Race Weekend Central

For NASCAR, Another Championship Fix That’s Anything But

The 2011 Nationwide Series champion will shockingly be a Nationwide Series regular, thanks to a new provision implemented by the sanctioning body that drivers must declare a title to pursue at the start of the season. When the checkered flag waves at Homestead this November, a five-year stretch that has seen Cup stars Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski dedicate their respective talent to stealing the sport’s future’s lunch money – pushing their faces in the mud for good measure – will mercifully come to an end.

Sounds like just the news that Nationwide fans have been hoping to hear for literally years now. But, as David Caraviello wasted no time noting on NASCAR.com earlier this week, “the more things change… the more they stay the same.” And stay the same the Nationwide Series will in 2011, because NASCAR’s latest championship fix does absolutely nothing to substantively right the issues it was created to address.

Though given the sanctioning body’s track record of both ineptitude and utter spinelessness in confronting the sport’s toughest issues, it’s hard when taking a closer look to be anything but surprised at what you find.

Rewind back to 2003 and NASCAR was dealing with a supposedly “broken” championship. Matt Kenseth clinched the 2003 Sprint Cup a race ahead of schedule at Rockingham on the strength of only one race win, coming eight months prior at Las Vegas, but also a series high 25 top-10 finishes. The remarkable consistency demonstrated by the No. 17 team over the course of the season allowed Kenseth to stave off Ryan Newman‘s remarkable sophomore campaign, one that saw seven DNFs cancel out eight wins and 11 poles that landed the Rocketman not the Cup, but the 2003 Driver of the Year award.

In the eyes of NASCAR’s brass, something was wrong. Having a champion that won only one race and relied on seventh-place finishes to score the crown wasn’t flashy and wasn’t something that was going to produce a down-to-the-wire three-wide finish on the season’s final lap that would score TV ratings and press worthy of competing with the NFL. Something needed fixing.

And in typical NASCAR fashion, at least during the ever-comedic life of Brian, the sanctioning body amputated a right leg to fix a broken finger.

Instead of altering the points system to put more emphasis on winning races and going for broke instead of stroking along to top-10 finishes, NASCAR threw the previous 31 years of the modern era out the window and scrapped the season points title in favor of the Chase, a “playoff” system that is perhaps the only serious rival to college football’s Bowl Championship Series in terms of bestowing a manufactured, meaningless crown atop whoever it happens to see fit when the dust settles.

Say what you will about the Chase, love it or hate it. The fact is, the Chase did absolutely nothing to put more emphasis on winning or to encourage more teams to go for the gusto when the Cup was on the line. Sure, the format created quite a scene with Jeremy Mayfield‘s “win and in” charge through the field at Richmond in 2004, but once the format got going, wins meant nothing. Top-10 finishes did.

Just as was the supposed “problem” when Kenseth was seventh-placing the Cup field into submission in 2003, Darrell Waltrip would remind every viewer year after year that the driver who could finish seventh and lead a lap during the final 10 races would ultimately walk away the champ.

Nothing changed. It’s possible to qualify for NASCAR’s postseason without winning a race – the antithesis of why the sport changed the rules in the first place. It’s also not necessary to win in the postseason to score the Cup (just ask Tony Stewart in 2005). And though it has yet to happen, it’s still not even a prerequisite that a driver win a race at any point in the season to be crowned Cup champion.

In fact, never in any of NASCAR’s top-three national series has a driver managed to win a title without winning at least one race at some point over the course of a campaign. That will likely change when the 2011 Nationwide Series comes to a close, though, because honestly, how many Nationwide Series regulars are actually winning Nationwide races these days?

Yes, forcing a driver to choose one championship and one championship alone to pursue over the course of a season does mean that even if they choose to run all 35 races, Edwards and Keselowski cannot repeat as champion in the minor leagues. Even if Kyle Busch is to win all 25, 30 starts he makes in the Nationwide ranks, even if he does start to close in on the 200 national wins marker that ESPN and Co. slobber all over as if Richard Petty‘s 200 Cup victory mark is about to be matched, he will not be crowned the Nationwide champ.

