News & Media

Nationwide a developmental series, just not only for drivers

May 17, 2011, Jill Erwin,

Drivers in the Nationwide Series are the stars, a mix of up-and-comers looking for their big break into the Sprint Cup Series and veterans who are comfortable with where they are.

But teams see Nationwide as more than just a proving ground for drivers. It's where they can develop the next generation of crew members, crew chiefs, engineers and PR people.

Nationwide remains a developmental series, just not only for drivers.

"For us, it's still the best place to train young guys," said J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing. "That could be drivers, crew chiefs, engineers or pit crew. It's a great spot to learn, and if you do well and learn there, you get transferred. We've sent a ton of guys from Nationwide to Cup. It's their chance to recruit and study and move up."

Jonathan Gibson, the vice president of marketing and communications for Penske Racing, agreed wholeheartedly. Penske didn't start its Nationwide program in earnest until 2009 when it fielded a team for Justin Allgaier. In 2010, it expanded to two full-time teams and earned the driver championship with Brad Keselowski.

The crew chief of that title-winning team, Paul Wolfe, moved up to Cup this season to lead Keselowski's No. 2 team.

"We love the series," Gibson said. "We think it's a great place to develop not only people, but drivers, crew members and sponsors. We feel like it's been a great opportunity for us. We really didn't have any expectations of doing a full Nationwide season and really enjoyed it. The sanctioning body does a great job with the series."

The drivers get the headlines, though, and while plenty of new faces have entered Nationwide in the past few years, several more of the more experienced ones have stuck around.

But what lies ahead for each of them? Is it a developmental series, preparing youngsters for a climb into Cup? Or is it a destination now, a place to race for competition and fun without all the demands of a top-tier series?

Those involved say yes, to both.

Mike Bliss, who entered the series full time in 2003, said his dream was once to become a full-fledged Cup superstar. However, he ran just one full-time Cup season -- he finished 28th in 2005 -- before returning to Nationwide. He finished fifth in the standings in both 2008 and 2009, and is 10th after five races this year at the age of 46.

"When I started, Nationwide was just Nationwide drivers," Bliss said. "You wanted to be Cup, but you didn't have a good chance to go up to Cup. Now it's kind of stocked because there's nowhere to go. There are no seats to go into. Now it's kind of, 'Let's just do this, there's nothing wrong with this.' At my age, I'll do whatever. I enjoy this over here."

There are some younger drivers with aspirations to climb to Cup. Veteran Kenny Wallace isn't one of them -- he calls himself the mayor of the Nationwide Series -- but he sees a passion and drive in the new generation.

"I see the same dream in everyone's eyes I had when I came in and won the rookie of the year," Wallace said. "It was me and Jeff Burton. We were excited, we couldn't wait to go to Daytona, couldn't wait to go to Charlotte. I see the same spark in these kids' eyes that I had."

Timmy Hill is in his rookie season with Rick Ware Racing, and rather than looking at competing against the Cup drivers in Nationwide as a negative, he sees it as another step in his development.

"The Nationwide Series is a great series," Hill said. "It's less horsepower than in a Cup car, so it's a little more forgiving. It's a pretty good learning experience because when you have the veterans in the series, it makes you try even harder."

Roush Fenway Racing has been a team that has long looked at Nationwide as a proving ground for all aspects of its lineup. RFR is running Carl Edwards with a half-season of sponsorship and the cars of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne with limited money.

Steve Newmark, president of RFR, has only been with the team for about a year but said it didn't take him long to buy into the company's vision for the Nationwide program.

"[Team owners] Jack [Roush] and John [Henry] view Nationwide as critical piece of our overall program," Newmark said. "We've always focused on developing drivers internally as opposed to going out and grabbing free agents in the Cup world. That philosophy also carries over to other employees. We use that program not just as a training program for what's visible. We see a lot of our engineers and crew members come up through the ranks. Jack has instilled a certain philosophy and culture and we think it's conducive to grow up in that culture. We think we derive a lot of benefits."

One of the benefits is getting to compete with and against the best, including Cup drivers Carl Edwards, an RFR driver, and Kyle Busch.

That, said Elliott Sadler, is enough to let some of those with upwardly mobile aspirations to make a name for themselves despite the dearth of top Cup rides expected to come open in the near future.

"Go win," he said. "Win races. I know it sounds simple, but it is that simple. If you can win Saturday racing against them, if you can win races and lead laps, you're going to get the attention of different owners in the Cup Series. If they think you're good enough, they'll find a spot for you."