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Holding a Pretty Wheel: NASCAR 2010 Better Racing, But Stay In Your Own Series

With four races on the books so far in 2010, it’s looking like a whole new ballgame in NASCAR. The races have been very good – even Fontana wasn’t as boring as usual, and that’s saying something.

With the series in an “off-week,” here are a few of my observations on the year to date:

The racing is better, but… The schedule still needs drastic improvement. While the races this year have been decent, NASCAR needs to seriously revamp the schedules for all three of its national touring series. A few of the cookie-cutter tracks, like Fontana, Michigan, and even Atlanta, need at least one date replaced – just not with another cookie-cutter like Kentucky. (If nothing else, to add Kentucky for 2011, NASCAR should require that the date be taken from a 1.5-mile track, not a unique one like New Hampshire; ditto Kansas Speedway, who should never be allowed a second date at the expense of Martinsville.) Instead, NASCAR should look at tracks such as Iowa Speedway, a second race at Darlington Raceway, and, for the Nationwide and Truck series, Rockingham Speedway when switching around future events. Iowa currently isn’t equipped to handle a Cup capacity crowd, but with a little help, it could be. Darlington has long cleared that hurdle and could easily reassume its rightful place on Labor Day weekend, while the Rock – no longer able to handle a Cup crowd – could handle the other series and provide a great show. ARCA has raced the Rock for the past several years, and it never fails to be a great event… after 35 years of outstanding competition that ended in 2004, NASCAR should follow suit and go back there once again. Another possibility for Nationwide and Trucks is also North Wilkesboro, which is set to host USAR and ASA races this year.

There’s a double benefit of moving the Nationwide and Truck series back to their short-track roots. Those two series need to preserve their own identity, and what better way to do that than to have them race on tracks that produce great competition? It wasn’t long ago that the Nationwide Series ran at places like South Boston, Pikes Peak and Myrtle Beach. Sure, they ran some of the tracks the Cup Series did… but not always on the same weekends. The series wasn’t “Cup Lite;” instead, it had its own identity, the best of NASCAR’s top-three divisions. Which brings us to…

It’s a little hard to sympathize with Cup drivers when they complain about the Nationwide Series drivers in Nationwide races. Looking back, most of the controversy between both Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski happened in the Nationwide Series last year. I do not condone that kind of driving from any driver… but I do understand where Keselowski is coming from. Perhaps if the Cup guys can’t handle being raced too hard by a Nationwide regular in the Nationwide Series, maybe they should stay in their own division instead.

I just cannot buy that the Cup drivers who are winning on an almost weekly basis in the Nationwide Series – Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch in particular – are doing it because they just love to race. I wonder if they would still race the series if they had to race on what some Nationwide-only teams have-week-to-week. Those underdogs are usually dealing with small sponsors who, in a good week, cover the tire bill, leaving the lion’s share of the expenses up to whatever money the team can rake in the week before. A 12th place finish is a great day for some of these outfits, but they race because they love it – nothing more, nothing less. Would the Big Three from the Cup Series feel the same way if they competed for those teams? I doubt it. They’re feeding their egos, compensating for the one thing that they (don’t) have in common: a Cup title.

Think about it. Jimmie Johnson hasn’t raced for a Nationwide title since he went full-time Cup racing in 2002. Neither have Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon or Bobby Labonte, all Cup champions in the last decade. None of these men have anything to prove, so they don’t try to win minor-league championships, taking sponsorship and support from series veterans and developing young drivers in the process. One Nationwide veteran I spoke with told me that among the series veterans, the Nationwide championship has become meaningless, a sham perpetuated by NASCAR. Only the Cup drivers winning them attach any meaning at all to a once sought-after prize. That makes me sad. I used to love the Nationwide Series. Now, the season’s story is already written, and it’s not a happy ending.

I can’t call it a surprise, but… The resurgence of Richard Childress Racing isn’t really a shocker in 2010 – the signs of a turnaround were there late last year – but it is good to see Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer at the front of the pack once again. Here’s hoping that former RCR driver Casey Mears can get a little of that mojo now that his Keyed-Up Motorsports team is running Earnhardt Childress engines. Mears hasn’t made a race in 2010, despite being faster than several drivers each week. But those guys bought the points they got in on, so they have one more week to enjoy that before the real points kick in… until then, faster rides like his will still go home under the current provisional system.

Does anyone really think that either Scott Speed or Paul Menard will still be in the top dozen come Chase time? It’s nice to have bragging rights, but these two haven’t shown the type of consistency – or equipment – that it takes to be title contenders. It’s like an ice sculpture; nice to look at, but it won’t last.

Those are just a few of the things that have been on my mind as the season heats up and winter becomes spring. The season is young, and I look forward to the storylines that develop as the year goes on.

And another thing…

I found myself missing racing on the first “off-week” of the year – and it’s been a while since I felt that way.

Don’t forget, the best series in NASCAR are just getting underway. Corey Lajoie won the Whelen Southern Modifed Tour opener at Atlanta, and Andy Seuss won at Caraway this week in that series. The northern contingent of the Whelen Modified Tour opens at Thompson, Connecticut on April 11, and both the East and West divisions of the K&N Pro Series debut on March 27th, with the East at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in Greenville, South Carolina, and the West at All-American Speedway in Roseville, California. Check them out!

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