Monday, April 25, 2011

Nationwide Changes Working As Planned

Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano swept the top four finishing positions in Saturday night’s NASCAR Nationwide Series “Nashville 300” at Nashville Superspeedway, apparently renewing the popular debate over the presence of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers in the Nationwide Series.

During the offseason, NASCAR made a major change in the way it selects its Nationwide Series champion, requiring drivers to declare which national series in which they will earn 2011 championship points. That move forced Brad Keselowski to forego a defense of his 2010 NASCAR Nationwide Series title. It also eliminated Edwards, Busch and Logano from title contention, after they understandably opted to earn Sprint Cup championship points instead of competing for the Nationwide title. They are, however, still allowed to race and win in the Nationwide Series, and they are doing just that.

Sprint Cup regulars have won all eight Nationwide Series events this season, led by Busch with four victories. Edwards has visited Victory Lane twice, with Tony Stewart and Mark Martin claiming single wins. Some observers seem surprised by their continued dominance, apparently believing that a change in the way NASCAR tabulates its championship points would somehow affect the actual on-track competition.
For the record, Edwards, Busch, Keselowski and company are still the dominant drivers in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, just as every realistic observer of the sport knew they would be. They have superior experience behind the wheel, along with the best equipment, sponsorship, personnel and manufacturer support. They should be winning races, and they are.

But while those Sprint Cup drivers continue to dominate on the race track, there is a group of younger, Nationwide-only drivers waging war at the top of the point standings. Jason Leffler, Justin Allgaier, Reed Sorenson and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. have each taken a turn at the top of the championship leader board this season, receiving a good deal of media attention for doing so. Elliott Sadler, Aric Almirola, Trevor Bayne and Brian Scott are in hot pursuit, and are also earning considerably more time in the spotlight than they did a year ago.

Some members of the NASCAR media have already labeled the new point system a flop, complaining that Nationwide Series regulars have not been miraculously transformed into consistent race winners. They complain bitterly that the playing field has not been leveled, allowing Turner Motorsports to begin trouncing the likes of Jack Roush, Joe Gibbs and Roger Penske while ignoring the fact that nobody -- especially NASCAR – ever promised such a change.

Study up on NASCAR history and you’ll see the playing field has never been level. Raymond Parks and Red Byron dominated their era, Smokey Yunick won in his and Petty Enterprises and the Wood Brothers dominated in theirs for the same exact reasons that Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs dominate today; because they have more money, more factory support, smarter people and better drivers. There have always been good teams, mediocre team and bad teams, and the ongoing effort to legislate competitive equality goes against everything that professional sports stand for. It’s like giving the Chicago Cubs a fourth out every inning to make up for their comparative lack of talent.

There’s nothing wrong with rooting for the underdog. Unfortunately, we have taken that affinity for the little guy and turned it into an outright hatred of those who achieve at a high level. Win too often and NASCAR Nation will inevitably try and run you out of town. Never mind that Jimmie Johnson is a nice guy, a tremendous spokesman for the sport and one of the best drivers of this (or any) era. He wins too often, prompting fans and media members alike to call for more parity in the Sprint Cup Series. “Parity,” if you’re wondering, is code-speak for “slow Jimmie down.”

People say they’re tired of seeing big teams beat little teams, but that’s not true. What they’re really sick of seeing is Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch win races. Kyle is not dominating the Camping World Truck Series in Joe Gibbs Racing equipment. He is fielding his own team and winning with it; something most fans claim to support. And yet, he is seen as part of a problem that needs to be fixed, and fixed now.

Those who criticize the Nationwide and Truck Series for not allowing “shade tree mechanics” to run up front are simply out of touch with reality. A race team I am involved with competed in a Super Late Model race last Saturday night at Hickory Motor Speedway. Even at that level of the sport – far below even the Camping World Truck Series -- nearly half the teams showed up in tractor-trailer transporters as expensive as anything seen in the Nationwide or Truck garages. There were 44 Super Late Model teams at Hickory this weekend, and not one of them built their car in a dirt-floored, single-bay garage with a lonely light bulb flickering from the ceiling.

It’s time for NASCAR’s fans and media to ditch the romanticism and accept the fact that modern-day NASCAR National Series teams have budgets that far eclipse the budget of a 1980 Winston Cup operation. This is not 1963, when a race team could be built by a few friends working in that dirt-floored, one-bay garage. This is 2011, and successful National Series race teams now run on $7-10 million per year, not $25,000. If you’ve got $25,000 to spend on a race car this season, build a Late Model and run it at your local short track. Don’t expect to compete and win on the second-largest series in America.

And stop crying for NASCAR to bring the competition back down to your level.

The only way to stop Busch, Edwards and their fellow Sprint Cup drivers from winning Nationwide and Truck Series races is to ban them from the circuit entirely. As we have discussed in the past, doing so would also eliminate Stewart, Martin, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., from the starting lineup, stripping those series of much of its marquee value and depriving track owners of their top ticket sellers. That is not a move that NASCAR, its promoters or television and radio partners are willing to make.

So here it is, one more time for those who somehow are still incapable of understanding what happened during the off-season. NASCAR’s new Nationwide point system was not designed to change what happens on the race track on Saturday night. It was designed to alter the look of the championship standings on Monday morning; augmenting an already strong on-track product by allowing talented Nationwide-only youngsters to battle for the series championship.

On both counts, the new system is working as planned.

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