NASCAR

NSCS: Solution to Cup Series Drivers Dominating the Lower Tier Divisions

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Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images

 

By Joseph Wolkin-Associate Editor (@JosephNASCAR)

February 25, 2014

NEW YORK– When Kyle Busch dominates a race in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, are fans really surprised anymore? It is safe to say that most people are not surprised that the Nationwide Series most victorious driver dominates races. However, after winning 12 races with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, the same team (and pit crew) which he utilizes in the Sprint Cup Series, Busch and other Sprint Cup Series drivers have been under fire for “ruining” the competition in the lower tier divisions.

After Busch won the Truck Series race to open the 2014 season at Daytona, the Associated Press reported that NASCAR is taking a look at possibly limiting the amount of races that Cup Series drivers can run in the lower tier divisions. However, NASCAR will be stopping something that has been around since the Nationwide Series was the Sportsman Division back in the early 1980s.

In 2013, Sprint Cup Series drivers won all but five races throughout the 33-race Nationwide Series schedule. Is this a problem? Well, when the series champion does not win a single race, it certainly becomes a problem. Austin Dillon not only did not win a race his 2013 championship campaign, but finished inside of the top-three during eight races, the majority of which he was beat by Cup Series drivers. Now, even though the Nationwide Series is a development division, it is always good experience for the top young drivers to race against some of the Cup Series stars. It takes a lot to beat Cup Series drivers, but it was feasible in 2012 because the strength of the Nationwide Series teams were increasing more than expected.

Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier, Regan Smith, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Sam Hornish Jr. and Trevor Bayne have been the only drivers that were running on a full-time basis over the past two seasons that were able to win races. There were a few drivers that were not running full-time in the Cup Series or Nationwide Series that were able to win races such as A.J. Allmendinger, James Buescher, Ryan Blaney and Nelson Piquet Jr. However, these drivers have combined to win just 29 percent of races since the start of the 2012 season.

There is a reason why the Sprint Cup Series drivers race in the lower tier series though.

Running the Nationwide Series costs a lot of money. The smaller teams simply cannot afford to contend with the larger organizations. That is how racing has always been. For the larger teams, they need their Sprint Cup Series drivers in their car(s) for the majority of the season in order to give younger, less experienced drivers the chance to race for a win in top equipment. Arguably, it does pay off. It might not happen all the time, but every now and then, it will. Just look at Brian Ickler, who raced for Joe Gibbs Racing in a handful of races for multiple seasons. After being out of the sport for a few years, Ickler has earned a full-time ride due to racing for wins with one of the top teams in the Nationwide Series.

Brad Keselowski, who owns Brad Keselowski Racing in the Camping World Truck Series, recently stated that if he did not race on a part-time basis, along with his Team Penske teammate, Joey Logano, his team would be nonexistent. Sponsors simply want a star driver to get them race wins. They do not want to waste time while a driver is developing, even though that is an essential part of the sport. A team like Keselowski’s has sponsorship for one championship contender, but needs at least one Cup Series driver to split the time with a developing driver, in this case, Tyler Reddick. This is the key to success, and it works. Thanks to Keselowski’s willingness to race in the lower divisions, he has been able to steadily grow his operation, creating jobs and giving numerous people opportunities that would have otherwise been hard to come by.

“The problem with the Nationwide Series right now is it’s hard to get sponsorship. After my years in the Truck Series, plus the situation at Kyle Busch Motorsports, he ended up leaving with his Monster sponsorship for his Joe Gibbs Racing team. The problem is, if you do not have six or seven million dollars to go drive the No. 54 car or the No. 22 car or one of those top-three cars out there, you will not have a chance to win. That is the plain reality of the Nationwide Series,” said Swan Racing’s Parker Kligerman, who raced for Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2013.

“You will have a team occasionally win like a Kyle Busch Motorsports or a Turner-Scott Motorsports, but in all reality, if you want to compete for a championship, you need a six-seven million dollar budget. As a young kid, that’s really tough to find, or getting supported for, in a second tier series. At this point in my career, it made sense to make the move to the Sprint Cup Series after the success I had in my first two races with them. I’m looking forward to it. You are seeing a huge, young crop of drivers moving up to the Cup Series this year, and I’m just glad to be a part of that and take advantage of the opportunity.”

A driver like Kligerman could not win a race in 2013. Why? Because the Sprint Cup Series drivers were running with equipment that exceeded the smaller teams in more ways than imaginable. They had better pit crews, engineering, equipment, technology and everything else that is needed to create a winning organization. Especially when a Nationwide Series team is housed with a Sprint Cup Series team, the Nationwide Series team will excell due to the amount of employees the team has. So, how is this problem going to be fixed, let alone, is it even a problem?

When Regan Smith won the season opener at Daytona, it was a great sign for the sport. It showed that being affiliated with a Cup Series team is one thing, but racing with a Cup Series team in the Nationwide Series might just be ridiculous. Keselowski was merely feet away from beating Smith with his Penske Ford power, and while utilizing his Sprint Cup Series pit crew. Sure, Smith’s JR Motorsports team uses engines from the Hendrick Motorsports engine program, but everything else is done in house.

