Another season of Nationwide Series racing has officially come and gone. And with it, another Cup regular has stolen a minor league championship. The 2008 NASCAR Nationwide Series campaign was more of the same, with Cup star Clint Bowyer swooping in to claim the title — the third straight driver to do so while running both of NASCAR’s top two divisions full-time. Week in and week out, Cup regulars dominated the top 10 on Saturdays before they strapped into the driver’s seat the following day.
That’s not to say that Nationwide Series regulars and development drivers didn’t have some things to cheer about in 2008. Marcos Ambrose, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Scott Wimmer all scored wins on the tour this season, with Keselowski remaining a factor in the championship Chase through September. The underdogs made noise as well, with notable accomplishments that included Kenny Wallace’s third place run at Memphis and Bryan Clauson’s sixth place finish in his series debut at Daytona. More importantly, the series’ regular drivers finally seemed to push back against their better-funded Cup counterparts, whether it was Keselowski’s crew going after a whiny Denny Hamlin on pit road at Charlotte or David Stremme trading barbs with Bowyer at Kentucky.
That said, though, despite some very exciting action on and off-track in 2008 the future of the Nationwide Series has never been as cloudy as it is this offseason. With no identity, a dwindling number of regular teams, and a seemingly non-consequential title chase thanks to the introduction of full-time Cup contenders, there seems to be only one thing for certain in NASCAR’s AAA series: change is needed.
Over the course of 2008, be it in my weekly columns for Frontstretch or my reporting ventures from the race track, I have focused on the Nationwide Series. Despite its many flaws, I continue to find the division truly fascinating, a combination of national superstars battling with the ranks of driver development and local racers. I have no doubt that the Nationwide Series can go beyond being a Saturday appetizer for a Sprint Cup race; and I have a plan to turn it into the truly unique racing series that it can and should be.
Changing the Race Cars
The consensus of the fans has been pretty much unanimous with regard to the Cup Series’ CoT: it sucks. Yet, NASCAR seems to see the same idea of a COT program as the right way for the Nationwide Series to go.
The first step in making the Nationwide Series a more independent and unique racing series is to ensure that the cars raced on the circuit are just that, unique. And there would be nothing more unique to big-time stock car racing today than… true stock cars!
That’s right. The Nationwide Series should immediately mandate to all of its teams that their cars must begin with a stock car that could be purchased by Johnny race fan at his local dealership. What race fan wouldn’t want to see true Dodge Chargers, Ford Mustangs, and Chevy Camaros tearing up NASCAR’s premier venues?
The move back to a truly stock car would do two big things for the Nationwide Series. First, it would differentiate the Nationwide racing product considerably from that of its Cup series counterpart in a visible way on the race track, going a long way to establishing an identity for the series. Second, it would go a long way in negating what Cup regulars could learn for Sunday by invading the minor leagues on Saturday.
Changes to the equipment in the Nationwide ranks could go further in ensuring that there would be nothing for drivers to learn by moonlighting in the Nationwide Series. I would advocate that the series return to bias-ply tires, instead of the current radials that are also employed by the Cup Series. Taking away the ability to learn about the tires on Saturday deals a huge blow to those who insist on using Nationwide races as a test session. Further, in an effort to curb costs, I would aim lower in establishing engine limits. I am far from car savvy, so it’s hard for me to quantify what I’d shoot for — though a fellow Frontstretch writer suggested that the series should shoot for the equivalent of a 2.0 L engine in a compact car.
Put very simply, let’s scrap the CoT program for the Nationwide ranks in favor of stock cars. How can you argue with that?
Changing the Schedule
In attempting to carve a niche for itself, the Nationwide Series’ schedule should be one that attempts not to mimic the Cup slate, but one that tackles a unique cross section of venues that is both fan-friendly and conducive to compelling races.
In a nutshell, that means more short tracks.
I’m not saying turn the Nationwide Series into a bigger-scale USAR Pro Cup tour. But let’s face it, Nationwide racing at venues such as Fontana and Michigan have become little more than Joe Gibbs Racing demonstrations these days. Plus, despite the lack of quality racing that many of NASCAR’s state of the art intermediate facilities have produced, the Sprint Cup series has demonstrated a commitment to racing on longer ovals, granting second dates to Fontana and Texas as well as apparently preparing to give a second date to the Kansas Speedway. For the Nationwide Series to find its niche, it needs to go where the Cup series is not — and that is the bullrings.
Such a move would allow big time NASCAR to return to its roots and to its original fan base. Seeing NASCAR to return to venues such as I-70 Speedway, Myrtle Beach, Hickory, and South Boston would not only constitute a true return to the sport’s roots — much as they promised emptily that we would see this past season — it would all but guarantee a more compelling product on the race track. Sans the debacle that was the fall weekend at Richmond (a tired Sunday night race that no one wanted to run that night), every short track race on the Nationwide circuit this season was entertaining. Heck, the race at IRP was one of the top handful of races all year, even with Kyle Busch leading all but three laps.
The possibility of venues for the Series to tackle is endless, and merits its own column. But for the purposes of this piece, having tackled the issue of getting more short tracks on the circuit, it’s time to move on to what can be done in constructing the schedule to make it more conducive to the race teams and even to the fans.
