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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Tough Crowd in Music City, NASCAR’s New Villain, More

ONE: The Cup guys were at Nashville… but where was the crowd?

For as long as I’ve been following the sport, the perpetual justification floated out there for Sprint Cup drivers to spend the early parts of their weekends massacring NASCAR’s development series is that their star power is needed to bring in the crowds and the sponsor dollars. This weekend at Nashville, the battle at the front of the field resembled a Cup race more than anything else, with that series’ regulars leading 205 of the 225 laps run.

Yet, the grandstands were easily more than half empty, and at least 10 cars had no sponsorship (or in Scott Riggs‘s case, was carrying fan sponsorship). Overall, attendance dropped to just 17,000, a 32% decline from this same date last season.

What gives?

Yes, Easter weekend isn’t always the best time to be bringing friends and family to the racetrack. Yes, the weather at least early on probably made some fans hesitant to make the trip out to Nashville Superspeedway. Nonetheless, the past weekend’s event was just another example of a trend that’s been seen countless times since a mere 15,000 fans showed up to see Fontana last February, despite having the star power of roughly a dozen Cup regulars in the field.

Bad economy? Awkward weekend on the schedule? Or is it possible that NASCAR’s short-sighted, cash cow decision to let Cup drivers run rampant all over their AAA league is now starting to bite them. For it’s created a racing product that is utterly predictable, with the same half-a-dozen drivers every week having a surer chance to win than Jimmie Johnson scoring a fifth consecutive title.

The answer, to me, is pretty clear. But there’s one thing we can all agree on: Sliced Bread, Rowdy Busch and Happy Harvick were all on hand, and even that couldn’t pack the grandstands at Nashville. Maybe it’s time that NASCAR finally starts looking to revamp their Nationwide Series product….

TWO: Speaking of Cup Drivers in Nationwide, Carl and Brad have company

With Carl Edwards vs. Brad Keselowski hyped in the offseason as the sequel to last season’s Cup showdown in the Nationwide Series between Edwards and eventual champion Kyle Busch, another Cup regular has come to crash the party… and he’s already done the Nationwide dance twice before.

Kevin Harvick won for the second time in the last three Nationwide Series events, the third win in the first five races for Kevin Harvick Inc. (Tony Stewart scored the W at Daytona in the season-opener). In doing so, Harvick has put himself in perfect position to, should he choose, pursue his first Nationwide Series title solely in his own equipment. While no announcement to such a pursuit has been made, Harvick has pointedly not ruled out a full-season run.

What’s more, Harvick right now has all the motivation in the world to keep running for both his Nationwide and Truck operations… he’s in a contract year on the Cup side. And while many have all but reported that Harvick is a lock to become a teammate to Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing, there’s still plenty Harvick can gain by continuing to rack up the NNS and Truck wins. With every race that his teams continue to improve, continue to win, and continue to pick up sponsorship, Harvick is fast emerging as not only a talented driver, but as a killer marketing force as well.

That not only could lead to a sweeter deal for Harvick should he choose to move to SHR (let’s not forget that Newman’s No. 39 car has over 10 unsold races for the second season in a row as it stands), it also could make the difference between Harvick’s thriving KHI operation becoming the development infrastructure at Stewart-Haas… or becoming a force in the Cup Series in the very near future.

Not to mention that should Harvick decide to run for a Nationwide title, given the way his cars are running, he’ll all but surely win it. In the last decade, there’s no question that Happy Harvick has been the most dominant and consistent driver on that circuit, no matter what car he’s sitting in.

THREE: Hamlin won’t be sitting in his car for long the next few weekends… what it could mean

It’s perhaps the worst kept secret of the 2010 season that Denny Hamlin, barring a miracle, will be unable to run a full 600 kilometers on Saturday night in Phoenix. Chances are, at the first caution of the night, he’ll turn over the No. 11 Toyota to relief driver Casey Mears, hoping that the former CGR/HMS/RCR driver will be able to produce a solid result to keep his team within striking distance of a Chase berth.

Chances are, this story will repeat itself for a number of weeks to come; pure speculation on my part, but as I mentioned on the Carey and Coffey show this past weekend I have a hard time seeing Denny push it to go the full race distance until the Cup Series returns to Richmond, especially with dangerous venues at Texas and Talladega on the docket.

While I’m fully confident that Hamlin’s recovery time, coupled with Mears’s mediocre at best history as a Cup driver, will keep the No. 11 team on the sidelines come the Chase in September, I’m also fully aware of how talented Hamlin is, and how capable his team is of going on a summer tear through venues such as Pocono and Loudon to rack up wins and make a surprise charge toward the playoffs. And that leads to the question… what if Hamlin makes the Chase on the strength of multiple finishes that he wasn’t even in the car for?

