Proposed change to NASCAR’s Nationwide Series Won’t Deliver A True Champion

Through an administrative slipup worthy of inclusion in a Coen Brothers movie, word has gotten out that NASCAR’s anticipated rule changes to strengthen the validity of the second-tier Nationwide Series include drivers declaring which one series title they will pursue.

Although no official announcement of this change is expected until a competition update on Jan. 21 during preseason Cup series testing at Daytona International Speedway, it has been known for some time that NASCAR would make changes to the Nationwide Series to address concerns that drivers from the upper-tier Cup series have taken over what is intended to be a finishing school preparing younger drivers to make the final step up NASCAR’s ladder.

The past five series championships were won by drivers who were also competing full-time in the Cup series, all but Kevin Harvick in 2006 driving cars fielded by Cup teams with vastly more resources than Nationwide-only teams.

But is this rule change wise, as many contend including my fellow Racing In America blogger Bill Tybur?

There can only be one ...

Imagine it’s a year ago and you’re watching the Olympic Games in Vancouver, B.C. In particular, you’re viewing men’s speedskating, the 1,000 meters, and you’re thrilled to see American Shani Davis follow up his gold-medal performance in that event in the 2006 Turin Games by finishing first again.

But at the medal ceremony you do not see Davis climb to the top of the podium to get a medal draped around his neck and hear the Star Spangled Banner. Instead, Mo Tae-Bum of Korea takes the top step and earns the accolades reserved for the winner.

Why? Because before the Vancouver Olympic Games even began Davis was required to announce in which events he would compete for a gold medal, and he decided the 1,500 — the crown jewel in speedskating — would be his goal. He was still allowed to compete in the 1,000, but could not medal.

Imperfect analogy, but there’s a reason for that

No, speedskating isn’t a great analogy, but that’s because there are no apple-to-apple comparisons to make. Auto racing is unique in so many ways that any comparison to other major sports is faulty: Imagine seeing all 30 MLB or 32 NFL or 30 NBA teams trying to compete simultaneously at the same venue.

But even as a subset of motorsports NASCAR is unique as it is, to the best of my knowledge, the only major sports sanctioning body to allow top-tier competitors to compete in lower or developmental tiers. We don’t see Fernando Alonso racing in GP2, Mariano Rivera saving games for the Syracuse Chiefs of the Class-AAA International League or Dirk Nowitzki dunking for the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League.

But we have seen Cup regulars Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Harvick winning the past five titles and a whole bunch of Nationwide races. And even with this rule change, we will continue to see these and other Cup drivers in the lower-tier series because racers want to race and sponsors want well-known drivers in cars with their logos, especially drivers that win races.

In fact, allowing Cup drivers to continue racing in the lower levels, with no goal but winning races, makes it highly likely that a Nationwide-only driver will be crowned champion without ever having visited Victory Lane. Apparently NASCAR’s “Emphasis on Winning” only applies to the upper-level series, especially as NASCAR’s anticipated changes to the Cup points system are expected to add even more focus on victories.

What to do, what to do?

 Had this rule been in place last season, Justin Allgaier’s fourth-place overall finish would have been good enough to earn the Nationwide crown, with No. 7 Trevor Bayne runner-up and No. 9 Jason Leffler third. Allgaier was the only series regular to win a race in 2010, but it would be tough to say the best driver won the championship.

Although some including Dylan, who blogs at Triple League Racing have suggested banning Cup drivers from lower-tier series, I’m in favor of limiting participation instead. The Nationwide Series needs both the money and visibility Cup drivers bring, but capping their starts will allow for more attention on series regulars and more seat time for young and deserving drivers.

Sponsors may be tempted to sign up for only the races Cup drivers compete in, but if NASCAR and ESPN, its series broadcast partner, work at adding value during broadcasts by highlighting more than just the top three — the gold standard is how SPEED handles NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series — that can be minimized.

At the end of that season, the driver with the most points, the true champion, may just be a Nationwide Series regular.


Read more from Scott Whitmore at Pop Off Valve and follow him on Twitter @ScottWhitmore

Photo Credit: Mark Ellis