It’d take an act of God to get this writer to declare that NASCAR has left the state of denial, but they did take a step in the right direction on the Nationwide Series front this week with the announcement that the field will be cut from 43 to 40 cars for the 2013 season. It’s been a change long overdue; though NASCAR’s AAA series has largely dodged short fields over the last eight months, the start-and-park entries filling the starting grids week after week have accounted for nearly 30% of those “full” fields.
Coupled with the return of testing, this week’s announced competition changes are absolutely radical alterations for the Nationwide Series, as 43-car fields have been the norm for a decade-plus. And even at only a three-car reduction, it will have an impact across the series. While it’s impossible to tell just how much of an impact this will have until the entry list for Daytona is released in February, it’s never too early to play a little fact or fiction.
*FICTION: This Will Solve the Start-and-Park Problem*
It’s simple mathematics. When 13 of the 43 cars in the field are start-and-park entries, even if all three cars that go away are S&Ps, the ratio goes to 10 start-and-parks of 40 cars. That’s still 25% of the field. Looking at that, the sport is still looking at more than the fringes of the garage using a last resort tactic on a weekly basis. A quarter of the starting grid is not the fringes…it’s a recurring theme.
Considering the state of the 2012 field, cutting to 40 cars would do nothing but display a few cars that were going to be gone by lap 20. But having said that, there’s no guarantee that will be the same in 2013. Rewind back to 2009, when Phil Parsons’ MSRP Motorsports team hit the scene and turned start-and-park into a business. Their Nos. 90 and 91 cars were mechanically built to do nothing more than qualify, to a point they could not run a full-race distance even if a sponsor came calling. But that qualifying prowess translated into nearly guaranteed slots in the field (Terry Cook posted a top 5 qualifying result at O’Reilly Raceway Park and ran as high as third in the early going before calling it a night).
The moral of the story? Regardless of how many spots are in the field, start-and-park teams have an inherent advantage over race teams. They don’t have to spend time practicing in race trim or worry about maintaining their race cars…it’s all about putting a fast two laps together. So even if there are only 40 slots available, all it will take is an MSRP Motorsports to step in with a decent engine program and boom…that’s two slots in a more limited field gone.
The fact is, even if the field is being right-sized for the economic and ownership reality of today’s Nationwide Series, a reduction in spots available does not correct the myriad of challenges facing ownership in the Nationwide ranks; the purse that is all but impossible to survive off of, the overwhelming expense of engines and tires, the heavy reliance of independent teams on purchasing used race cars to fill their garages. Right-sized field or not, Nationwide Series racing is currently the equivalent of overpaying for the right to climb up a mountain in a blinding snowstorm barefooted.
This competition change makes sense. It will interject some life into qualifying sessions that has been sorely lacking in 2012 (a lot of 43 car fields have made for some boring time trials). It reflects what the current stable of race cars contesting the series actually looks like. And, when coupled with the re-opening of testing, the series will finally open some doors for new ownership blood to enter (should there be any interested). Testing allows for teams to solve problems and get better without relying on the wind tunnel or deep connections with a manufacturer.
When there’s room for innovation and a genuine ability to race into a starting field, there’s opportunity. Shocking in a development series, no?
*FACT: The Competition Will Not Be Affected*
One of the best interviews I’ve had the pleasure of doing during my time in this sport was with veteran Jason Keller…and one of the questions that came up during that interview was whether or not a 43 car field was a cornerstone the Nationwide Series needed to be working to preserve.
Though Keller remarked that day he believed it was, at least on the circuit’s myriad of intermediate ovals, one needs to think realistically for a second…when was the last time the Nationwide Series actually started a field where 43 cars ran race distance? Even just a few seasons ago in 2010, when Danica Patrick’s debut had the Nationwide Series buzzing on a level rivaling the Daytona 500, Brad Teague and the No. 04 car ran less than five laps before pocketing a check and loading up the hauler.
Be it 30 cars, 40 cars or 43 cars, the reality is this. The Cup teams at the front of the garage are the class of the field. Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing are essentially fighting amongst themselves for the race win any given Saturday. There are a handful of Nationwide regular teams that can contend for the top 10 (Turner Motorsports). There are the teams that race on a shoestring (Jeremy Clements Racing, MacDonald Motorsports). And there are the start-and-park teams.
The issue with the competition seen in the Nationwide Series these days is just how stratified the field is. It’s almost to a Formula One extreme; a Joe Gibbs Racing car isn’t going to finish worse than 12th or so without finding a wreck, while Erik Darnell’s No. 40 car is going to run 18th on a very good day.
All the more reason it’s important to let teams have testing back. Finally, there’s an avenue for those teams trying to move from 20th place to 10th place to do some homework. Innovation is going to put on a far better race than a spec car and debris cautions ever will.
*FICTION: The Purses Will Remain the Same*
The bet as to whether Elliott Sadler or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is likely a toss-up at this point (though Sadler’s case for himself got stronger after this past weekend’s Charlotte race). Looking for a sure-fire bet?
Instead of 43 cars starting a race, now there are 40. The purses for Nationwide Series races in 2013 will not remain static…they will go down. Take that one to the bank.
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