Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s rule limiting drivers in lower series seems targeted at one driver in particular: Kyle Busch.
Busch has become the poster child for fan complaints about Cup drivers taking over in the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series. This year alone, he’s won 11 times across both divisions, including the Kansas XFINITY Chase race a few weeks ago, and has led a whopping 2,107 laps in 20 starts. By comparison, over in the Cup Series no one has led more 1,596 laps (Martin Truex, Jr.) through 32 events run.
Busch’s dominance continues to push the envelope on a long list of Cup drivers winning in lower series. In XFINITY alone, they’ve captured 19 of 30 events, including two Chase races and two of their bonus Dash 4 Cash events. But Busch, the reigning 2015 champion, is the most visible abuser; his 169 victories total across NASCAR’s three divisions have him eyeing Richard Petty’s seemingly mythical 200.
That goal just became a whole lot harder, as a closer look at the 2017 rules leave him one of the few drivers affected. The new rules limit only Cup drivers with five or more years of full-time experience; right off the bat, young talents like Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are exempt from its consequences. Those drivers, while new to the Cup Series, are far from slouches, winning four XFINITY events in their own right this year and finishing just behind Busch in several others. They’ll be free to run as much as they wish in 2017, fighting alongside regulars and perhaps stealing the victories Busch leaves behind.
Other veterans, like Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., will be forced to abide by the new rule. On paper, that sounds great, like NASCAR has made some major step toward keeping them out.
But for most of them, they’re shrugging their shoulders this morning because the new rules don’t really affect them. Let’s take the XFINITY Series as an example. The new changes dictate no Cup full-timer with more than five years’ experience can run more than 10 XFINITY races if they’re running for a Cup championship. A quick look at the standings shows you who’s over that 10-race limit right now:
Kyle Busch 16
Joey Logano 13
Brad Keselowski 13
No one else is close. Not Aric Almirola, Earnhardt or Denny Hamlin, each of whom has won XFINITY races this year. Over on the Truck side, where the limit is seven races, the list is even smaller: only Daniel Suarez, an XFINITY regular, has competed in more than that, and he’d be unaffected by these adjustments.
That’s not to say this rule doesn’t take some positive steps. Busch, Logano and Keselowski, among other Cup veterans, would be banned from each regular-season finale along with the seven-race Chases in both series. The Dash 4 Cash events, important to XFINITY sponsorship, will also be devoid of these Cup veterans, increasing the opportunities for the series regulars for whom the program was designed.
But the rule seems tilted toward branding a new generation of drivers, regardless of NASCAR level, than actually limiting Cup regulars from stomping all over the field. Why? What you’ll likely see with these new limitations is regular season XFINITY races jammed with more Cup regulars than usual; sponsors looking to moonlight with those veterans in a lower division won’t stop based on those changes.
In the meantime, you’ve also cleared the way for a Cup guy like Larson, Dillon or others to stink up the XFINITY Chase. And guess what? The executives down in Daytona Beach are probably shaking their heads and going, “Why not?” The theory goes that if Larson wins, ripping off three or four in a row, it’s another opportunity to get a new name out there people follow on a national scale. Fans have heard the names Busch, Harvick and Earnhardt for well over a decade now. Someone like a Dillon, Blaney or Elliott dominating lower divisions? Now, those are new names fans could potentially get behind, especially when old favorites are retiring (Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart) and there’s no firm indication people are jumping from them to follow other veterans. (See: Declining ratings, attendance across the board).
Those youngsters will now get more opportunities, say, with a Team Penske car filled with Cup interlopers that won’t just stop running once the XFINITY Chase gets underway. For example it’s Blaney, not Logano, who would have likely gotten the start at Charlotte in a car that ended up winning the XFINITY race. You know who else was great in that event? Larson, who dominated with 165 laps led. Under these 2017 rules, he’ll be free to take charge in that Chase race all over again.
I understand the box NASCAR is put in here. The sport couldn’t take the more drastic step of banning all Cup drivers, period, because the short-term sponsorship effect in the XFINITY Series could be crippling. But I still think we’ll find, come the end of the 2017 season, that these rules didn’t do enough to keep the Cup guys from spoiling the show just as much as they do now.
Did You Notice? … This Chase may go down as the toughest ever? Rarely have we seen so many drivers equally matched heading into the final four races. There’s a lot of talk this week about how Martin Truex, Jr. and Brad Keselowski, each with four wins apiece, are getting screwed because they’re out of the Round of 8. But who among these drivers would you take out by comparison?
- Joe Gibbs Racing (Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth): These drivers have dominated the season to the tune of 11 wins, 10 poles and an average of 18 top-10 finishes. They’ve won on every type of track, some of the sport’s major events (Daytona 500, Brickyard 400) and have few gaping holes on the resume.
- Kevin Harvick: He’s got four wins of his own, including two in the Chase, and a series-best 24 top-10 finishes. The 2014 series champion is also arguably the most consistent driver of the past three years.
- Jimmie Johnson: Three wins, including one in the Chase, and 363 laps led. This team is also one who prepares exclusively for the playoff format; you wonder how much better it could have done in the regular season without tinkering for the fall.
- Joey Logano: Two wins, including Sunday at Talladega, and 22 top-10 finishes. While Keselowski has an average finish of 10.9, second best on the Cup level, Logano is right behind him at 11.3.
- Kurt Busch: Easily the weakest of the eight drivers remaining when you look at his season as a whole. But he still has a win, 20 top-10 finishes (fifth best on the Cup level) and a series high 29 lead-lap finishes.
The bottom line here is there’s no Ryan Newman-esque smoking gun, a winless driver with limited success taking up either Keselowski or Truex’s slot in the field. While both drivers have strong arguments for inclusion, especially in the case of Truex (winning two of the first three Chase races), neither driver would be winning the championship battle in any format. Truex in particular has just 15 top-10 finishes; if he made the Round of 8 that would be fewer than any current driver that advanced except for Johnson.
In Keselowski’s case, while he’d be second overall in the non-Chase standings to Harvick, two of his four victories occurred in plate races (Daytona and Talladega) while the third occurred at a track he’s excelled at throughout his career (Kentucky). Overall, this No. 2 team has used consistency to its advantage while trailing ever-so-slightly in totals like laps led (seventh best in the Cup Series) and average start (9.6, also seventh, only one pole).
Would either driver have been a worthy champion? Certainly. Is it a bummer they didn’t make it to the Final Four? Of course, for both of them and their fans. But the likelihood NASCAR will still wind up with a worthy champion in this year of parity is sky high.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…
- With all the talk surrounding the Chase it’s easy to forget Jeff Gordon returns to the spot of his Martinsville triumph last fall. The race’s defending winner, Gordon, at age 45, could be very well running the last Sprint Cup race of his long, distinguished career. Finishing 10th at Dover last time out, he seemed to be getting the hang of the 2016 rules package and should be a force to be reckoned with Sunday.
- There was so much talk about the Joe Gibbs Racing cars riding at the back in Talladega. But did anyone notice Tony Stewart’s silent plate racing protest? He ran toward the tail of the lead draft all day, never bothered to work up through the field and finished a quiet 32nd. Considering all his Daytona and Talladega wins through the years that’s not how you would have expected this 45-year-old to go out. “I know you guys don’t like that,” he said on the radio while running in the back. “But I know what’s going to happen here.”
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.