Watching the Nationwide race at Chicagoland, it struck me how it felt like an old-fashioned Busch Series race from about 10 years ago. A field composed of Nationwide Series regulars, some young developmental drivers, and – crucially – a very small number of Cup ringers. In fact, the only drivers running for Cup points in the Chicagoland field were Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson.
For once, the Nationwide Series drivers themselves were the stars of their own show, and Cup ringers were a support act.
And you know what? That’s exactly how it should be.
For the longest time, a running battle has been raging between those who believe the only appeal of Nationwide Series is watching Cup drivers for another few hours on Saturday as well as Sunday and those who are fed up of Saturday afternoons becoming the Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski show.
And I’m firmly in the latter camp.
Cup ringers are not a new thing in Nationwide Series, and indeed Cuppies dominating isn’t a new thing either – remember when Kevin Harvick won the Busch Series title in 2006 at a canter? But what used to be a bit of fun on Saturday has now become the schoolyard bullies taking all the best equipment, sponsors and cars and steamrollering the championship in a blatant attempt to cash in on the owner championship, leaving the Nationwide Series regulars have to scrap for leftovers – in their own series.
And even in the EnjoyIllinois.com 300, with its lack of Cuppies, the impact of Cuppie domination could be seen.
The gulf in class throughout the field was stark. When Sam Hornish (yeah, Kyle decided to put his feet up for once) had an engine let go after just six laps, four cars had already parked for the night. So whilst start-and-parkers have been mostly eradicated in Sprint Cup, they are only getting more and more common in Nationwide. Half the field was a lap down by 75 laps in, and in truth only 15-20 cars were really competitive for the win; mostly consisting of Cup teams and a handful of others, including more mighty performances from Jeremy Clements and Ryan Sieg in self-owned cars.
But surely, guys regularly running in the top-15 and challenging for wins every so often deserves better than a unsponsored car? Well surely the guy who finished 2nd in points last season deserves better than a handful of races per year as Kyle Busch’s backup. But now we’re getting to the crux of the issue. Because let’s be honest, who wants to have their logo running on a car that’s only on-screen when Kyle Busch laps them for the fifth time?
The argument that Cuppies bring sponsors and fans just isn’t holding water anymore. If anything, sponsors and fans are leaving the series in droves. Sponsors and big teams decided that the safe, bankable option is to put a Cup driver in the series – for no reason other than the guarantee owner point moneys. The Cup driver gets nothing out of it, except an ego boost and a nice payday.
And all of this has a knockdown affect, making it more and more difficult for smaller teams to even run week to week. With Sprint Cup teams now taking on 3-5 major sponsors per year, sponsorship is even harder to come by than ever – but on the flip side, the Truck Series has never struggled so much with getting a competitive field out on track. Maybe because they’ve never lost focus on what their series is all about, and as a result the Truck Series has produced some of the most consistently strong racing across NASCAR’s top three divisions in recent years.
The fact is, the defence that Cup regulars bring in fans for the Nationwide Series is crumbling to pieces. If anything, more and more fans are looking at the entry lists on Jayski.com and deciding to give Nationwide races a miss. And for anyone saying that Nationwide races would be boring without Sprint Cup regulars – how do you explain the fact that the most entertaining Nationwide races so far this year have largely not featured Cuppies? Or the races where a Nationwide regular has beaten the Cuppie hoardes? Do you think that has something to do with the fact that fans actually ENJOY watching Nationwide regulars, finding new drivers to pull for and watching future superstars in the making? Kinda hard to do that when the TV’s watching the Monster Energy #54 lap the field over and over again.
The fact is, only fanboys demand their driver be in everything they watch. Most race fans find new drivers to pull for in every series. The Nationwide Series is packed with personality, with Chase Elliott leading the charge for the young guns, and at Chicagoland seeing the likes of Erik Jones, Cale Conley, Ryan Blaney and Chris Buescher get some airtime was so refreshing. And for once, watching Kahne and Larson play Cup ringers actually added something to the show. They were a part of the show, not hogging the limelight. Watching Kahne battle in and around the top 5 and 10 with the Nationwide regulars was actually entertaining.
So let’s clarify; I’m not advocating the removal of all Cuppies ever. I’m saying we need balance, for the good of the series. We have enough proof now that Nationwide Series doesn’t need Cuppies to survive, and that having them ruin the show every week is actually causing more harm than good. So here’s a few solutions I propose:
1) Give drivers a limit of 40-45 races that they can run across all NASCAR divisions. For Cup drivers, 36 of those would go for Sprint Cup, leaving 5-10 left over for Nationwide, Trucks, and anything else.
2) Only drivers below 20th/25th in Cup points can run in Nationwide. That means that rookies can still run Nationwide and anything else in their rookie Cup season, but multi-season veterans are gone. And let’s face it – Cuppies like JJ Yeley and Landon Cassill aren’t really the problem, and no-one would begrudge them if they won a Nationwide Series race.
3) Cup drivers cannot run for a Cup affiliated team in other NASCAR divisions, or must run for a team below 20th-25th in owner points. That means Kyle Busch would have to go back to running Nationwide in his own team. Remember that? In 2012, the #54 was his own car, and he only won one race all season when his brother Kurt stepped in the car. Switch it to a Joe Gibbs car and suddenly he’s winning races left right and center. Watching Kurt Busch run a Phoenix Racing car last year in a spoof Days of Thunder scheme was a great novelty, and gives a big boost to smaller teams looking for some limelight.
Either way, it’s surely only a matter of time before NASCAR realizes that the myth of Nationwide needing Cup ringers is well and truly dead in the water. Take the brave decision to restrict them, and watch the fans come back to the series as they watch hungry young drivers do battle to be future superstars without current superstars stinking up the show.