I’m preemptively calling foul on the mere possibility of that happening. Even the far-fetched possibility that a driver could run only portions of multiple races, get credit for finishes he didn’t earn and make the playoffs as a result is enough to make me throw up my hands. It’s not like this hasn’t been seen before. Back in 2008, Roush Fenway Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was able to stay in the hunt for an ARCA title while injured at a road-course race at New Jersey Motorsports Park, where he got out of his car after less than 10 laps and was nonetheless credited for a top-five finish that the No. 99 car earned with road expert Colin Braun driving it.

Yes, relief driving has been a part of this sport since well before I was born, but does that make it acceptable? In no other sport does an injured athlete gets stats credited for himself while out with an injury. Can you imagine Peyton Manning getting credit for the 200 yards his backup throws for in the fourth quarter of a blowout? Or Derek Jeter getting home runs on his stat line that get hit by his reliever on one of his nights off?

Injuries are part of sports. They’re unfortunate, and they ruin seasons. Wrecks and blown motors can do the same. That’s the nature of the business. Yet wrecks and blown motors go right on the stat sheet for any driver out there. An injury should be reflected the same way. If Denny gets into the car at Phoenix and can only run 30 laps before the pain becomes overbearing, credit him for 30 laps and give him a 41st-place finish or whatever he earns.

Because like it or not, the Chase is about the drivers, not their teams. NASCAR made that abundantly clear when Mark Martin and Aric Almirola had the No. 8 car challenging for a top-12 spot in owner points back in 2008. And while Mears scoring even top 20s could keep the No. 11 in the owners’ title hunt, that’s not justification for Hamlin to somehow manage to stay relevant in the Chase picture – assuming he has to partially run a number of races over the next few weeks.

FOUR: Unlike Mears, this Hendrick cast-off gets to come home again

With JR Motorsports now patching together sponsorship as they can find it to keep their No. 7 car on track (and Danica Patrick in the Nationwide Series race at Loudon come June), former Hendrick development driver and 2008 NNS Rookie of the Year Landon Cassill will get to make a long overdue return to Nationwide competition this weekend at Phoenix and three other races. It’s hard to argue against JRM putting this youngster behind the wheel; not only did Cassill win the ROTY title for the organization while showing marked improvement running a limited schedule in 2008, he’s also got the charm and polish off the track that will keep prospective sponsors interested.

Cassill also has some big-time shoes to fill, and frankly should not be expecting any patience regarding his performance, development driver or not. Why? Because Scott Wimmer did one hell of a job for JRM in his two-race stint driving the No. 7 car, leading a number of laps at Nashville and scoring back-to-back top-10 finishes that undid all of Danica’s damage and returned the team to the Top 30 in owner points.

Cassill certainly got the short end of the stick when sponsor dollars dried up at JRM, and he’s very much deserving of his four-race deal. But so is Wimmer, who’s played the short-end-of-the-stick role in the Nationwide ranks far longer than youngster Cassill. Landon’s performance better reflect that.

FIVE: Does the Nationwide Series have a new villain on the rise?

In back-to-back Nationwide Series races, James Buescher has managed to get into some ugly confrontations with fellow Nationwide regulars. Back at Bristol, Buescher appeared to come across Trevor Bayne‘s nose, only to take out Bayne later in the race with his banged up car. Fast forward to Nashville, and Buescher again lost control, snapping loose in turn 2 and collecting Jason Leffler in the process.

Now, was the Leffler spin intentional? Absolutely not. But it still ended any chance the longtime Nationwide veteran had of following up his top 10 effort at Bristol, and left him still mired well outside the top 10 in points.

A number of writers out there have tried to draw parallels between the Leffler/Buescher episode to the season’s earlier conflict between Keselowski and Edwards and Atlanta. On paper, they are similar; one driver intentionally retaliates and gets parked by NASCAR, but there’s little chance of any severe penalties outside of probation being laid down.

The differences between them, though, are numerous. For one, Buescher has been at fault in incidents two weeks running. This wasn’t like where Edwards took out Keselowski because of some perceived lack of respect… Buescher screwed up and Leffler paid for it. And unlike Keselowski, who for all his ruffled feathers has earned and maintained the respect of a number of influential figures in the garage, such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Roger Penske and his teammates at Penske Racing, Buescher’s history of getting along with his peers hasn’t been so hot. Need proof? Just look at how well he and former teammate Rick Crawford played together at Charlotte in the Truck race last May.

As I wrote in my Nationwide Series Breakdown on Monday, all the Leffler/Buescher incident amounted to was another example of NASCAR still managing to over-officiate despite insisting that the boys be boys. But Buescher needs to be careful, because in a matter of weeks he’s gotten into it with rookies and veterans alike, in incidents he triggered, and damaged cars that still don’t have a sponsor on them for his troubles.

Maybe that’s villainous, maybe not. It’s certainly not pleasant, either way.

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