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.

Sage Karam, Tony Kanaan fastest in Monday’s practice for Indy 500

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In the second-to-last practice session of the week, Sage Karam paced the 33 drivers qualified for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 on Monday.

Karam had a field-best speed of 226.461 mph, followed by Tony Kanan (225.123 mph), Ryan Hunter-Reay (224.820), Charlie Kimball (224.582) and Alexander Rossi (224.507).

Sixth through 10th fastest were Will Power (224.445), Helio Castroneves (224.368), Marco Andretti (224.148) and rookie Zachary Claman Demelo (224.91) and Scott Dixon (223.966).

Power and Castroneves ran the most laps of all drivers at 120 and 118, respectively.

Two other Team Penske drivers struggled to get speed out of their cars. Defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden was 28th-fastest (221.982 mph) and Simon Pagenaud, who was the slowest (220.902 mph) of the 33 cars on-track.

Pole sitter Ed Carpenter was 14th-fastest with a best speed of 223.573 mph in a 100-lap effort.

Most drivers were in race trim or were testing things for Sunday’s Greatest Spectacle In Racing such as fuel mileage, chassis setup and more.

Rookie Matheus Leist missed most of the session with an apparent electrical problem that kept him to just 19 laps.

There was one incident of note during the 3 ½ hour session: IndyCar rookie Robert Wickens crashed coming out of Turn 2 during the first hour of practice.

Wickens appeared to skim the outside SAFER Barrier, went left and then violently turned hard back into the outside retaining wall.

MORE: Wickens wrecks during Indy 500 practice

The Honda-powered machine for the Canadian driver suffered heavy damage to the right side, particularly the right front tire and the right side of the front end.

There will be no further on-track activity for the Indy cars until Friday’s final practice to fine tune things for Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

We’ll have the full practice speed chart, as well as What Drivers Said, shortly. Please check back soon.

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