New Faces, New Stories and New Successes
Kenny Wallace barely recognizes the Nationwide Series now compared to the one he raced in 22 years ago.
Back then, the series had its own identity, holding its races largely around the Southeast and traveling no further west than Nashville. Now, not only do the drivers head to Fontana this week, but there's the annual trip to Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.
The series has undergone an inordinate amount of growth, especially in the past 10 years, and those inside the series say it's only getting better.
"The changes have been so dramatic," Wallace said. "We raced every Saturday around the North Carolina area. We ran Myrtle Beach, we ran Hickory. We'd drive to the tracks on Saturday morning, and late Saturday night we were back home."
It was a different series in 1989, and Mike Bliss said it has changed plenty just since he started running it full time in 2003. Back then, even when Cup Series drivers were running in the series, they were doing so in cars fielded by Nationwide Series owners.
It wasn't as much of an "us against them" feel as it can have now. But those who have been around fully support the points change that keeps Cup championship contenders from also racking up the points in Nationwide.
"It's starting to feel, maybe, with the new points structure, starting to feel like they're giving this series back to us," Bliss said. "The way the points are, that's the first step. We still would like to somehow get a way to get rid of Kyle Busch. Here he could run 20 races and still finish in the top 10 in points because he was winning half of them."
The move to have a true Nationwide champion has been greeted warmly by those within the series. Rusty Wallace, Kenny's older brother and owner of Rusty Wallace Racing, also works as a television analyst for ESPN. He said their pre-race planning sessions have taken on a whole new tone this season.
"We got off our conference call, and all of our conversations now include the Nationwide-only drivers," Wallace said. "Last year, that was not the case. We always talked about Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch.
"Now we have reason to talk about who's leading the Nationwide points and who the new young guns going to be. Ricky Stenhouse went from crashing everything to running really well. Our in-race reporter this week is Jason Leffler. Now we have a lot more to talk about with the Nationwide regulars."
Another of the young drivers in the series is rookie Timmy Hill. Hill made his series debut with Rick Ware Racing at Phoenix after turning 18 that same weekend.
He said he enjoys the mix of veterans and young drivers the Nationwide Series offers. He leans a lot on teammate Carl Long, and will continue to do so at Fontana, which will be the largest track Hill has ever raced on.
But beyond that, he's just trying to soak up as much as he can.
"It's been a pretty good learning experience because when you have the veterans in the series, it makes you try even harder," Hill said.
Series points leader Jason Leffler is one of those veterans now at the tender age of 35. To him, the average age of the drivers has gotten younger through the years, but that's not necessarily for good reasons.
"Nowadays , guys come in and they are judged more quickly on their potential," Leffler said. "They don't get very much time to prove themselves. Where you used to have a lot of drivers who were in the series to do what they loved and make a living, you don't see that as often anymore. Now, these young guys come in and are either getting moved up to Cup really quick if they can prove themselves and if they don't, they slowly disappear. You don't see many guys have the longevity in this series like you used to with guys like Jason Keller."
They may not all stay, but some of them return. Kenny Wallace said he can foresee Mark Martin running the full season next year when his Cup contract with Hendrick Motorsports ends. Elliott Sadler has already made the move, signing on with Kevin Harvick Inc., and said the changes in the series just since he last ran it full time in 1998 are easy to see.
"It's a lot different mentality," Sadler said. "The competition is higher, and the equipment is definitely a higher grade. It's amazing to see how much hands-on equipment there is with so many teams."
With so much change in the series, it's a tumultuous time. There are new faces, new stories and new successes.
And to hear the drivers tell it, that's exactly what has been missing.
"It's important to have an identity, and it's coming back," Bliss said. "I think NASCAR's trying to do that."
"I honestly think it's been pretty effortless," Sadler said. "I really think it's helped the series with going to the points system. It allows fans to watch it and see it and read about it and how it's all being put together. Good for the Nationwide Series and good for people trying to make a name for themselves."