Under New Nationwide Rule, Will Anything Change?
Check one box.
It seems simple, doesn't it? Just draw an X in the appropriate place, and you're committed to running for only one title on NASCAR's national level -- Sprint Cup, Nationwide, or Camping World Truck. Say goodbye to the moonlighters trying to double-dip championships, and hello to NASCAR's first real attempt to limit incursions into its No. 2 series. As Dave Rodman reported earlier this week, drivers won't be barred from competing on more than one national tour, but they will be restricted to pursuing a single championship of their choice.
Give NASCAR a little credit for trying something to set apart its Nationwide tour, which has been stuck with this unofficial "Cup light" designation for so long now it's often difficult to differentiate when Saturday ends and Sunday begins. And yet, with this rule modification in place, what exactly changes? The picture at the end of the season, obviously; the champion could very well be a driver without a race win, given that Justin Allgaier was the lone non-Cup driver to reach Victory Lane on the Nationwide tour last year. But championship exclusions aside, Saturday afternoons will almost certainly look the same as they always have, with Cup drivers clogging the Nationwide starting grid and keeping their stranglehold on the win column.
Barring Cup regulars from pursuing the Nationwide championship will not keep Cup regulars out of Nationwide races, simply because sponsors want them there. The exorbitant cost of backing a car in NASCAR's premier division has driven many sponsors to the Nationwide tour, where for a more reasonable dollar figure they can still associate themselves with a Cup name. For these companies, the bang for the buck doesn't come in a season-ending championship, even if the likes of Keselowski, Edwards, and Kyle Busch have been able to deliver one. No, the payoff comes in Victory Lane, where a CEO can spray champagne alongside a driver who's among the most famous in NASCAR, while his corporate logo gets great time on TV. Until that changes -- and there are no immediate signs that it will --Saturdays will retain their familiar theme.
Maybe one day, if this championship exclusion stays in place long enough, sponsors will be so enticed by the prospect of a season title that they'll begin to demand younger, championship-eligible drivers in their cars. But right now, that carrot doesn't seem to hold nearly as much appeal as the race-day attention they receive whenever their car wins. By and large, they're not in this to have their name mentioned on a stage in Miami Beach during an awards show that few people watch, something evidenced by the fact that only two or three Cup regulars were planning a run at the Nationwide title anyway. They're in this to associate themselves with marketable, recognizable drivers at a price that seems like a bargain compared to the costs of backing the same competitor on the Sprint Cup tour. And as long as those sponsors come calling, teams and drivers aren't going to turn them away.
Regardless of what box he checks on his 2011 license application, Busch is still going to compete this season in roughly two dozen Nationwide events. As of this week, Edwards still plans to run the entire Nationwide schedule. Asked on Twitter if he would still run the whole season, Keselowski responded: "Sponsors say yes!" Kasey Kahne has already committed to running a handful of races in the series. Mark Martin recently signed on for four events. Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, and the rest of the Cup regulars who have made side careers out of competing on the Nationwide tour still have obligations to meet, and they'll still make it exceedingly difficult for the likes of Allgaier, Brain Scott or Trevor Bayne to stand out. None of that changes because the championship criteria is different.
In truth, though, this kind of issue is nothing new to the Nationwide Series, which in its current incarnation has always struggled to serve two masters -- the sponsors that it needs (but want high-profile drivers in their cars), and the stars of tomorrow that it needs to produce for NASCAR to flourish in the future. Although the moonlighters have always been there, it's almost difficult to remember now that this was once a tour that had an identity unto itself, a series fronted by Busch lifers like Randy LaJoie, Jason Keller and David Green, that generated up-and-comers from Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Brian Vickers. But the number of independent, non-Cup-affiliated teams dwindled, sponsorship costs at the sport's highest level reached a certain threshold, and it all combined to produce the somewhat muddled, all-things-to-all-people series that exists today.
NASCAR is right to want to reverse that trend, or at least attempt to, and provide the Nationwide tour with a more defined identity of its own. But even within its own racing circuits, there are only so many things that NASCAR can directly control. The Nationwide tour of today is a product of economic forces at work, stemming from sponsors that want to be involved but only at a certain dollar value, drivers who can use a little extra cash and track time, and teams that assent because it helps them make their bottom line. It's going to take much more than simply a change in championship eligibility to tear down that complex, particularly since championships aren't necessarily the reason many of those players became involved in the first place.
If anything, the Nationwide tour is the one place in this Chase era where the race victory matters more than anything else, where Gatorade-dumping revelry in Victory Lane often trumps whatever the points standings happen to be at that given time. And the Cup regulars, who claimed 34 of 35 Nationwide events last year -- counting Montreal road-race winner Boris Said -- will be back out in force again this season. That won't change just because they checked a different box.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.