There have not been many high points in 2016 for XFINITY Series fans who favor a second-tier series without Sprint Cup driver dominance. In the last three races, reigning Sprint Cup champ Kyle Busch has looked nearly unstoppable, and he stands a good chance at getting his fourth consecutive victory at Auto Club Speedway. Busch’s wins, as well as a fair amount of bias against the polarizing driver, has given new life to the debate about whether or not NASCAR should limit participation of Cup drivers in the XFINITY Series.
It is a tricky situation on NASCAR’s part. On one hand, the sanctioning body is trying to promote a new “winning means more” philosophy in the series with the introduction of an elimination-style Chase. Just one win should probably be enough to get an XFINITY regular into the postseason. Yet if the first four races (and the last few years) are any guide, wins by XFINITY regulars will be few and far between. It does not reflect well on NASCAR if the sanctioning body promotes a championship format that uses wins as a major qualifier if championship-ineligible drivers are doing all the winning.
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Thus, NASCAR finds itself caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Even though it has received a mixed reception from fans, Brian France remains convinced that the elimination-style Chase is the key to growing NASCAR’s popularity. However, there is no way that the Chase can work to its full extent if Cup drivers are winning every week in the XFINITY Series. So if France and his associates really love and care about the not quite-NFL or March Madness playoff that NASCAR currently uses in all three of its national series, something must be done to curb the Cup driver dominance. The problem is that any rules which NASCAR might change would be difficult to enforce or potentially hurt the overall health of the XFINITY Series.
Suppose NASCAR limited every full-time Cup driver to no more than five XNS races per season. Would that solve the problem? While such a restriction would curb Busch from winning so frequently, teams like Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske would likely still put different Cup drivers in one of their cars on a rotating basis. In that scenario, fans would probably see a number of different Cup drivers win during the XFINITY season, but that would not help as far as the Chase is concerned.
What would happen if NASCAR outright banned Cup Series teams from fielding XFINITY cars? It sounds good at first, but teams could easily find a way to circumvent the rule. Consider how JR Motorsports gets a lot of personnel, technical support and even engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Technically speaking, JR Motorsports is a separate entity from Hendrick, but it is their alliance with Hendrick that really makes the team competitive. If NASCAR were to simply say “No Cup owners in XFINITY,” the JGR and Team Penske XFINITY programs would likely get absorbed into Kyle Busch Motorsports and Brad Keselowski Racing. Those teams would have a different owner on paper and could even be housed in a different race shop, but in practice there would be little difference between that scenario and what we have now.
Even if NASCAR were to take the rule further and ban any kind of Cup intervention in the series, such a ban would be tough to enforce, and a lot of people could lose their jobs. Cutting out any sort of XNS participation by the Cup teams would also eliminate pretty much all of the well-funded teams and leave fewer opportunities for up-and-coming drivers. Moreover, how many new owners with money, resources, and skills to run a race team would step up and fill the void left by the Cup owners? Chances are, not many, and it would be very difficult for the XFINITY Series to survive with cash-strapped teams and 20 car fields.
It would also be unwise for NASCAR to employ some kind of handicap during the race that would make it difficult for Cup drivers to win. Starting at the back of the pack is barely a hindrance for a driver of Busch’s or Keselowski’s caliber. More importantly, any such handicap would mess with the integrity of the competition. Having Cup drivers start the race one lap down, for instance, would make for a compelling challenge, but such a rule would blur the line between sport and entertainment far too much.
As long as there are Sprint Cup regulars racing in the XFINITY Series, they will find ways to win. So what if NASCAR declared that all drivers who choose to compete for Sprint Cup points cannot enter any XFINITY races? It would be an easy way to stop Cup drivers from winning, but a rule like that would create new problems. Track operators likely would not be on board with the idea, citing the notion that having Cup drivers in the XFINITY field brings more fans to the track. There could also be sponsors that are unwilling to support unproven XNS regulars. The problem is that we do not know what a second-tier series without any premier-series drivers looks like.
Throughout the history of the modern XFINITY Series, there has always been some level of Cup driver participation. The reasons why “double dipping” is frowned upon so much more in recent years is because of the frequency with which Cup drivers win, combined with the practice of racing with Cup teams. Fans do not like to see established Sprint Cup drivers and teams unite to defeat developing drivers and teams who have a fraction of the budget of the heavy-hitters. Such victories put the disparity of NASCAR on full display. The level of dominance becomes too much for fans to ignore, and they do not bother to watch the races. After all, why watch someone win on Saturday when you know that they could also win on Sunday against a more competitive field?
If NASCAR wants the XFINITY Series to be successful long-term, they will have to find a solution to the Cup driver dominance. However, the sanctioning body will not reach that solution by making a rule restricting the participation of Cup drivers and teams. Instead, NASCAR needs to get creative and do something to change the identity of the XFINITY Series. The most direct way of accomplishing this would be to shake up the schedule. Go to different venues than the Cup Series does, or at least do not have so many companion events that make it easy for drivers to run both XFINITY and Cup races in one weekend. Remember, Busch said last weekend that XFINITY races help him prepare for Cup races the following day. If NASCAR creates a situation where it is less practical for Sprint Cup drivers to run XFINITY races, it will not seem like such an attractive option to team owners and sponsors.
NASCAR has shown an unwillingness to make big schedule changes, but they may have to take that step in the future. The long-term health of the XFINITY Series is at stake, and the sanctioning body cannot make the rash judgements and rule changes for which some fans have been screaming without understanding the consequences. Inaction, however, will not help to reverse the dwindling sense of identity in the XFINITY Series.
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