Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 19, 2010

For The Sake Of The Future, NASCAR’s Stars Should Drive Less

This was NASCAR weekend in New England again, with the top stock car racing circuit making the second of its two annual visits to New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. Racing fans around the region are breathing easier now that the 2011 NASCAR schedule has been released. There had been widespread concern that one of the two Sprint Cup Series races that the Magic Mile has hosted for years would be transferred to one of Speedway Motor Sports other tracks, most likely the one in Las Vegas.

But in fact both New Hampshire dates were preserved, although the schedule for next year has shifted slightly. The first race, which has been the last weekend in June for more than a decade, will be run in the middle of July in 2011. The second race has also been moved by a week, meaning that Loudon will no longer host the kick-off event of ten week Chase for the NASCAR Championship. Still the September race at Loudon will be part of the Chase, in which the top dozen drivers in points earned based on finishes in each race through the season compete for stock car racing’s biggest prize. So with two races secure for next year, plus the news that the Izod Indy Car circuit will also race at NHMS next August, spirits are high among New England auto racing fans.

Perhaps because of that, the stands were decidedly more crowded than usual on Saturday. As I’ve written before, Sunday of every New Hampshire NASCAR weekend is the main event. It’s always the day when the Sprint Cup Series drivers compete against each other over 300 miles. But in many ways Saturday is the day that offers more fun. On Sunday there is just the one race; and with the stands packed with somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 people, the seating can be claustrophobic while the logistics of getting in and out of a racetrack that sits along a two-lane highway almost certainly make for a very, very long day. Saturday on the other hand always offers up multiple races from NASCAR’s various developmental and/or regional series. And even with this Saturday’s larger than usual attendance of perhaps 40,000, getting in and out is much easier and there’s room to spread out in the stands.

As a bonus for fans coming out on the first day of the weekend, Saturday’s racing card is also virtually guaranteed to include appearances by some of the Sprint Cup Series top stars. But while that’s great for those in attendance, it poses a growing dilemma for the sport. How can the developmental Nationwide (car) or Camping World Truck Series, or the regional Whelen Modified Tour, actually help develop the stars of racing’s future if some of the finite numbers of driving opportunities are taken by current stars stepping down from the Sprint Cup Series for an afternoon diversion?

At Loudon this year both Saturdays featured a Whelen Modified Tour race. The Modified Division is NASCAR’s oldest, dating to the association’s formation in 1947. Modified cars are open-wheeled vehicles that look like the progeny of a one-night stand between a stock car and a dragster. The races are fan favorites; in equal parts due to the speed and noise that the 800 horsepower cars produce, the wild, often three-abreast racing style, and of course, the frequent spectacular crashes. The Tour’s events are run mostly in New England, and there are several veteran drivers who are well known to fans.

But this year Sprint Cup driver Ryan Newman decided to drive in both of the Modified races at Loudon. Newman is a popular driver who just missed qualifying for this year’s Chase, finishing in 13th place after last week’s Sprint Cup race in Richmond. He won the Modified race at Loudon in June, and did the same yesterday. On Saturday he started on the pole, having had the fastest qualifying time. Falling back initially, he took the lead about a third of the way into the race, and then basically ran away from the field. Only a late caution flag resulting in the cars restarting with just three laps to go made the race remotely close.

The fans at Loudon loved it, as they did in June. But the result shouldn’t be considered surprising. There’s a reason why Ryan Newman is an accomplished Sprint Cup driver, and he was racing against drivers who simply don’t have that same level of skill. In the process, he was taking away a driving opportunity from someone who needs to advance up the learning and skill curve if the sport is going to continue to thrive.

Still a Ryan Newman or a Tony Stewart stepping down a couple of rungs once or twice a year to drive in a Modified race is not nearly as concerning as what goes on in the Nationwide and Camping World Series. These are the two main, heavily promoted, NASCAR developmental series. In the language of another sport, they are the AAA and AA minor leagues, where one would expect the young stars of tomorrow would be honing their skills.

But there are several Sprint Cup Series drivers who run frequently in the Nationwide Series and a number who chose to dabble from time to time in Camping World truck races. When they do so, as was the case with Newman’s Saturday diversion, the result is more often than not predictable.

This weekend’s truck race was essentially a two-man contest between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, two Sprint Cup Series drivers who make fairly frequent appearances in the Camping World Series. The only times the other 33 drivers were within sight of these two were when the caution flag flew, slowing the race and bringing the field back together. On a restart after just such a caution with the laps winding down Busch and Harvick traded paint, slowing both trucks. That gave James Buescher, with a grand total of 18 starts over the past three years, the chance to dip beneath those two and seize the lead. The crowd roared its approval; knowing full well how unlikely it was that the winner would be anyone other than Busch or Harvick. But although Buescher gave it his best shot, there was but one more caution flag before the final lap. On the subsequent restart, Busch nudged Buescher up near the wall, dipped beneath his truck, and raced off to the win.

Busch was also the winner in the Nationwide Series race at Loudon back in June. In that race, no less than 9 of the 43 drivers were Sprint Cup Series drivers adding another race to their weekend. That number is not atypical for the majority of weekends when both series run at the same track.

Unlike AAA or AA in another sport, these drivers aren’t making an appearance as part of an injury rehab assignment. They’re taking the wheel because they can, and in the process slowing the development of a young driver who might be NASCAR’s star of tomorrow.

NASCAR is hurting right now. Attendance and television ratings are down. In today’s Sprint Cup race, the #36 Chevrolet of Dave Blaney was virtually devoid of sponsor decals. Harvick and Jeff Gordon, the top two points leaders through the 26 races leading up to the Chase, are both without major sponsorship deals for next season. Kyle Busch is the owner of the truck team that he drives for several times each season. It was supposed to be a two-truck team, but lack of sponsor support forced him to park one of the vehicles, and he has made it clear that without firm deals for 2011 he will park the entire team.

In such an environment, I know it’s tempting to put the stars out on the track as often as possible. But I can’t think of a better example of failing to look at the long term. Driving opportunities are shrinking, not growing.  Star drivers shouldn’t add to that shrinkage.  The future of NASCAR would be better served by telling the stars of today to give the kids a chance to learn how to drive.

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