Not always does a Cup Series driver win in the Nationwide Series, especially with their own team. Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 2014 Daytona 500 champion, has not won a Nationwide Series race since 2010, and before that, 2006. Earnhardt Jr. has taken a small, start-up team, and developed it into a multi-car race winning organization.

The Nationwide Series is in a good state right now. Busch’s seat will be occupied by Hornish Jr. for multiple races in 2014, and if he does well, it is likely that in 2015, he might just have an even greater shot at winning. It is one thing for a driver to be in a top seat, but it is another thing for that driver to be dominating weekly when they are not even entitled to contend for the championship.

“I’ve said it and said it and said it again … I could take a sheet of paper and make a list of pros and cons about Cup drivers racing in the Nationwide and Trucks races, and I’d fill both columns,” said NASCAR on FOX analyst and former crew chief, Larry McReynolds. “But it’s obvious from a television standpoint, that even with exciting young stars in the field like Chase Elliott, Ty Dillon and Dylan Kwasniewski, if it is promoted — and you have to think it would be — that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is racing in a Nationwide Series event, you can guarantee more eyeballs will be watching it.”

Television companies need these drivers in the races. They bring in a lot more views than there would be if they were not racing in the lower tier events. As McReynolds stated, there are plenty of pros and cons, but you cannot change history, and history proves that these drivers love racing and they want to race as frequently as possible. What if Carl Edwards could not run full-time in the Nationwide Series while racing in the Cup Series? Would he have ended up being so successful?

A few years ago, back in 2011, NASCAR made a change which ended Sprint Cup Series drivers racing every weekend in the Nationwide Series or Truck Series. They have not been eligible to win the title since then unless they are designated for points in that series. It is basically the perfect scenario. Since that time, it has opened the doors for young drivers such as Stenhouse and Dillon to prove to their car owners, sponsors and competitors that they are ready to race in the Sprint Cup Series on a full-time basis, especially when they can keep up with drivers such as Logano, Busch and Keselowski when they are in top equipment.

Busch was not able to win with KBM in the Nationwide Series, but he has been able to dominate in the Camping World Truck Series. However, Busch’s Camping World Truck Series operation has taken years to develop into a championship winning team. Meanwhile, as a start-up team, his Nationwide Series program contended for wins, yet not as frequently as he did with his JGR team. What does that say? Well, it just shows that racing with the Cup Series team is unfair.

NASCAR needs to sanction drivers to race in the lower tier divisions, but not limiting the amount of races they would race. If they were to limit the amount of races a full-time Sprint Cup Series driver can race, what would happen to drivers such as Joe Nemechek or Landon Cassill, who put a circle around “Nationwide Series” before the season starts in terms of what series they want to race for points within? Those two drivers, however, do not run for top teams in either the Cup Series or Nationwide Series. They are racing for the love of the sport, and to make a few extra dollars on the side with the possibility of furthering their brand by showing they can run well with decent equipment.

There is a way to get around this though. It is going to be expensive for the drivers, especially with the way the economy is. However, it will strengthen competition.

The drivers must race in their own equipment. This is what Keselowski has been doing in the Truck Series, and it is what Busch attempted in the Nationwide Series and is also doing in the Truck Series. If they do it right, the drivers will be successful. Dale Earnhardt Sr. did not race for Richard Childress Racing in the Nationwide Series. He raced for his own team for several years, and won while doing so. Earnhardt ran on a part-time basis for a few years, giving his sponsors some more exposure while building a company at the same time.

This is the way that things should be done. It enables the tracks to have something to sell to fans other than development drivers racing on Friday evenings and/or Saturday’s. Besides that, it creates jobs. Busch’s Nationwide Series team was around for two seasons, and it created over 50 jobs during that time span. Just imagine what can happen if he were to keep that team with his Monster Energy sponsorship, rather than racing for JGR. He could have built it from the ground up, and those wins would mean more to him than they already do.

The cost of winning in NASCAR is abundant. However, what is it worth at the end? The feeling of gratitude after all of that hard work. This plan will not only level out the playing field, but will also show how much true talent drivers have. It will make things like they were during the early years of the Sportsman Division, where drivers owned their own teams. The only problem with this plan is what will happen to the Cup Series teams that have Nationwide Series teams such as JGR. Will they have to dismiss members of their team, or will they go over to the Nationwide Series programs owned by the Cup Series drivers?

One thing that could work is having alliances, just like there are in the Sprint Cup Series. A success story like Furniture Row Motorsports in the Sprint Cup Series, largely due to their alliance with RCR, could lead to bigger and better things in the Nationwide Series. The younger drivers might not be enabled to run with the bigger teams because the sponsors will go with the Cup Series drivers, but running in the same cars as the Cup Series drivers are would be a great opportunity in of itself.

This plan is perfect for NASCAR. It gives drivers the opportunity to contend for race wins, not limit their schedule and also lets younger drivers race for them as well.

What do you guys think?

Let us know on Twitter at @MRacingScene or email me at Joseph.Wolkin@motorracingscene.com.

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