It’s not a new problem but it’s a perplexing one. How do we promote NASCAR’s AAA system (once Grand National, then Busch, Nationwide for six years and now the NASCAR XFINITY Series) as a developmental series where newer (and usually younger) drivers hone their craft while looking for an opportunity in the “Bigs” while still allowing full time Cup drivers (even Cup champions) to compete in the series? To date just five of the 17 NXS races in 2016 have been won by series regulars. As such, only three drivers qualified for the AAA Chase have actually won a race in that series. (Erik Jones has two victories and Daniel Suarez and Elliott Sadler each have one. To the best of my understanding, Sam Hornish, Jr., who won at Iowa, will not be Chase eligible because he hasn’t at least attempted to run every race in the series this year.) With just nine races left to decide the Chase field, it’s highly unlikely that every driver who makes the playoffs will have scored a win, which leads to the ominous possibility of crowning a champion who never won a single race in his title season or perhaps even never won a NASCAR race in his entire career. Ironically it was Matt Kenseth’s winning the 2003 Cup title with just one race victory all year (scored in the third race of the season) that led to NASCAR’s ill-conceived Chase system in the first place. In 2014, Ryan Newman came within a single point of winning the Cup title without having won a race that season and having amassed a total of five top 5 finishes all year. Austin Dillon was in fact the 2013 Nationwide champion without a single win that year to his credit. The following year, Chase Elliott was champion with three wins and last year Chris Buescher managed two wins and the big trophy. One of Buescher’s wins was scored at a standalone weekend race at Iowa, one of those ultra-rare weekends where no full-time Cup drivers were entered.
There likely will be one or more series regulars scoring a win before the Chase, as the NXS runs three stand-alone races between now and the cutoff event. (Iowa, Mid-Ohio and Elkhart Lake). Add in a third road course race at Watkins Glen and that shuffles another joker in the deck. (Two asides. How is it the NXS series came to have more road course dates than the Cup series? And if you’re a fan of the NXS series, you better start checking to see if you get the USA Network, which will air Mid-Ohio and Bristol during the Olympics next month. Unless either or both events are rain delayed, in which case you probably won’t be able to see them at all.)
So how is it halfway through the NXS season we have just three drivers who’ve win a race eligible for the Chase? Naturally it’s because full-time Cup drivers have gone ahead and claim-jumped victories in the 12 other races. Those drivers include Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Dale Earnhardt,Jr., Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin. And a fellow by the name of Kyle Busch has won six of those races. He’s led 1692 laps this season to date in the series, and several times has threatened to lead events flag to flag. (Busch missed that feat by a single lap at Las Vegas and ten laps at Loudon over the weekend. Before someone else brings it up, Busch wasn’t scheduled to compete in the NHMS NXS race. He was subbing for Matt Tifft while Tifft recovers from surgery.)
All right Kyle Busch fans, put down your poison pens and double up on your blood pressure meds. I’m not here to slam Kyle Busch, just to debate what can or should be done about Cup drivers interloping in the development series. This isn’t an issue that’s new and it’s not something Kyle Busch invented. Perfected perhaps, but not invented. Second to Busch on the all-time AAA victories list is Mark Martin, who also won the majority of his then-Busch Series wins while a full-time Cup driver. From 1992 to 2000 Martin ran approximately half the Busch schedule and won 39 such races with a career high of seven wins in 1993 and six Busch wins in three other seasons. Six wins. Hmm. That sounds familiar. And yes, since you Busch fans tend to be younger, the media way back then before the millennium wrote about the issue and did constant hand-wringing over how to fix the problem. (We just didn’t do it on Twitter because it hadn’t been invented yet and most of us were still struggling to figure out how to make E-mail work.) And let’s face it, Mark Martin was a lot more popular a driver than Kyle Busch is at the present time. (Sorry. Not slamming the young man. It’s just the truth. Deal with it. I didn’t make Busch unpopular. I didn’t ask him to star in a commercial with his brother that highlighted some of his most notorious hijinks. They’re the ones that basically admitted they wear the black hats in the sport and seemed to relish in their polarizing reputations.)
So the race track owners have said for years that they need some Cup regulars in the field to sell AAA tickets on Saturday. As I’ve stated, Busch wasn’t supposed to be racing Saturday but he filled in for Tifft. And you have to wonder if some fans have simply decided that they’re not going to spend the money or make the effort to get to the track Saturday when it’s very likely one driver is not only going to win but dominate the race, turning it into a somnolent snooze-fest lulling many who watch off into pleasant summer Saturday afternoon naps even at home. Where it’s a lot cooler. And cheaper. And there’s no traffic after the race. And no lines for the bathroom.
