Two races to go with three points separating the top two drivers — what could be more exciting? It goes without saying that the first eight races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup have had plenty of unexpected twists and turns; the last two should be no different. In fact, it would even be safe to say that this Chase was much more exciting that anyone anticipated; it’s keeping everyone interested right up until the end.
With that said, it’s easy to forget about the high pressure battles going on in NASCAR’s two lower series and that they actually have some impact on the sport. Though not as glamorous, attended, or publicized as their most prestigious series — nor should they be — it’s important to realize the impact these title fights could play on the sport’s future.
First of all, consider the story of Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and the shocker of a season he’s had. In 2010, Stenhouse couldn’t stay out of his own way. In fact, things got so bad that at one point Stenhouse failed to qualify for a race at Nashville and team owner Jack Roush sat him out for a couple of events to get the team back in good standing.
But by the second half of that year, the freshman started turning it around, slowly but surely and wound up with the series’ Rookie of the Year Award in a remarkable comeback. Then, in 2011, Stenhouse has turned it around and done the impossible for a Nationwide Series regular; he’s won two races without the aid of fuel mileage or rain. In addition, he’s led a total of 446 laps in 32 races this season, more than his previous 39 starts combined. Now, he’s leading by 17 points over former Sprint Cup Series regular Elliott Sadler heading into the penultimate race of the season.
Meanwhile, let’s not forget about sophomore driver Austin Dillon, who is well on his way to becoming the youngest champion in Camping World Truck Series history. Due in part to Kyle Busch’s bonehead move, intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday, Jr. under caution, all Dillon needs to do is finish 16th or higher when the series heads to Homestead in two weeks and he’ll have the trophy in hand.
Assuming that these two drivers go on to win the championship in a couple of weeks, what does that mean for the future of the sport? First of all, Dillon will most likely be in NASCAR for years to come just because of his family name, but a championship would do wonders for his credibility and continued funding from current and future sponsors. In this economy, sponsors like to see two things: marketability and good numbers. Dillon has both, but a championship would add some more padding to those already impressive statistics and propel him even further up the NASCAR ladder. That’s a good thing, since he’s moving up to the Nationwide Series full-time in 2012.
In Stenhouse’s case, he’s had to earn back his credibility and has done a great job in doing so. In fact, Stenhouse has done a lot with very little, running several races with a white, unsponsored racecar and still managing to finish inside the top 10 in most cases. Roush Fenway Racing is likely downgrading to a three-car team in their Sprint Cup Series program next season, which would be the perfect opportunity for Stenhouse to jump up to Cup in a part-time, fourth car within the organization. A championship would almost certainly add to his appeal to sponsors and make him more attractive to Jack Roush and other team owners.
While neither Dillon nor Stenhouse will be in the Cup Series on a full-time basis for another year or two, a championship would give an added boost to their future plans and work as a good starting point when speaking with potential Sprint Cup Series sponsors.
However, there is also the unlikely yet still possible scenario that one or both of them will lose the championship. As I said before, Dillon’s future is probably already set in stone regardless of how he does in the title fight. However, it gets trickier for Stenhouse. If the young driver folds under pressure and makes a mistake that costs him the championship, a Cup Series ride might instead be given to his more well-known and marketable teammate Trevor Bayne. Now that Bayne has a win of his own in the Nationwide Series to go along with his Daytona 500 victory earlier this season, not to mention his comeback story after sitting out several weeks due to an undiagnosed illness, Stenhouse might feel some heat in his seat. After all, marketability tends to mean more than talent, at least right now in the racing world and Bayne has a story to tell that Stenhouse doesn’t.
Because of the economy and the high cost of racing, driver development is somewhat limited since the sponsors usually ask for the bigger names in the Sprint Cup Series instead of a driver trying to work his way up the racing ladder. However, with this new points system, the series regulars are given more of an opportunity to make a name for themselves which in turn gives sponsors more to work with.
Dillon and Stenhouse are two of the hottest commodities in the sport right now, and neither of their closest competitors would benefit near as much with a championship. The only driver mathematically capable of unseating Stenhouse is Sadler, who had his shot at the Sprint Cup Series but mediocre results, tensions within the team, and sponsorship issues that caused him to lose his ride. Even a Nationwide Series title won’t give him that opportunity again.
Meanwhile, the drivers behind Dillon — Johnny Sauter and James Buescher — haven’t really shown much interest in moving up to the Sprint Cup Series. Both drivers have been full-time in the Truck Series for a few years and are going to continue to compete in that division through at least the end of next season.
So while the Sprint Cup Series has its own level of impact and importance and is definitely worth tuning into, it would be wise to continue to pay attention to both the Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series title fights, too. Who knows? You could be watching future Sprint Cup Series champions win their first major title in the start of a great career.
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