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Did You Notice? The Power of Money to Change NASCAR Rules & Quick Hits Times 10

Did You Notice? NASCAR possibly backtracking on their efforts to shut out Cup drivers from competing full-time for the Nationwide Series championship? If it happens, I’m reminded of the old Carole King… “It’s too late, baby, now it’s too late, though we really did try to make it…”

Leaving the Cup drivers to compete for the title doesn’t result from Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski or Kyle Busch successfully staking a claim that their full-time presence benefits the series. It’s simply a matter of NASCAR taking a step back, then getting scared over the short-term pain of finding drivers to market and replace them.

Let’s review the current Nationwide points standings, just in case you’ve forgotten (in order):

Keselowski, Edwards, Busch, Justin Allgaier, Paul Menard, Kevin Harvick, Steve Wallace, Trevor Bayne, Jason Leffler, Brendan Gaughan

Note that five of the top six on the list are Cup drivers, and Allgaier is the only non-Cup driver who has a win (Bristol back in March). Even worse, he sits behind a man in Busch who hasn’t even competed in four races on the schedule – yet lies 434 points out of the championship in third place.

For me, that puts in perspective NASCAR’s reluctance to make a change. If you push Cup drivers out of the series, you’re left with a handful of competitive teams, none of which have one-tenth the marketing value that the Cup drivers do. It’s going to take an investment from the top down – NASCAR marketing down to Nationwide itself and the sponsors on the sides of those cars – to make up-and-comers like Bayne household names again.

Of course, to do that takes both patience – who knows how long it’ll take for the series to bounce back – and money, something that’s not exactly growing on trees around the stock car world these days. The sanctioning body’s move to cut purses 20% for the Nationwide Series fits in here, the latest in a long list of scheduling moves and changes to keep their least profitable tracks like Chicagoland and Fontana from failing completely. As contraction envelops the sport, with no investment in the teams themselves (remember, they’re private contractors) NASCAR is turning towards the one place where it feels the bread needs to stay buttered; itself.

So with no extra money invested in the series’ future, it stands to reason the sport needs teams like Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway to keep their feet firmly in the fire. And here’s what those guys are telling NASCAR: Our sponsors want Cup guys in the seat. There’s honestly no incentive for either one to have young drivers coming up through the ranks – all their Cup guys are younger and tied to long-term deals – and after a miserable 2010 in which rookies treated his stable like a demolition derby, Roush is understandably unwilling to let the youngsters tear up equipment all over again.

You’d think the fan complaints would play a role eventually… but are the complaints drowning out what they really feel? Keep in mind the Nationwide Series has held serve this season on TV, with ratings up 6% largely due to Danica Patrick’s Daytona debut this February. That makes it easier to stomach the criticism, ignore the problem and just stick with the status quo.

Of course, those decisions don’t bode well for the long list of poor teams barely surviving in a world increasingly set up for them to fail. But for all the complaining they’re doing, everyone’s still showing up and filling the field of 43 cars come race weekend. Honestly, it may take half of them starting and parking or a number of short fields for the sport to pay attention to them.

Everyone who’s read for years knows I couldn’t disagree more with what’s about to happen. But the logic makes sense.

Did You Notice? Since I’m on vacation, a long list of quick hits are in order for this week:

  • Statement of fact: I saw Keselowski call Busch an ass this weekend more than 10 Cup teams have been mentioned on TV all season. And I was on vacation.
  • Statement of fact #2: I was out at a bar, talking with a small group of people and revealed I was a professional NASCAR writer. I had no idea they were all huge fans of the sport; their first question to me, unprovoked, was, “Can you tell us why NASCAR sucks now?” Their focus the next 10-15 minutes was how much they used to watch but don’t anymore because of A, B and C (for them, the Car of Tomorrow appeared to be the biggest reason).
  • I also noticed on Saturday night only one of eight TVs at the bar I was at had the race on. I watched the majority with literally two people out of hundreds more interested in the NFL game. I’m Debbie Downer here only because I’ve heard more about the economy affecting the sport recently than ever. Hmm… so then why are people lining up in droves to see college football and the NFL in a few weeks? I had this argument back in March, and to me blaming only economics for our sport’s problems is like saying Tiger only cheated on Elin because he didn’t win enough majors. Huh? What does that have to do with anything?
  • Have you noticed this disturbing trend among Cup teams attracting sponsorship: “We’re speaking to two or three new companies not involved with the sport. We’ve got some big things on the horizon for next year.” I must have heard that come out of everyone from Richard Childress’s to Robby Gordon’s mouth, yet Wal-Mart is the only rumored major new company to actually physically make the rumor mill. Don’t you think if some of these other interested companies existed, they’d be reported as quickly as driver departures these days? Our reporters’ ears aren’t selective. Money continues to be a big issue.
  • Speaking of Robby Gordon, while Kevin Conway didn’t deserve to be let go from Front Row Motorsports, this latest move reeks of desperation. Gordon needs any type of money any way he can get it to keep the program afloat through the first five races of 2011. Without it, that team is virtually dead. No matter what he says in public, the ugly Dakar cancellation combined with BAM Racing’s lawsuit and the loss of Jim Beam as sponsor soaked up millions in liquidity his organization just doesn’t have. Without ExtenZe, the days of his organization as a viable Cup operation were numbered, and Gordon knows it.
  • Explain to me how Busch is suddenly a title contender after sweeping three races at a track that not only isn’t in the Chase, but one he dominates virtually every year? Did we forget he’s been virtually non-existent on the Cup circuit since June?
  • There are times I honestly feel for Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a person, I really do. Even Hendrick’s former crew chief extraordinaire, Ray Evernham, has gotten busy taking shots, claiming, “Sometimes a person has to decide whether they’re committed to something or not. That’s the bottom line.” So much for him becoming the next head wrench at the No. 88 shop. I think we’re at the point of no return now for Junior at Hendrick… it’s just a matter of patiently waiting until the middle of 2011 and trying to figure out what happens next.
  • Elliott Sadler looks so happy driving a Nationwide car or a Truck, doesn’t he? I know Cup pays more money, but stepping back like men such as Todd Bodine have done could honestly be the best thing for him.
  • I think it would be incredibly ironic if Jamie McMurray, the man who made a living out of Chase near-misses, the second of which helped spur his departure from Chip Ganassi in 2005, finally makes the playoffs the one year where he honestly couldn’t care less.
  • I agree with Carl Edwards that the Montreal venue deserves its own Cup date. I was there for the series’ inaugural trip in 2007 and saw firsthand how much the Canadians openly embraced our series. The track is well-kept, the city’s top-notch and it’s a great way for NASCAR to tiptoe into an international market without going overboard. And how long have we been saying the Cup Series needs a third road course for the Chase?
  • Last but not least… why is this off week randomly in August and not separating the Chase from the regular season finale? Anyone with a good answer, I’m all ears.

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