NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Sounds the Nationwide Series Alarm

Though he’s a bit more polished than the rough around the edges kid he once was, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still struggling to get this politically correct thing down. Occasionally, he’ll still drop an unanticipated bombshell that will send NASCAR officials scrambling to their shelters – and this week in Charlotte, Earnhardt delivered another one of those off-the-cuff set of remarks that ought to cause a lot of concern.

No, Earnhardt wasn’t responding to the usual questions about when he might win a Cup race again, or how it feels to have gone over two years without a victory. Junior has his PC response to those questions down cold – for let’s face it, he’s had a lot of practice answering them. Instead, Earnhardt was responding to questions about his own JR Motorsports team and its future in the Nationwide Series. And after having denied since the team’s inception that he was interested in one day having his team run in Sprint Cup, Earnhardt performed a dramatic about face.

In comments to a group of reporters, the driver acknowledged that his Nationwide team may begin competing in the Cup Series as early as next year; that is, if he doesn’t shut the whole operation down altogether. In his remarks, Junior noted that running a team in NASCAR’s AAA series is almost as expensive as competing in Cup; and with the oncoming change to the new Car of Tomorrow cars in the Nationwide Series, competing at that level is going to grow dramatically more expensive. As he faces the daunting task of switching over his fleet of racecars, Junior lamented the fact it’s tougher than ever to find a sponsor for his Nationwide cars, nothing that perhaps he’d have better luck finding backing in the more popular and visible Cup Series instead.

In a nutshell, what Junior implied is that the Nationwide Series just doesn’t draw the crowds or TV ratings the way it once did. The purse money for the AAA races hasn’t risen to keep level with the expense of competing, and NASCAR now proposes to make running their Little League series that much more expensive – making it impossible even for a team like JRM to survive.

Considering the team owner making these comments is perhaps the most visible and popular driver in the Cup Series despite that long winless drought, it’s time to stand up and pay attention. If Earnhardt is having a tough time finding a sponsor willing to back an effort he puts his name to, you can only imagine how tough finding backing is for the full-time Nationwide teams. And because of his affiliation with the Hendrick organization, Earnhardt has test results and parts for free that other team owners pay the big bucks for. If he can’t make a go of running a Nationwide series team even with that cost-saving measure in place… who can? I mean, other than already wealthy Cup team owners looking to do a little R&D for Sunday’s races on Saturday…

Obviously, if he were interested in continuing to compete in the Saturday series, Earnhardt Jr. is a wealthy young man who could finance the team out of his own deep pockets without ending up on welfare. But Earnhardt is a lot different than most drivers in our sport today. He once worked as a mechanic at his Dad’s Chevy dealer, for a time even doing oil changes. He once shared a double-wide mobile home with his older brother Kerry, and commuted back and forth to work at the wheel of a ratty old S10 pickup truck. There’s an old saying; once poor, never rich – and that sums up his attitude towards money. Earnhardt might enjoy being a team owner, but he’s not going to lose money doing it.

So, if we accept for a moment that running the Nationwide Series is too expensive, what can NASCAR do to address the issue? Certainly, forking over a bigger part of the TV revenues to teams that compete in the series full-time would help. It’s going to be tough to convince track owners and promoters facing dwindling ticket sales on Saturdays and Sundays to pony up bigger purses, but tracks whose geographic conditions dictate huge and rising transportation and travel bills for the team owners are going to have compensate the competitors accordingly – or face short fields.

But the long-term solution is going to have be more radical. As the Nationwide Series looks to a future of new equipment, it’s time to change the whole ballgame to lower the costs of competing at that level. The single biggest change that needs to be made in the series is to make the cars so radically different from the Cup side that there is absolutely no informational advantage to have a Cup team owner run in the series. And if those owners still choose to compete at the Nationwide level, changes need to happen to ensure their deep pockets don’t let them dominate the sport.

My first suggestion would be to adopt crate engines for the Nationwide Series. Ford, Chevy and Dodge all sell V8 crate engines through their performance divisions; using these would be radically less expensive than today’s engines. With those specs in mind, I’d like to see the cars run with engines in the 400-horsepower range. Manufacturers would submit their proposed powerplants to NASCAR for approval, and dyno testing would ensure that all of them were relatively equal and available to everyone at the same price. The carmakers would sell the engines to NASCAR, and NASCAR would, in turn, sell them to the teams at random to make sure Chevy or Ford’s favorite sons didn’t get specially prepared mounts. The engine’s valve covers, timing covers and oil pans would feature seals to ensure nobody dug into them looking for more power, and a broken seal in post-race inspection would be made grounds for immediate disqualification. All engines would run standard issue Holley 600 cfm four barrels distributed to the teams at random prior to the races, and those carbs would feature tattletale seals as well.

