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Holding a Pretty Wheel: As The Nationwide Series Loses Its Identity, NASCAR Stands Silently By

Watching Friday night’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race from Richmond was a bit of an eye opener for me. No, I didn’t see some young talent and wonder why a bigger team hasn’t picked him up. I didn’t see a series veteran taking the younger guys to school. Watching the race, I saw just how bad it’s gotten.

I’m not trying to fool myself; I’ve known for a long time that it’s bad. I guess I just didn’t want to believe it was this bad. Like a case of dry rot in the framework of a house, thinks look OK if you don’t look too closely, but after a while, you can’t ignore the damage – and by then, it might be too late to fix it.

Since the Nationwide Series took on its current incarnation in the early 1980s, there have been Sprint Cup drivers interloping. Just look at the record books: the name at the top of the list is Mark Martin. But what’s different these days is the frequency that Cup drivers are looking to pad their statistics with Nationwide Series wins and championships. That, and the money involved as they do it.

In the ’80s and ’90s, Martin was the exception, not the rule. He ran a good, solid percentage of the Nationwide (then Busch Series) races, but never a full season. And he was different from many of today’s Cup stars running the series in that his Sprint Cup owner was not always the one fielding his racecars. Martin ran for many years for owner Bill Davis, before Davis’s days of moderate success as a Cup team owner. He ran some of his own cars, too. Though Martin began driving for Jack Roush’s Cup operation in 1988, he did not run a single Nationwide race under the Roush banner until 1993. That’s different from today: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski are racing the full Nationwide schedule funded by the same car owners who foot the bill for their Sprint Cup teams as well.

A fan pointed out to me in the comments to a recent installment of Mirror Driving that Martin, Dale Earnhardt and a few others had a tendency to cherry-pick races, running only the most lucrative ones in the series. Now, that is true – the drivers picked their favorite tracks, or races that were most worth their while. But what was different was that they never ran for the season title, and they didn’t win every single week. Instead, the regulars won often enough that the series’ integrity was not compromised.

Even in Martin’s most successful season in the Nationwide Series, 1993, when he won seven times, the race results tell a different story. Not entirely different: half of the first 10 races were won by Cup regulars Martin, Earnhardt and Michael Waltrip. But the other five of those season-opening races were won by Nationwide regulars Robert Pressley, Steve Grissom and Ward Burton, a trio with just two Cup starts between them prior to 1994. In the next 10 races of that year, series regulars won six times, and of the final eight races, they won five. Of 28 races, series regulars won 16 times. That’s just not possible today. In 2009, Nationwide regulars won just five times in 35 tries, with four of those going to Keselowski, running on Hendrick Motorsports’ nearly unlimited budget.

If a race is a microcosm of a season, the disparity is evident as well. In Friday night’s race, just two series regulars managed to post top-10 finishes among eight Cup regulars. In the spring race in 1993, though Martin won the race, the remaining nine positions in the top 10 were all series regulars. In fact, there were just five drivers who drove Cup full-time in the field, and only Martin and Terry Labonte finished better than 30th.

Let’s compare that to Friday’s race, where there were a dozen Cup drivers, a full third of the field, and eight of them finished in the top 10. Only two – both running on the limited funding of small-time teams – finished lower than 30th.

So while many try to bring up Martin’s record numbers, it’s just not the same. Prior to this decade, the series was a viable entity on its own. It crowned a champion from its own ranks (for the record, the 1993 Busch Series champion was Grissom, driving for a family-owned team.) By 2010, the family-owned operation has all but disappeared as they are priced out of the market by Cup owners. Also, the series in those days did not have to rely on Cup companion races to draw an audience. Now, NASCAR claims that they need the companion events and Cup drivers to fill the seats. The unfortunate part is they have thoroughly (and probably irrevocably) destroyed the series in the process of shifting to that philosophy.

The sanctioning body decided they needed more companion races at about the same time the huge influx of uninformed new fans exploded onto the scene, and demanded to see the Cup drivers because they were the only names these fans bothered to learn. NASCAR raked in the money and threw away their integrity in the process.

Some Cup drivers were all for it. After all, there was more money, more wins to pad the stat sites, and more chances at winning a season title. And they threw away their integrity in the process as well. They claim to do it in the name of fun and racing, but the racers who really feel that way are fielding late models and dirt cars or running a few Nationwide or truck races at their most favorite tracks. You don’t see them running for a season title in a lower series. Another thing you don’t see is a single Cup champion trying to take the title in what was once a true development series with a few veterans thrown in for good measure. Whether it’s to fulfill some need for attention, to feed a hungry ego, or something else, I do not buy and never will that a single Cup regular is racing for the Nationwide title just for fun.

It’s a bit of a paradox, because while I don’t think that any one driver winning “too much” is the least bit detrimental to the Sprint Cup Series’ overall health, I firmly believe that Sprint Cup drivers winning all the time in Nationwide is killing the series. If it hasn’t gotten to the point of no return, it probably will soon. NASCAR had better start rowing as hard as they can in the other direction.

The Nationwide Series can be a healthy series on its own, with its own stars and its own champions. NASCAR’s refusal to make rules to ensure that and to market the series as such are puzzling. I have had a series veteran tell me point blank that the veterans look at the championship they once fought for “meaningless,” and a development driver who should be a series star, and who is driving for a Cup owner, tell me before the season even started that he had no realistic chance of winning the title. That’s not a healthy series, that’s a dying series, and NASCAR continues to turn a blind eye. I find it telling that while NASCAR.com lists Cup statistics, I had to search high and low to find something as simple as the all-time winners’ list for Nationwide. Even NASCAR’s own media site doesn’t have them; there’s a menu for Nationwide statistics, but only a dead link for what should be relevant information.

A dead link for a dying series. A sad irony for another casualty of NASCAR’s popularity and the monster it created.

And another thing…

  • Maybe it’s just me, but I found Saturday’s Cup race at Richmond to be one of the most disappointing of the season to date. The ending was written with 25 laps to go; surely, nobody thought there wouldn’t be a zillion cautions and that the ending wouldn’t be exciting only by their virtue?
  • I’m looking forward to Saturday night’s race at Darlington… but does anyone buy for an instant that it’s actually the Southern 500?
  • Finally, word is that the lawsuit by Kentucky Speedway to gain a Cup date has been put to bed. I bet Atlanta Motor Speedway let out a collective groan, as it’s likely they’ll lose a date to Kentucky in 2011.

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