NASCAR: Do The Lower Divisions Need Cup Ringers?

Jul 5, 2013; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Matt Kenseth (18) leads during the Subway Firecracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Jul 5, 2013; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Matt Kenseth (18) leads during the Subway Firecracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

With Kyle Busch taking yet another victory in a lower-division NASCAR race – in this case, the Daytona Truck race – it seems NASCAR has finally decided that enough is enough. Rumors abound that new rules will come into place restricting the amount of races full-time Cup drivers can compete in lower divisions. And after a Nationwide season in which 26 of the 33 races were won by Cup regulars, this surely can’t come soon enough.

So let’s tackle this issue head-on. And I can hear your counter-arguments already. The big one that always looms on the horizon whenever anyone criticizes Cup ringers.

That the Nationwide and Truck series ‘needs’ Cup ringers to survive, and that without them, they are nothing.

Proof that if you tell a lie enough times, it eventually becomes truth.

I can remember when both series were largely Cup-free. In the old Busch series, it was a novelty when a Cup driver gave it a crack. Now we have Cup drivers riding roughshod over the rising stars of Nationwide, and Cup owners putting Cup drivers into Cup-sponsored cars. Watching Kyle Busch, Joey Logano rub up and wreck drivers on a quarter of their budget, experience and career earnings on Fridays and Saturdays is just embarrassing. What do they have to prove?

The arguments that races with less Cup ringers in have lower attendances are moot – these races are mostly standalone away from the Cup tour, so of course attendance will be down. Part of the appeal of Nationwide and Trucks following the Cup tour is the weekend festival feel. Race fans journey to the racetrack from miles around for the Cup race specifically, so they won’t pass up the opportunity to watch as much racing as possible while they are in town for that weekend.

Feb 21, 2014; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Nationwide Series drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88), Brad Keselowski (22) and Chase Elliott (9) during qualifying for DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

So why then do we ‘need’ Cup ringers in the development series to get fans into the stands?

It’s incredibly disrespectful to suggest that Nationwide and Truck drivers are somehow unworthy of support. Each division outside of Cup has its own storylines, heroes and villains just like the Cup series – even down in the K&N Pro Series and beyond. Only people who have bought in to this ridiculous idea of worshiping Cup drivers as WWE-style superstars demand to watch them and no-one else. Lazy marketing men see the big dollars associated with Cup ringers and hype them up at the expense of the already existing stars of the respective divisions. Switch the promotional focus onto the young guns, and perhaps sponsors won’t be quite as hard to come by. And the simple truth for most fans is that racing is racing, and they will enjoy it regardless of who is or isn’t in the field.

Even the officials seem convinced that we need Cup drivers. Remember Elliot Sadler’s farcical penalty for ‘jumping’ a late re-start at Indianapolis in 2012, handing Brad Keselowski a victory he barely deserved? And let’s not forget Saturday’s Nationwide race at Daytona, where NASCAR had clearly stated before the race that pairs of drivers caught tandem-drafting would be penalized. Yet when Keselowski and James Buescher had been judged to have tandem-drafted, only Buescher was pinged. Coincidence? I think not.

But Cuppies aid in the youngster’s development, right? And yes, I agree there is probably some credence in that. Hence why I enjoyed it when Cup drivers used to cameo occasionally. But crucially, they would do it in their own cars, or for a small team. When Penske’s two Cup drivers roll out in Penske-owned and Penske-sponsored Nationwide cars, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

One: because that’s a potential seat for a young driver that is being taken by a driver who by default doesn’t need the seat because, well, they’re already a Cup driver.

Two: because putting Cup drivers into easily the best equipment in the field then demanding the others ‘step it up’ when they get beaten is like putting me in the ring with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and demanding I ‘man up’ after he knocks me to the canvas with a face resembling a Fajita wrap in a jet turbine. The non-Cup drivers don’t stand a chance.

Nov 16, 2013; Homestead, FL, USA; NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Kyle Busch (54) races Kyle Larson (32) during the Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

A driver fighting (and winning) against drivers around their skill level will have savored the glory of victory and white heat of championship battle, and will thus be better prepared for the crucible of Cup. It certainly doesn’t hurt the V8 Supercars series to not have their main game drivers in the Dunlop development series; their rookie class is as strong as ever, with two of last year’s rookie class taking wins in their debut seasons. When was the last time that happened in Cup? And how are we in the laughable situation now that Austin Dillon swept to the Nationwide championship last year having not won a single race? How on Earth can that be right?

And it’s not like Nationwide drivers aren’t trying. Kyle Larson’s epic duel with Kyle Busch at Bristol was a highlight. And when Brian Scott took the lead from Busch at Indianapolis last year with not many laps to go, social media hit fever pitch, willing the #2 home to finally break the stranglehold of the Monster Energy #54.

Kyle then nearly wrecked Scott, re-took the lead by force and gloated his way to victory. Again.

And social media was furious. Again.

I wouldn’t say the Cup drivers have no place whatsoever in the lower divisions. Anyone who’s seen Tony Stewart turn out in World of Outlaws will tell you it’s cool seeing superstars go back to their roots sometimes. But the key is balance. I fear we have forgotten the main point of the developmental series – development. It’s a chance for youngsters to bang on the door of the Cup series. A chance for guys who have lost their Cup ride to stake a claim to get back. A chance for veterans on the way down to have one last hurrah.

Not a chance for sponsors to have a few extra hours of airtime.

It’s no good saying no-one cares about drivers from the lower series if we never give them the limelight. And with this year’s Sprint Cup rookie class looking healthy and strong for the first time in years, it seems that Cup owners are starting to remember the value of young, hungry drivers. Let’s give the next batch of Dillons, Allgaiers and Larsons a stage to strut their stuff on, where they can battle their way to the top without the Cup incumbents invading their playground and breaking their toys.

Topics: Brad Keselowski, Camping World Truck Series, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, NASCAR, NASCAR Nationwide Series, Nationwide Series, Penske Racing

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  • Ron Schwalbe

    EXCELLENT article !!!!
    In ALL of sporting competition, as the participants graduate their way thru the high school years, college years, and up into the Pro level — only NASCAR drivers choose to drop back DOWN, — nd feed their egos for some reason

    • Adam Johnson

      Thanks! That’s exactly how I feel. There is a difference between a Cup driver going back to their local dirt track or something to make cameos, that is cool, and taking away a seat for a prospective Cup driver in Nationwide/Trucks. I hate this attitude that the only drivers people care about are Cuppies – when I watch Nationwide, Trucks, even K&N and ARCA, the people I talk about it with have their own drivers they support in those divisions. Like me – go Kenzie Ruston! Haha. But my point is they aren’t needed from a commercial viewpoint, and they are only hurting the lower divisions by doing so.