Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Reality Check for the Nationwide Series

There's been a lot of chatter in recent years about the Nationwide Series lacking an identity of its own, what with Cup drivers coming down into the series to dominate races, steal prize money and win championships at the expense of the up-and-comers.

A full-time Cup Series driver has won the last five Nationwide Series titles: Kevin Harvick in 2006; Carl Edwards in 2007; Clint Bowyer in 2008; Kyle Busch in 2009; and Brad Keselowski in 2010. Martin Truex Jr., who went back-to-back in 2004 and 2005, is the last driver to win a Nationwide Series title while not competing full-time in the Sprint Cup Series.

The racket about this phenomenon got so loud that NASCAR tried to do something about it; in the offseason, NASCAR told drivers to choose one national touring series in which to collect championship points. Drivers could still run as many races in the other series as they wanted, but they could only collect points in one series.

The result? Justin Allgaier is the Nationwide Series points leader, but he's yet to win a race in 2011. In fact, full-time Cup drivers have won all eight races so far this season; Busch and Edwards have six wins between them.

It's entirely possible the Nationwide Series crowns a winless champion this season.

Some have called for limiting the number of races a full-time Cup driver can run in the Nationwide Series, if not outright ban them; I've even advocated this in the past. Experts bemoan the lack of identity in the Nationwide Series, despite a new-generation race car that has everyone -- drivers, officials, fans, media -- excited. Tracks and sponsors love the money and exposure Cup drivers offer -- which is why an outright ban will never fly.

But let's be realistic. Cup drivers have always been a part of the series' identity, even back to its founding in 1982. Do you know who won the first-ever Nationwide Series race? The late Dale Earnhardt -- who was already three years into his Cup career.

Can you tell me who the top two drivers are on the Nationwide Series' all-time wins list? Mark Martin and Kyle Busch -- and the bulk of their wins in the Nationwide Series have come in the middle of their respective Cup careers.

The problem isn't that Cup drivers are running Nationwide Series races -- they've always done that, and they always will. The problem is Cup drivers running the full Nationwide Series schedule, a phenomenon that didn't crop up until 2006.

Harvick actually became the first driver to run both the Nationwide and Cup Series schedules full-time in 2001, even though he did not run in the Daytona 500. Circumstances dictated this, since Harvick wasn't originally scheduled to go Cup racing in 2001 until Earnhardt's death. But once Harvick pulled the double again in 2006, winning his second Nationwide Series title, it opened the flood gates for other drivers.

Edwards and Keselowski are slated to run the full Nationwide Series schedule this season, despite not being eligible for the championship. Whether that's because of driver preference or sponsor commitments, that's a problem.

The Nationwide Series has always been a feeder series for the up-and-coming drivers to test their mettle against moonlighting Cup drivers; it's as true today as it was in 1982. The Nationwide Series has never been exclusively about the young guys. NASCAR has always tried to strike a delicate balance between exposure and self-identity in the series, and that balancing act has been a failure in the last five years.

Don't ban Cup drivers outright -- I don't think the series would survive in the long run. But placing a limit on how many races a full-time Cup Series driver can run in the Nationwide Series -- say, 17 races (roughly half the schedule) -- could be the way to restore that balance.

Cup drivers aren't going away, and nor should they. But NASCAR has a way to restore competitive balance to the Nationwide Series and give that series a champion that won't leave people feeling empty at the end of the year.

But they refuse to do it.

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