Sunday the stands at NHMS were perhaps half full at a track that routinely sold out quickly when it first started hosting Cup races. But some pundits said quickly all those empty seats couldn’t have had anything to do with Earnhardt, Jr.’s absence. News flash! Back in the day Cup tickets were popular Christmas gifts. It you were naughty rather than nice you better have arranged to get tickets (if in fact you could get them at all) prior to the season starting in February. But that was then and this is now. Today race fans can arrive at the track fifteen minutes before the race is slated to begin with reasonable assurance they’ll be able to buy good seats.
It’s interesting how different drivers have different mindsets when it comes to running the support races. Obviously drivers like Busch and Brad Keselowski simply love to race, anytime anywhere. Line up a fleet of Marx Big Wheels around a grassy 1/50th of a mile track with a box of Crackerjack as the prize and those two would probably be the first riders aboard. On the other hand, since starting his Cup career in 1993, Jeff Gordon ran just 11 AAA races (winning two of them.) Gordon’s HMS stablemate and six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has started 21 AAA races since he landed the No. 48 ride. (Johnson admittedly was never that handy in the AAA series. He won precisely one AAA race, Chicago, before moving up to Cup and is best remembered in that series for his wild no-brakes ride into the Styrofoam in Watkins Glen.) It’s not genetic. Kyle’s elder brother Kurt Busch has only run 30 AAA races since landing a Cup ride, winning two of them. 15 of those starts came in 2012 driving mainly his younger brother’s car. He hasn’t run a AAA race since July of 2013. Other drivers fall somewhere between the two extremes. From 2004 to 2011 Carl Edwards ran just about every Busch race winning 37 of them. In 2007 he won the AAA title and finished 9th in the Cup standings back when such things were still allowed. If I recall Edwards said he was quitting the minor leagues to concentrate on his day job in the Bigs.
You’d have thought Kyle Busch would be a bit more circumspect about moonlighting after last year’s near disaster at Daytona in the NXS race. Busch broke a foot and a leg in that horrendous crash and missed the start of the Cup season. NASCAR granted him a medical exemption on the Cup Chase and of course the rest is history. But my thinking is if NASCAR would refuse a medical exemption for the Cup Chase to any driver injured in a support series race it would cut back on how many NXS races Cup competitors would agree to run. I think some of their Cup team owners and sponsors would make sure of that. As Earnhardt, Jr. sits on the sidelines, at least temporarily, there’s a growing concern about the cumulative effects of multiple concussions. Does a driver who has a hugely lucrative career in the Cup series really want to risk suffering a concussion in a support race?
To an extent, NASCAR fans are different than those of stick-and-ball sports. Fans of baseball in particular (a sport I’ve always found as dreadfully boring as NASCAR racing has often become these days), seem to relish watching “history” be made. If a team is about to eclipse their record for the longest streak of wins, the stadium will sell out. Baseball fans will chew their nails to the quick watching a batter try to break the record for the most consecutive games with a hit or the most home runs in the season. Allow ball fans to see a no-hitter thrown and they’ll be no complaints the final score of the game was 1-0. I don’t know how today’s stock car fans would react to Richard Petty’s 1967 season during which he won 27 of 49 races, ten of them in a row. (Note to Kyle Busch fans postulating their boy is the “greatest ever”. Come talk to me after he wins ten Cup races in a row and we’ll discuss the matter.)
The shame of things is often the racing amongst the series regulars in the NXS lately behind the Cup interlopers is often quite good. Even Saturday, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez were staging one heck of a battle at times even while Kyle Busch drove off into the distance. Darrell Wallace, Jr. and other NXS drivers got in there and mixed it up as well, but in the end nobody remembers who finished second. (Or the people who use the brain-space to recall the top 5 in each and every race are typically the sort who can’t remember where they put their car keys….or what kind of car they drive.)
Again some folks are going to tell me that the only way the NXS drivers will ever get better is to compete against the Cup regulars. Oh, they will. One day they will. When they start running in the Cup series after posting some impressive numbers not just taking Mr. Congeniality award in the NXS series. And I fail to see how any of the NXS regulars are supposed to learn a damned thing from a driver who is running three quarters of a lap ahead of them. Look at the stats and no AAA champion has gone on to win a Cup championship as well over the last five years. (Drivers with titles in both series include Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Bobby Labonte.) If the NXS is designed to be training ground feeder series to allow the champions of tomorrow to hone their skills, you can’t have a feeder series where a few hogs from the Cup side of the fence dominate the trough.
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