Editor’s Note: This column originally ran on April 24th, 2006.
I gave the Buschwhackers a rest the last time I took my turn for Second Fiddle, but it looks like I need to revisit the subject again. This time around, though, I have a few other observations on things going on in the Busch Series, specifically concerning Jason Keller, Busch Series veterans, Busch Series rookies, and the fans.
Let’s start with Keller. It was announced last week that Keller and the Phoenix Racing Team have parted ways. The information released by the James Finch No. 1 team did not come out and say it was a performance issue with the driver, although that’s what I read between the lines, because it went on to mention they would be evaluating their program. Whenever a team says someone is “evaluating”, the driver they just ushered out the door usually seems to be the issue.
Keller sat 12th in driver points only eight races into the season (he has dropped to 19th since). In other years, that could have merited disappointment from a Busch team owner, but I really think any owner of a regular Busch team in nowadays would have to rethink their standards thanks to the presence of the Buschwhackers. Those full-time Cup drivers currently hold six of the top-10 points positions. If a rule were put in place to prohibit these drivers from competing for the Busch championship, they would effectively be removed from those spots, and Keller would have been sixth. In that case, I’d be surprised to see any owner dumping a driver who was just outside the top five in points.
However, the reality is that Keller has been released, so now what kind of situation does Keller face in the free agent market? A dreary one, in my opinion. Only nine races into the season, the movements of other teams as far as looking for new drivers haven’t really started yet. On top of that, Keller will turn 36 this week, so while he has years of good racing ahead of him, he is not the hot young talent most owners are looking for. Unfortunately, I think Keller will be the latest driver on a list of Busch veterans that includes David Green, Tim Fedewa, Mike McLaughlin (now retired), and Randy Lajoie who found the hunt for a new ride much more difficult than they should have. Out of that list, Green is the only one who has had much luck so far, and that came only after a long search and some time off the racetrack during which he wondered if he’d ever drive in NASCAR again.
Unfortunately, it seems Keller got pretty shabby treatment in this case, especially for a guy closing in on the most starts in Busch Series history. For now, Mike Wallace takes the seat on an interim basis, but I hope we don’t see yet another Cup driver in that car when the smoke clears.
That covers Keller and the veterans, so what was it I wanted to say about the Busch Series rookies? Only that they have long been the biggest defenders of Cup drivers running in Busch races, but I’m seeing signs that even those allies have had enough. Poring through the rookie comments each week for the Busch Series Breakdowns here on Frontstretch, it seems to me we have a rather downbeat class of rookies. Why? Well, most of them haven’t been getting quite the finishes they had been expecting. Most aren’t getting the qualifying results they expected. Some are getting beat up on the track a little more than they expected. What is the reason for this? Are they simply just not talented enough? It’s a little early to tell in every case, but I’m betting the answer is some of them are in fact very talented.
So, what’s the problem then? Well, the Busch rookies are overrun with Cup drivers taking the top qualifying spots and the top finishing positions, which is ironic considering the rookies have always defended the Cup drivers running in Busch by saying it gives them a chance to race against the best and improve their skills. With the competition notched up so far, though, these rookies are simply not in a good learning environment anymore. Other than Burney Lamar, most of the rookies haven’t even been in spitting distance of the Cup drivers on race day. Exactly how far behind they are hit home when one of them (Joel Kauffman, I believe it was) commented on NBS 24/7 that he was looking forward to Nashville when there wouldn’t be as many Cup drivers so that he might be able to actually get a decent qualifying spot and feel like he was in the race.
Last but not least, there are the “new” Busch Series fans. I don’t know what to make of the statistics I’m seeing. Attendance and ratings keep climbing, giving the impression that fans like to see all of the Cup drivers running in the Busch races. I have had comments on previous articles from fans who said just that. I have also had comments from fans who are outraged and disappointed to see all of those Cup drivers taking over the series. I see letters from these fans constantly saying they have given up watching Busch races because of it. So, what’s the truth? I’m certainly curious. I fall into the disgusted group of media and fans, in case you haven’t already figured that out, and there’s a lot more where I came from. So how can ratings and attendance be rising when there are so many disgusted fans? Well, maybe the squeaky wheels are just the loudest ones.