Thomas Bowles · Sunday March 19, 2006
With rain in Atlanta this weekend, some race fan’s minds drifted elsewhere, from the sounds of roaring engines to the cheers of basketball arenas around the country. The second round of the NCAA Tournament was in full force, and with it came surprise upsets, underdog teams on the rise, and Cinderella stories galore.
It’s the type of event where small, unknown schools experience for a few shining moments what it’s like to be one of the Big Boys. But imagine with me, if you will, an NCAA Tournament without Northwestern State. How about no George Mason? No Bucknell? No Bradley? I don’t think the first few rounds would have been quite as exciting.
Believe me, the owners of teams that call only the NASCAR Busch Series home can relate to the George Masons and Bucknells of college basketball. Undersized and underfunded, they fight every day just to keep up with the behemoth Nextel Cup-owned teams that come into their territory with better equipment and simply steal the show. Jack Roush. Rick Hendrick. Richard Childress. Roger Penske. They might not win the Nextel Cup race on Sunday"¦but you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll be in victory lane in the Busch Series on Saturday. 5 of 5 Busch Series races this season have been won by full-time Nextel Cup drivers, snagging 4 of those 5 wins while driving for Nextel Cup-owned Busch teams.
The success of these "Buschwhacker" drivers—- full-time Nextel Cup drivers moonlighting in the Busch Series—- has been well documented. In one sense, though, it’s these Nextel Cup owners building their own Busch "superteams" that are as much of a problem as the Nextel Cup drivers themselves. With extra test sessions eliminated at the Cup level for 2006, these car owners are looking more and more to the Busch Series races as their own "test session" where their cars, drivers, and "Nextel Cup" setups can gain some experience and some seasoning before Sunday. While one of their weekend goals may be to win the race, they’re more concerned about wins on Saturday translating into success come Sunday, when all the Big Boys come out to play with a very similar type of race car. They don’t really care, per se, about the long-term health of the series"¦although they’re sure to make 5 or 6 of their associate Nextel Cup sponsors happy by making them the primary sponsors of their own Busch cars.
Lost in all this are the Busch Series owners who have neither Nextel Cup connections nor the desire to have them. Frank Cicci. Brewco Motorsports. McGill Motorsports. These small teams are only concerned with 200 and 300-mile affairs, making a season championship and putting on a solid Busch Series show for the fans their top priority rather than working on gathering Nextel Cup information for the following day. These are the cars most likely to employ veteran drivers with a solid record of Busch Series success, who either choose to race in Busch because they want to, or never quite found the right ride to showcase their talents in Nextel Cup.
Instead of allowing a Nextel Cup driver to collect two paychecks, the Jason Kellers, Tim Sauters, and David Greens of the world pride themselves on affiliating with teams that care about the overall health of America’s second-fastest growing series, looking to wins at Milwaukee, Nashville, and Indianapolis Raceway Park as major milestones, not just some ho-hum "B" main victory before the Nextel Cup race on Sunday. They’re the college teams where a first-round win in the NCAA Tournament means everything, and a trip to the Sweet 16 is a dream come true.
Yet, unlike the Bradleys and Wichita States of the college basketball world, these Busch Series owners are losing ground every year to compete with the big guns. And now, with a NASCAR rule designed to help teams who compete in the series on a weekly basis, these teams ironically find themselves on weaker footing than ever before. This "franchising" rule—- which in the Busch Series guarantees starting spots to the Top 30 in owner points—- has convinced Nextel Cup owners that in order to make sure their "test sessions" for their Nextel Cup drivers are guaranteed for every weekend, they’ll have to make sure they enter their cars—- with their top drivers—- in every race. With more resources, more money, and better equipment, Busch-only owners face the equivalent of starting a basketball game down 20-0. Now, every once in a long while, you might come back from that deficit to win that basketball game. But as a Busch-only owner, can you honestly tell a sponsor with a straight face they should spend 4 million dollars on your program for the opportunity to succeed "once in a long while?"
This doomsday scenario in the Busch Series is quickly becoming a reality. The Top 30 in owner points are now locked in for the 2006 season, and next week at Bristol 18 Busch teams with Nextel Cup owners (or strong Nextel Cup ties) will be locked into the field. Additionally, 15 of those entries will be driven by Nextel Cup veterans who are currently racing that series full-time. More importantly, of 18 eligible Nextel Cup-affiliated teams, 18 are in the Top 30. And that’s not counting Busch Series’ ST Motorsports teams, which have themselves an alliance with the Wood Brothers in Nextel Cup"¦the numbers should really be higher.
Now, compare those stats with those from teams in spots 31 through 42 in Busch Series owner points, who aren’t guaranteed a thing. Zero of 12 are Nextel Cup-affiliated teams"¦zero of 12 have Nextel Cup drivers fighting for a spot in the field for the Busch Series. All you have are twelve Busch-only teams with twelve Busch-only drivers, now forced to qualify week-in, week-out just to make the field in their "own" series. Sure, the chances of them continuing to make races are high"¦but when you have to waste time preparing for qualifying, your race setup suffers, and, ultimately, so does your race performance. And when a team does register that dreaded DNQ"¦you know what happens after that. It’s a snowball effect that has no Cinderella ending"¦unless you’re a big fan of auctions and tag sales.
Unfortunately, the powers that be don’t seem all that motivated to stop the madness. Busch Series ratings are up in the short-term, and no one seems to foresee the long-term ramifications of a Busch Series with all Nextel Cup owners, their interests lying elsewhere, and no Busch Series veterans to give their all to a series they love. Most importantly, there will be no Busch-only teams to develop upcoming new young drivers looking to be the next Mark Martin, the next Bobby Labonte. Everyone was complaining about a lack of Nextel Cup driver talent last year"¦how can anyone develop new talent or recycle old ones when no owners are around to give them an opportunity? Now, if you’re not in a Jack Roush or Rick Hendrick "driver development" program, how do you get your chance?
So, with their backs against the wall, it’s time for the dwindling Busch owners to do something before it’s too late, recognize they’re being led to the slaughter before the axe comes chopping down. They may need something drastic, perhaps, like all of them withdrawing from a Busch Series race and creating a short field to get NASCAR’s attention. If they don’t"¦their days in Busch are numbered. Because if I’m a Nextel Cup owner allowed to have unlimited success with my Nextel Cup drivers in the Busch Series, winning week in and week out and gathering countless bits of helpful information, why would I stop? If anything, I’d throw ALL my Nextel Cup drivers on the Busch Series bandwagon as soon as possible.
Let’s hope those Busch Series owners start fighting for their own survival. Their personal shot clock is winding down"¦and they can’t afford to let it hit zero. Not when they’re already down by 20, late in the second half.
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