Earlier this week, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell made a comment about Sprint Cup drivers racing in the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series. O’Donnell hinted that the sanctioning body could make an announcement soon regarding a plan to limit participation by Sprint Cup regulars in these lower divisions.
Such an announcement would be welcome news for more than a few fans. In particular, those who object to Cup drivers moonlighting in the XFINITY Series and taking wins away from regulars in that division would support a rule change. That said, anyone expecting NASCAR to institute a blanket ban on all Sprint Cup interlopers will probably be disappointed. O’Donnell reiterated in his comment that drivers from NASCAR’s top division have had a long-standing presence in the XFINITY Series. However, he also suggested the series needed to maintain its identity as a developmental tour, “where names are made.”
That issue has been NASCAR’s dilemma over the last six years, where the XFINITY Series is concerned. The sanctioning body has been unwilling to bar Sprint Cup influence entirely. As justification for this decision, NASCAR has crafted the relatively unpopular narrative that it is better for developing drivers in the long run to hone their skills against the best of the best. The more plausible reason why NASCAR has hesitated to curb the practice colloquially known as “Buschwacking” is the fear that the XFINITY Series cannot stand on its own without some level of participation by Sprint Cup drivers and teams.
At the same time, the sport must have a clear path for young drivers to move up the stock car racing ladder. If the next generation of drivers is not able to regularly compete for wins, those drivers are missing critical opportunities to develop their skills in the first place. The 2011 “one series rule” has been an undeniable success for the XFINITY Series, taking Sprint Cup drivers out of the championship equation. However, series regulars still visit Victory Lane far less than their Sprint Cup interlopers.
The current situation has been a problem for years. So why did O’Donnell make this cryptic announcement earlier this week? NASCAR probably does care about the XFINITY Series having its own identity and star drivers, but apparently not enough to take another step toward putting the focus on them until now. Something different is influencing NASCAR’s decision-making process – the Chase.
The XFINITY Series never had any kind of postseason format until this year, when NASCAR introduced the elimination-style Chase to its second tier division. The sanctioning body has publicly maintained a high level of confidence in this newest version of the Chase, insisting that it forces drivers to win races in order to win a championship. In actuality, the elimination-style Chase rewards drivers who perform well at the end of the season, whether they’re winning races or not. Yet, it is important to note that NASCAR’s leaders believe there to be a direct correlation between pressure to win and an overall better Chase. If the sanctioning body truly thinks that winning races at the end of the season is the most appropriate factor in determining a champion, then having Sprint Cup regulars winning those races becomes a much bigger problem.
NASCAR has backed itself into a corner with the XFINITY Series. The sanctioning body wants top-level drivers to support a second-tier division, but needs series regulars to keep the tour viable. NASCAR wants wins to be important in the process of crowning a champion, yet as long as Sprint Cup drivers continue to race in the XFINITY Series, they will win most of the races. As a result, race wins will not play the primary role in the championship battle that NASCAR desires. The status quo of the series prevents the sanctioning body from checking off every box on its wish list. The only solution to making wins matter more is to change the status quo.
For better or worse, the Chase has caused a paradigm shift within NASCAR’s ranks. The elimination framework has yet to win over many fans. Moreover, the last two Sprint Cup postseasons have exposed serious flaws in the new format. Still, the sanctioning body has been steadfast about the Chase being a blessing to the sport and wanting wins to matter more. Seeing a parade of Sprint Cup drivers winning XFINITY races clearly flies in the face of those beliefs. The institution of the original Chase in 2004 really has set off a new era for the sport, and regulations that put the XFINITY Series back in the hands of XFINITY drivers, if only during the Chase, could be the next big change.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.