Sam Ard. Jack Ingram. Tommy Ellis. Butch Lindley. L.D. Ottinger. Bob Pressley. Tommy Houston.
All star names that were synonymous with the NASCAR Sportsman Series.
Kyle Busch. Kevin Harvick. Carl Edwards. Clint Bowyer. Joey Logano.
All star names that have found plenty of success and have dominated the headlines and Victory Lanes in recent Nationwide Series seasons. But none are synonymous with the Nationwide Series.
Therein lies the problem I have with the second-tier tour, a lack of its own identity.
The new Car of Tomorrow chassis and body that is debuting for four races in 2010 and will be implemented across the board in 2011 is a good start. They are identifiable cars not just to autos on the street but to their particular tour. Before new safer chassis were used, Cup and Nationwide cars were hard to distinguish without a decal package applied.
“Cup Light’ is a derogatory term used to describe the Nationwide Series’ dominance by Cup Series drivers and teams, mostly the teams. Nationwide-only drivers actually relish the thought of going door-to door with a Cup interloper. Younger drivers looking to learn and advance their careers can gain valuable skills following the top-level wheelmen. A veteran driver can prove a point by showing the world he still ‘has it.’ The actual team disparity that causes the friction.
Cup teams fielding a Nationwide entry are light years ahead of the groups that are solely dedicated to the junior series. It is like David and Goliath. Except someone took away David’s slingshot and tied his hands together. But hey, good luck anyway.
When the group of distinguished and talented gentlemen that I listed at the start of this story were the defining and dominant force in Sportsman racing, this very same debate raged then too.
The difference was the amount of Grand National drivers in each field and where the team was prepared. Cup drivers offered a spicy mix to the Saturday race. It wasn’t an overpowering dominance of the field. And many drivers simply had a series ride. Or fielded their own team out of their own pocket.
The NASCAR Late Model Sportsman of 1978 that has morphed into the Nationwide Series in 2010 has evolved over time to get here now.
Today’s Saturday ticket offers a cheaper price for much of the Sunday talent. This is appealing to some fans. That very same reason keeps others away. When the top ten names are identical to the Sunday action too, some feel it is pointless to watch the same race twice.
Track operators insist that well-known NASCAR names are required to sell tickets. Broadcast outlets feel the same way in regards to ratings.
So how do you police this? What do we do? Allow so many starts by so-and-so each season? Limit the championship points system to Nationwide-only teams?
Well the team ownership shell game is difficult for NASCAR to police. I present the Petty Enterprises/Evernham Motorsports/Petty-Gillette Racing/Robert Yates Racing/Yates Racing/Roush Racing/Richard Petty Motorsports merger as exhibit A. Anybody can be a team owner with some clever paperwork. So prohibiting a Cup team owner from owning a Nationwide team is impossible to enforce. Drivers are easily identifiable and easier to manage.
Here is my proposal: NASCAR draws a hard line in the sand and makes drivers pick ONE series. And only one.
The initial seasons may be tough on crowds and ratings in some areas. The entire industry would have to pitch in and be dedicated to restructure the Nationwide Series.
Given time, with 122 different drivers competing over a three-race weekend, new stars would arise. The Gene Glovers and Charlie Lucks of today would emerge and make a home for themselves. Fans would buy tickets and watch on Saturday to see a whole field of independent heroes from Sunday. Drivers would not be stopping by in some ‘development deal’ for just a season or two. The new stars would claim Saturday’s 200 milers for their own to conquer and prosper.
Nationwide is not a development series. It can be used as a development series. But let’s not define it as one.
Somehow, someway college football, baseball, and basketball not only survive but also thrive on their own merits. No NFL, MLB, or NBA stars need apply. Heck, they can’t. NASCAR are you listening?
Let’s stop the Nationwide Series from being a stepping stone. And make it a destination.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR team mechanic who hosts "Motorweek Live" Thursdays at 9pm ET. Listen at www.racersreunionradio.com)
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