Let me get this much out of the way: The new NASCAR Nationwide cars look awesome. The sight of Brad Keselowski‘s Dodge Challenger invokes images of the past while looking like a true muscle car – certainly something that can’t be said of the Impala and Camry. (Chevrolet admitted last weekend that the Camaro won’t be making an appearance in the Nationwide Series because the body styles aren’t similar enough.)
However, the sight of Keselowski’s freshly rebuilt No. 22 isn’t a good one for competition, either.
Keselowski’s pole speed for Saturday’s CARFAX 250 at Michigan was 3.5 seconds faster than Danny Efland‘s time. Efland was driving an underfunded start-and-park and qualified last. If Efland would have stayed on the track maintaining similar lap times, Keselowski would have lapped him in less than 15 circuits.
On a 2-mile track.
For the rich guys at the top of the heap, the new car may be the kryptonite to Joe Gibbs Racing’s Superman. Sure, the Gibbs cars haven’t been spectacular when driven by Brad Coleman or Matt DiBenedetto, but when one of their three Cup drivers is behind the wheel, they’re the team to beat.
Saturday, Kyle Busch felt that his car was dragging the splitter. After a ton of adjustments, Busch finished third while Joey Logano dropped to sixth. But neither driver led a single lap. That’s almost unheard of in this series.
However, for the independent teams struggling to stay in the same zip code as the Cup guys, this car is their kryptonite.
Baker Curb Racing has resorted to a drive-for-pay system at the Nationwide CoT races. Buying and preparing an $80,000 car with no sponsorship isn’t an easy task. Robert Richardson‘s self-owned team lost the only new car they had when Richardson hit the wall.
It was the lowlight of an ugly day for those programs. 17 cars finished on the lead lap at Michigan, and just five of those came from non-Cup teams. Reed Sorenson, driving for Braun Racing, finished seventh, the highest of those five. The other four finished from 14th to 17th.
It stands to reason that the smaller teams will have a better chance of competing with the behemoths come Daytona in 2011, when the new car will be used for the whole season. But by that same token, the Cup teams will have just as much time to prepare and test their Nationwide cars with many more resources. Any gains that independents like Braun or Baker-Curb could make will be shadowed exponentially by the gains that teams like Gibbs and Penske will make.
The Sprint Cup CoT has leveled the playing field to a certain extent, but it’s still the same drivers week after week near the front. With apologies to Elliott Sadler and the No. 19 team, they’re the perfect example of a car who runs up front once in a blue moon. RPM is a middle-of-the-pack organization in the Sprint Cup Series with the exception of Kasey Kahne, and no one has done more to show that than Sadler and his team. Week after week, they’re mired back in the field a lap or two down, and it takes a pit-strategy call like Sunday at Michigan for them to become relevant.
There’s a driver and team development problem in NASCAR, and that’s only going to grow larger in the short-term and potentially the long-term if nothing is done about it. Sponsorships are hard to come by, and a fleet – if you can call it that – of four competitive cars is probably an out-of-pocket expense of $300,000. Not very many people have that money, including those already in the Nationwide Series.
So yes, it looks like rules are going to be made to limit the Cup drivers’ involvement in the Nationwide Series for 2011, but that doesn’t solve the growing gap. Cup drivers or not, there’s still going to be a competitive imbalance in this division, and if Saturday was any indication, it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets any better.