NASCAR’s Nationwide Series needs transformation

Robert Laberge

The sight of a Sprint Cup driver winning a Nationwide Series race has become all too common and it’s time for something to be done.

It's not new nor is it profound, but it is obvious there are ills afflicting NASCAR's Nationwide Series.

As Brad Keselowski raced under the checkered flag in Saturday's race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he was the just the latest in an ever-growing line of Sprint Cup regulars who have besieged NASCAR's No. 2 division and made it their own personal playground.

Using 2011 as a barometer -- the year when drivers were required to declare which national series they receive points in -- Nationwide regulars have won just 28 of 103 races.

"People don't like it (because they think) I'm stealing candy from a baby. But until the rules are changed or everybody else grows up and can beat me, then we're racing."-Kyle Busch on his Nationwide Series dominance

It's the continuation of a problem that has long inundated the Nationwide Series since its inception in 1982, when it was known as the Budweiser Late Model Sportsman Series. The series' very first race, the Goody's 300 at Daytona, was won by none other than Dale Earnhardt, just two years removed from winning his first of seven Cup championships.

Although there have always been Cup drivers cherry-picking in Nationwide, NASCAR's second division has deviated greatly from its original premise. When conceptualized, the Nationwide Series was an outlet where young drivers could learn the nuances of competing in an upper-echelon national series, while also a place where older drivers who didn't make it in Cup could race and earn a living.

Both these principles still apply today, though just in a lesser state. Elliott Sadler and Regan Smith represent the old guard -- veterans who washed out of Cup yet have found success in Nationwide and prolonged their careers.

And all one has to do is glance at this year's Cup rookie class to see the importance the Nationwide Series still holds in developing the sport's next crop of stars, with Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson, Justin Allgaier, Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt among those who spent time in Nationwide honing their craft.

But what has dramatically altered the Nationwide Series is the number of Cup organizations now participating. Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, Richard Childress Racing, Hendrick Motorsports (JR Motorsports) and Roush Fenway Racing all field multiple entries with the exception of Penske, which downsized to one car this year to be shared among Cup drivers Keselowski and Joey Logano, along with up-and-comer Ryan Blaney.

As the sport's preeminent organizations have moved in, the cost of competing has gone up considerably. This, combined with an economic downturn which has made finding sponsorship difficult, has pushed aside numerous smaller teams that competed exclusively in Nationwide. Gone are outfits such as ppc Racing and BACE Motorsports, all of whom were formidable enough to hold their own against Cup interlopers and win championships.

The emphasis now for sponsors is to align with a high-dollar team and a prominent Cup driver.

"It's important to be able to have the Cup guys in our series," JR Motorsports co-owner Kelley Earnhardt Miller said last month at Daytona. "I think the young guys that are in the series like to be able to race against talent like Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and Kevin (Harvick) and those guys.

"We'll just have to find the balance for what makes it work. But it's definitely part of our program and part of the leverage we use from a sponsorship standpoint."

Earnhardt, Harvick and Kyle Busch either do or have in recent years owned their own Nationwide teams and have used them to promote younger drivers. However, instead of running a car full-time for a young talent, sponsors in each instance mandated that the trio of Cup stars partake in a certain number of races.

It's a model that while effective, has also drawn much criticism as it presents a Catch-22 of sorts.

Teams need sponsorship to run, and those companies are hesitant to be aligned with an unproven driver where the results are often varied. Hence, they push for a Cup driver where the chance of success is higher, which makes it all the more difficult for a driver to gain necessary experience and be more attractive to a potential sponsor.

Of the myriad solutions proposed, the best to combat the trend of Cup drivers moonlighting is limiting the number of Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series starts they could make in a given year.

In theory, the rationale of implementing a cap would increase opportunities for young drivers to compete and build their résumés. Ideally, the limit would be right around 10-15 races, which still allows track operators to sell Nationwide tickets with the allure of seeing Busch, Harvick, Keselowski or Kenseth race on Saturday for a fraction of what it costs to attend a Cup event.

Although fraught with other challenges, this makes the most sense.

"We're definitely aware of the fan messaging we get," NASCAR's senior vice president of racing operations Steve O'Donnell told the Associated Press. "There's a balance, especially talking to the tracks, of having a Cup driver or two in the Trucks or Nationwide. ... We have had discussions with the race teams about ownership and should Cup drivers get points and we've looked at should they be limited in the number of races."

Another suggestion of merit is scheduling more standalone Nationwide races. With the logistics of having to fly back and forth between races, the thinking is that many drivers would opt out because of the inconvenience and hassle. In the series' infancy, the majority of races were held separate from Cup circuit, whereas currently there are just six Nationwide-exclusive weekends.

Then again, this might not be the proper deterrent as Brad Keselowski had no difficulty winning the Nationwide race at Iowa Speedway last August before jetting off to compete in the following day's Cup race at Pocono Raceway. And there is also the challenge of finding enough suitable and willing tracks capable of hosting standalone events for the No. 2 motor sports series in North America.

"People don't like it (because they think) I'm stealing candy from a baby," said Busch, who has 58 Nationwide wins since moving to Cup full-time in 2005. "But until the rules are changed or everybody else grows up and can beat me, then we're racing."

Further illustrating that while the issues plaguing the Nationwide Series are obvious for all to see, the solutions are far less apparent.

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