The view from my couch
The 2008 Nationwide Series – What Might Have Been
by Cheryl Lauer
January 21, 2009
While watching the final Nationwide race at Homestead in November and hearing Bobby Hamilton, Jr. actually mentioned by TV, a thought occurred to me. Imagine what a season the fans would have had if there had been no Cup drivers running in the Nationwide races every week?
Call me a curmudgeon or what you will, but I’ve been a fan of the second-tier of NASCAR since about 1990. You know back when it was called the Busch Series and most of the races were not companion events to the Cup Series. The series had it’s own identity, racing primarily on short tracks at places like Orange County Speedway, South Boston, Myrtle Beach and Lanier, Georgia. I learned to admire drivers like Bobby Labonte, Kenny Wallace, Johnny Benson, David Green, Randy Lajoie, and Jason Keller who were actually able to use the Busch Series as the “developmental series” before making the leap to the Winston Cup Series.
Sure, back in the early 90s there were a few Cup drivers who drove in selected Busch events at the companion races like Daytona or Charlotte so they could get a little extra practice on the track. During the mid-90s, a friend of mine, Craig Witkowski coined the phrase “Buschwhackers” to describe drivers like Mark Martin who would cherrypick 10 or so races a year in the Busch Series. Thankfully though after the first 3-4 races, the Buschwhackers would no longer be a factor in the championship battle. Those of us who liked to see the developing drivers or veterans who actually made a career in the Busch Series could relax and know that the year-long championship would be earned by a Busch “regular.” I enjoyed this battle so much that I travelled to North Carolina for the final, Championship determining, races of the Busch season in 1992, 1993, and 1994 (the first two at Hickory Motor Speedway and the last at Rockingham). I was able to see Joe Nemechek beat out Bobby Labonte in 1992, Steve Grissom beat David Green in 1993 and finally see Green gets his Busch championship in 1994.
Unfortunately in 1995, NASCAR in it’s infinite wisdom chose to move the Busch finale to the recently built Homestead Speedway in Florida. Needless to say, I had no interest in traveling that far for a season finale on a boring 1 ½ mile track. Perhaps this was the beginning of the end for the Busch Series and it's ability to have it’s own identity.
Over the next 10 years, little by little NASCAR began abandoning so many of the great short tracks, like Hickory, that had made the series since it’s inception in 1982. More and more, Busch races became companion events to the Cup series on larger tracks, where those drivers with Cup backing could easily cherrypick every week. But still the series was somehow able to still crown their champion from the Busch regulars – at least up until 2001 when Kevin Harvick was the first driver to do “double duty” in both series. Now I’ll give Harvick a pass since he was supposed to run a full Busch season that year and was unexpectedly pushed into the Cup series due to the untimely death of Dale Earnhardt. I actually was rooting for him to win the Busch championship while struggling to participate in both series full-time.
Then from 2002-2005, we again had young drivers who were truly Busch regulars win the Busch championship (Biffle, Vickers, and Truex, Jr.). Despite the fact that each of these drivers had the superior equipment of the Cup megateams of Roush, Hendrick and DEI, the drivers were truly rookies in the Busch series and weren’t simply Cup drivers moonlighting.
Unfortunately in 2006 things changed dramatically. Apparently, Harvick decided he needed more practice to help his Cup efforts on Sunday and so decided to run a full Busch schedule, ultimately using his Cup experience and crew and equipment from Richard Childress Racing to win the championship. Since that time, things have never been the same for the Busch series. Every year since that time, the standings and championship race have been dominated by Buschwhackers. Drivers who actually wanted to use the junior series as training ground to get experience, win some races and maybe a championship were doomed to failure. In the past 3 years we’ve seen almost all of the standalone Busch teams disappear from the racing landscape. Mostly because they can’t afford to compete with the money and other resources being brought by teams like Roush and Childress. Sponsors would much rather put their money into a proven entity like a Cup driver with Cup resources, who are likely to win every time they step into the car. Little by little the opportunities for drivers to make the jump from other series into the Busch and Cup series were dwindling. And even TV was adding to the problem.
Beginning in 2006, the TV networks pretty much stopped using the term “Buschwhackers” since there were so many Cup drivers in the field every week. Apparently they found it much more politically correct to call them “double-duty” drivers and the Busch regulars now became “Busch-only” drivers. When ESPN gained the exclusive rights to broadcast all the Busch races beginning in 2007, they claimed they wanted to carve out an identity for the series. In reality, the people in charge at that network seemed to only be interested in promoting the Cup drivers running on Saturday instead. It seemed to me that since ESPN could not afford to buy rights to the entire Cup season, they chose instead to try and blur the differences between the Saturday and Sunday races to attract more viewers on Saturday. ESPN seems to focus primarily on the Cup drivers and Cup-affiliated teams during all their broadcasts. As much of a diehard fan of racing as I am, I’ve found myself losing more and interest in watching the Saturday races. I guess ESPN feels if they promote the “stars”, they’ll be able to replace viewers like me with new “fans” of the sport.
