It’s probably a good thing that the 2007 Daytona 500 finished the way it did; the exciting and controversial finish helped to overshadow what was yet another Nextel Cup Driver Benefit event the day before during the Orbitz 300. Kevin Harvick won that one, too… but the finish was a lot less exciting.
It is the biggest Busch Series race of the year, as the Daytona 500 is the biggest Cup race of the year… but Busch Series drivers succeeded in leading a combined four laps of this year’s event. Todd Kleuver, the highest finishing Busch-only driver, placed just 14th; I would say Scott Wimmer was in 13th, but to me, he doesn’t count, as he was a full-time Cup guy for the last few years. Kleuver isn’t even running the full Busch schedule for Roush in the 3M Ford Fusion, as he is splits time with Greg Biffle. Apparently, he needs more seat time than Todd, an all too common occurrence in a series where younger drivers are repeatedly being looked at as “schedule fillers” for the Cup guys who run the majority of the races. All in all, the top-10 finishers in Sunday’s race have a total of 109 Nextel Cup victories to their credit so far; I’m guessing they have turning left figured out by now. So much for developing talent in the Busch Series.
Even with the different aero package the Busch cars use, the race was for all intents and purposes pretty uninspiring. While it usually produces quite a lot of action at Talladega, the extra air disturbed by the roof strips and spoiler wickers did little to promote competition outside of the top 10. Had Kyle Busch‘s fuel pump not malfunctioned late in the race and the engines of Juan Pablo Montoya and Reed Sorenson lasted, it could have been a top-15 sweep of Nextel Cup drivers, a bad omen to start off yet another season filled with Buschwhackers.
Now, while we are always bemoaning the fact that the Cup guys are coming in and steeling the Busch guys’ money, it’s fair to say the Busch Grand National 300-miler was won by a Cup regular in the 1980s and ’90s. Did Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip really need to be running it? No, but it was a good tune-up race having come off the offseason. In today’s environment however, it’s gotten out of hand.
The Busch teams and drivers who are literally struggling to even run a partial season depend on races like this to not only make some money, but in some instances, simply keep their teams afloat. Look at the Braun team scaling back their efforts this week, with John Andretti having to cut back to a limited schedule of 15 races. On this weekend’s entry list, just 17 of the 40 drivers are running just the Busch Series full-time, and about the only airtime those guys are going to get is in those cool new ESPN2 commercials; with so many Cup guys in the field, they’re outmanned, outspent and outnumbered.
Of course, the Cup guys will tell you they need the Saturday test session, but with the differences in aero configurations between the two cars, there is little that can be applied to the race on Sunday. Besides, everyone was down at Daytona for the last month. I’ve got news for you; if you hadn’t figured out your Cup car by then, you probably weren’t going to. With the new Bud Shootout format, Duel races 150 miles long, ultra-restrictive rules on body and chassis setup and the untold hours of practice and testing during the week, bringing a field of 24 Cup drivers into the Busch race isn’t exactly a level playing field. It’s one thing to be able to gauge yourself against a Cup driver to evaluate talent, but it would be nice if you actually had a chance at qualifying for the race, too.
With all the odds stacked against them, what are the true Busch teams left to do? Boycott the race and park their cars on pit road in an act of defiance? That probably wouldn’t work, as there are so many Cup teams fielding Busch cars that they could probably fill the field if given a proper chance.
At this point, the Busch Series has gotten to the level where it can pretty much survive on its own; they don’t need 10 Cup drivers to show up and help promote it. Unfortunately, there is now so much money in the Busch Series, a Cup driver would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to run for a couple of hours on Saturday. He doesn’t have to worry about points, can sell some diecast cars, hats and t-shirts and take home a pretty healthy check to boot, all the while getting a read on the track for Sunday.
While this is an issue virtually every race weekend, it is especially disconcerting to have it happen for the biggest Busch race of the year. It’s their Super Bowl, too, and the last time I checked, the Indianapolis Colts didn’t stop over to play the Florida Gators or Ohio State Buckeyes this year. What a shame.