First of all, as much as some people will hate me for saying it, the number of trips out West has to come down. The races out West are among the sparsest in attendance and the most expensive to contest, yet the purses for the events are largely unremarkable. For the West Coast dates that remain on the slate, they need to be scheduled around off weeks so as to allow teams that don’t have a fleet of haulers to get back to their race shops, recover, and prepare for the next race. It’s more than possible to be a national touring series without forcing teams to travel cross country week to week.
Further, stealing a page out of USAC’s book, I would encourage the Nationwide Series to host a couple of Thursday night races during the summer months. Say it with me: live Thursday Night Thunder, NASCAR style. There would be next to nothing for the Series to compete for ratings with, and if scheduled on the Thursday prior to a bigger Cup event, both series will benefit from having race fans completely honed in on specific events.
If the Nationwide Series is ever going to become its own entity, it needs to go where Cup racing is not. These changes to the schedule would go a long way towards establishing that…
Changing the Sanctioning
Absent in my plan to this point is tackling perhaps the two most hot button topics to hit the Nationwide garage in 2008… the epidemic of start-and-park teams and the participation of Cup drivers.
With regard to the start-and-parkers, though I have heard a lot of merit in the arguments made by some that the Nationwide Series field needs to be trimmed, I am hesitant to advocate cutting the field from 43 cars to 36, 38, or any other number. Rather, I would suggest that the sanctioning body be capable of penalizing start-and-parkers where they hurt the most: the purse. In my eye, I would give race officials the ability to reduce or even not pay any purse money to a team that, in their eye, has start-and-parked.
In each of the last three Nationwide Series events I have attended, I have made a point at the start of the race to listen into the radios of a start-and-park team. And believe me, it’s not hard to figure out who is and isn’t doing it. When a team tells its driver on a restart to let the field get a straightaway ahead of him before accelerating, they’re start-and-parking. When a team less than 10 laps into a race is delegating who is going to push the pit box back to the garage, they’re start-and-parking. Why do I mention this? Because I want to make the point that it is easy to figure out which teams are not planning to actually compete in a race they qualify for. In short, giving officials the ability to revoke purse money from teams not actually contesting a race is not something overly subjective or difficult. It’s clear who is and isn’t guilty.
Now, I know some people by now are throwing their hands up in the air, exclaiming that this is too much power to give race officials over paying out money to competitors. To ensure that such power doesn’t get abused, I would include a caveat in the rules that states any purse money that is not paid to a team found not to be contesting a race stays in the overall race purse, and is instead evenly distributed into the shares that the other teams in the event receive.
Is this going to instantly make the Nationwide Series field more competitive? No. There are a lot of teams out there that if they chose to run the distance would finish many laps down and way off the pace. But removing the ability of a team like MSRP Motorsports to make a mockery of a NASCAR series by qualifying, running a handful of laps all season, and collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in money that could and should be going to race teams that care to actually take part in stock car racing both keeps more money in the sport itself and returns some needed legitimacy to the series.
Now, let’s tackle the Cup drivers. First, no Cup driver should be allowed to run for the Nationwide Series title. Period. Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, and Bowyer have accomplished nothing more in the last three seasons of Nationwide competition than to completely erode any sense of significance the series’ title had.
I would take that ban a step further, declaring that no Cup driver should be allowed to run more than five Nationwide Series races in a season. In addition, should a Cup driver choose to run a Nationwide race, they would have to declare at the start of the season which races they would run. Knowing which Cup regulars would be attempting races and where would not only allow for tracks to capitalize on the marketing power of these drivers (the only reason that Cup teams and drivers continually cite as the necessity for invading the minor leagues), but also would serve as notice to the smaller, lower-budget teams out there as to where their best chances are to make races on the circuit. Finally, in the few events that Cup drivers chose to race at the Nationwide level, they would receive no points or purse money. Because it’s just about the love of racing, right?
I would also rid the Nationwide Series of the Top 30 rule with regards to qualifying. Instead, I would look to the ARCA Re/Max Series for how to handle qualifying for Nationwide races. With a 43-car field, have the top 38 qualifiers on speed lock into the race. From there, I would employ the ARCA “Golden A” plan into the Nationwide Series. In ARCA, after the top qualifiers on speed lock into the event, the remaining spots in the field are filled by teams highest in the points that have attempted every series race with the same driver. Why not base it on owner points? Because by making qualifying more friendly to regular teams and drivers, more drivers and teams are likely to pursue a run for the Nationwide Series driver crown. Given how much this title has been undermined by Cup regulars in recent years, encouraging drivers and teams to give a damn and Chase for the Championship is a necessity in changing the series.
Let’s take a step back and look at what I’ve advocated in this piece. I’ve called for the return to stock cars, of vehicles that in no way resemble any national touring race series taking to American race tracks today. I’ve called for a schedule that emphasizes older venues and short tracks over intermediate ovals, and a schedule that strays from the staples of the Sprint Cup ranks. I’ve called for the implementation of a provisional system, and a limit on Cup driver participation that emphasizes Nationwide regulars and the chase for that series’ driver championship.
The common thread here is that each of these aspects of racing, should they be touched on, would go a long way in establishing a unique and distinct identity for the Nationwide Series. They would constitute a return to the roots of stock car racing, and would provide a lower-cost, fan-friendly product that can and will be viable in the long-run.
I could write a book on this topic, and very well might over the course of the offseason. But I hope that this taste of a plan to fix/change the Nationwide Series will generate discussion, get fans thinking about what could be, and keeps the Nationwide Series on the brain as we begin the long countdown to Speedweeks.