The talk centering around the Nationwide Series race at Daytona last week focused mainly on one subject: the new-generation racecar and how it helps the struggling second-tier series build its own identity.
There are myriad reasons why the Nationwide Series needs its own identity and just as many ways to make it happen. It needs its own racecars, drivers, and tracks and it needs to be separated from the weekly second-fiddle status at Sprint Cup events.
One only needs to look back to the end of the 1990s to see what a healthy Nationwide Series can be. In 1998, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s first championship season, there were 11 stand-alone races on the 31-race schedule. Tracks like the Nashville Fairgrounds Raceway, Hickory Speedway, Nazareth Speedway, Pikes Peak International Raceway, the Milwaukee Mile, Myrtle Beach Speedway, South Boston Speedway and Gateway International Raceway held stand-alone races. Other tracks like New Hampshire and Watkins Glen that also held Cup races had stand-alone Nationwide races.
Fields were full of drivers that gave the series its own personality. Earnhardt was on his way to Cup superstardom, as was Matt Kenseth. But a strong contingent of full-time Nationwide-only drivers could run with the Cup Series invaders. Jeff Purvis, Buckshot Jones, Randy LaJoie, Phil Parsons, Hermie and Elliott Sadler, David, Jeff, and Mark Green, Jason Keller, Mike McLaughlin, Tim Fedewa, Dick Trickle, Andy Santerre, Elton Sawyer, Shane Hall, Glenn Allen, Jr., Stevie Reeves, and Joe Bessey were just some of the drivers that gave the series its identity with race fans.
Of the 43 drivers that started in the series opener at Daytona in 1998, just seven would run in the Daytona 500 the following day as a full-time Cup driver. Two of those drivers were in cars they owned themselves, including race winner Joe Nemechek. Just five cars were owned by Cup owners: two by Jack Roush, one by Joe Gibbs, one Bill Davis, and one by Dale Earnhardt. Fast forward to 2010: twenty of the 43 cars were owned by current or former Cup team owners or drivers. Thirteen drivers would also run in the Daytona 500. Just 18 of the 43 starters had less than a full season’s worth of Cup experience.
So how can NASCAR rebuild the Nationwide Series’ identity?
It starts with the cars, although the move to the Cup chassis makes this a lot more difficult. Different body styles are essential, although the talk from Daytona is that Ford and Dodge would consider running the new Mustang and Challenger in the Cup Series if allowed. If there is little to no cross-over from Cup to Nationwide, then there is less reason for those Cup drivers to use Nationwide races as test sessions. Preferably the cars wouldn’t look “similar” to their street counterparts but “identical,” but that is another column for another time.
The second component is the schedule. It’s a fallacy that Nationwide races can only succeed if the field is full of Cup drivers. It is essential to separate the two series on a frequent basis. Tracks that don’t host Cup races need to be on the schedule much more frequently. It might be impossible to add the Hickorys and South Bostons of the world back to the schedule, and NASCAR’s France family bought and then shut down places like Nazareth and Pikes Peak. But there are tracks out there that fit the bill, some ovals and some road courses. The recent success at Montreal and Road America prove that road course racing can be a profitable and exciting component to the schedule and there are plenty of short tracks that could be added in exchange for a combo race somewhere. NASCAR also needs to make these stand-alone races geographically distant from the Cup races so much so that it’s difficult enough that no Cup driver would decide to fly in to race.
Cost containment is also essential. There is no reason why it should cost $7-8 million to run a Nationwide season. The participation by Cup owners has inflated the costs dramatically and chased out long-time Nationwide owners like Bill Baumgartner, Clarence Brewer, Frank Cicci, Gary Bechtel, Doug Taylor, and Bill Papke. One of the things that made the series affordable in the late 1990s was the 9.5:1 compression ratio V-8 engines that replaced the V-6 engines that dominated the early part of the decade. These engines were durable and relatively inexpensive to maintain. NASCAR made the change to 12:1 to bring the Nationwide Series engines more in line with the Cup engines and it drove the cost up dramatically. A return to the 9.5:1 engines and a commitment to stay with them would lower the costs and could eventually bring in new ownership to the sport.
In the absence of the above, NASCAR has other options. Limiting the participation by Cup drivers would help. Cup drivers have always ran Nationwide races, but only recently have they decided they would run for both championships simultaneously. That isn’t a healthy thing for the long-term viability of the series. So what NASCAR should do (and they can do this in addition to the above ideas as well) is limit the number of races a Cup-licensed driver can run in a season through new licensing requirements.
Starting in 2011, a Gold license holder (Cup Series) should be able to enter a total of 55 NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide Series or Camping World Truck Series events. That gives them the entire 36-race Cup schedule plus 19 other races in either the Nationwide Series and/or the Camping World Truck Series. A Silver license holder (Nationwide) could run a total of 35 races – which oddly enough is the exact same number of races on the Nationwide schedule. The Bronze license (Truck) would be good for, you guessed it, 25 races – also the exact same number of races on the Truck schedule. If a Truck driver would like to also run some Nationwide races or a Nationwide driver would like to jump up and run some Cup races, he or she can buy upgrades for one, five, or 10 races but at no time could a Gold license holder buy more starts in a lesser division.
Crew member limits could also be imposed. NASCAR could eliminate the need for specially-trained over the wall crews by a hard limit on the number of team members at a race. Once you have reached your limit, you can’t sign in anyone else to work on your car or go over the wall. No team should need more than 12 people at the track working on a racecar, and that also gives you plenty of people to go over the wall and service it on pit stops.
It is important that NASCAR’s developmental series succeed. Soon, within the next five to ten years, the drivers and even the owners we see racing on Sundays today are going to be at the end of their competitive careers. Where will the drivers that replace them come from? Right now, there isn’t a place for them to race because the Nationwide Series is crowded by Cup drivers and owners. When Jack Roush, Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress, Roger Penske and Joe Gibbs decide they are done with NASCAR and retire, who will replace them? When Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton call it a career, who is waiting in the wings ready to take over? The owners that have raided the Nationwide Series for race wins and championships have sacrificed the long-term health of the sport as a whole for short term gain.