So fast-forward back to 2008 and the entry of Nationwide Insurance as the sponsor to replace Busch Beer. Again, all the lip-service from NASCAR, ESPN and the other media was about how this was an opportunity for the second-tier division to carve out their own niche, their own identity. Unfortunately, 4-5 Cup drivers again chose to run the entire series and contend for the championship.
In fact, here are the number of 2008 Nationwide races run by Cup drivers from the top Cup organizations: Bowyer, 35; Edwards, 35; Ragan, 35; Kyle Busch, 30; Reutimann, 35; Harvick, 22; Hamlin, 19; Biffle, 15; J. Burton, 13; Vickers, 12; Stewart, 9; McMurray, 11; Kahne, 10; Earnhardt, Jr., 9; Kenseth, 7. Is it any wonder the standalone Nationwide drivers didn’t stand a chance? These drivers will always be Buschwhackers to me, regardless of how much TV wants the fans to drop that term. Don’t get me wrong, I really like drivers like Edwards, Bowyer, Kenseth, and Biflle. They’re among my favorite drivers – on Sunday. I don’t need to see them on Saturday as well to be able to enjoy a race. In fact, I always think less of them when they run on Saturday. Especially when I know that so many other good drivers are denied the win or even a ride in a Nationwide car because a sponsor would rather put their money into a bargain-basement version of a Cup race. I especially think less of sponsors who would rather pay to sponsor a Cup driver like Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr, or Matt Kenseth in a few Saturday races than to put that money into sponsoring a standalone team or developing driver.
And don’t get me started on ESPN! Not only do they continue to focus primarily on Cup drivers during the Nationwide broadcasts, but they actually have merged the statistics of drivers of the Cup and Nationwide Series! Do they really think fans or potential fans are that stupid? Do they think having their broadcast crew make token picks of “dark horses” among the standalone drivers is fooling anyone? It’s just absurd to pick drivers every week who have no chance of winning or even competing fairly against teams with Cup funding? Things like this have only served to drive me away from more of the ESPN broadcasts on Saturday. I don’t need to see a dress rehearsal for Sunday’s race, with a field of half or more Cup drivers almost every week.
I applaud long-time veteran drivers like Kenny Wallace and Mike Bliss for actually standing up this season and pointing out the disparities between the assets that drivers like Edwards and Bowyer brought from their Cup teams every week. Bliss pointed out that there is no way a Nationwide “regular” team can compete against Cup pit crews from Roush, Childress, or Hendick. Wallace pointed out how much stronger the talent would be if young drivers like Joey Logano actually were required to run a couple of full seasons in Nationwide instead of jumping into Cup at the age of 18. Fans of racing know how true these statements are and how NASCAR, the sponsors and media are trying to sweep these facts under the carpet.
I understand there are some fans who just can’t get enough of seeing their favorite drivers in a race, regardless of whether their efforts on Saturday are equivalent to a high-schooler beating up on a third-grader (a phrase coined by another friend of mine, Jerry Kite, many years ago). But I think the majority of true race fans (not just fans of a single driver) want to see real competition among similarity funded teams and drivers with similar levels of experience. They want to see the veterans, the young-guns and aspiring rookies have an equal chance of winning every week. Unfortunately, we don’t see this anymore on Saturdays and it looks like we won’t in the near future. And that’s a damn shame! Where would the likes of Bobby Labonte or Jeff Gordon be if a car owner or sponsor hadn’t taken a chance on them 15 years ago in the Busch Series? Like myself, a few fans actually do fear that the future of stock racing is at serious risk. I mean, where exactly are the stars of the future suppose to come from if local short track races have no way to jump from late models to the Nationwide Series? Does ESPN and NASCAR really believe they can fill future rides with young drivers whose fathers have more money than the sons do talent? Or do they believe that future Cup rides can be filled by open wheel drivers, who want to jump to stock cars to make more money. We saw how well that worked for Dario Franchitti and Patrick Carpentier.
So back to my thoughts when watching the final 2008 Nationwide race at Homestead. I kept thinking of how much more exciting that race (and the entire season) would’ve been to watch Bobby Hamilton Jr., Jason Leffler, Brad Keselowski, and Marcos Ambrose fighting it out for the win and the championship. Rather than a watered down championship between Buschwhackers Bowyer and Edwards. I mean, as much as I like those drivers, how proud can they really be of themselves excelling on Saturday in such an actual small field of competitors – teams who can actually compete for the win every week?
