NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Nationwide Whackers are Hurting the Sprint Cup Series

On several occasions during the Martinsville race this past Sunday, the announcers in the FOX booth analyzed “short-term gain” vs. “long-term loss.” The comparison was made whenever a driver skipped a pit or took two tires for track position, meaning that they may gain track position in the short run, but the older tires may mean a net loss in the long run.

The short-term gain vs. long-term loss is a debate that could, and should, be taking place regarding Cup drivers in the Nationwide Series, and nowhere was this more evident than at Martinsville last Sunday.

Going back through the incidents and other mishandlings in that race, the list of drivers involved in them included Sam Hornish Jr., Patrick Carpentier, Aric Almirola and Michael McDowell. It’s not that these drivers spent the whole day committing racing heresy, but all of them at some point demonstrated a lack of experience.

Hornish (11 Nationwide starts, has never raced at Martinsville) spun out twice and punted JJ Yeley. Almirola (two Craftsman Truck starts at Martinsville; he performed the best of the rookie drivers there until his engine gave out) spun out Bobby Labonte early in the race. Carpentier (four Nationwide starts; none at a short track) spun out twice. And McDowell (one truck start at Martinsville) spent quite a few laps holding up cars in lead-lap traffic that were racing for the win.

All of these could be traced to lack of experience at this type of track for these drivers. Dario Franchitti went around twice at Bristol two weeks before, too.

More and more drivers are cutting their teeth in Cup cars despite the fact that they aren’t ready for Cup racing. With so many rookies coming from a league where they don’t use fenders, it’s no wonder that Martinsville is overwhelming for some of them.

Why is this happening? Because there is no minor-league series in NASCAR to groom the up and coming talent anymore.

No less a respected driver than Jeff Burton complained about McDowell last Sunday, saying that McDowell needs to learn some manners on the racetrack. But McDowell might have more of an opportunity to learn such manners if guys like Burton weren’t racing in the Nationwide series every week. For the third year in a row, the Nationwide Series is being dominated by full-time Cup drivers.

NASCAR and the Nationwide Series have experienced a revenue gain from the glut of big name Cup drivers flooding the series. They’ve attracted sponsors, filled seats and expanded the prize money. But now we are starting to see the long-term loss from over-saturation of Cup drivers in a series where the future Cup drivers are supposed to be learning.

Top young drivers can’t gain experience. Top developing talent like Todd Kluever and Burney Lamar are being thrown out of rides because they can’t run well enough and long enough to land a committed sponsorship in a series that features Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.

Sometimes they don’t even get to drive for the whole race; Almirola last season was yanked out of his car and replaced by Hamlin in the middle of a race that he was leading.

As a result, the Cup Series is currently displaying its weakest rookie crop in recent memory – even worse than last year’s, where a former open-wheel champion was able to win Rookie of the Year honors by finishing 20th in the standings amidst another weak field. This isn’t a coincidence. The Nationwide Series simply isn’t fielding any regulars that consistently light up the field.

And it doesn’t look any better in the near future. Hamlin and Clint Bowyer may be the last of the star young guns for quite a while. Who will be the Sprint Cup rookies of 2009? Brad Keselowski? Kelly Bires? Or are they more likely to be Danica Patrick and Dan Wheldon? What would a potential sponsor prefer?

Juan Pablo Montoya, David Reutimann, David Ragan, Paul Menard, Regan Smith, Hornish, Almirola, Franchitti, Carpentier. That is NASCAR’s future, ladies and gentlemen. Nothing personal against them, but I see maybe two of these guys becoming stars one day.

NASCAR does not have a system in place to properly bring along aspiring talent. No other sport operates this way… and no other sport is dangerous enough that it absolutely should NOT operate this way. If any sport should have a minor league, it’s auto racing. The danger of inexperience really ought to override marketability. If Franchitti injures another driver severely with a mistake at Darlington, I’m not going to care that he’s married to Ashley Judd.

Thanks partly to Jacques Villeneuve‘s graciously stepping out of the way last October, the Sprint Cup schedule escaped Talladega without injury. But the circuit hits Talladega again soon and there will be probably more than one driver in the big show that doesn’t know how to handle a three-wide, 35-car pack at 190 mph. It’s tough enough on guys that have been in Cup for years.

I don’t have an iron-clad solution. NASCAR has a spotty record at best when it comes to legislating to solve problems. If I had my way, NASCAR would not allow any of the Top-35 drivers in the Sprint Cup points standings to participate in the Nationwide Series so that drivers and teams who are out of the Top 35 and need extra money can make some in the lesser series to help them get back in tune. But I also don’t like limiting competition or a governing body stepping in to rule things. No racing series sets limits on competition.

What NASCAR can do though, for a start, is market the Nationwide-only regulars a lot more so that they don’t actually have to beat the professionals like Scott Wimmer had to do at Nashville to be noticed. They are starting to do this with Joey Logano, who hasn’t even raced in any major series yet; why not try it with Keselowski, or maybe even Stephen Leicht? Let their marketing department focus on these fine young drivers so that enough people know who they are, and they can subsequently land and keep a sponsor. Everyone watching Nationwide races knows who Matt Kenseth is.

NASCAR and the Nationwide sponsors have gotten very used to the additional revenue generated by the Cup drivers racing in that series. Like a driver that takes two tires for track position, they’ve achieved a significant short-term gain. But like that driver later losing spots to drivers that took four tires, NASCAR is now starting to see the long-term loss, as the quality of racing at the Sprint Cup level begins to suffer.

The question is whether it will be worth the gamble.

Kurt’s Shorts – In The Texas Heat

  • Elliott Sadler gets a shout from the Official Columnist of NASCAR for his performance at Martinsville. After injuring his back in a workout, he completed all 500 laps at Martinsville, reportedly in a great deal of pain, and even finished in the top 15. When I watched baseball more than NASCAR, I loved when players played hurt. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I think D.W. should tough it out when he has no voice.
  • Jeff Gordon scored his first win at Chicago in 2006 and his first at Phoenix in 2007. Maybe it’s Texas’s turn this year. You can’t shut this guy out forever at any track. Grasshoppers learn to adapt.
  • BAM Racing and Ken Schrader won’t be at Texas this weekend, apparently because they’re taking some time away to make the switch to Toyota. BAM president Tony Morgenthau called it a “big-picture” decision. No kidding. By the way, Microsoft has signed on with BAM as a partial sponsor. Call me irrational, but with the team already named BAM, I don’t know if I’d want a sponsor whose products have a reputation for crashing.
  • You have to feel for David Reutimann. Despite being 28th in points, he has to fight for a spot this weekend at TMS, thanks to the car switch to the No. 44. I’m not sure I get the logic of that. Why not put McDowell in the No. 44? He certainly proved at Martinsville that he can keep the car on TV for a while. The entire family of Reutimanns have driven the No. 00 – and just like that a long-standing tradition was tossed aside. It’s as if Brian France were running this team. I hope MWR’s newly designed sway bar helps Reutimann out.

And that’s Happy Hour for this week, welcome to Fort Worth.

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