Steve Michalik: What's The 'Right Way' To Advance Through NASCAR Ranks?

The following is a commentary from Steve Michalik of Beaver, Pa.:

On Dec. 13, former F1 driver Nelson Piquet Jr. announced he would be coming to NASCAR on a full-time basis, running behind the wheel of a Kevin Harvick Inc. truck in the Camping World Truck Series.

Like many before him, he will attempt to make the jump from open wheel to stock car racing. Unlike many of his recent predecessors, his transition follows the more traditional path of entering NASCAR through one of the lower national touring series rather than making the jump straight to Nationwide or Cup.

This decision prompted the following Tweet from SB Nation's Jeff Gluck:

"Piquet probably could have gone and brought money to some Nwide team (or maybe even Cup), but he wants to do it the right way. Bravo."

Many NASCAR fans, including myself, thought something similar upon hearing the news. That led me to wonder why many consider entering NASCAR through a lower series as the "right way" to do it.

Is it because it triggers our sense of having to pay our dues before achieving success? Perhaps it is due to this method being the traditional path for those wanting to drive in the Cup series. Maybe it feels like the "right way" because for drivers, NASCAR, sponsors and fans, it is the best way for a driver to come into the sport.

Currently, in order to compete in NASCAR, a driver must apply to and be licensed by an approval committee. The decision is supposed to be based on the driver's on-track record, but in many cases, the amount of money a driver can bring to the sport seems to trump their accomplishments – or lack thereof – behind the wheel.

I propose that the NASCAR licensing policies should be based on experience and a minimum standard of performance in NASCAR-sanctioned stock cars. Any driver, no matter how impressive their resume, should be required to begin their national touring experience in the Truck series. Drivers should have to achieve a certain amount of seat time and a certain level of success in that series before being considered for the Nationwide series.

Once graduating to the Nationwide series, similar criteria would apply before the driver could be considered for a Cup license. For example, if Piquet Jr. finishes over 75 percent of the Truck races in 2011 and has a finishing average better than 20th, he can then be licensed for the Nationwide series in 2012. If he does not meet either one of these criteria, he must remain in the Truck series until he can achieve the requirement in a given season.

This merit/experience-based criteria would have a positive effect for the drivers, as they would be allowed to gain experience without getting in over their heads. Could Sam Hornish have avoided his growing pains and kept a full-time sponsor with two seasons of experience in the lower series? Would Scott Speed have been closer in performance to Juan Pablo Montoya if he had more time to develop before entering Cup?

This process would benefit the struggling lower series of NASCAR as the Truck and Nationwide garages would contain promising young drivers and popular drivers from other racing series that could not simply jump into a Cup ride. If large teams cannot take their groomed drivers and place them straight into a Nationwide or Cup car, they will have to invest time, effort and money in the lower series. The Truck series, for example, would benefit from an influx in money and technology from the likes of Hendrick, Childress, and Gibbs.

Finally, the Cup series would benefit from this process. Every driver behind the wheel would have been seasoned in the lower series. They would have displayed the talent required to compete at the highest level, and the competition at the Cup level wouldn't be watered down by a driver that only qualified to be in Cup because of a built-in sponsor.

This concept is not unprecedented in sports. This would be similar to the practice of requiring players to be 2.5 years removed from high school before they can be eligible for the NFL draft.

I can foresee two major objections. First, in some cases NASCAR would take someone with amazing talent and hold them back for two years in the lower series. This may discourage some talented drivers from making the move to NASCAR.

Second, there are financial issues that will likely stop this plan from ever becoming reality. A sponsor like Go Daddy isn't going to get excited about sponsoring Danica Patrick in the Truck series, which airs to a limited audience on Speed. Nationwide races on ESPN have a much wider audience, and I get the feeling that if the sponsors had their way, Danica would have been in a Cup ride in 2010.

Still, by requiring talented drivers to first participate in the lower series, the overall talent level, prestige and value for sponsors of those series would be improved.

So how about it, NASCAR? You would have a better development system for the drivers, better racing for your fans, a financial shot in the arm for your struggling lower series, greater exposure for sponsors in lower series and drivers entering Cup that are qualified to compete at the highest level.

That looks like a winning situation for everyone.

Steve Michalik / Beaver, Pa.

On Twitter: @stevemichalik

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