Race Weekend Central

Rudderless NASCAR Nationwide Series Adrift Once Again

Throw Danica Patrick and her marketing machine from the train. This should have been the weekend for the NASCAR Nationwide Series to bask in the spotlight, to sell itself to fans new and old alike.

This weekend marks the return to O’Reilly Raceway Park, one of the most underrated venues that NASCAR’s national series travels to, a tight bullring that has produced some of the best side-by-side racing seen this decade over the years I’ve covered the Nationwide Series. Last year’s top-10 battle between Trevor Bayne, Ron Hornaday, Steve Wallace and Brad Keselowski that saw these drivers three-wide all night long with no contact made was absolutely spellbinding to watch.

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Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2009 Kroger 200 at IRP

Speaking of Keselowski, there’s also that little rivalry between he and Carl Edwards that went from a flame to a fire this past weekend in Illinois. How fitting that the Nationwide Series tackles a short track the weekend after the series points leader was violently wrecked and cost a win in the process.

Side-by-side racing, short track beating and banging, and some well-deserved payback. Saturday night (July 17) was the night for the Nationwide Series.

That all went out the window Wednesday, as the crazy train that is the leadership of the NASCAR Nationwide Series went off the rails, penalizing Edwards for aggressively, forcefully and violently winning last Saturday’s race. Fearing where their sport came from, fearing what the sport that they sell is, NASCAR ended the all-too-short “boys, have at it” era of racing. Perhaps the one piece of NASCAR officiating that they had been consistent with and that had a positive impact on racing went out the window.

Just the latest example of how directionless the Nationwide Series remains.

Rewind back to Nashville in April, when Jason Leffler rightfully retaliated against James Buescher after an earlier incident in the race. The resulting wreck between the two led to both making hard contact with the frontstretch retaining wall, lots of damage to both their racecars and plenty of risk to a field racing around them at full speed. And it wasn’t for the lead. It wasn’t even the last lap. Yet Leffler’s penalty for his blatant takeout was nothing more than to have his already-wrecked racecar parked. And that was that.

So which one is it, great Nationwide Series leaders? Should the boys have at it or should they pray that any contact they make on the track isn’t greeted with negative press and a subjective judgment that they “crossed the line?”

And do me a favor and spare me the sudden heartache about how all those poor, struggling Nationwide Series independents out there had their nights ruined and their cars torn up as a result of Carl and Brad crossing the proverbial line. What, NASCAR’s suddenly sympathetic to the plights of those independent teams that have been dying off for the better part of a decade? The Nationwide CoT parked two full-time teams in that boat just a few weeks ago at Daytona, for crying out loud.

The purse cuts that the sanctioning body announced less than a month before the season debut are still in place, amounting to more than 10% of the prize money for those actually depending on the purses to race. Those cuts aren’t going anywhere anytime soon either.

So which one is it, great Nationwide Series leaders? Do you suddenly have the best interests of teams not worth tens of millions of dollars at heart, or is this simply a placating means to capitalize on populist outrage over the same overfunded teams that you have been encouraging to run the Nationwide Series since Greg Biffle first came up with the perverted idea of running both Cup and Nationwide full-time in 2004?

Let’s also not forget about one of the greatest about faces heard from King Brian France in recent memory, that he and his Nationwide Series cronies were planning to limit Cup drivers in the minors starting in 2011. Assuming that Brad or Carl win the title in 2010 (and they will with Justin Allgaier nearly 500 points back in third), it will have only taken five consecutive Cup drivers winning the title for them to get that message.

There’s two problems with this abrupt reversal of course in sanctioning though, as romantic as the notion of Brian France acknowledging that his all out assault on stock car racing’s little guys isn’t in the sport’s best interest is. First of all, there’s no talk of banning Cup drivers from the field entirely, just from running for the championship. In short, the temptation for sponsors, especially in a still reeling economic climate, to go with a sure winner instead of the next big young gun isn’t going anywhere.

Think about it. Even if Cup double-duty drivers weren’t making mockeries of the Nationwide Series points race within the first month of the season, the stats certainly bear out that, if allowed to race in the Nationwide ranks, often with their Cup teams backing them, they’re going to dominate the events, hog the TV time and stockpile trophies. Since Kevin Harvick‘s 2006 campaign that started the trend of Cup drivers running both series, they’ve won 112 of 118 Cup companion races in the Nationwide Series. 95% of the time, they’re in victory lane.

So even if they’re still there in a limited capacity, why wouldn’t the sponsors still flock there instead of to the development drivers that will still struggle to find top-10 positions to finish in 26 of 35 weekends a year?

The second problem is the new racecar that come 2011 will be the full-time face of the Nationwide Series. With only one race and limited testing backing the new machine, not to mention that it took years for fully funded Cup teams to figure out that series’ CoT, there’s a lot of work to be done before NNS teams get their new “stock cars” up to speed.

Work that’s going to require Cup teams… and likely their drivers. After all, only the Cup-backed Nationwide teams are building these cars. Only the Cup-backed Nationwide teams are going to have the necessary money to afford a testing regimen outside of the scant few that NASCAR allows. And the Cup drivers, still there in some capacity, will still be driving the sponsor dollars that give those teams the budget to test and develop the new cars… while building enough surplus for the rest of the Nationwide Series to beg and barter for.

What does all of this mean? It’s simple really; the rudderless leadership that has let the Nationwide Series flounder for years in a desperate search for identity and a sustainable business model has reacted in a completely knee-jerk manner to the Edwards/Keselowski dustup at Gateway, in a vain attempt to strike a populist chord. One completely inconsistent with the cliff they’ve driven the series off of the later part of this decade.

There’s no sudden realization that the Nationwide Series is on a path to nowhere, an awakening among NASCAR’s elites that they would soon be without a AAA league… one with any development talent in it anyway. Rather, just as penalizing Edwards for, however dastardly, winning on Saturday night was nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction to the press having nothing else to write about on their off weekends, these sudden statements of a need for reform and a concern for Nationwide Series competitors are knee-jerk reactions as well.

Unsubstantial and impulsive departures from the same course that led to the untimely debut of the CoT, the plethora of Cup drivers contesting minor league titles as if they were the Cup, and just about every calamity threatening the series’ future.

There’s a reason that one of the most violent on-track confrontations in recent memory has earned the press that it has, off week or not. A watershed moment for the Nationwide Series is here. And the prognosis isn’t good.

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