What started as a year full of promise for a new crop of development drivers to restore the Nationwide Series to its rightful place as a development league for the future of stock car racing has quickly unraveled.
Not surprisingly, John Wes Townley continued his struggles of 2009 even with the backing of Richard Childress Racing, and now both his future with that team, and in the sport in general, hangs in indefinite hiatus. But it was a shocker to see Kelly Bires, the hottest Nationwide prospect of 2009, booted from his seat at JR Motorsports after less than 10 starts with the No. 88 team… and only one finish outside the top 20. Former USAC standout Josh Wise has fallen outside the Top 30 in owner points, leading Specialty Racing and their No. 61 team to DNQ in consecutive races, the first missed shows for that operation since the season opener at Daytona back in 2008.
And now most noticeably, things have been far from stellar in the Roush Fenway Racing camp, with both prospects Colin Braun and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. outside the Top 30 in owner points, unsponsored for half their respective seasons, and over the last two race weekends each involved in accidents that involved RFR teammates.
While Bires’s firing from the same No. 88 team that challenged for the title each of the last two seasons in the Nationwide Series has scored the most press, the struggles of Roush’s latest development projects are perhaps the most damaging to the prospects of Nationwide Series driver development, and to the series in 2010 as a whole. The Nationwide Series seemed poised to reap the rewards of Jack Roush’s decision to park his Truck Series operations in favor of operating full-time NNS entries for Braun and Stenhouse, two drivers that had each accomplished a great deal in their tenures in the Truck and ARCA series, respectively.
However, the move has failed to pay off for Roush. If anything, it’s done the exact opposite. Both Braun and Stenhouse have been involved in more accidents on the track than any other drivers in the Nationwide Series field. What’s worse, be it Braun spinning Stenhouse at Texas or Stenhouse doing the same to Carl Edwards at Talladega, the two haven’t even been able to race clean amongst the four cars that come from the RFR shops. The two are both facing week in and week out the prospect of having to race their way into the field. And each of the two have failed to entice any type of additional sponsorship to supplement the 18 race deals each started the season with.
On the one hand, this can hardly be considered unexpected. This is driver development, after all. Talents like Joey Logano who were able to jump right into Nationwide Series cars and deliver top-10 finishes consistently are special for a reason; they’re unique. While Braun has certainly fared worse than expected in 2010, given that he’s coming off a Truck Series campaign that featured five poles and a win at Michigan, the same can’t be said for Stenhouse, who after nearly winning the ARCA crown in 2008 ran only eight races across NASCAR and ARCA in 2009.
The fact that they’re struggling isn’t a sign that driver development is broken, or even that Roush’s program is. It’s part of the growing pains of this sport… though the whole crashing teammates thing does need to go.
Unfortunately, however, the Nationwide Series of today’s reality is not the development body that it should be. Even with the influx of new talent in 2010, the Series has remained “Cup Light,” with Cup regulars currently occupying seven of the top-10 positions in the standings. And, unfortunately for the drivers out there trying to learn these racecars, longer races, etc., the performance markers that they’re being judged upon are those being set by the same Cup regulars that already know how to run these cars and race these races.
It’s for this reason that the boost that Roush Fenway Racing’s new commitment brings to the Nationwide Series is suddenly poised to do more harm than good, to both highlight the deficiencies of NASCAR’s AAA ranks and to reinforce the practices that have made NASCAR’s Saturday and Sunday shows all but indistinguishable at the front of the field.
Already, Braun finds himself out of his No. 16 ride for the next two weeks, handing the reigns over to former Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth in an effort to “promote Matt and this team’s availability for Nationwide Series sponsorship” according to the team owner. And while Stenhouse has currently remained in the No. 6 car, it’s hard to imagine his seat is that much safer than Braun’s after spinning Edwards, who is running to give RFR their second championship in the last four seasons, on the superstretch at Talladega.
After all, Stenhouse also sits outside the top 30 and has only a half-season of sponsorship with Citi Financial. Worse news for Stenhouse is that Roush already has in their camp a driver eagerly wanting to run more Nationwide events; Greg Biffle has been running for Baker/Curb Racing so far this season, but for a No. 27 team thought to only have a 10-race sponsorship deal with Red Man on the books. It’s not much of a stretch to see Biffle in that car should the dollars at Baker/Curb dry up is it?
It’s not just in the Roush camp that a quick turn to Cup drivers is being fathomed not even a third of the way into the season. At RCR, Clint Bowyer has gone from a two-race pinch hitter for Townley to driver until further notice of the No. 21 car. At JRM, with Bires gone, Jamie McMurray now has a nine-race deal in the No. 88 to look forward to. The Cup ranks in the Nationwide Series are undeniably swelling once again.
But given the state of the Nationwide Series and the rules governing said series today, that practice is an inevitability for any development team out there that doesn’t stumble across the next version of “sliced bread.” With big Cup names including Kyle Busch, Edwards and Brad Keselowski all running full-time in the Nationwide Series, and Logano and Biffle doing almost full schedules themselves, sponsors out there figure if everyone else is doing that, they want to as well. Just look at the Cup guys making their way into the NNS ranks; McMurray’s got eight of his nine races sold, while Kenseth already has a deal inked for his 2010 Nationwide debut in the No. 16 tonight at Richmond. The sponsorship these teams needs is emerging… now that the Nationwide Series regulars are out of the seat.
And of course, the performance is improving as well. With names like Busch, Edwards and Keselowski all running full-time and running up front, the bar is set really high for all the other sponsors out there to land the TV time and exposure they need to make involvement in NASCAR’s development programs actually worthwhile; beat the best Cup has to offer or run in the back. Except this isn’t Cup racing.
What’s more, thanks to the continuing, asinine testing ban that has saved nobody any money and done more damage to parity than anything else to the Nationwide Series (well, until July and the new car anyway), these development drivers have no way of honing their skills or helping their teams to run better if they get lost. Rather, the only way to fix it now is to put a Cup guy in the car and let them do it. That’s why Bowyer got in Townley’s No. 21 the last three weeks. That’s why Kenseth’s getting into the No. 16. That’s why Steve Wallace back in 2007 had to yield his seat to Reed Sorenson. That list goes on and on and on.
And of course, when those Cup guys get into good cars, they run in the top 10. Of course they do. They’re in Cup because they’re the best. In Nationwide, they damned well better be running top 10. But once those sponsors get a taste of what running up front’s like, where’s the incentive to go back to the development project?
The fact that Kelly Bires and Colin Braun have already seen their chances of running full seasons in 2010 go up in smoke before May speaks volumes. They as drivers and their teams are likely not broken (no matter what Dale Jr. has to say), but driver development in the Nationwide Series ranks certainly is.
Cup light under the lights at RIR, anyone?