Race Weekend Central

2012 NASCAR Season Preview, Part V: Whacking Those Cup Drivers Away

Slowly, over a pristine beach, the sun rises and for 43 NASCAR lucky drivers at Daytona, a new opportunity dawns to add to the glorious history of the Great American Race. After a three-month hiatus, the Sprint Cup Series returns with its Super Bowl, the Daytona 500 to begin its new season by offering up the sport’s top-level prize … at 200-mph speeds, of course.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, the start of a journey that takes us to Phoenix, New Hampshire and nearly two dozen American locales in between. As the 36-race season begins, along with its two exhibition shows Frontstretch will be there, stride for stride covering these drivers and their stories every step of the way. But as we awake from our winter hibernation, so will many of you, preoccupied with life elsewhere during a season where football, Christmas and anything but cars in circles takes center stage.

So let us get you revved up once again, your heart pumping and your brain thinking through the trials and tribulations of the NASCAR season to come. Welcome to Frontstretch season preview time, all week setting up not only the Sprint Cup season but reintroducing the return of all your favorite columnists, returning to the weekly coverage they all love.

Other 2012 Season Preview Articles
Part I: Crew Chief Silly Season
Part II: NASCAR’s Dwindling Car Count
Part III: The Future of the Busch Brothers
Part IV: Danica Hype Versus Reality

Today’s Season Preview Topic: For the first time in recent history, the Nationwide and Truck series will not have any Cup driver running full time or in position to win a majority of the races, a la Kyle Busch. Is that a positive move or short-term disaster for the series? And with the Cup guys out of the picture, who becomes the favorite to take the title in each division?

Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: Three words: It’s about time. Twelve months after a rule change limiting the number of series in which drivers can score championship points, Nationwide and Trucks will be cleansed of their “Cupwhackers” to the point you can expect series regulars to win the majority of races.

It’s the right adjustment, made at a critical moment considering the most impressive freshman candidate to hit the Sprint Cup ranks, from 2010 through 2012 is associated with a certain enlargement pill (Look up Kevin Conway, Extenze on Google if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

Why have the current crop of Cup rookies dried up? Well, it doesn’t help when you see the same people in victory lane on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. How can sponsors be convinced to support an “up-and-coming” driver when the ones in place don’t give them a chance to strut their stuff?

Look for guys like Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt and Austin Dillon to break out of the shadows and pile up some Nationwide trophies early and often. Dillon, in his first season running NASCAR’s second-tier division has top-tier equipment and support from Richard Childress Racing that makes him a championship favorite.

On the Truck side, it’s Thorsport’s time to shine after Kevin Harvick Inc. dissolved before their eyes. Expect Matt Crafton of all people to win multiple races along with Johnny Sauter in making this season a tete-a-tete, internal battle for the season title.

Will the ratings in both divisions suffer in the short term, fans tuning out because of fewer Sprint Cuppers? It’s possible. But considering Danica Patrick and Dillon’s strong following, plus the strength of the rivalries inside NASCAR’s Truck Series, the dip in popularity will be hardly noticeable. By 2013, these series will be surviving on their own once more (thank goodness) to the point we’ll be wondering why top officials didn’t put the hammer down sooner.

Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: Long story short, the answer to this question is “a little of both.” At least for the Nationwide Series. Sure, they’ll still have a few guys (Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch) that will “whack” the series a bunch and having Danica Patrick there will be like having a full-time Cupper. However, Patrick will only be there for this year, and then off to Cup she goes (likely along with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and possibly Trevor Bayne).

They need to promote the drivers they have for the long haul. Outside of the whackers, barely anyone has name recognition with the fans, even longtime supporters. The picture is similar in the Truck Series now only because so many full-time teams have fallen off the planet in the past few years (Germain Racing, Randy Moss Motorsports and Panhandle Motorsports just since May).

As for potential champions, its going to be hard for anyone to keep Stenhouse from repeating in Nationwide, especially since he’s talking about winning double digits this year (doubtful, at best). His only real challengers will probably be the rookie Dillon, Elliott Sadler, possibly Whitt and Bayne (if Bayne can get full backing).

In the Camping World Truck Series, it’s more wide open. Ty Dillon could contend, along with Sauter, Parker Kligerman (if he doesn’t wreck too much) and even Nelson Piquet Jr. However, Piquet’s program with Turner Motorsports still has some question marks.

Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer & Cup Post-race Analyst: In the short term, the lack of Cup racers running Friday nights and Saturdays is going to hurt the TV ratings and ticket sales. That might be a bitter pill to swallow initially, but long term, it’s healthy for those two divisions to develop their own stars as rungs up the ladder to the Cup Series. It’s the way God and Bill France intended.

Amy Henderson, Co-Managing Editor: A disaster? You’ve got to be kidding! This move is the best thing that could happen to those series, which desperately need to regain identities of their own (though a hugely-funded entry driven by the Busch brothers promises to still be a problem in the Nationwide Series.) The championship issue was fixed last year and the change resulted in the crowning of two young, likeable drivers with the potential to be household names for years to come.

Despite suggestions to the contrary (mostly made by the Cup double-dippers), sponsors are signing on with some NNS drivers. However, don’t get too excited just yet; the Cup owners are still pouring ridiculous amounts of money into series where the independent owners can’t hope to match the dollars.

Considering a huge number of Nationwide and Truck teams have folded in the last several years, many of them with championships under their belts, suggests that both series are still in a very precarious position despite recent improvements in the number, if not the exposure, of their regulars at the top of the points.

There is still so much to be done, including a shift of these series back to short tracks and a necessary change in the mindset of the broadcast networks, but this is a welcome change, and hopefully the beginning of better days.

Beth Lunkenheimer, Co-Managing Editor: The simple answer for the Nationwide Series is a little of both. Sure, there will likely be some loss of fans in the stands along with viewers on television in the beginning, but those that have been disenchanted by the Cup drivers – who won a combined 28 of 34 races last year – will likely find their way back within just a few weeks.

But that’s not to say the Cup drivers still won’t be racking up wins over the Nationwide ones with Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Logano, even Kurt and Kyle Busch each running part time in the series. With that being said, it’ll be interesting to keep a close eye on Stenhouse and Bayne as the two go head-to-head once again, and this time Bayne should remain healthy enough to compete in the full schedule.

On the other hand, the Truck Series is a little more murky. While Kyle Busch did aggravate plenty of drivers and fans alike during his tenure in the series, he provided a HUGE benefit in several ways. Aside from bringing plenty of his own fans over to watch a series they may not have watched otherwise, numerous drivers have been quoted as saying they’ve found themselves raising the bar a little higher with the younger Busch brother in the field.

And who could blame them? With six victories and 13 top 10s in 16 starts, it makes perfect sense that other drivers would strive to beat Busch.

But while the loss of a great teacher and fan draw will likely cause a decrease in viewership, those that started watching just because of Busch in the field will now get to know the drivers that are the face of the series. Also, once again the championship will be anyone’s to lose, consistently the best battle historically amongst NASCAR’s top-three divisions.

With such a small field creating a tight level of competition between those few, full-time teams, there’s no question the battle will once again come down to the final race of the season.

Toni Montgomery, Senior Editor & IndyCar Analyst: VERY positive move. The Nationwide Series did just fine with no Cup driver running full time or for the championship last year. So did the Truck Series, where both had their own stars shine for once. In fact, the most feedback I hear from fans is they want to see those guys win more. As for who benefits, Sadler looks good for the Nationwide title, while James Buescher seems to have the momentum in the Truck Series.

Mike Neff, Senior Writer & Short-Track Analyst: Provided there are still a handful of Cup guys in the field each week, it will be a positive for the series. When there are no Cup drivers, the attendance and ratings suffer and that is only going to make it harder for the series to coerce tracks to host events. In the Nationwide Series, the Roush domination is going to be hurt by the lack of sponsorship this season which opens the door for the Richard Childress teams.

Having the Nationwide program back in the RCR house, along with the owner’s grandson driving the cars, is going to put Sadler in the top spot unless he screws it up.

The Truck Series race is a bit more wide open this year. Rookie Ty Dillon, a darkhorse candidate is bringing part of his ARCA team over to blend with the championship-winning team from last year. However, his style will probably cost him enough points during the season to keep the title out of reach.

Meanwhile, Buescher was a force last season despite failing to qualify for a race. If Turner Motorsports can keep Buescher in the kind of trucks he had last season, he has to be considered the favorite.

S.D. Grady, Senior Editor: Oh, this is good for me, the dedicated fan. New names and faces will have the opportunity to appear on the TV screen more often. As such, I’ll be able to build a better appreciation of which new kid on the block stands a real chance when they get the shot at the Big Show. But for TV ratings, this is bad. I know fewer casual fans will stop to watch unknown quantities take to the track.

Still, for the future of Cup, there will be time for fanbases to be built for future Rookie of the Year candidates. That’s the important thing.

