Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy has five ways NASCAR could compromise on the issue of Sprint Cup Series drivers running in other series.
It’s a fine line NASCAR is walking with drivers participating in multiple series. On one hand, there is a group of fans that does go to Nationwide or Camping World Truck series races to see what the Sprint Cup stars will do, and there is a benefit to the young drivers in those series when they have the chance to race the best in the sport. On the other hand, it does get tiresome when the same Cup drivers, with more money and experience than their series-regular counterparts, win the lion’s share of the races, and many fans have said that they have lost interest and no longer watch those series because of the predictability and the Cup drivers taking over. What, then, is NASCAR to do? It’s clear they don’t want to ban drivers from other series, and maybe they shouldn’t do that. But there are some ways that the trophy-hunting could be reduced.
1. Last-place prize money.
Last-place money in the Nationwide Series is a pittance. It’s even worse in the Truck Series. Last week at Mid-Ohio, 39th-place Roger Reuse netted $11,475 after succumbing to transmission issues early and finishing last. In the CWTS race at Michigan, Caleb Roark finished a bottom-of-the-barrel 29th and won $8,750 for his efforts. (Comparatively, Kyle Larson won more than $80,000 for finishing 43rd in Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400.)
Last-place money in the lower series doesn’t even always cover a team’s tire bill. At approximately $1800 a set, even with the six-set limit, tire costs alone are roughly $10,600 per race. That’s not very lucrative for a driver who can’t earn points in a series. If all drivers racing for Cup points and their teams were awarded the same amount as the last-place driver would have gotten, the remaining prize money could be redistributed to the regulars, which would help those teams on a weekly basis.
It’s likely that the Cup car owners would pick and choose their entries more carefully if they knew that they would be in the red for those races. The drivers probably wouldn’t be all that enthusiastic, either, since their cut would be negligible. Many teams would likely pick and choose a few races a year that were important to them, but not run so many races with the Cup stars, because the bankroll would suffer if they did.
2. No owner points.
Right now, drivers are only eligible for points in one NASCAR series, but car owners can accrue points in any series with any driver. That means that they can compete for a championship as an owner, and some owners have done that, even at the expense of their full-time Nationwide teams. The media does talk about the owner’s title in these series, especially in Nationwide, so that’s exposure for sponsors and incentive for both them and the owners to keep the Cup guys in the cars as often as possible. Take that away by allowing car owners to accrue points only if the driver of the car is also eligible for series points, and suddenly, there’s not such a compelling reason to put the Cup guys in the car. Better yet, combine this one with the last-place money rule, and Cup driver participation would most likely become an occasional thing at tracks where they genuinely want a little more experience.
3. Even better, don’t let them drive for the same owner.
If NASCAR created a rule that didn’t allow drivers to run with the same owners in lower series (and there would need to be a way to close loopholes like naming the crew chief’s wife as car owner), it could potentially solve some of the problems with the practice as it is today. It was often the case that a Cup driver would sign on with a local car owner to run a Nationwide or Truck race or two at nearby tracks, and that was the kind of participation that fans once enjoyed from the Cup stars. They could help a small-time owner out, have some fun, make some fans happy by signing a few autographs, and be competitive without being ridiculously dominant with a combination of superior equipment and much more money. If that was the case again, it’s likely that fans would warm up to the Cup drivers in the field, and the youngsters would still have the benefit of racing them, but on much more equal ground. It could create a win-win situation for all involved
4. Limit the number of total races in a season.
Instead of limiting a driver to one series or another, an easy solution to cutting back the extracurricular activities could also mean limiting a driver to a set number of races a year across NASCAR’s national touring series. If, for example, a NASCAR license covered 50 points-paying races in any one year, it would limit the Cup drivers to 14 races in other series, which would allow their participation while ending the year-long dominance. It would also allow Nationwide or Truck series drivers moving up to Cup a few races to get their feet wet in the higher series while remaining eligible for Rookie of the Year honors. It’s perhaps the simplest
solution, and it has potential to work fairly well.
5. More stand-alone races
Finally, a long-term solution could lie in revamping the Nationwide and Truck series schedules. Those series were both meant to be short-track-based series, running smaller tracks than Cup as a means to develop drivers and cater to drivers who preferred to make a career outside the Cup ranks running the smaller tracks. The series used to thrive at tracks from Myrtle Beach to Pike’s Peak, drawing both NASCAR and short track fans. Then NASCAR and the big tracks got greedy, thinking they’d increase ticket sales by combining races. For a while it worked, and perhaps some undercard races do attract the numbers that places like South Boston once did, but the numbers aren’t really that strong, and appear to drop each year. Perhaps it’s time to return those series to their original intent. Distance would limit the Cup drivers without any extra rules, and the racing would almost certainly be better than on many of the tracks the series currently run. The current model is no longer working for the Nationwide and Truck series…maybe it’s time to give the old one a closer look and a better marketing plan.