by Ryan Isley
The first step in fixing a problem is admitting that you have one in the first place. That is something NASCAR is not very good at doing, but they need to start.
No, the problem isn’t that Aric Almirola won the rain-shortened Firecracker 400 to throw a wrench into the Chase for the Sprint Cup Series. It has nothing to do with the newly formed Race Car Alliance. This time, it doesn’t even pertain to their attendance and falling television viewership. Nope, this time the issue is how NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers are taking over and dominating in the lower divisions.
This was not a problem prior to 2011, because all drivers were eligible to compete for the driver’s championship on multiple levels if they chose to do so. However, NASCAR made a change prior to the 2011 season that stated drivers must declare before the season which of NASCAR’s three – Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series or Camping World Truck Series championship they would be competing to win.
In 2013, there were six drivers who were regulars in the Sprint Cup Series who ran at least 10 of the 33 races in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Kyle Busch ran 26 races, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth in 16 each, Joey Logano in 15 and Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne each raced in 11. Those six drivers combined to win 25 of the 33 races, with Busch leading the way by visiting victory lane 12 times and Keselowski racing to seven wins. They also combined to finish in the top-5 57 times and had 75 top-10 finishes.
Of the 33 races in the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule, only four were won by drivers who were actually competing for the series championship. Regan Smith won two, while Sam Hornish, Jr. and Trevor Bayne each won one. The series champion – Austin Dillon – didn’t see victory lane once.
In 2014, there have been 13 of the 16 races where multiple Sprint Cup Series drivers have been entered in the Nationwide Series race. Sprint Cup drivers have won 10 of those races, and have 46 top-5s. That is 46 of a possible 65 spots in the top-5, or 71%. Sprint Cup Series drivers have taken at least three of the top-5 spots in 11 of those 13 races and have swept the first three spots six times.
That isn’t to mention that Kyle Busch has raced in five of the eight Camping World Truck Series races this season – and won them all. This was after winning five of the 11 he entered last season.
While these drivers are not eligible to win the driver championship in the Nationwide Series or Camping World Truck Series once they declare their intentions to run for the Sprint Cup Series title, teams have Sprint Cup Series drivers race in other series in order to give them a shot at the owner’s championship. This worked last season, when the Penske Racing team of the No.22 car that was driven 15 times by Logano won the championship. In no surprise, the No.54 of Gibbs Racing being driven by Busch is leading the owner’s championship for this season so far. That same car finished second last season to the No.42. In fact, the top three in the 2014 standings are all driven by Sprint Cup Series regulars, as the No.22 of Penske is second and the No.42 of Turner Scott Motorsports is third. The No.42 has been driven by Kyle Larson 14 times.
This is insanity. Seeing as how the Nationwide Series is supposed to be a sort of a minor league for drivers trying to make their way to the big league (the Sprint Cup Series), there is no way NASCAR can continue to allow the drivers from their premier series to drop down and race in the lower-tier series on a regular basis. This would be like the Pittsburgh Penguins sending Sidney Crosby to Wilkes Barre/Scranton to help win the AHL championship. It would be like the Los Angeles Dodgers sending Clayton Kershaw to the Albuquerque Isotopes to try to deliver a PCL title. It would be like the Oklahoma City Thunder sending Kevin Durant to the Sioux City 66ers to bring home a NDBL championship.
Just like in those instances, NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers taking spots in the lower series takes away an opportunity for a younger driver who is trying to make his name in the sport. But instead of a driver who could step into those cars and get some experience and possibly catch someone’s eye for a bigger opportunity, the big boys of NASCAR continue to drift down to the Nationwide Series – and to a lesser extent, the Camping World Truck Series – and take away those chances.
The series has a commercial running on ESPN – the flagship home of the Nationwide Series races – that states “names are made here.” Well sure, names might be made in the series if you can make your way through the likes of Busch, Logano, Keselowski, Harvick and others.
