Race Weekend Central

Racing To The Point: The Sorry State Of NASCAR’s Second Tier

I could’ve sworn that NASCAR made a rule change last week stipulating that cars could no longer run cool-down laps at the bottom of the track, but then, I watched the Nationwide race on Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Basically everyone except Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch was doing it. It’s dangerous, people; did you see how much faster those Gibbs cars were going than the rest of the field?

Wait, those cars weren’t running cool-down laps? They’re just that slow? Give me a second to wrap my head around this point. I guess I’m confused, because Kenseth had lapped up to 10th place by about lap 55 Saturday — and that’s not an exaggeration.

Kyle Busch is one of a handful of Sprint Cup drivers who, week after week, tend to run away with Nationwide Series victories.
Kyle Busch is one of a handful of Sprint Cup drivers who, week after week, tend to run away with Nationwide Series victories.

It was an embarrassment of riches.

I tuned in to watch NASCAR’s stars of tomorrow battle some of the best of today at one of the sport’s most exciting tracks, and instead watched Kenseth and Busch slice their way through traffic like it was stopped. They combined to lead 298 of the 300 laps, and all that stopped them from lapping the field twice over — and I’m completely serious — were phantom debris cautions.

Here are some even better numbers. Full-time Sprint Cup drivers in 2013 won 26 of the 33 Nationwide races last season, with a part-timer, A.J. Allmendinger, adding two more. Drivers with less than 100 Cup starts accounted for two victories (Ryan Blaney and Trevor Bayne). And yet, the slogan of the Nationwide Series is “Names are made here.”

Instead, the only “up-and-comers” that seem to be benefiting from this series are Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski. Their names appear on the bottom of the ESPNticker each weekend, and in newspaper and web headlines each Sunday. In ESPN’s commercials during the week, however, we’re told about the next crop of young stars (Dylan Kwasniewski, Chase Elliott, Ryan Reed, etc.). Reed crashed hard Saturday, Kwasniewski finished two laps down and Elliott only finished on the lead lap because NASCAR allowed him to restart with the lead-lap cars after getting the Lucky Dog. The 12 cars that finished on the lead lap don’t tell the full story of the domination of the series’ super teams.

And the scariest part is that it happened at Bristol, a short track where the playing field is supposed to be more level for the small teams because aerodynamics and horsepower play much smaller roles than driver and setup. The small teams know they don’t have a chance at Auto Club Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, but I’d imagine they circle Bristol on the calendar. Then Bristol comes, and the big teams circle them four times.

I say “teams” instead of “drivers” there because the problems in the Nationwide Series run much deeper than Cup drivers winning all but five races last season. There are five Nationwide teams in the top tier: Joe Gibbs Racing, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, JR Motorsports (which is, effectively, Hendrick Motorsports) and Roush Fenway Racing. The common denominator? All five are linked with top-tier Cup operations.

Guess how many Nationwide races these five teams combined to win last season? If you answered all of them, you’re correct — the entire 33-race season.

Unfortunately, this problem can be broken down even further. Gibbs and Penske combined to win 28 of the 33 races and have already won three of four races this year. The only competition, frankly, is themselves. It doesn’t matter whether Keselowski, Joey Logano or Blaney is in the No. 22, either; it is going to run out front because it has the best equipment, plus herds of engineers and crew members working to make it better. Meanwhile, more than half the field in the Nationwide garage is scraping by with a handful of people. Grandma is the jackman and Uncle Lou is the crew chief. When the race starts each Saturday, the disparity shows.

The Cup teams have dominated Nationwide for the last decade-plus, but there used to be a solid middle group of teams that could steal wins. Those days are gone. All that’s left in the middle is Turner Scott Motorsports and maybe RAB Racing, the latter of which plan on running the full season with a talented driver, and former Camping World Truck Series champion, James Buescher. However, their only shot at winning a race this year will be at a superspeedway. Top 10s will be hard to come by, as will TV time. Even Kyle Busch’s single-car team folded at the end of last season — a team even he couldn’t win with in 22 starts in 2012. No wonder why JGR demanded Busch join their riches, take sponsor Monster Energy and get back in their fold.

All that we’re left with, now is the haves and the have-nots. The disparity is so large between the two that it’s almost as though there are two separate series competing each Saturday, on the same track at the same time. It’s like the 24 Hours of Le Mans — Keselowski and Busch are driving the Le Mans Prototype, along with about eight others and everyone else is in the way driving those Porsche 911s.

It took a decade-plus of Cup rule for Nationwide Series racing to hit this sorry state. NASCAR’s only intervention during that time was taking the Cup drivers out of the Nationwide points battle because the governing body likes to pretend there is nothing wrong with the racing. Anyone that reads the statistics in this column and/or watched Saturday’s event would strongly disagree. NASCAR’s negligence has made what was a problem ten years ago into something that looks like it’s beyond repair today.

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