But, that said, even if they can’t take home the champion’s trophy, race fans can bet their bottom dollar that Brad, Carl and Kyle will be the face of the series in 2011. They will win the lion’s share of the races. They will dominate the TV coverage. And there will be copious amounts of graphics noting that if they were eligible, one of them would be wearing the crown come November. Along with the more infrequent Cup interlopers, the also-rans on the Jimmie Johnson circuit will win at least 90% of the races run, score 6-9 positions in the top 10 weekly, and carpetbag $100,000s of purse money out of the series.

Sponsors will still flock to these drivers, as they’ll still be the ones in victory lane, still be ones with the best equipment and crews, still the ones that on most race weekends will have twice the track time as their development counterparts.

Meanwhile, the drivers and teams that actually call the Nationwide Series home will be left to flounder just as they have in recent seasons, running with half tire allotments while wondering how the hell they’re going to pay for the construction and development of a new racecar. Think like a sponsor for a minute:

“Hmm, I can’t afford to be in Cup, so I’ll go Nationwide. Wow, I can either sponsor a star driver or an unproven prospect. I can sponsor a car that’s going to run in the top 10 every week or a car that runs in the top 10 on a great week. I can sponsor a team that already has built six new CoTs and is raring to go for 2011, or a team that’s buying used CoTs as they become available and trying to learn as they go.”

Spot on, Mr. Caraviello, “the more things change…”

Does anyone that doesn’t have a Brian France-sized drinking habit honestly think that it’s going to help the Nationwide Series to have the champion be a driver that based on the past five years and the Cup influx that time will win one race, if that, and finish an average of sixth among drivers in the series in top-five and top-10 finishes? That’s the type of championship season that’s supposed to both return legitimacy to the AAA trophy and draw needed attention to the series’ regulars?

If this is the plan for salvation, NASCAR would probably be better off handing out a bottle of scotch and a handgun to each series regular – along with a bullet for good measure.

All that’s been accomplished here is to create a Nationwide champion in name only, perhaps a title even more devoid of value than the Nationwide crowns of the last five years that saw proven stock car stars with five times the budget of their competitors and pit crews that were scarcely removed from Sunday afternoons pulverizing minor leaguers in much the way most college football powerhouses stomp FCS foes on opening weekend.

While that brought plenty of sponsors to the front of the field, it left the back and even the middle of the Nationwide Series in purgatory at best, jeopardizing the long-term viability of a series that, since 1982, has proven to be an invaluable development scene for the stars of tomorrow.

None of those underlying problems that have left half the Nationwide Series field undersponsored, outmanned, outgunned, and even start-and-parking were remotely addressed by the latest “fix.” Again, NASCAR amputated a leg to fix a broken finger.

Unlike back in 2003, NASCAR actually got it right in that the current state of the Nationwide Series championship needed to be addressed. However, just like 2003, the remedy doesn’t correspond with the symptoms. As feel good as it may be to see Reed Sorenson or Justin Allgaier crowned champion in 2011, it’s not going to mean much of anything for the sport’s legitimacy if they turn in a one-win campaign with a smattering of top fives and top 10s in less than half the races run while Kyle, Carl and Brad win 20+ races just among the three of them.

If anything, that likely outcome for 2011 will leave the legitimacy and value of the Nationwide Series championship in more limbo than it is right now. And if there’s one thing the already ailing Nationwide Series needs, it’s not more debate and doubt as to whether being the best in its ranks actually means anything.

Because that’s exactly what NASCAR’s last championship fix (the Chase) did; it introduced a sense of illegitimacy to the Cup Series’ championship. And over the seven years that debate has raged, NASCAR Sprint Cup racing has disintegrated from the nation’s fastest growing sport to a declining mess that has scarcely a rival in the history of professional sport.

That continuing disaster has moved the once healthy Cup Series into a hospital room. Imagine what a similar disaster will do to a Nationwide Series that’s already one step from life support.

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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