Two young Nationwide Series drivers who have the potential to be future NASCAR stars were in the news this weekend for the wrong reasons.
In the past, we'd hear names like Justin Allgaier and Trevor Bayne associated with terms such as "Long-term contract" and "franchise driver."
Now, it's "looking for a ride" and "lack of sponsorship."
If Allgaier and Bayne – two of the few promising regulars in the Nationwide Series right now – can't find rides for next season, they'll follow the same path taken by other emerging talents such as Landon Cassill, Kelly Bires, Josh Wise and a list of others so long we can't name them all here.
It's a path that winds through the garage with no full-time ride, a path that turns the drivers of the future into journeymen willing to accept whatever seat time they can get.
That's not news though, at least in the Nationwide Series. The situation has been like this for several years now.
Teams in NASCAR's second-tier series are so desperate for money, it's become like the IndyCar Series: Aside from the very top teams, if you don't bring money, you don't have a ride.
As of now, the Sprint Cup Series has been largely spared by this trend. With the exception of a few drivers who have rides due to financial backing, the Cup Series consists of the 43 most talented stock car drivers in the world.
It's about talent, not money: Who can win races in my car?
That's significant, because all the feeder systems and the young age at which drivers now begin their careers mean that NASCAR can claim the Sprint Cup Series is the deepest and most talented it's ever been.
NASCAR didn't have this many good drivers in the ‘70s or ‘80s or even the ‘90s. This era has seen some of the most talented drivers in history go head-to-head.
And the fans, media, sponsors – everyone – has been better off for it.
But looking at the Nationwide Series, it's become obvious that change is on the way to Sprint Cup sooner than we'd all like to believe.
Bayne, with another year of full-time development in Nationwide, could be ready for Sprint Cup stardom. He's not only extremely talented, but marketable. By every measurement, he should be a future NASCAR star.
Right now, though, he doesn't even have a guaranteed ride for next week – let alone next year.
Allgaier drives for one of NASCAR's powerhouse teams and has already shown his marketability by appearing in commercials and winning a Nationwide race this season. He's professional, well-spoken and seemed destined to drive at the Cup level.
Right now, though, his future is unclear.
With the exception of Roush Fenway Racing taking a chance on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Colin Braun (a rarity these days), the only way to get a Nationwide ride in the current environment is to bring sponsor money.
There are two ways to do that: 1) Have a family member who either owns the team or owns a company that can provide the money or 2) Know someone who wants to throw their financial support behind your racing career.
The people without that luxury are reduced to either the occasional ride here and there – practically begging companies to support their racing efforts so they can get some seat time – or giving up.
The latter has become a more attractive choice than ever.
As one promising Nationwide driver told me this weekend, "I've been asking myself, ‘Why the heck did I even get into this?'"
In the search for a Nationwide Series ride, talent gets you nowhere. Money gets you everywhere.
Have money? You could find yourself driving for practically any team in the garage, regardless of talent (some have the necessary skills, some don't).
Don't have money? You might be able to drive, but you're just like everyone else, kid.
It's no longer about putting together solid performances and hoping some team owner will notice. It's about putting together business proposals and convincing companies to try business-to-business relationships in order to put sponsorship on the car.
Even if a driver were to drop down a level to the ARCA Series and win every race, Nationwide owners would still say, "We'd love you to drive for us, how much money have you got?"
Eventually, that's going to hit the Cup Series. When it happens, it'll happen quickly.
Teams hungry for money to keep them afloat will look for the Paul Menards of the world. It won't be the most deserving drivers in a seat; it'll be the richest ones.
How could this be avoided? It's probably a moot point now, but NASCAR should have acted long ago to ban Cup drivers from the Nationwide Series.
Unfortunately, sponsor and track interests have always prevented this. Even now, as NASCAR discusses a special Chase just for Nationwide regulars to prevent a Cup driver from winning the title, there's no talk of banning Cup drivers from the series.
Nationwide likes Cup drivers in the series. The tracks want Cup guys for attendance. Team sponsors want Cup guys in their cars. But it's always been a short-sighted move; now more than ever.
Drivers like Bayne and Allgaier could have won four or five races each this season, becoming familiar faces to viewers as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. once did in the Busch Series.
Without Cup drivers, the Nationwide Series could offer a tremendously entertaining alternative to the Cup Series, with fresh faces and young talent fighting it out to see who will become the next NASCAR stars.
Instead, it's been a Sprint Cup playground as big names who don't need the exposure collect money so they can fuel their private jets.
The score through 28 races in the Nationwide Series this season: Sprint Cup drivers 26, Nationwide drivers 1, ESPN analysts (Boris Said) 1.
It's embarrassing, really. NASCAR and Nationwide aren't doing enough about it – even with a revision to the points system, which is putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.
And in the coming weeks and months, as teams with no sponsorship in place for next season run out of money, it's only going to get worse.
Those in the Sprint Cup Series should be hearing the alarm bells: Do we really want the next wave of drivers to reach the top level of the sport based on money instead of talent? If not, some strong leaders within the sport need to spring into action.
In the Nationwide Series, it's already too late.