purpose of the developmental teams in the MLB system. They are building for the future.
I thought that is what the Busch series is supposed to be for NASCAR. After all, many of our current Cup drivers made their bow to racing fandom driving a car in the second-tier series. The current roster of Cup drivers is filled with previous winners from the lower series: Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Burton, Scott Riggs, Jeff Green, Dale Jr., David Gilliland, J.J. Yeleyâ€¦I can go on.
Unfortunately, it appears that due to ever-increasing costs of fielding competitive Busch teams, owners are less willing to invest the time and money in a driver with no star power. They would prefer to put a driver in the car that the public recognizes and sponsors can plaster on billboards with the assurance of selling more product.
The perfect example of running a race team like an advertisement instead of providing opportunities to excel came last weekend when Rockwell Automation and Joe Gibbs Racing made the unfortunate decision to yank Aric Amirola from the No. 20 Chevy 66 laps into the Milwaukee Busch race.
Due to difficulties in commuting between Sonoma, CA and Milwaukee, WI, Denny Hamlin was unavailable to qualify his car for the Busch series. Aric stepped up to the plate and put the No. 20 on the pole. On Saturday, Denny ran into more transportation nightmares and missed the start of the race. Once again, Almirola played for the team and climbed into the cockpit. For the first 66 laps of the race, he kept the car in the Top 5 and appeared to be well able to finish the job.
At this point, the day was a total loss for Hamlin. He would not receive any championship points or even credit for the win should he take over from Aric.
Gibbs Racing had the perfect opportunity here to make the day for their interim driver and their sponsor by leaving Aric in the car. What better PR for a team could there be than a rookie taking over a top-notch ride and bringing it to Victory Lane? When negotiating the following year's contract, there is proof that the racing team, not just the pretty driver, is capable of reaching deep and getting the job done.
The errant message sent to the fans and potential sponsors was clear on Saturday: You can only win Busch races with a Cup driver in the seat. It is at times like these that I wonder about the commitment of the owners fielding Busch cars. Are they in it to secure a competitive and exciting future for the entire sport, developing the very best drivers to climb into a Cup ride when it opens up? Or are we only talking about a making a quick buck and pandering to the never ending thirst to watch our favorite heroes win another race, no matter if they're driving an 8-cylinder beast or a two-stroke lawnmower.
I hope I'm not still watching the same thirty drivers compete on NASCAR ovals in ten yearsâ€¦but if teams like Gibbs are uninterested in investing in the future of our sport, it seems inevitable.
I think I'll print out the starting line-up for the New Hampshire 300 and put it in a time capsule. I'm hoping that when I crack it open in 2017, I'll only find nostalgia, not the roster for the next racing event. If that is the case, I doubt I'll be watching NASCAR any longer.
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