Secondly, I’d standardize the bodies for the cars to eliminate aerodynamic chicanery and expense. The bodies for each manufacturer would still be unique to that brand, unlike the Cup cars of today. Ideally, I’d like to see the bodies resemble the current Challenger and Mustang and upcoming Camaro almost exactly. NASCAR-funded wind tunnel research would ensure no single manufacturer’s body had radically better airflow numbers to assign final spoiler dimensions to equalize the playing field. Ideally, the new approved bodies prepared by outside vendors would be much more aerodynamically blunt, allowing the return of drafting and slingshot passes to the series.

In my mind, there has to be some area for creativity in building stock cars. Since we’ve standardized the engines and bodies, I’d allow the teams to build their own chassis; whoever works hardest at creating those chassis would succeed. But to limit the costs of such a program, each team would only be allowed to have three completed cars. Upon finishing a car to compete in the Nationwide Series, team owners would submit the cars to NASCAR for approval. Once the car’s body and chassis was certified as complying with the rules, a NASCAR inspector would assign that chassis its own unique serial number affixed to the roll cage with rivets. No team would be allowed to have any more than three of these plaques per driver or car number. In the event a car was so extensively damaged in a racing incident it could not be repaired, NASCAR would inspect the wreckage to ensure it was well and truly used up, then allow the team that owned that car to prepare another entry, which would then be assigned the wrecked car’s identification plate. Altering or duplicating those plates, or any attempt to do so, would earn a team owner a one-year suspension.

Recognizing the unique cars required for the plate races and road-course events – and the expense of preparing those limited-use cars – NASCAR would remove road course and plate-track races from the Nationwide Series schedule to contain costs. There are plenty of racetracks in this country eager for a NASCAR date, even a standalone Nationwide event, and those track promoters would likely market those races far more heavily than those promoting companion events. Long-term, the Nationwide series needs to stand on its own as a viable racing series – not as a warmup event to the big show. I’d like to see an emphasis placed on adding more short-track events, and even possibly a couple of dirt-track races, if the expenses justified the cost.

As a final step to distance the Nationwide Series from the Cup circus, I’ll continue to beat my tired old drum asking that bias-ply tires be used, if not on Sunday, at least on Saturday. Bias-ply tires might not have the grip of radials, but they are more predictable as they reach their limits. They allow for more side-by-side racing and four-wheel drifts through the corners in the hands of a skilled driver. If Goodyear doesn’t want to or can’t build such a bias-ply tire, that’s fine – there are other tire manufacturers out there who’d like to get in the game. In fact, such a move would add another corporate entity with an interest in the sport to help promote it.

My chosen slogan for the revised Nationwide Series would be, “Racing the way it used to be, racing the way it ought to be.” In carrying on the traditions of stock car racing that fans miss these days, I’d schedule the Nationwide Series finale as a standalone event at a historical track like Darlington, or – dare I say it – Rockingham. The Cup Series would then take that weekend off to allow the Nationwide Series to take center stage, as a championship would hopefully be decided on the final race weekend.

I’m still working on my unique points system for the AAA series, but it would be very unlike the Cup system. There would be a huge points incentive to win and much greater gaps between the points awarded for top-10 finishing spots to make for harder racing, and hopefully, a more volatile points chase. On the flip side, no points would be awarded for finishes outside the top 25, to keep the rolling wrecks out there from getting in the way of trying to gain a few more points off the track. And each team would be allowed to drop their four worst finishes of the season when the final points are tallied; that would allow for drivers to sometimes throw caution to the wind or team owners to choose to skip races run at distant tracks with low purses, again in an attempt to lower costs.

If JRM can no longer afford to run at the Nationwide level, that ought to be sending alarms right up to the corner suite offices in Daytona Beach. It’s time to start with a clean sheet of paper to re-identify Saturday’s series as a unique brand of racing unto itself, and a stepping stone for drivers looking to break into the Cup series – not a playground for current Cup stars looking to shoot fish in a barrel.

Drivers to Watch This Weekend

Kyle Busch – Right now, if he doesn’t blow up or wreck, you have to figure this kid is going to have a dog in the fight at the end of the night.

Jimmie Johnson – Johnson’s record at Charlotte is stellar. Yeah, he ran like a three-legged goat in the All-Star Race, but this is a team that’s shown a remarkable ability to turn the proverbial sow’s ear into a silk purse.

The Roush Boys – Let’s face it, on the mid-sized tracks this year, they’ve gotten on their rocks and rolled. Carl Edwards is a likely suspect, but Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and perhaps even Jamie McMurray could be players at the end of 600 miles.

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