FORT WORTH, Texas – The irony is so thick, you couldn’t cut it with a knife.
This weekend at Texas Motor Speedway will likely mark the culmination of a Nationwide Series season that has seen problem after problem for NASCAR’s AAA ranks manifest itself and run wild. Fans of the series have seen Cup regulars win all but two of the races run in 2010. They’ve seen crowds of 20,000 where 90,000 used to cram. They’ve seen at least two full-time Nationwide Series teams simply not show up for races owing to the implementation of an expensive new car at the most inopportune economic time the sport has seen – perhaps ever.
They’ve seen the leading Nationwide Series regular, top five in points and a race winner, unable to keep his ride. And on Saturday (Nov. 6), they’re likely to see a Cup regular win the minor-league title not only for the fifth consecutive year, but in dominant fashion and more than one race early for the fourth time in that five-year span.
Yet, on the day before Brad Keselowski is likely to stroke his way into NASCAR’s record books as a Nationwide Series champion, the future for the Nationwide Series is suddenly as bright as can be remembered in recent memory. With a series of announcements within an hour of each other, the field of series regulars expanded to see not only Justin Allgaier find a new home for the 2011 season, but a cast of characters that find themselves with both the talent and equipment to make a serious charge for the series championship.
Turner Motorsports, taking over what was previously Braun Racing, announced that they would again be fielding four cars, with Allgaier, Jason Leffler and Reed Sorenson all running full schedules in a bid for the NNS crown. With alliances with KHI and Hendrick motors, what was already the premier independent Nationwide Series organization upped their race cars in a big way.
And then there’s Elliott Sadler, whose tenure ending with Richard Petty Motorsports was turned into opportunity; KHI announced that he would be making the step down to the Nationwide Series and driving the No. 2 car full-time in a reunion with former Robert Yates Racing sponsor Citi Financial.
Think of the storylines. In Leffler, The Nationwide Series veteran whose loyalty to his sponsor includes a unique haircut. In Sadler and Sorenson, you have Cup drivers who are taking a step back, ready to win some races and get their careers back on track. In Allgaier, perhaps the most deserving prospect of a ride in the NNS ranks, scored a 25th-hour deal that will allow him to continue his development as one of stock car racing’s brightest prospects. And all of them will be campaigning next year in cars that will be capable of running up front early and often.
In one day to have three new title contenders announced is a tremendous boon for the Nationwide Series even if nothing else changes. Between Sorenson’s return to relevance, Allgaier’s continued proficiency as a top-five driver and the ever-colorful Sadler looking forward to both racing on Saturdays and having more family time, the Series has a cast of drivers that even the most inept of PR folks could build an identity around. The fact that all three actually have some talent behind the wheel only sweetens the deal.
And perhaps the most important development isn’t what was announced, but what wasn’t.
When asked about his Nationwide Series plans for 2011, Carl Edwards reiterated that he had committed to running the full Nationwide Series schedule, a claim he had first staked defiantly back in August even as the story that NASCAR was preparing to ban Cup drivers from competing for the Nationwide crown was building steam.
But the way he said it was different. Upon having a reporter in the media center ask the same question in the frame of being unable to run for a championship, the confidence and defiance that Edwards had previously exuded was gone. In it’s place, uncertainty.
“I have committed to running the full thing,” Edwards responded, “but I am going at it like I can run for the title and I believe my sponsors are too.”
The fact is, no one knows for sure whether or not NASCAR is actually going to take steps to alter and limit Cup participation in the Nationwide ranks next season. But the prospect of action actually being taken was enough to make Edwards, who has been pulling double duty since 2005, think twice.
The situation isn’t bedrock. While the Turner Motorsports announcement regarding Hendrick motors, KHI technical support and current sponsors Great Clips and Dollar General re-upping for 2011 was all good news, it also must be noted just how prominent the Wolfpack Rentals brand (in short, Turner’s own money) was in the promotional materials present during the press conference. The investment being made in the team is admirable, but if the Ginn Racing episode of 2007 taught us anything, it’s that that type of spending isn’t always the most sustainable, or dependable, business model.
And as for the prospects of NASCAR taking action to curb Cup participation in the Nationwide ranks, they’re just that… prospects. Take a look around, and legitimate outlets have reported everything from a limit being placed on the number of NNS races a Cup driver can run to simply prohibiting a Cup driver from running for an NNS title, no matter how many races they run.
And now, with the Nationwide Series field suddenly growing in size, wouldn’t it be just like NASCAR to decide “Wow, we have new full-timers? Clearly the Cup drivers aren’t having a negative impact, let’s let them keep doing what they’ve been doing.”?
More will be known tomorrow after Joe Gibbs Racing announces their Nationwide Series plans for the 2011 season as to what direction NASCAR appears to be taking with regards to governing their minor leagues.
But for this Friday, it’s worth it to take a breath and enjoy the good news. Justin Allgaier is back. Elliott Sadler and Reed Sorenson are joining the ranks full time. Kevin Harvick Incorprated is adding a new team. And all of the drivers mentioned are marketable, talented and the type of guy people will pay to watch on Saturday.
Friday was a good day for the Nationwide Series. Whether it goes down as a good day or the start of something bigger remains to be seen.
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