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Caraviello: Cup domination of lower series often a function of economics

April 02, 2011, David Caraviello,

Cup domination of lower series often a function of economics

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Kyle Busch is entered in Saturday's Camping World Truck Series event at Martinsville Speedway, and you know what that means -- the possibility for another special edition of the KB Show, brought to you once again from Victory Lane. For the rest of the field, it's a fearsome proposition, given that Busch has had a hand (or more accurately, a throttle foot) in winning five of the eight national-series support events this year. His victory in the Nationwide race last week at Fontana was his second in a row, and third of the season. He's also won the past two Truck races, in Phoenix as a driver and in Darlington as an owner to the vehicle piloted by Kasey Kahne.

He may very well have won that one from the driver's seat, too, had his wife not convinced him to take some R&R in Mexico. Either way, Busch is showing once again that he's a threat to claim any NASCAR race in any vehicle he straps himself into, and win or lose at Martinsville he's looking like he might be capable of approaching the record of 24 victories he accumulated last season in the sport's three national divisions combined.

Most wins since 2006

Nationwide Series
2. Carl Edwards 24
3. Kevin Harvick 20
4. Brad Keselowski 12
5. Denny Hamlin 10
2. Ron Hornaday Jr. 20
3. Johnny Benson 14
4. Todd Bodine 14
5. Mike Skinner 10

It's a prospect that surely intensifies the hand-wringing among those who can't understand why some of NASCAR's best drivers, competitors capable of winning races and championships on the Sprint Cup tour, choose to dip down and race in what are supposed to be developmental or support circuits. It's a debate that rises up ever so often when someone like Busch or Carl Edwards rips off several Nationwide victories in a row, and something that caught the attention of NASCAR to the point where the sanctioning body demanded drivers choose only one series in which to accumulate championship points. Moonlighting Cup drivers have claimed every title on the Nationwide tour since 2006.

This kind of thing is typically less of an issue in the Truck Series because of the number of standalone events, even though the game changes considerably whenever Rowdy Busch lurks on the entry list. But on the Nationwide tour, it's an issue that's present almost every week. Cup drivers won all but one of the oval track races on the tour last year -- Busch himself accounted for a record 13 -- and swept the top three positions in final points. The latter won't be the case again this year because of the rule change, but in some minds you'll have a champion with an invisible asterisk beside his name. The points leader on this Nationwide off weekend is Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose best result in the first five races is fourth.

It used to be different. Ten years ago the Nationwide Series was called the Busch tour, and the race winner on any given weekend was often an up-and-coming driver who had yet to make a name for himself, or a driver who had done so solely through his exploits on Saturday afternoons. Randy LaJoie, Jason Keller, Jeff Purvis, Jeff Green, David Green, Mike McLaughlin, Hank Parker Jr., Tim Fedewa -- these were all men who had carved niches for themselves in NASCAR's No. 2 division, who maybe didn't make it at the Cup level for whatever reason, or didn't have any interest in going there. And why would they? They could make a good living, win races, and earn a degree of name recognition all right where they were.

No question, the moonlighters were around then, too. But despite the presence of Mark Martin and a few others, many times the interlopers were drivers who clung to the bottom rungs of the Cup hierarchy and weren't much of a threat to win in their own series, much less both in one weekend. Even so, there was plenty of room for those who called the Busch circuit their own. In 2001, 18 races were won by drivers who today would be considered Nationwide regulars. Many of the champions from that era -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Brian Vickers, Martin Truex Jr. -- were youngsters who would go on to make their mark at the next level.

That trend ended after Truex's second title in 2005, which sparked a streak of five consecutive Nationwide titles won by established Cup stars. The up-and-comers are still there, but they're harder to find, and they're having a much more difficult time finding seats. And while the Nationwide regulars remain, they're decidedly lower-profile, and they've been virtually locked out of Victory Lane. These days Saturdays have come to closely resemble Sundays, with a driver like Busch standing on top of his car window amid a shower of confetti and Gatorade.

This makes some people angry, particularly those who remember the days when Nationwide regulars had an identity among themselves, and Saturday at the track meant watching LaJoie and Keller go at it before Gordon and Earnhardt did the same thing the next day. And too often, that frustration is taken out on the guy behind the wheel. Goodness, they say, Tom Brady does not play arena football on the side. Kevin Durant does not moonlight in the NBA Development League. Derek Jeter may take some cuts in Triple-A on a rehab assignment, but he's not going down there just for fun. So why do Busch and his ilk have to turn NASCAR's Nationwide tour into their own personal playground?

That view is understandable. But it also omits the central factor in all of this, something that is usually the central factor in most issues, and that's money. And no, we're not talking about how much Carl or Kyle pocket on a Saturday afternoon. We're talking about how the price of backing a championship-level Cup car has inflated over the past decade, which in turn prohibits some companies from partnering with a name Cup driver for a Cup race. So they've found another, less expensive way to do it. You want me to sponsor your Nationwide car, Mr. Team Owner? Glad to. Just make sure one of your Cup drivers is in the seat for most of the races on the schedule.

There's no better example of this than the team Busch owns on the Camping World Truck circuit. It wasn't originally intended to be a Rowdy showcase. As the program's inaugural 2010 season dawned, the plan was for Busch to split one truck with Brian Ickler, and have Tayler Malsam drive another full time. A pair of up-and-comers would get their chances. But potential sponsors didn't want to back up-and-comers. They wanted to back Busch, a proven commodity with instant name recognition who could help them move their product. So Ickler and Malsam were eventually freed to pursue other opportunities, and Busch wound up driving the truck almost all the time. And another episode of the KB Show was born, unintentionally spawned by the current economics of the sport.

Multiply that scenario over and over and you essentially have the modern Nationwide Series, where the big-money cars are piloted by the big-name drivers not necessarily because the drivers want to be there -- although, to be honest, some surely do -- but because that's the deal that has to be made to get the car on the race track. Just look at Justin Allgaier, the only Nationwide regular to win a race last year, but whom Roger Penske let walk after last season because no sponsorship was available. Look at Landon Cassill, who finished third in the Nationwide opener at Daytona and hasn't run a race in that series since. Look at Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne, who still often drives a blank race car. Look at Stenhouse, the points leader, whose vehicle in two races this season has been backed by his own race team.

That's the reality of racing in NASCAR today, and it's far from Kyle Busch's fault, even though drivers like him often bear the brunt of it from purists who remember how it used to be. Any change is going to have to come from the companies writing the checks, whose CEOs are too busy smiling alongside star drivers in Victory Lane to be displeased with the status quo. That's why everyone fears Busch and that menacing No. 18 truck every time it shows up for a race. And that's why it might be wise to be afraid again next weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, where Edwards won the most recent Nationwide Series event -- and an encore presentation of the CE Show may very well be in the offing.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.