Nationwide departure should spur a rethink for NASCAR’s “AAA” series

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NASCAR’s “AAA” series will have a fresh title sponsor for 2015. And wouldn’t it be a perfect time for the series to make a few other changes as a result?

This is purely hypothetical, but thinking ahead, a rebranding effort of what is now the Nationwide Series that focuses primarily on its series regulars and limits the frequency of Sprint Cup Series stars participating would be an excellent, forward-thinking move.

NASCAR has a bevy of stars in its pipeline, in Nationwide, Camping World Trucks and regional series, but Nationwide is the biggest offender when it comes to burying its own stars beneath the Cup drivers.

Case in point: only six of 26 Nationwide races this year have been won by non-Cup regulars. Regan Smith and AJ Allmendinger have a pair of wins apiece and Sam Hornish Jr. and Trevor Bayne have solitary triumphs. Meanwhile Kyle Busch, who isn’t eligible to score Nationwide points, scored his series-high 10th win of the year last Saturday at Chicago.

Only Hornish and Smith have a realistic shot at this year’s title of that batch, and they have a combined three wins in 26 races – on a purely statistical level, that’s not exactly championship material.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has won back-to-back Nationwide titles and moved up to Sprint Cup for his rookie season in 2013, which is how it should work in theory. But when you consider the previous five champions from 2010 and back – Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick – are all Cup regulars, you know there’s a problem.

If it’s possible, NASCAR needs to think about expanding its rule where drivers can only score points in one title and put a cap on number of Nationwide races the Cup regulars can run. Perhaps exploring alternative venues where Nationwide can be standout events is another option. Some of the recent Nationwide circuit additions – Montreal, Road America, Mid-Ohio and Iowa to name a few – have produced some of the more exciting races in recent memory, particularly because they haven’t featured many Cup regulars.

Or, here’s another crazy but potentially cool idea, as suggested by Dan Patrick Show producer Paul Pabst (the DP Show airs on NBCSN and Audience Channel 239 on DirecTV): have Nationwide adopt a soccer element where the bottom three full-season drivers in Cup are relegated to Nationwide, and the top three Nationwide drivers promoted.

There’s nothing wrong with keeping Nationwide on the Cup undercard at perhaps one third to one half of Cup weekends. But allowing Nationwide, under its new title sponsor, to forge its own identity away from the Cup regulars, and away from the Cup circuit, could be better for the series’ growth and visibility as a whole.

Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
Mirco Lazzari / Getty Images
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.