Is it too early to tell? Or have enough 2011 races been run in the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series to determine whether or not this new points system is working as intended?
With the Sprint Cup Series taking Easter weekend off, it was time for the two junior national touring series to shine last weekend at Nashville Superspeedway.
Predictably, the Nashville 300 Nationwide race was dominated by moonlighting Sprint Cup regulars -- with the top four spots taken by race winner Carl Edwards, runner-up Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Eight of the next nine spots, however, were claimed by Nationwide regulars -- led by the young and talented duo of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Trevor Bayne -- with Truck Series regular Austin Dillon coming home seventh.
As usual, there weren't as many Cup guys participating in the Bully Hill Vineyards 200 truck race at Nashville. In fact, as normally is the case, there was only Kyle Busch. And naturally, Kyle Busch swept the pole and the race victory. At least Ron Hornaday Jr. did what he could to make it a little interesting down the stretch, but even he knew it was a mirage.
Just trying to keep up with Busch, Hornaday later admitted: "I drove it too hard and wore the tires off."
Then there was Timothy Peters, who eventually got past Hornaday and finished third in the race to move up to second in the point standings behind leader Johnny Sauter after five of 25 races in the series. Peters' crew chief, Butch Miller, made the call for only two tires on the last pit stop to gain track position and it paid off. The driver sounded like a guy who had won the race afterward.
"It was a great night. ... This right here is what wins this championship," Peters said.
So is it working?
By now everyone knows what the new deal is in the championship battles in each series. Prior to the season, NASCAR declared that drivers had to declare the one and only one series in which they intended to run for the championship -- eliminating the double dippers such as Edwards, Busch and defending Nationwide champion Keselowski from running for the title in one of the lesser series unless they did the unthinkable and gave up that opportunity in Cup.
It hasn't prevented all of the big boys from competing -- and excelling -- at the lower levels. Much of that is driven by sponsors who sometimes agree to dole out money to teams only if a bigger-name driver will wheel the car in a specific race. And some sponsorship deals with the Cup regulars were in place, or at least nearly in place, before the new rule was made public.
Thus, Busch and Edwards have started each of the eight Nationwide races this far -- and have combined to win six of them. Busch has one pole, four wins, five top-five finishes and six top-10s, while Edwards has registered a series-high three poles, two wins, four top-fives and six top-10s. Keselowski also has started each of the eight races and has four top-five finishes and six top-10s.
In fact, eight races into the 34-race Nationwide schedule, there has yet to be a winner who is a non-Cup regular. The other two victories went to Mark Martin (who has made two starts and won at Las Vegas) and Tony Stewart, who won his only Nationwide start in the season opener at Daytona.
Currently tied at the top of the Nationwide standings are fresh faces Justin Allgaier and Stenhouse Jr. They are trailed, respectively, by Jason Leffler, Reed Sorenson, Bayne, Elliott Sadler, Aric Almirola, Brian Scott, Kenny Wallace and Michael Annett. It is an interesting mix and their battle makes a strong case for the new system putting the names of some different folks up at the top, but should it matter that none of the top 10 drivers in the standings has won a race? Or that the top five have combined for the grand total of six top-five finishes on the season -- only one more than Kyle Busch has registered by himself?
Basically what it comes down to is would you rather see yet another Busch vs. Edwards battle for the title? Or are you content with seeing those two wrestle each other for squatting rights to Victory Lane nearly every week, while focusing on the race within the race for the championship amongst the Nationwide regulars? That's where a third like the one posted by Peters in last weekend's Truck race feels virtually the same as a win -- and can count the same if the only finishers in front of you are Cup guys who don't receive points in the other series.
Perhaps more importantly in this sponsor-driven sport, which scenario do the folks investing the most money prefer?
The Peters Principle
The Camping World Truck Series is a bit of a different animal than Nationwide. Not only is Busch the alpha dog as a driver, but he is attempting to claw to the top as an owner as well, fielding teams for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
In most ways, Kyle Busch is great for the Truck Series. He is the only big-name Cup driver who competes regularly in it, and he obviously has invested a great deal of his own time and money in an organization that consistently places great trucks on the track and draws positive attention to a series often left starving for it despite great on-track action.
But holy smokes, does he have to lead so many laps and win so doggone much? In capturing the Bully Hill Vineyards 200 last weekend, Busch led 140 of 150 laps. One week shy of turning 26 years of age, he has now led more than 20,000 laps across the three national touring series in his relatively brief NASCAR career.
Busch has made four Truck starts this season and won two of them, finishing in the top five in the other two. Two of the other Truck races were won by former Cup regular Michael Waltrip, who is mostly retired as a driver; and current Cup star Kasey Kahne. They each won their only Truck start.
The only driver in either of the two junior series to actually win a race in the series in which he's elected to compete for a championship is Johnny Sauter, who surprisingly held off the hard-charging Busch for a win in the Kroger 250 truck race at Martinsville. Not coincidentally, Sauter is the points leader in the series.
The aforementioned Peters is second. Perhaps he best put the new championship scoring system in perspective after his strong finish last Friday night in Nashville.
Of Kyle Busch, he said: "Obviously we want to beat him. He is good; you can't take anything away from him. You can learn from him. When we beat him -- and we will beat him -- it's going to make our team shine that much more and it's going to make the resume look a lot better. We're going to keep fighting. What we did [last Friday] is a championship-caliber deal for our team. I was really excited about that."
To be the best, usually you've got to beat the best. Only time will tell if that ends up being a true prerequisite to winning the 2011 championships in the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series.