Since the early 80s, NASCAR has always had what many call a feeder series: a series made for the development of younger drivers and potentially younger teams. Over the years, in this annual series, which is now known as the Nationwide Series, drivers from all sorts of skill levels, racing backgrounds and ages have raced. For some drivers and teams, such as Jeremy Clements and his family owned race team, the Nationwide Series is an excellent opportunity to get their foot in the door, so to speak, in the NASCAR world. For other drivers who did not do so well in the Sprint Cup Series, such as Elliot Sadler and Reed Sorenson, this is an excellent opportunity to compete for a win week in and week out. Finally, for drivers such as Kenny Wallace or Mike Bliss, driving in the Nationwide Series is a nice way to stay competitive even though each driver has passed his prime.
This is what makes the Nationwide Series so great. Unfortunately, over the past decade, the series has had an identity crisis. It’s not really a secret that since the series began, drivers who were involved with the best Sprint Cup teams came down to the Nationwide Series to run a handful of races every year. Mark Martin, most notably, has won 49 races over his Nationwide career, which started back in 1982. At the same time, he was running full-time in the, then, Winston Cup Series. He was not the only driver to occasionally pull “double-duty”. Lately, however, drivers who have full-time ride in the Sprint Cup Series may also run full time in the Nationwide Series. This has produced, over the past 10 years, 6 champions who have run the full season in both divisions (the only driver to do so not in the past 5 years was Kevin Harvick in 2001). This is a problem for the series that helped drivers and former Nationwide champions, such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Johnny Benson, Brian Vickers and Martin Truex Jr. to have solid rides in the Sprint Cup Series. When Cup guys go down to the Nationwide Series to run every week, there are little to no opportunities for drivers who currently don’t have a ride in any of the top 3 series.
How, then, is what Mark Martin did throughout his career different from what drivers today do? Well, first of all (other than the fact that it was 1987 when the dynamic of NASCAR was much different), Mark never ran more than 15 races in a season. Secondly, when he ran, drivers like Randy LaJoie or David Green were given quality rides. Today, without a doubt, two drivers have dominated the Nationwide Series over the last five years: Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. During this time, these two drivers have been racing full time in the Cup Series. Although Busch has stopped racing the full schedule, he still races approximately 22 races out of 35. Edwards, on the other hand, has run a full schedule since 2006 (in 2005 he ran all but 1 race). Over that time, Carl has around 30 wins and Kyle has around 50.
These two drivers are not the only consistent double-duty drivers. Brad Keselowski, last year’s champion, ran full time in both the Sprint Cup Series and the Nationwide Series and Joey Logano usually runs most of the races throughout the year. Kevin Harvick, who has made his name known not only by driving but also by owning cars in the Nationwide Series, usually makes an effort to run most of the races. What has happened is that Cup regulars are taking wins and championships away from the kinds of drivers and teams that were once the face of the series.
At the end of last year, there was no doubt that in the NASCAR community fans and some drivers were fed up with these Cup guys running for the championship in multiple series. I’ve often heard that the year-end Nationwide Banquet “looked more like a Cup Banquet”. NASCAR decided that it was best to change the system. Starting in 2011, drivers are only allowed to run for points in one out of the three series. This takes away any chance of a Cup regular winning the Nationwide Series championship. With this rule, all seemed right again.
Well, it did until the season started. Although NASCAR changed the points system, they forgot to change what is possibly the worst aspect of the Nationwide Series: Cup drivers win every week. Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski are still running the full season, even though they won’t get a championship out of doing so. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are poised to run 20+ races each this year and other drivers will probably race 20+ races as well.. There have been 7 races so far this year and none has been won by Nationwide regulars (Kyle Busch has won 4). This is not healthy. Last week at Talladega, a race where drivers who don’t usually find themselves in the top-10 have a good chance of winning, was won by Busch after a questionable caution call. Sure, the championship point’s standings show no sign of a Cup driver near the top, but the weekly stats show that they are still dominating the series.
Although as a simple NASCAR fan I don’t have much of a voice concerning the rules and regulations that occur in NASCAR, this is what I would do to avoid this sort of dominance continuing. Every driver can race in one series fulltime. After that, they are limited to 10 races in another series (such as the Nationwide series) and 5 races in a 3rd series (such as the Camping World Truck Series).
This idea may get people upset. I have heard two strong arguments against this sort of regulation. First, many fans want to see top-level drivers compete in the lower series; if these drivers aren’t there, the attendance and ratings will fall. Secondly, if the Nationwide or Truck series are really a chance for young drivers to prove themselves against the best of the best, why should we not allow the best of the best to compete?
Yes, these are good arguments. However, each one has its own loopholes. The first argument is a little off. I’m not suggesting that NASCAR should ban these cup guys from racing in the Nationwide Series, I’m only suggesting that they strictly limit the number of races they run. If drivers are still allowed to run up to ten races in a second series, ratings won’t drop considerably. Plus, many fans want to see strictly Nationwide drivers duke it out for the win. The second problem can be answered similarly to the first: the best teams and best drivers will still be competing from time to time. It just won’t be as often as it is today.
Personally, I think the arguments for having this rule set in place outweighs the negatives, even without my rebuttals. Limiting the Cup guys can give drivers, such as Brad Coleman, Michael McDowell, Kelly Bires and Matt DiBenedetto, all of whom share rides with Cup guys that race most of the year, more of an opportunity to compete and win. Nationwide guys will be the focus, not Cup guys. How can a young driver learn to compete when he or she does not have enough seat time in a competitive ride? Plus, drivers such as Johnny Benson, Ted Musgrave, Scott Riggs, Stephen Leicht and Erik Darnell, all proven competitive drivers, are out of a ride.
I am also well aware that sponsorship money has a lot to do with this. Unfortunately, the almighty dollar has a large part to play in how the current Nationwide Series plays out. With this in mind, I wish NASCAR would consider a proposal similar to mine. I would really like to see in the not too distant future the Nationwide Series become the Nationwide series of over a decade ago. I would love to see the Jeremy Clements of the world, or the Joe Nemechecks of the world or even a guy like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. win a race or two, or three. What NASCAR did in the off season was a large step in the right direction, but unfortunately they aren’t there yet. If NASCAR wants to see the Nationwide Series succeed and progress, further steps need to be made.