NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Side by Side: Is the Risk of Injury Enough to Keep Cup Drivers Out of the Nationwide Series?

Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side-By-Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

Today’s Question: Dario Franchitti‘s Talladega injury reminded us of the dangers of Cup drivers competing in a lower series. Is it worth it for Cup drivers to run races in that lower series – especially at a track like Talladega – considering the additional injury risk involved?

Franchitti Needed to Run on Saturday

Franchitti’s injury in Saturday’s Aaron’s 312 has re-ignited a debate over whether or not Cup regulars should risk injury by running lower-tier races, and for good reason. Franchitti is not the first Cup regular to suffer injury while racing outside the series; in fact, there have been a rash of such incidents in recent years. During 2005, Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered burns after a sports car racing accident, forcing him to use relief drivers for two Cup races; the following year saw Tony Stewart sustain injuries in a Nationwide Series event at Charlotte, one that was aggravated in a second straight crash during the Cup race the following day. Forced to use a relief driver at Dover in early June, Stewart’s season never seemed to recover from the extensive healing period after that.

Now, had Franchitti been an Earnhardt Jr. or a Stewart, he’d have had no business running in any Nationwide race – much less a restrictor-plate one. But in Franchitti’s case, he not only had a reason to run on Saturday… but an obligation.

Restrictor-plate racing at the Sprint Cup level is hazardous and difficult for even the most experienced drivers on the circuit; the fact that both Junior and Stewart found themselves involved in incidents on Sunday speaks volumes to the point that no one is ever immune to the big wreck. But Franchitti’s chances of starting such a mess are far higher, as he’s beyond inexperienced at plate racing. In fact, Franchitti came into the Talladega weekend with only two NASCAR-level plate starts to his credit. He needed, and still needs, all the seat time he can get in a stock car – both plate racing and otherwise, to boot.

With that said, Franchitti is an unenviable situation as a rookie. He’s still learning not only Sprint Cup racing, but stock cars in general as the pressure mounts for immediate success. Not only is the Scotsman outside the Top 35, but he doesn’t have a full-time sponsor for all 36 events to date. As such, the only thing that is going to make his situation better is to perform on the track – to get better. And the only way to accelerate that process is more seat time; that makes running lower-tier races an absolute necessity. Does Franchitti need on-track experience in Nationwide Series races? Yes. Does Franchitti risk injury to himself running Nationwide races? Yes.

But the risks outweigh the rewards.

Racing in the Nationwide Series does carry with it a chance you’ll end up hurt. The cars, while safe, are not the Sprint Cup CoTs, lacking the foam walls and more centered driver seats of their new counterparts. More notably, the field often consists of inexperienced rookies or over-the-hill veterans; drivers like Larry Gunselman are ones that fit into the latter category. In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Gunselman managed to hit Franchitti’s stopped racecar eight seconds after the caution flag waved Saturday afternoon. It was a lapse of judgment that could have been attributed to rust; prior to this season’s field-filler campaign, Gunselman hadn’t run a major NASCAR race since 2004.

Personally, if I was an owner spending $15-20 million a year to campaign a Sprint Cup driver, there is no way I would put them in a Nationwide Series car, or any other series for that matter. But as an owner, there is also no way I would ever put a driver who is still learning to race stock cars in a Sprint Cup car, period.

Unfortunately, I’m not in that envious position; but there are a lot of owners out there willing to put big names with little experience on stock car racing’s biggest stage prematurely, letting them learn the ins and outs as they go. And as long as that mentality remains among the owners in the garage, it will remain necessary for Sprint Cup drivers to suit up on Saturdays and run in the Nationwide Series – risk of injury notwithstanding.

Had an Earnhardt Jr. or Stewart been in the No. 40 car on Saturday, I would be writing about the stupidity of taking such a risk for as minuscule an award as another Nationwide Series trophy. But in the case of Dario Franchitti, on the racetrack was where he belonged Saturday. Franchitti’s need to race in a lower division is just another risk that owner Chip Ganassi runs with putting such an unproven, inexperienced driver in the lion’s den that is the Sprint Cup Series.

But in Ganassi’s case, it’s certainly a risk worth taking. – Bryan Davis Keith

Franchitti Running Nationwide Series Was An Unnecessary Risk At Talladega

The overriding wisdom is that Franchitti would benefit from time in a lower series in order to gain the experience he needs in Sprint Cup. But after a scary wreck at Talladega, Franchitti won’t be getting any experience at all; on the sidelines for up to six weeks, he’s now the poster child for why Cup drivers taking time to horse around in a lower series can really be a bad idea in the long run.

Certainly, Ganassi had all the best intentions by entering Franchitti in a part-time Nationwide Series schedule this season, hoping the experience gained by being in a full-bodied stock car would help him in a Cup vehicle each weekend. But how in the world was Franchitti going to learn anything at Talladega? There’s nowhere else on the circuit where the differences between the Nationwide and Cup Series cars are more apparent than on the 2.66-mile oval; while the CoT drafts one way, the Nationwide cars have a special roof/wicker aerodynamic package that causes them to have a different set of handling characteristics. Franchitti would be learning to suck up to the pack with a certain type of closing rate on Saturday; but when he’d try to apply that knowledge in Cup the following day, it wouldn’t necessarily translate. In fact, with limited experience on the restrictor-plate tracks, those timing differences might confuse a young rookie rather than instill extra confidence in his abilities.

Of course, any notion of building confidence Saturday quickly went sour the second Gunselman plowed into the side of the No. 40 Fastenal Dodge, a scary wreck that left Franchitti’s ankle fractured; now, that wreck may have fractured the future of the very team he drives for. Currently without sponsorship in the Cup Series for all 36 events, how is Franchitti going to woo financial backers when he’s busy walking on crutches instead of wowing the crowd with his driving skill? The Scotsman’s stint on racing’s disabled list doesn’t help relations with the sponsors Ganassi already has, either; those companies signed up with the expectation Franchitti would be in the car, and having to tell them he’s not because he got injured driving for another sponsor – in a completely different division – isn’t easy info to swallow. How would you feel if you expected the marketing value of the reigning IRL champ, then got handed a 50-year-old Sterling Marlin or a 52-year-old Ken Schrader instead?

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a Cup driver have a short-term injury potentially lead to long-term consequences. In May of 2006, Stewart’s shoulder got hurt during a vicious Busch Series wreck while driving Kevin Harvick’s car; less than 100% for about the next month or so, it was a set of four sloppy finishes during that stretch which inevitably prevented the two-time champ from making the Chase for the Championship. Clearly, Franchitti was no title contender in 2008, but he’s also battling for a prestigious trophy of his own – the Raybestos Rookie of the Year. That Franchitti could lose out on that hardware because he needed “experience” elsewhere is nothing but a shame; and it raises the question that if he needed additional seat time, why is he in Cup in the first place?

I know this side is not an easy one to argue; and I admit, there are times when anybody could use a little extra competition under their belt, especially rookies who are busy converting from open wheel. But you need to know when to pick your spots; running Franchitti at a Darlington, for example, is a lot different than throwing him to the restrictor-plate wolves. The bottom line is that while Franchitti should be 100% focused on his Cup Series effort for a 36-race season, he’s now facing a four to six-week period where all he can focus on is healing – all because of a race he didn’t have to run. Ganassi has plenty of Nationwide Series regulars on their roster – Bryan Clauson and Kevin Hamlin among them – who could have easily run with Fastenal sponsorship and done Ganassi proud in the process.

But instead, the car owner gambled with one of his best cards in the deck, and he lost pretty badly. But it’s a gamble he never should have taken.

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