If the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series represents the 43 best stock car drivers in the country, then is it any wonder that most drivers want to race in that series these days? You can’t blame any of them for wanting to be in the Cup Series – it’s got all the money, all the prestige, all the fans.
But ever look at a driver and wonder why he’s in the series? You know the guy: struggling in anonymity, often for a backmarker position, barely shown on TV unless he’s getting lapped or in a wreck, and even then it’s a passing remark at best. And in some cases, the driver could be a rockstar – if only he was racing in a different series.
Think about it. It wasn’t all that long ago when there were drivers who chose to make the Nationwide Series a career home (there are still a few of those guys around, but most have been driven out by Cup interlopers, including the all-time starts leader). Some have stayed in the Camping World Truck Series and have the championship rings to prove it’s their niche. The modified division has produced many lifers, content to stay where they are for an entire career.
Some of those guys tried the Cup Series only to realize they weren’t happy with the grueling schedule, the demands on their personal lives, or the type of racing. Some of them are among the best ever to grace those series-because they raced their best there.
So, who among today’s Cup drivers would be standouts in other racing series? Look no further than these four, listed along with the series they would stand out in:
Robby Gordon, off-road trucks: Gordon is an experienced and brilliant off-road racer. Why? He’s got some of the best car control in the universe and he’s a little on the crazy side. Gordon once got protested for going off course at San Filipe. Sure, Gordon was guilty, but the guy went off course when he drove over a cliff to gain an advantage. That takes some serious brass (the protest was denied when officials decided that Gordon gained no competitive advantage).
Gordon has won the Baja 1000 three times, the Baja 500 three more times (and been disqualified from a fourth) and owns five consecutive SCORE International championships from his days on that circuit. If off-road racing enjoyed NASCAR’s popularity, this guy would be as popular as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and as good as Jimmie Johnson. All in one. And he drives off cliffs.
Paul Menard, NASCAR Nationwide Series: Menard is having a strong start to 2011 with Richard Childress Racing, but in the long run, he hasn’t been a great Cup driver. However, Menard has won in the Nationwide Series and would probably do so on a regular basis if his efforts were concentrated on that series. Menard is a good driver in fast cars, but he always looked more comfortable in the Nationwide cars than their Cup counterparts.
Plus, right or wrong, the Nationwide Series is a series where victory is relatively easy to buy; with his family’s backing, Menard could easily cash in. The Nationwide Series has always been a series where drivers similar to Menard find a successful lifelong home – Randy Lajoie and Elton Sawyer come to mind as NNS drivers who were content to do just that, if it meant more winning and more fun, all with less stress than Cup. For the laid-back Menard, that might be the ticket to stardom.
Sam Hornish Jr., IndyCar Series: While Hornish scaled back from his Cup effort to a part-time Nationwide effort this year, he’s never been close to as good in a stock car as he was in an IndyCar. Hornish is a three-time IRL champion and Indianpolis 500 winner to boot. He has 19 IRL wins and 27 podium finishes. 32 more times he finished somewhere between fourth and 10th. Add that all up and Hornish has 80 top-10 finishes in just 116 starts.
For the stats junkies out there, that’s better than Johnson’s top-10 percentage in the Sprint Cup Series. There’s absolutely no reason to believe that Hornish couldn’t pick up right where he left off if he were to go back – where any team would likely welcome him with open arms and a lucrative paycheck.
Kyle Busch, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: This is not a question of talent. Busch is probably one of the four of five most talented drivers in the Sprint Cup Series. So why is this 25-year-old on this list? A couple of reasons. One, Busch seems genuinely happier in the Truck Series. There’s less pressure, though the competition is stiff. Busch’s CWTS ventures have often been listed as a reason why he hasn’t seriously contended for a Cup title, but the driver can’t quite seem to give it up, even though the added focus could well bring him multiple Cup titles.
The series suits Busch’s aggressive style well. But the real draw for Busch here is that while he’ll probably reach 50 Cup wins and a championship or two, he’ll be one among several Cup elite, among the best of his contemporaries but will likely not be the best. In the Truck Series, Busch could easily make history as the best the series has ever seen. And if he chose the series to be his home, the wondering if those wins should “count” would fall away.
Busch wouldn’t be in the league of “the King,” but he’d almost certainly be something else-the best of the best in a series that could have been hand-designed for him. If winning races and being the best are truly what Busch wants, perhaps he should focus on a series where he could shatter win and title records like glass. If acclaim is the goal, then Busch could find it this way, without controversy. The best ever-it has a certain ring.
The Sprint Cup Series may be the top of the NASCAR heap, but that doesn’t make it the best fit for every driver. Gordon, Hornish and Busch are among the best drivers in the world and Menard is a talent in his own right. These aren’t drivers in over their heads. They all have a place at the top of the aforementioned heap-but they could be kings of other mountains.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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