I really couldn’t pick a potential title winner for Nationwide. Too many exciting names, new and old, are jumping in the ring. Personally, Austin Dillon has grabbed my attention. He’s got a first class team behind him and shown plenty of brass on the track. I am literally jumping for the start of this season. As for Trucks? Buescher. He’s had it coming and it’s time.

Tony Lumbis, Business Reporter & Marketing Manager: This change is definitely a good thing. Like any sport, NASCAR needs new talent continuously injected in the system to keep its fan base energized. But in recent years, there has been basically a “No Vacancy” sign on the shop of several top organizations at the Sprint Cup level.

To make matters worse, those same drivers were crowding out opportunities in Nationwide. The pipeline has gone dry as before last year, one has to go back to find the last non-Sprint Cup champion in Martin Truex Jr. The Sprint Cup series has not had a semi-appealing Rookie of the Year battle since Logano and Scott Speed battled it out in 2009.

More drivers will have the opportunity to get their name in the headlines, meaning more owners will notice and perhaps we will start seeing new faces at the top level. In Nationwide, Stenhouse is going to be tough to beat once again, but look for Patrick, Scott, Allgaier and Whitt to make some noise. And as for the Camping World Truck Series, it always has a strong veteran presence, but Ty Dillon should challenge for the trophy in his rookie season.

Brett Poirier, Senior Writer: I’ve never bought into the idea that fans were only tuning into Nationwide Series races because they wanted to see their favorite Sprint Cup drivers destroy the field. I enjoy watching the races that lack those veterans, and I think most fans do, too.

Kyle Busch isn’t proving anything by going out in far superior equipment and dominating Nationwide races; he’s just getting fans to turn off their TVs. I think the Nationwide Series needs to market itself on young up-and-comers, and actually having some of them in the races instead of Sprint Cup regulars can only strengthen the series.

So who will stand out? Stenhouse has to be the favorite in the Nationwide Series this season with the Busch brothers winning the owner championship. Over in Trucks, with Austin Dillon moving on to Nationwide, it might finally be Sauter’s year.

John Potts, Senior Writer & Historical Columnist: When Nationwide was the Busch Series during the 1980s and ’90s, we had terrific success with the race at Indianapolis Raceway Park despite bringing in just one or two headliners. Don’t know if that would work today. As it is, there’ll be a few interlopers from the Cup Series, still in 2012 and they may trot off with most of the big races.

I think more attention needs to be paid to promoting the Nationwide Series as the Nationwide Series, not treating it like “Cup Lite.” However, I’ll admit to publicizing that Dale Earnhardt Sr. or DW was going to be there whenever they entered a Busch event. Contrary to today’s situation, only one of those headliners ever won it – Michael Waltrip in 1989.

So who will be the title favorites this season? I look for Austin Dillon and Sadler to make a real run in Nationwide. In the Truck Series, Sauter could make a run for it, and probably Ty Dillon.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: It is the best thing that could happen to either one of these divisions. Cup drivers in Truck races do nothing to increase attendance or ratings; if anything, they diminish them, because they end up dominating the race and ruining it. It’s not the 1990s, where Cup drivers were needed to help fill the fields and add a sense of legitimacy to the event.

Each series needs its own stars and own identity to survive in the current climate, as well as help breed new talent, names, faces, and fans. The only negative I see from this move is having Cup-level drivers in the lower tier series helps regulars learn how to race the right way before moving up – they’re competing with and observing the very best.

As for title contenders? In the Truck Series, my money is on Ty Dillon. As good as his older brother and 2011 Truck Series champion Austin Dillon is, Ty is that much better, and is going to be a force to be reckoned with at the Cup level in a few years. Think second-coming of Kyle Busch-quality good – but without the irritations.

Nationwide Series, as much as I had been critical of him in the past, I believe that Sam Hornish Jr. will challenge – in his Challenger – for the title, after scoring his first win in a stock car after returning from exile last November at Phoenix.

Mark Howell, Contributor: Keeping the Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series limited of “carpetbaggers” seems like a good idea to me. It’ll be beneficial to the young drivers who are looking to make a competitive name for themselves, and it might help lesser-recognized teams receive the attention they deserve.

Losing the more “famous” names from the Sprint Cup ranks may cost each series a few spectators, but there’s more to good racing than the allure of a superstar who decides to see how the other half lives. That said, I’m thinking that 2012 will look very much like a repeat of 2011 – Stenhouse will make another solid showing in the NNS and look for Ty Dillon, in RCR’s No. 3 truck, to run well in the CWTS.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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