The talk from Brian France and others about NASCAR potentially limiting Cup drivers in Nationwide fields is refreshing, and honestly, long overdue. However, given the saturation of Cup guys already in the Nationwide Series and the current pending changes, is an immediate switch really in the best interest of everyone involved right now?
There’s no question recent history has left things rather one-sided. Other than Justin Allgaier‘s victory at Bristol in March, 18 of 19 events this season have been won by full-time Cup regulars. Right now, Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards are busy battling for the season title, with Allgaier nearly 500 points behind and all but eliminated in third.
That’s left plenty of people crying foul. Sure, it stands to reason that the best drivers are in the Cup Series and since they are the best drivers, they’re going to have the best equipment. That’s logical. So the Cup drivers’ dominance isn’t all that surprising. In fact, it’s come to be expected.
For example, ESPN is using Kyle Busch for its Nationwide commercials this season. Busch is only driving a part-time schedule. Yet if you caught a Nationwide Series race teaser over the last few weeks for a race that Busch wasn’t in, if you didn’t know any better, you’d think that Busch was in the race.
No one disagrees with the notion that the Sprint Cup Series needs to develop young talent. Yes, Busch is only 25, but it feels at times like he’s been around forever. Heck, the only driver running for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year award in the Cup Series this year is Kevin Conway. No offense to you, Mr. Extenze Man, but if NASCAR had to rely on the Kevin Conways of the world to carry the torch for the sport in the next 20 years, Danica Patrick would be signing a lifetime deal with Andretti Autosport.
With that said, getting rid of Sprint Cup drivers in the Nationwide Series is easier said than done. Look at what Baker-Curb Racing had to do this season. They were able to sign on Red Man Moist Snuff as a backer before the FDA put the kibosh on tobacco sponsors, but they had to have Greg Biffle signed to drive the car to get Red Man in the first place. (And in a cruel twist, Baker Curb put Truck Series driver Jennifer Jo Cobb in the No. 27 and start-and-park extraordinaire Johnny Chapman in the No. 43 car for the first Nationwide CoT race at Daytona. Neither car had funding, and Cobb lost control of her car early in the race and took out Chapman. There’s no guarantee that the car would have made it home in one piece with Biffle or another Cup driver behind the wheel, but it’s safe to say that Biffle wouldn’t have lost control by himself in turn 3 like that.)
Anyways, Nationwide sponsorships of Cup drivers are a relative bargain, especially for those companies which aren’t in the Fortune 500. Partnerships on a car in the Cup Series have become a trend, but it’s even cheaper still to sponsor a Cup driver in the Nationwide Series – especially if he’s running more than 20 races.
Michael Waltrip, one of the best owners in the garage at trying to lure sponsors into NASCAR, struggled to find a backer for Trevor Bayne and his Nationwide car before he was able to convince OUT! Pet Care to come on board for the rest of 2010. If that’s David Reutimann or Martin Truex Jr. in that car, Waltrip probably has sponsors calling him. But given the unstable economy, no company wants to risk millions of dollars on an unproven 18-year-old driver.
Yes, sponsorship dollars aren’t the only ways that teams earn money, but the purse structure in the Nationwide Series isn’t conducive to simply breaking even while running the full race. We’ve detailed the story here at Frontstretch of teams like PRISM/D’Hondt-Humphrey Motorsports, who have made starting and parking an exact science; but because they’ve become so efficient at it, they’re able to exist.
Purse money is absurdly complicated, but Saturday night at Gateway, Mark Green and the No. 49 made $20,195 for starting and parking after two laps. In comparison, Shelby Howard and the No. 70 made $23,650 for finishing 12th, then came home with a wrecked racecar after getting involved in the aftermath of that whole Edwards-Keselowski deal. Without a sponsor, there’s little incentive for teams to try to race the full distance, and it’s proven to be exceptionally hard to find a sponsor for a relatively unknown driver.
With the Nationwide CoT, startup costs are going to be even higher in the coming months, with one part-time driver estimating that a new Nationwide CoT would cost him close to six figures. Add in time, labor and parts to get the car ready, and that’s an expense that many can’t afford.
It leaves France and the rest of NASCAR in a bit of a tight spot right now, given that they’ve announced the potential for two radical changes to the Nationwide Series already in 2011. Since the CoT has been in the works for months, it’s the priority, while the Cup driver limit should be put on the backburner. The Sprint Cup Series obviously hasn’t been immune to economic setbacks, either, and unless NASCAR expands the field for some reason, there won’t be much turnover at the top ranks.
Smaller teams have been the backbone of the Nationwide Series, and teams like Braun Racing and Baker Curb employ Nationwide-only drivers on a regular basis. Cup teams in the Nationwide Series run it because it’s financially feasible. Just look at how surprising it was for Jack Roush to commit to a full season for Colin Braun and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at the beginning of 2010, despite only half sponsorship for either of them.
Yes, the Nationwide Series is in the midst of an identity crisis right now with the continued influx of Cup drivers. However, those at NASCAR need to be careful, applying these sweeping changes over the course of a few years and not all at once. Cars like the Mustang and Challenger are great steps to separate the series from its Cup counterpart. However, those cars cost money. Non-Cup drivers cost money too, in the form of wrecked cars and smaller sponsorships. That’s a huge financial burden for race teams to bear, bad economy or not.
So let’s hold off on that Cup driver limit until 2012 or 2013. The long-term health of the Nationwide Series is at stake, and sometimes too much change at once is a bad thing.