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Friday, November 21, 2008

Nationwide Series has become a joke, needs massive changes

When I think back to the time I really got into NASCAR, some of my best memories involve the Busch (now Nationwide) Series.

I can distinctly remember the awesome battles between then up-and-coming talented drivers Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The two would run neck-and-neck week after week, and Jr. ended up edging out Kenseth two straight years for two titles. Along the way, they often faced strong competition from series regulars like Jeff Green and a young Tony Stewart, who was still getting used to stock cars.

A few years later, we got the chance to see a young Brian Vickers fend off veteran David Green, another series regular, by just 14 points for the title. We also got to see Martin Truex, Jr. win two straight titles for car owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. as his career took off.

Those of you new to the Nationwide Series are probably in shock, as there’s no mention of any of the following things:
-- Cup drivers winning 90 percent of the races
-- Cup drivers running the full season and winning meaningless titles (it’s akin to the Detroit Pistons winning a title in the NBA’s development league … completely obscene and wrong)

It used to be that NASCAR’s AAA series was a breeding ground for new talent, and to a certain extent it still is -- as young drivers such as Joey Logano, Landon Cassill and Marc Davis have been gaining experience in the series. The problem is that instead of running for race wins and titles, these young talents are running to see who can finish closest behind Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer or some or some other idiot from Cup who has come down to steal their thunder.

In 2008, only 12 drivers ran all 35 Nationwide races, and four of them (Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, David Ragan, David Reutimann) were Cup drivers all year, too. That leaves only 8 full-time series regulars for the season (Brad Keselowski, Mike Bliss, Mike Wallace, Jason Leffler, Marcos Ambrose, Jason Keller, Kelly Bires, Steve Wallace), plus a few others like Kenny Wallace and David Stremme who just missed a race or two.

The field is filled out by endless Cup drivers and a bunch of random low-level teams that can only qualify about 50 percent of the time and usually can’t finish the race. Admittedly, some (like Morgan Shepherd) really put a lot of effort into the series, but it appears many are just field-fillers there for a paycheck.

Kyle Busch skipped five races and finished 6th in the points standings. While it’s a testament to Kyle’s driving ability and the quality of the Gibbs cars, it’s also a sad statement about this series.

It’s not that Cup drivers never would enter or win Busch Series races … they did that regularly, of course. But there were not 20 of them in every race and drivers never ran the whole schedule and competed for the title. This massive Cup overload in the series could get worse next year as an unwanted side effect of the testing ban, as the big Cup teams will want as many laps on the track each week as possible.

Point blank: This series has no identity right now and is losing the interest of all NASCAR fans. Most weeks, I can Tivo the Nationwide race and watch it in 15 minutes in fast-forward. A bunch of Cup guys are going to start up front, then one of them (most likely Carl Edwards of Kyle Busch) will dominate the race, and you’re lucky if you find a series regular who finished in the top 10. The rare exceptions are the weeks where Cup guys can’t physically do both races barring major travel headaches, and that’s when guys like Brad Keselowski come out on top, as it should be. In my mind, Keselowski was the champ this year.

The sad fact is that if you took the decals off the Nationwide cars and just listed the running order during most races, you couldn’t tell it wasn’t a Cup race until you got to 15th place or worse.

The series has no identity and has become Cup Lite -- most of the same drivers, and even less drama. I recognize NASCAR wants the big names to run on Saturdays so people show up, and that’s fine. But something major has to happen to make this series watchable.

Some options I would suggest to NASCAR to spice up the series include:
-- Allowing full-time Cup drivers who race in the series to only win money, and not giving them points in the standings. That way, the young talent of the series could compete for the championship and not a bunch of Cup interlopers.
-- Completely reinventing the series by putting the drivers in a totally different kind of car -- sports cars, modifieds, anything. If I have to watch the same drivers both days, at least let me see them in a different discipline.
-- Doing everything possible to help more full-time Nationwide-only teams succeed. The Cup overload has to stop.

Maybe I’m just a dreamer, but I believe that one day the series will recapture the glory days it once ahead. But it’s going to take some effort from NASCAR, and I really don’t think they give a damn as long as they’re making fistloads of cash from it.

Whether the fans are getting an exciting series is secondary in their minds.

Kahne the barbarian?
Details are emerging about an incident at Homestead that I find hilarious. Kasey Kahne apparently was on a cart with his brother when he was stopped at a security gate Sunday morning at Homestead because he didn’t have his pass for the driver motor home lot. The reason he didn’t have his pass? -- he was in his firesuit and had just been out practicing on the track, and was going to the motor home to change his clothes.

Kahne was apparently insistent and tried to both drive and walk past the guards, and after a guard put his hands on Kahne, he allegedly pushed back. Police were called and he was briefly handcuffed before being released prior to Sunday’s Cup race. He is now being sued by the guard.

The suit will likely not amount to much, but there is one thing NASCAR can learn from this: NASCAR tracks probably should hire people who know what the drivers look like. I can kind of understand why Kahne was pissed off, and imagine him screaming: "Don't you know who I am? I'm the guy who does all those ridiculous Allstate commercials that every male NASCAR fan hates."

Evernham retiring
He led Jeff Gordon to some titles, ran his own team for a while, and now Ray Evernham is getting out of NASCAR and will become owning a dirt track, East Lincoln Speedway in North Carolina. With the current way the economy is affecting NASCAR, I really don’t blame him. He’s made his money and will probably have a lot less stressful career from here on out.


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