Wednesday, October 31, 2007

COMMENTARY: Nationwide Series Proposals Present A Mixed Bag

NASCAR officials have begun shopping around a number of potential changes to the NASCAR Nationwide Series, in an effort to give the sanctioning body's #2 circuit a look and personality of its own.

Since abandoning its ill-fated experiment with V6 power decades ago, the Nationwide Series has been little more than "Nextel Cup Lite." The cars look and sound the same as Nextel Cup cars; with only a slight difference in wheelbase and engine displacement. The average fan cannot possibly distinguish between the two, making Saturday's support division race all-too-similar to Sunday's main event.

NASCAR is now floating at least two trial balloons. First, the sanctioning body is asking teams for feedback on converting the Nationwide Series to “Pony Car” specs in 2009; running Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro, Dodge Challenger and Toyota Solara bodies. The idea is a good one. Most teams re-skin their cars during the offseason anyway, and as one team owner told us recently, "It doesn't cost any more to hang Mustang sheetmetal than it does to hang a Fusion. It's all steel."

A pony car-based Nationwide Series would be unique in appearance, and easily distinguishable from the splitter-and-wing equipped Nextel Cup machinery. It's a simple solution to a complex problem, and in my opinion, should be implemented as quickly as humanly possible.

Unfortunately, NASCAR's second trial balloon is not nearly as well conceived.

The sanctioning body is currently considering a system that would prevent Sprint Cup drivers from earning championship points on the Nationwide Series. Under the proposed new system, any driver ranked in the top 35 in Sprint Cup points would not be eligible for championship points on the #2 circuit, setting up a scenario that could easily lead to a paper champion at season's end.

If NASCAR's proposed two-tier system were in place today, David Reutimann would be leading the Busch Series points, despite accumulating 531 fewer ACTUAL points than Nextel Cup regular Carl Edwards. In 32 starts this season, Edwards has four wins to Reutimann's one. He has 14 top-five finishes to Reutimann's five, and 19 top-10s to Reutimann's 12. David Reutimann is a nice guy and a great racer, but based on those statistics, can anyone truly argue that he deserves to be crowned 2007 NASCAR Busch Series champion?

Obviously not.

Race fans aren't stupid. They know who the dominant drivers are, and they will not be fooled into accepting a champion whose season was second or third-best overall.

Stock car racing is not like golf. Nobody gets a handicap, and no one is allowed to hit from the ladies' tees. It's not like sports car racing, where every race includes three or four winners; all crowned "Best In Class." In stock car racing, you strap on your helmet and go, competing against 42 other drivers for the right to stand alone in Victory Lane. There are no asterisks, and no two-tiered point system designed to appease the politically correct by making things "fair" for everyone.

NASCAR has a difficult decision to make in the next few months. Either ban the Sprint Cup regulars from the Nationwide Series outright -- thereby losing the vast majority of the circuit's drawing power -- or allow them to stay and race under the same points structure as everyone else. The proposed two-tier point system is competitively dishonest, and violates the basic tenets of competition upon which NASCAR was founded.

NASCAR's Ramsey Poston said this week that none of the sanctioning body's ideas are cast in stone. "All we've done at this point is ask the teams how they would feel about various changes," he said. "Nothing has been decided. It's all very preliminary."

Let's hope the sanctioning body is able to separate the good ideas from the bad.

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