Saturday night in the desert of California produced a perfect microcosm of the Busch Series this season. All night long, Cup veterans like Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, and Greg Biffle took their turns up front, the Top 10 littered with drivers who spend their full-time jobs racing on Sundays, not Saturdays. It was a parade of drivers with better equipment and strong financial support imposing hurricane force winds on the rest of the field, with the Busch Series veterans continually battered by their strength.
Certainly, that shrinking but competitive legion of drivers doesn’t ever go down without a fight. As the race wound down, a fuel mileage gamble gave the Busch Series only drivers and teams one desperate opportunity to steal the spotlight, as Paul Menard’s Chevrolet tried to fend off an empty fuel tank and the Cup-supported strength of Kasey Kahne’s Dodge.
Not surprisingly, desperation again proved to be no match for Goliath. As the checkered flag fell, Kahne sat in Victory Lane while Menard was busy surveying the damage on a car which coasted to the finish line out of gas. For the 25th time in 27 races this season, it was a Nextel Cup full-time driver in Victory Lane, while a second place finish by Kevin Harvick allowed him to pad his point lead to 567 with eight races remaining, with an eye-popping 1,073 point lead on Menard, the nearest Busch-only compeititor sitting sixth in the standings.
That’s the type of long-lasting damage that won’t quickly heal, no matter what happens now.
Like a weakening hurricane, Harvick joined the list of Cup drivers looking to calm the winds of destruction in Busch Series-ville, announcing this weekend that he did not plan to drive a full Busch schedule in 2007. He joins Denny Hamlin, J.J. Yeley, Greg Biffle, and Clint Bowyer among others looking to cut their time racing in a place they no longer belong full-time. At this point, Carl Edwards and perhaps Roush Racing rookie Todd Kluever (should he last) will be the only full-time Busch Series and Nextel Cup “double dippers” in 2007.
That means the Busch Series will be back to normal in no time, right? New stars will be born? Old veterans will work their way back in?
Not quite. With all the Cup drivers pulling out of the series full-time, there’s been but one official announcement of a new Busch Series team to take their place – Riley-D’Hondt Motorsports – but even that team has just a limited schedule in place at this point with Champ Car veteran Paul Tracy. Toyota teams Bill Davis Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, as well as James Finch, have pledged to perhaps add additional full-time Busch Series teams…but nothing has been set in stone.
Meanwhile, the hurricane force winds of Cup drivers continue to swirl in Busch the rest of the season, and the weakening Busch teams continue to crumble. The No. 36 McGill Motorsports operation arrived in California without a sponsor, regular driver Tim Sauter beat up from Bristol and fed up with struggling with a Busch only operation. Team Rensi Motorsports, just a few years removed from being a championship contender with Bobby Hamilton, Jr., is busy looking for a sponsor for one of its teams for 2007, keeping a sponsor for the second simply because of the team owner’s connection to McDonald’s. Even Kenny Wallace, perhaps the most visible Busch Series driver, is losing primary sponsor Autozone at the end of the year. Down in North Carolina, the dim lights of shops long vacant and the catcalls of auctioneers sell off the rubble of teams long ago torn into shambles. BACE Motorsports. Akins Motorsports. Glynn Motorsports. GIC-Mixon. Joe Nemechek’s Busch team sits idle, among several others.
Certainly, as the Cup drivers in each race dwindle, the opportunity for these Busch teams to do better increases. But ”
sponsors wonder what you’ve done lately, not necessarily what the future holds – and it’s hard to predict a bright future as a team in the Busch Series when you’re busy slogging out 25th place finishes each week. Of course, each time those Busch-only teams fold, a Cup-supported operation takes its place, one largely dependent on how many races their Cup driver runs to be present at the track. By my count, about 25 cars – about half the field in California – were mostly “Busch-only” operations, with either a dedicated Busch Series driver in their stable or an ownership group devoid of full-time Cup support. Can you imagine a race next year at, say, Memphis, if none of the Cup teams showed up at the track? You might struggle to get a field of 35 cars – and five to seven of those would be start-and-parks. There’s no new operations for the Busch veterans left behind like Jason Keller, Randy LaJoie, and Steve Grissom to try and rebuild their careers.
Of course, short fields won’t be the case at too many of the races in Busch in 2007, as these Nextel Cup drivers will still run 20-25 races with the biggest purses. Even with a limited schedule, they might accumulate enough points to challenge for the Top 10. Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be for the series if one of these Cup drivers runs 28 of 35 races and still challenges for the title? It’s an uncomfortable situation no one wants to think about, but with the advantages these drivers have heading into each weekend, the possibility exists.
There’s also the marketing nightmare the Busch Series has to face. Staring at a situation in which maybe one of their drivers currently in the Top 10 in points will be running full-time next year, the question is simple: who do you market? No techno-savvy 25th anniversary commercial will solve that. Not only that, who do these new “Busch Series” fans tune in to see now that their beloved Cup drivers won’t be there every weekend? The diehard Busch Series fans were on the edge of alienation as it is…if those Cup groupies stop tuning in, will the old-time fans automatically come back in the fold, and who do they root for?
As for rookies like Mark McFarland, Ryan Hemphill, and possibly Todd Kluever, as well as middling veterans like Casey Atwood, their careers have been cut short in part by the Cup invasion. Their damage is permanent; that can’t be undone. At best, their future revolves around a fill-in opportunity once a month for Cup drivers in Busch who don’t feel like traveling to Milwaukee, Kentucky, and Memphis; one-off opportunities to overcome tough odds and try and prove to the world they still exist.
Don’t get the wrong impression; yes, it is a good thing that Goliath is choosing to raise up and leave the series full-time, a good thing Hurricane Nextel Cup has pulled away to leave well enough alone in Busch starting next year.
Too bad the damage left behind will take years to clean up.
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