NASCAR and the media will claim that if we didn’t have the Buschwhackers in the field on Saturday, we wouldn’t have a full field or there would be too many “start and park” cars. Being a fan of all stock-car racing, not simply the glorified NASCAR, I beg to differ. Over the last month, I’ve been making a list of drivers who we ought to be seeing in full-time efforts in the Nationwide Series. I’ve categoried them below as “Young Guns” those who have won before in Busch/Nationwide and/or have run competitively for several years. “Veterans” are guys who have won races in the past or championships and still have the fire to win and the experience, but simply may not be in equipment that can compete with the Cup-funded teams. “Rookies” are drivers who have shown potential in other series and given the right equipment and a couple of years of experience in a level-playing field could be the future of the Nationwide Series. The last category I’ve called “Never Got a Fair Chance or Never Will” which contains drivers who have won races and championships, or consistently contended in other touring stock car series, such as USAR, ARCA, Camping World East and West and the old ASA.
If you add up these drivers, you’d have more than a full-field every Saturday in the Nationwide Series (approximately 56 possible drivers). Instead of the R&D, pit crew, and experience level of Cup drivers making for a boring “Cup-lite” race, you’d have what I consider a more exciting race with the chance of almost anybody winning every week, rather than just the same 5 Cup teams. Just imagine what “might have been” in Nationwide in 2008? Imagine drivers like Bobby Hamilton, Jr., Jason Leffler, Brad Keselowski, and Marcos Ambrose battling for the win every week, instead of 20th place position! With 56 experienced and talented stock car drivers in competitive cars, we’d actually be sending a dozen cars home every week. Now that would make Nationwide qualifying actually worth watching, instead the mockery it is right now.
During the time I was finalizing this article, Nationwide has announced a promotion for the 2009 season. When I first heard the announcement, I thought they were actually doing something to help the Nationwide regulars, but the more details that have come out, it's clear that's not true. I'm talking about the additional bonus that Nationwide is putting up for drivers who win at four of the actual standalone races on the 2009 schedule: The Dash for the Cash Program. This program states that if any of the eligible drivers win the Nationwide races at Nashville, Kentucky, Iowa or Memphis, they will collect a $25,000 bonus. The eligible driver with the most points from those four events will receive another $50,000." Unfortunately, the "eligible drivers" still includes any Sprint Cup driver who choose to run the entire Nationwide schedule. Right now, this includes Edwards, Bowyer, and Kyle Busch. So while this program might sound like an opportunity for the Nationwide standalone teams on the surface, it's actually just a token gesture to make it look like the series sponsor is trying to help the smaller teams. In reality, the resources and experience brought by the three Cup teams will still probably win out. And that's really sad. Why Nationwide wouldn't choose to open this bonus program to just the standalone teams, without Cup affiliation is beyond me. I mean, what are the odds that Edwards, Busch and Bowyer won't be up front battling for the win at these tracks? I also read in the Scene Daily that Memphis Motorsports Park made some ridiculous offer of "a lifetime of Memphis ribs" if Dale Earnhardt, Jr. shows up for the Nationwide race there this year. Obviously the tracks seem to think they need the Cup stars in their races to attract fans. Based on how competitive the short track races at Memphis always are, I'm sure the fans would show up even without Cup drivers running. Will we ever really know? It seems clear the sanctioning body, the tracks and even the series sponsor won't take a chance of letting the Nationwide series actually be a developmental series for young drivers or a place where veteran drivers like David Green and Jason Keller actually have a chance to win races.
Yes, I’m a curmudgeon, a “purist”, or simply a dreamer that the kind of racing I learned to love in the Busch Series 15 years ago could ever actually exist again in the Nationwide Series. But if NASCAR really wants to “grow” the series (a term I can’t stand), they would consider getting rid of so many companion events and go back to the short tracks they abandoned in the last 10 years. Of course then ISC and SMI couldn’t force those weekend ticket packages on fans. And we all know it’s really all about money for both those corporations and their stockholders these days. Same thing for Nationwide and ESPN. I know these companies are in it to make money, but isn’t it just possible that they could make money and provide a more enjoyable experience for the fans at the track, the viewers at home and the actual competitors? Wouldn't you rather see all 43 drivers knowing they have a shot at the win and the championship, rather than just feeling lucky if they manage a top 15th or 20th behind all the Cup funded teams? Or feeling lucky to finish in the top 10 in points, but 900 points behind the Cup drivers who ran the entire season with better equipment, Cup pit crews and more experience? I know I’d be more likely to support a sponsor of the series and the teams if they put their money behind actual Nationwide drivers. But in today’s mindset by all these people, I guess I’ll be stuck with imagining what the Nationwide Series in 2009 might have been just like I was with the 2008 season.
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