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Are the Nationwide and Truck Series Saved from Ringers?

I don’t know one person who wasn’t a little skeptical when, prior to the 2011 season, NASCAR announced that drivers could only declare for points in one of the three top series. While it meant that a Nationwide regular would be able to win the championship for the first time since 2005, its ulterior motive — getting Sprint Cup ringers from driving in so many races in the lower series — was yet to be seen. Would drivers like Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski really trim their Nationwide schedules, or would they continue to enter and win races almost weekly, thus continuing the issue and shutting out series regulars?

A year later, it looks like the skeptics can finally be appeased.

Three races in, three different drivers have won in the Nationwide series: the defending champion (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.), the defending runner-up (Elliott Sadler) and a driver with a partial Nationwide schedule but who is a full-time Truck competitor (James Buescher). And though the Truck series has held only one race so far in 2012, its victor was also a series regular, with rookie John King taking home the trophy for Red Horse Racing.

Does this mean the problems plaguing NASCAR’s second- and third-tier series are finally solved? Or did the series regulars merely get lucky?

JJ Yeley is one of a diminishing number of Sprint Cup regulars still pulling double duty in the Nationwide Series in 2012.

It’s tough to say this early in the season, but for both questions, all signs point to ‘maybe.’ In 2010, before the limit on points accrued in multiple series, the number of Cup drivers in the first three races of the Nationwide season numbered 12, 10 and nine. In 2011, after the limit, each decreased to nine, seven and seven. This season’s numbers? 13, eight and six, although all three figures include Joe Nemechek, Josh Wise and J.J. Yeley, who drive for second-tier teams in both series.

But at the Sam’s Town 300 last weekend in Las Vegas, only two Cup regulars cracked the top 15 — Mark Martin (second) and Kasey Kahne (ninth). Compare that to 2010, when all of the top 5 and seven of the top 10 were racing in the Sprint Cup series full-time.

For this weekend’s race at Bristol, nine full-time Cup drivers are on the entry list, with at least two — Yeley and Wise — part of notorious start-and-park efforts.

Many of the usual suspects, however, are abandoning the full-season ship. Former Nationwide series champion Carl Edwards has elected to run zero races in the series as of now, as opposed to full-time efforts in previous years. Brad Keselowski will be sharing his Dodge with Truck regular Parker Kligerman, though the number of races between the two have not been announced.

So that’s zero — count ’em, zero — competitive Cup regulars running the entire season in the Nationwide series.

Joe Gibbs Racing will continue to field cars for Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, but they will be joined by Michael McDowell and Ryan Truex in a number of races. Kasey Kahne will run 15 races for Turner Motorsports, with Brad Sweet running the No. 38 otherwise. Kyle and Kurt Busch may be teaming up in the Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 54 for the entire season, but hey — usually, you’ll only have to deal with one of them at a time.

Even Richard Childress Racing, which took over Kevin Harvick Inc.’s old rides, has relented a bit at season’s beginning, giving Brendan Gaughan a look in a number of events in 2012, including Las Vegas, where the veteran finished sixth.

And it looks like few ringers will be running in the Truck series. Brad Keselowski piloted his self-owned No. 19 at Daytona, and will do so in five more races, but there’s very little otherwise. Even Kyle Busch may not be running the series in 2012, though his No. 18 (driven mostly by Jason Leffler) still has races to fill.

But an unfortunate side-effect persists with the lack of Cup drivers — sponsorship.

The schedule of Gibbs’ No. 20 has been curtailed in recent years, team officials citing lack of sponsorship as an issue. Carl Edwards’ former ride is being driven by Trevor Bayne in 2012, but Roush Fenway Racing has not committed to fielding the No. 60 for Bayne for the full season due to sponsorship woes — in fact, the car was left off the entry list for Bristol until Tuesday.

Can the lower series survive without Cup drivers? Are they a necessary evil to stay afloat? Even defending champion Stenhouse is struggling to find sponsors for his 2012 campaign.

The answer, for now, is to press on as is. Sponsorship issues aside, both series are finally beginning to gain back some identity. Rather than becoming a Saturday playground for the elder statesmen of the sport, drivers such as Stenhouse, Sadler, Buescher, Austin Dillon and Cole Whitt are making names for themselves by facing the Goliaths, and winning.

Cup regulars are arguably less visible in each series than they were two-plus years ago. Rather than seeing attention focused predominantly on the ringers, series regulars are finally receiving their dues. Even Keselowski was no more a factor than his peers in the season-opening Truck race, though a late-race crash contributed to that.

The next step is to return these series to the smaller tracks on which they gained their voices in yesteryear. Rather than tacking on the Nationwide and Truck series to Cup weekends, allow each series a little room to breathe. The occasional companion event can be entertaining, but let’s see teams go to a smaller track with a lower seating capacity to see what it brings for each, rather than continuing to lop off the few stand-alone events.

Both series have undeniable momentum going into the fourth week of the season. Another win for a Nationwide regular would make it the first time since 1995 that series regulars won the first four races of the season.

Optimistic? Maybe. But wouldn’t THAT be something?

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