Five Ways The Nationwide Series Can Be Different Than Sprint Cup
Earnhardt Jr., Two Time Nationwide Champion
At one time, the NASCAR Nationwide Series (called the Busch series at the time) was the place to see the next generation of Sprint Cup stars. While Cup regulars would appear on occasion, few if any ran the series full time. Their appearances were special occasions and as such they helped tracks draw additional fans into the support series. Those days are now long gone. While Sprint Cup regulars can no longer earn points and win championships on lower levels they still present an overbearing presence in virtually every Nationwide race.
The refrain from those Sprint Cup drivers running heavily in Nationwide is a common one. “We draw extra attention and fans to the races,” they'll say. “If you kick us out the Nationwide series will suffer, potentially to the point of folding.” To some extent, they have a point; the series has become a preview for Sunday's races with most promotional efforts being spent on drivers who are ineligible to win the series title. Cutting off those drivers by fiat would bring no small amount of short term pain.
However, the long term viability of the Nationwide (and, to a lesser extent, the Camping World Truck) series depends on finding their own niche. A quote from an admittedly unusual source, Eric Bischoff, applies here. When describing what he wanted to do with WCW, he identified that they could be one of three things compared to their competition. “We have three choices,” he said. “Be better than them, less than them, or different than them.” While NASCAR owns all three national touring series, Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck are not the same product and cannot be successful long term when promoted as such.
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Their Own Brand of Racing
The Nationwide series will never be “better than” the Sprint Cup series. The cars produce less horesepower and its been presented (accurately so) as a second-tier product for generations. The on-track product might eclipse the Sprint Cup series at times but as they generally run the same tracks on the same weekends they will have little luck presenting themselves as a superior racing product. Not to mention the fact that doing so would necessarily take something away from the Sprint Cup product, NASCAR's crown jewel and primary money-maker. As for the “less than” option, that's essentially the status quo. Attendance and television ratings will not rise for a series that promotes itself as a lesser product.
What the series can do, then, is become different than the Sprint Cup product. They've already taken a step in the right direction by establishing different cars. The new generation of Nationwide cars, first brought to the track in 2010, brought the Ford Mustang back to the racetrack. Chevy followed suit with the Camaro last year. Those cars have wide appeal to a race fan; ask a race fan if they want to drive an Impala or a Camaro and the answer is unsurprising. Using the pony cars on track helps establish a different brand identity for the Nationwide series. What else can be done to make the product “different than”? How can they cut their umbilical cord from the Sprint Cup series and still remain viable?
One Offs Can Be Successful
The Real World's Champion?
First, the series should not award owner or manufacturer points when the car's driver is ineligible for points. Having drivers declare prior to Daytona which series they earn points in was a good first step but it ignored the importance of the owner and manufacturer championship. The last two years bear out how this matters. 2011's owner's championship went to the #60 of Roush Fenway Racing, a car driven by Carl Edwards in 33 of 34 races. His eight wins and 23 top five finishes showed how dominant he was, yet the driver's championship went to Ricky Stenhouse. Stenhouse didn't have a poor season, winning two races. But compared to teammate Edwards, his championship clearly missed some of its possible luster.
Edwards ran 33 races in part because the rules change came out long after he'd made commitments to sponsors to run the full schedule. He couldn't very well break that commitment because his fully sponsored ride made Stenhouse's partially sponsored season possible. Yet the chance to win an owner's championship in the car for Jack Roush also likely played a major factor. His 2007 Nationwide driver's championship run failed to capture the owner's title (that went to another Sprint Cup regular, the #29 primarily driven by Kevin Harvick). Removing those owner and manufacturer points would go a long way towards eliminating a reason to climb into the cockpit.
Kyle Busch Celebrates Another Win
Second, the series needs to put a cap on how many times a Sprint Cup driver can drive for for their same team on the Nationwide level. If Kyle Busch wants to drive a car that comes out of Kyle Busch Motorsports? Fine; it's his team and he wants to get the best results possible for it. But him driving a car prepared and owned by Joe Gibbs Racing on a weekly basis is an insult. It still leaves open a potential loophole of aligned teams (for example, Turner-Scott Motorsports and Hendrick). But that loophole become significantly smaller when those drivers won't be earning points on the owner or manufacturer level.
Third, NASCAR officials need to continue to make the cars visually different than each other. The grille of a Mustang and that of a Camaro look different on the track. But from the front fender on back, the cars remain virtually identical. That may help equalize the on-track performance and inspection process but it does little to build manufacturer identity and support. It's time to take the car body as it is on the showroom floor and make the safety equipment work, not the other way around.
The Nationwide series began moving this direction several years before the Sprint Cup series did. They haven't gone far enough. The Gen 6 Sprint Cup car drew heavy attention from fans and manufacturers alike because it looked more like a showroom car. Nationwide has the opportunity to once again be different than the Sprint Cup series by going all the way with this feature. If one car proves to have an aerodynamic advantage on the track there are ways to equalize that. From the front splitter to the rear spoiler, any number of rules changes can be made to ensure the cars are relatively equal in speed while being completely different in appearance.
Iowa Fans Flock to Dillon
A fourth change for the better would be to run more tracks separate from the Sprint Cup series. Most Nationwide weekends come with the series running one day before on the same track as the Sprint Cup cars. Running a similar car on the same track encourages Sprint Cup regulars to pull double duty; it's logistically easy and can provide them an advantage in Sunday's Cup race. When the two series are at different tracks, running the double becomes far more difficult and less beneficial. The Nationwide series can pair with another series (Trucks, Arca, IndyCar, etc.) and be the weekend's main event instead of a warmup act. They also gain greater scheduling flexibility. Sprint Cup has added one new track in the last decade while the Nationwide and Trucks series took chances at Rockingham and Iowa. Those chances were rewarded with higher attendance and television numbers.
Finally, a change in qualifying procedures could make a major impact in series interest. Many old school NASCAR fans pine for local short-track style racing. They enjoy the concept of heat races leading up for a chance to run in the dollar-paying feature at the end of the night. While running heat races isn't something that logistically works for every weekend there's no reason the Nationwide series cannot do it at least a few times per year. The Truck series ran heat races as a part of the wildly successful Mudsummer Classic last month. The Nationwide series should do likewise. It would provide greater value for the tracks and create a strong connection with NASCAR's root fanbase, a win-win proposition.
For years, the Nationwide series has been a playpen for NASCAR's brightest stars. Yet the current model is not sustainable long term. Instead of being a lesser stock car product, Nationwide should become a different-than product. They should capitalize on their opportunities to promote the stars of tomorrow while strengthening NASCAR's ties to its own history. Doing so will create a long-term alternative to fans alienated by the corporate culture of the Sprint Cup while still developing the future cars that series needs so desperately.