Race Weekend Central

The Favorites Forcing the Fans Out: The Nationwide Series’ Not-So-New Problem

Take one look at Saturday’s (April 23) finishing order from Nashville and a race fan would never know that the Cup Series had an off weekend. Carl Edwards took a relatively easy win, followed by Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and polesitter Joey Logano before top Nationwide Series regular Ricky Stenhouse Jr. crossed the line in fifth.

That’s been the story of the 2011 Nationwide Series. It was one that was supposed to see a rejuvenation, courtesy of new, muscle-car inspired racecars, new ownership that was simply waiting on said new car to join the sport and a points system engineered to guarantee a Nationwide regular would win their own series title for the first time since 2005.

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2011 Nashville 300

Instead, this year has seen anything but. The new racecars have been there and they do look sharp. But in terms of leveling the playing field, they’ve done anything but; a Nationwide regular has yet to win eight races into 2011, the fourth time in the past six seasons it’s taken at least this long for a series regular to actually bring a checkered flag home.

New ownership? Forget about it. Nashville again saw a bare minimum 43 cars make an attempt, not one of which is being fielded by an owner new to the series. And as for the points system, it’s been an all but irrelevant story two months in… because the points leaders aren’t winning races. Hell, they’re struggling even to lead laps.

No, the new-look Nationwide Series has proven to be lipstick on a pig; broadcasters may well be planting red smack marks all over everything they can relating to the series (Brad Daugherty couldn’t stop raving during Saturday’s pre-race about how the new car has leveled the playing field in NASCAR’s minor leagues). But, underneath that layer of makeup there’s still an ugly-ass swine running all over the AAA ranks, leaving a trail of mud, feces and general nastiness that only a pig can.

To borrow a line from Pulp Fiction, John Travolta did well to remind us sitting down to breakfast that “bacon tastes good.” And Samuel Jackson did us one better, noting that “pigs sleep and root in sh*t. That’s a filthy animal. I ain’t eat nothin’ that ain’t got sense enough to disregard its own feces.”

I’m not going to sit here and agree with Jackson on his choice of breakfast foods. I’m going to scarf down my bacon and enjoy every bite of it. But the metaphor holds true here. The Nationwide Series status quo, the same Nationwide Series racing that’s been playing out since 2006 is playing out again in 2011. The pig may have a new shade of lipstick on it, with a guaranteed Nationwide champ and unique racecars, but it’s still a filthy animal running around.

And while that pig may produce some great-tasting bacon, such as the intense side-by-side battle waged between Busch and Edwards for the lead, and eventual race win, in the closing laps of Saturday’s 300-miler, it’s still a filthy animal. No matter the great smoky taste, no matter how exciting that battle, the latest episode in the Carl vs. Kyle featuring Brad saga that’s been the only story of Nationwide competition since the kickoff of the 2009 campaign became the latest mudhole for the remnants of NASCAR’s driver development series to slag its way through.

This argument has been hashed and rehashed out countless times, from the first time a Cup regular ran double duty from the start of the season (Greg Biffle in 2004) to the 2005 Nationwide race at Chicago that saw Cup regulars score the top-15 finishing positions to Kevin Harvick‘s cyclonic dominance of the series in 2006 that started an epidemic of Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Busch and Keselowski all stepping down to grab their AAA trophies at the expense of everyone actually trying to make their living and mark in that series.

And the sides haven’t changed; the proponents argue that having the big guys there sells tickets, brings in TV viewers and lends national relevance to the Nationwide Series, while the opponents note that the big guys have all the money, hog all the sponsors and ultimately have spawned an arms race that has left any teams not using Cup drivers and technology unable to keep pace.

After Saturday’s event, here’s what’s certain. A Cup influx was not a boon to Nationwide attendance; only 18,000 fans were reported as the crowd, less than 50% of grandstand capacity. The playing field hardly seemed level; Cup regular drivers took the top-four finishing positions, no Cup regular finished outside the top 15 and only two cars not directly affiliated with a major Cup program finished in the top 10 (though both of those entries were powered with engines from a Cup shop).

What’s more, with the top four being Edwards, Busch, Keselowski and Logano, those four continued to be the story of the Nationwide season. These four drivers, none of whom are contending for the series crown, have won six of eight races, scored 40% of the top-five finishing positions and led 76.8% of the laps run in 2011.

For those race fans out there that aren’t fans of those four, God help them finding a reason to watch on Saturdays.

Besides, how is it even sound business practice to hinge the well-being of the series on these four drivers? They’re all regulars in another series, for crying out loud! And look at the roster. You have the most-hated driver in the sport, one who of his own volition or not has seen his dominance turned into borderline comedy by the broadcast media, trying to equate his accumulation of Nationwide and Truck trophies with the exploits of seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty.

Then there’s Edwards, a driver who for all of his theatrics, sponsor and fan love has proven as much of a factor in contending for a Cup title as Junior… only one serious run at it, and who, despite his unrelenting commitment to run full minor-league schedules year after year has played second fiddle to other Buschwhackers every season since 2008.

Then there’s Keselowski, who despite dominating the Nationwide Series last year has proven to be an absolute dud on Sundays, miring the vaunted Blue Deuce outside the top 25 in owner points without a dustup or masterful win to show in quite some time.

Finally, there’s Logano, the young phenom who’s suddenly resembling Casey Atwood more than Mark Martin, the driver who famously remarked that “Sliced Bread” was ready for Cup at age 15.

At least in the early years of complete Cup invasion of the Nationwide Series, there was at least variety in winners; Roush Fenway Racing would have their entire Cup stable rotating through their Nationwide cars, as would Joe Gibbs Racing, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, etc. Now, it’s not even enough that the big guns blow everyone away weekend after weekend… it’s the same big guns doing it.

Call it a problem or not, Nationwide racing has become both formulaic and predictable. The same four guys start up front, the same four guys mix it up, the same four guys take the money and run.

The pigs are getting fatter, while the series’ garage is looking like a pigpen. No wonder there were less than 20,000 fans ready to pucker up this past Saturday. Even with that fancy new lipstick.

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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