Sunday, August 02, 2009

A Different View

"Major League Baseball players don't play in Triple A baseball games, so why do NASCAR Cup drivers compete in the Nationwide Series?"

That is one of the questions we see on various forums, blogs, and news journals pertaining to the participation of NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. There are several premises, however, in that question that are wrong.

The first flawed premise is the assumption that NASCAR is structured in the same way as professional baseball. It isn't. The teams in baseball are franchises of Major League Baseball, while the teams in NASCAR are, at all levels, fully and independently owned private businesses. The players and the team owners in baseball are employees of Major League Baseball, while the team owners and drivers in NASCAR are not employees of NASCAR.

Major League Baseball can regulate the manner in which new players are recruited, and how much they get paid. NASCAR can not. Major League Baseball teams can not put their players in pads and helmets and play football against the Pittsburgh Steelers. NASCAR team owners can build or own cars for ARCA, Rolex Grand Am, American Le Mans Series, Indy Racing League, or even USAC, if they wished, and put their "Sprint Cup" driver in any of those cars at any time.

One logical comparison, if one must be made, is that while baseball teams use their affiliated Triple A teams for training and remedial training of their players, and NASCAR team owners often use the Nationwide Series to give their drivers "seat time" on certain tracks. Another comparison is that professional baseball players work their way up through the ranks to play in Major League, in order to learn the rules and the style of play, while NASCAR drivers must also gain experience and learn the rules in order to get a license to race on the superspeedways.

The major flaw in the statement that opened this item is that "Major League baseball players don't play in Triple A games."

If one actually follows Major League Baseball, one would know that players are "sent down" to and "called up" from Triple A teams on a nearly weekly basis. So Major League players often do find themselves playing on a Triple A team.

If the NASCAR Nationwide Series were a Triple A team to the Sprint Cup Series, some of the comparisons may be viable, but it isn't. Minor League sports events are not broadcast live on national television. The closest comparison would be that the NASCAR Camping World East/West Series is the Triple A of NASCAR. The Camping World Truck Series, the Nationwide Series, and the Sprint Cup Series are all different organizations in the major leagues of NASCAR, that feature different types of racing. The Truck Series is the sprint racing division of the major leagues. The Nationwide Series is the challenge racing division, and the Sprint Cup Series is the endurance division. This is more akin to the Midget, Sprint, and Triple Crown divisions of USAC than it is to the different levels of baseball.

The only thing that NASCAR is concerned about who races in which series is whether or not they qualify for the event, or if the driver is licensed to drive in the event. A suspended driver who is suspended due to NASCAR drug policy, for instance, is not licensed to participate in a NASCAR event, though that driver may participate in racing sanctioned by a different sanctioning body, such as ARCA or USAC.

In other words, a driver is a Sprint Cup driver if he qualifies for a Sprint Cup race, a Nationwide driver if he qualifies for a race in that series, or a Camping World Truck Series driver, if he qualifies for a Truck Series race. There is, otherwise, no official designation for a driver to race in a particular series.

The Nationwide Series is a challenge series because it gives drivers a chance to challenge, that is, to see how they measure up against, more experienced drivers. That is how it works in theory, and it often works out that way in practice. Unfortunately, since it is mainly the sponsors who determine who drives what car in the series, it is not perfect, nor is it possible for any up and coming driver to make a name for him- or herself in the series. These days, in reality, a driver almost has to have already made his or her name elsewhere. But that is not because there are Cup Series regulars participating in the Nationwide Series. Cup Series regulars race in the Nationwide Series because of the sponsors.

In nearly every race since the former Busch Series began in 1982, there has been at least one full time Cup driver participating. It wouldn't really be a challenge series if there were not Cup drivers involved. Furthermore, it is not necessary for a driver to win races or championships in the Nationwide series in order to become a Cup series driver.

How many drivers are in the Cup Series because of their performance in the Nationwide or Busch Series? Not very many. Jimmie Johnson, the three consecutive time Sprint Cup Champion, had only one win and sixteen top ten finishes in the Nationwide Series, out of 72 races, before he became a full time Sprint Cup driver. Joey Logano never even raced a full season in the Nationwide Series before he became a full time Sprint Cup driver. In fact, the only drivers I can think of who are or will soon be full time Sprint Cup drivers solely because of their performance in the Nationwide or Busch Series are Martin Truex, Jr, Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers, Brad Keselowski (not yet full time, but soon will be), Dale Earnhardt, Jr (or is part of it because of his name?), and Matt Kenseth. With the exception of Jeff Gordon, who had three Busch Series wins and 25 top tens out of sixty-one races, there is no other driver currently in the Sprint Cup series who had what would be called a notable record in the Nationwide or Busch Series. I may have missed some, so feel free to correct me in the comment section.

A few weeks ago, Jenna Fryer--the NASCAR beat reporter and gossip columnist for the Associated Press--was on NASCAR Now's "Monday Round Table" and suggested that NASCAR do away with the Nationwide Series. This would create a similar situation to what we had before 1982. There probably would be sixty to eighty teams show up on qualifying day for the Sprint Cup races. Those that consistently fail to qualify would soon drop out of NASCAR competition entirely, due to lack of the funds necessary to have a car that would be able to qualify. For those teams, the Nationwide Series is a good thing, just as the Busch Series was in 1982.

For the record, I don't agree with Jenna Fryer's suggestion, and am only mentioning it for the purpose of discussion.

One might very well ask, "If the Nationwide Series is part of the NASCAR big leagues, then why doesn't it have the prestige of the Sprint Cup Series?"

And that is a good question, but my guess is that it isn't because it doesn't have as many fans as the Sprint Cup Series. If the same number of fans followed the Nationwide Series as do the Cup Series, the level of prestige would be about the same, as would be the level of sponsorship. At any rate, it would be even more difficult to achieve those levels without the participation of popular Sprint Cup drivers.

Think about this: would the victory by Brad Keselowski in Saturdays US Cellular 250 have been as important or exciting if Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards weren't in the race? There is no way to be sure, but probably not. It is generally better for a Nationwide driver to win against Kyle Busch than it is to win against Kurtus Davis.

The Nationwide Series could be better, of course. It could, for instance, race only at tracks that are one mile in length or shorter. This would likely change the perception of the series from "Cup Light" to a series that has it's own unique identity. But the question remains, "would people watch it?"


Bruce Simmons said...

So why Cup drivers in Nationwide races? It's a draw to the nationwide Series. At least one of the bigger ones.

andrew said...

Nice question and well said description.

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