There are only 17 drivers who are eligible to win the Nationwide Series championship who have participated in all 16 races this season. Sure, there are young drivers like Chase Elliott, Ty Dillon, Dylan Kwasniewski and Joey Gase who have been afforded the opportunity to run in all 16 and are making a name for themselves. But there are also plenty of guys who are getting just a taste of the series while either running in the Camping World Truck Series or one of the lesser circuits.
There just aren’t enough full-time rides in the series because the owners are so invested in winning the owner’s championship rather than developing the young talent. Obviously, this makes sense for the owners, as they are the ones putting the money into the teams and want to see as immediate of a return on their investment as possible. It just seems to put some drivers on the outside looking in as they try to advance their careers. Even if teams aren’t willing to commit to one driver for the entire season in a full-time ride, it would be better for the series if that ride was split up between multiple drivers who were trying to get experience instead of guys who are Sprint Cup Series championship contenders.
Another issue that presents itself when the Sprint Cup Series drivers race so many races (and finish as well as they do) in the Nationwide Series is that it compromises the race for the driver’s championship. Among the drivers who are racing for the championship, there are only five drivers who have multiple top-5 finishes in the first 16 races. Regan Smith (the current leader) has four, Elliott Sadler has five, Chase Elliott has seven, Brian Scott has three and Trevor Bane has two. In contrast, there are seven Sprint Cup regulars who have multiple top-5 finishes in the Nationwide Series this season. Kyle Busch has 12, Kyle Larson has eight, Harvick has seven, Kenseth has four, Logano and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have three each and Paul Menard has two. That is 39 top-5 finishes between those seven drivers that are not being earned by Nationwide Series drivers and therefore are points that are not being awarded to those drivers vying for the championship. For each spot that the drivers like Harvick, Busch, Kenseth, Logano and others take away from a Nationwide Series driver, they are impacting the championship.
As the points stand right now, the top three drivers are separated by just 15 points as Regan Smith (577 points) leads Elliott Sadler by 12 points and Chase Elliott by 15. In 2013, Austin Dillon won the Nationwide Series title was by just three points over Sam Hornish, Jr. It isn’t just about the championship, either. In 2012, Dillon lost out on second place in the series by one point to Elliott Sadler. Three points and one point were the difference between a championship one season and a second place finish the next season. Now imagine how different the standings might have shaken out had there not been so many results changed by the addition of Sprint Cup Series drivers.
There has to be something that NASCAR can do to fix this problem, and I believe it is to set limits on how many races the Sprint Cup Series drivers can race in either the Nationwide Series or the Camping World Truck Series. Instead of just allowing teams to use these drivers whenever they want, each driver should be given a maximum of 10 races they can race in each series, with no more than five of those races coming in one series. That way, they can run five in the Nationwide Series and five in the Camping World Truck Series.
This seems like a compromise that can help each side. The owners can still use the Sprint Cup drivers to an extent to give themselves a shot at the owner’s championship, while younger drivers on the rise just might find a few more opportunities to prove what they can do. This decision might not be met with a happy reaction from the likes of Busch, Logano, Keselowski, Harvick, Kahne and Kenseth, but it would be for the better of the sport.
One of the arguments will be that fans want to see their favorite drivers (read: Sprint Cup Series drivers) as much as possible, even if that includes in Nationwide Series races and that attendance and/or viewership will be down without those drivers. This might be true for some fans, but if there is good racing to be seen, people will watch it. The best racing will be when drivers who are supposed to be on the same level are driving against each other. You will always get those occasions like when Chase Elliot holds off the likes of Busch, Larson, Harvick, Earnhardt, Jr. and Kenseth as the 18-year-old did in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway earlier this season for his first career win. But the majority of the time, you are going to see the best of the best outduel those without as much experience, as evidenced by Sprint Cup Series drivers winning 29 of the 33 races in the Nationwide Series last season and 10 of the 16 so far this season.
Make it fair for those who are not only trying to make a name for themselves, but also trying to win a championship. Limit the amount of time that the Sprint Cup Series drivers can spend beating up on the little guy and let the little guy have his time in the spotlight.
But as usual, NASCAR has so far stayed the course and will allow the Sprint Cup Series drivers race in the Nationwide Series. I just hope it doesn’t cost somebody a championship.