The discussion of the Nationwide Series needing to find a new identity for itself has been at a fever pitch since, well, it became the Nationwide Series in 2008. Problem is, it’s two months into 2011, and that very same discussion is ongoing. Progress has not been made; rather, every attempt has simply rung hollow.
Nationwide Insurance has tried numerous cash incentive programs for its series regulars, only to have Sunday’s full-timers contesting the entire NNS slate as well, either taking the cash home themselves or keeping the recipients out of Victory Lane. Last season’s special Nationwide Dash 4 Cash program? None of those four races was won by a Nationwide-only regular, leaving it money… well, best not spent. Meanwhile, NASCAR has tried to remedy the problem, taking away points for drivers not eligible for the series championship, yet all that’s done is created a weekly sanctioned “Best Of The Rest” race. The auto manufacturers (some of them anyway) have used the new NNS COT to reintroduce muscle car models to stock car racing, though inconsistencies among what the carmakers are running (really, a Mustang vs. a Camry?) make it difficult to reclassify the series. Plus, there’s the fact that these new cars are still, for their new noses, anything but stock cars. Instead, they’re still machines that still largely have their raciness determined in the shop as much as the man behind the wheel.
Those who are not supportive of the preponderance of Cup drivers double-dipping and dominating NNS competition have long derided the series as “Cup Lite,” meaning every single change that everyone from the title sponsor to the sanctioning body have thrown at the former Grand National ranks has proven incapable of shedding that abrasive reputation. The new identity remains elusive.
Or does it? Reading through reader comments after this past weekend’s Nashville race that saw the series’ first standalone weekend reduced to the Carl and Kyle show, one that caught my eye was an interesting reframe of the identity argument, that maybe it wasn’t “Cup Lite” that was the issue. This reader instead remarked that maybe it was the “minor league” moniker that the Nationwide ranks ultimately need to be shedding.
After all, for all the comparisons that many, including this writer, have made between the Nationwide Series and AAA baseball, the two are far from synonymous. AAA baseball sure as hell isn’t televised every weekend on national TV. AAA baseball doesn’t feature unique equipment or playing field characteristics that make the game different from what goes on in major league ballparks, while the Nationwide Series has its own cars, combined with its tapered engine package force drivers to run the car differently on the racetrack. And the Potomac Nationals are not going to be taking the field at Nationals Park in D.C. for a warmup game before the beloved Nationals take the field.
No, the Nationwide Series poses a situation unique to professional sports. With the field determined not by franchise rosters but by who hauls a car out to the track, there is no set-in-stone progression for drivers coming up…or down…the ranks. It’s a largely companion entity, playing on the same field as the big show a day earlier. And in an era where driver development is being done more and more based on the pocketbook rather than potential behind the wheel, it’s left the series with an existential crisis; just why the hell is it here?
It’s a question that’s becoming harder and harder to answer. Owners are running out of answers to it; the famous short track of Richmond is of this writing facing a short field, even with seven start-and-park cars on the entry list. Sponsors are running out of answers to it; even 2007 series champion and top-5 fixture Carl Edwards has run a number of races this season with nothing more than Ford decals on his No. 60. The same could be said for the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team that’s leading the owner point standings, as they came within a razor’s edge of not racing at Nashville due to lack of backing.
And while TV ratings may well have leveled off for the series, attendance is another story. From the paltry crowd of 15,000 at Charlotte Motor Speedway last May that didn’t even warrant the track opening its upper deck to this past weekend at Nashville that saw less than 20,000 fans show up to NASCAR’s premier event of the weekend, race fans are skimping on appetizers (and on a lot of recent weekends, the main Sunday course as well).
Sure, the economy has a role to play in the current attendance downturn…but so does the product. And the product as is isn’t working.
Because whether one considers the Nationwide Series the minor leagues or its own entity, the face of the series are the handful of Cup regulars that show up nearly every weekend. They’re the ones on TV. They’re the ones winning races. They’re the ones staying (mostly) sponsored. With the points chase an afterthought and ESPN routinely omitting scores of race cars in the field from their broadcast coverage, any argument that the Nationwide regulars are truly the face of their series ring hollow.
Which begs the question…how are Cup drivers the answer to putting the Nationwide Series on stable ground. Because take a look at what’s being seen on Sundays…the Cup Series isn’t on stable ground, either!
Fact of the matter is, Sunday features Carl vs. Kyle, Brad vs. the world, etc., and for longer distances in more recognizable race cars. Yet Sunday TV ratings continue to fall, new sponsorship has all but disappeared, and attendance continues to dry up. Again, there’s the economy, the unpopular first-gen COT, a host of factors that can be blamed for the sad state of affairs in the Cup Series.
But the product has to be considered among those issues. And the product in Cup is courtesy of the same drivers and teams dominating the Nationwide ranks. Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing are among the class of the field. Kyle Busch leads laps like there’s no tomorrow. Carl Edwards is Mr. Aww-Shucks.
Seriously, how can anyone sit there and argue that the faces of a failing series are the answer for another racing series because they’re in less recognizable race cars competing against a weaker field for a shorter period of time?
The Nationwide Series needs a new identity. Make than any identity. But if they’re going to build one, minor league or otherwise, Cup regulars need not be part of it. Their work day is Sunday, and any one of them not named Jimmie Johnson isn’t getting that job done. They’d do well to remember that.
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