As it typically does every season, the debate about whether or not Sprint Cup drivers should race in the Nationwide Series has once again heated up in recent weeks.
While racing against NASCAR’s best is definitely beneficial for up-and-coming NNS drivers seeking to learn and improve upon their natural talent, there’s no question that Sprint Cup drivers have a field day when they race in NASCAR’s junior league.
Consider these stats: In the first five Nationwide races this season, four have been won by Sprint Cup drivers, the lone race won by a full-time NNS driver was Regan Smith’s win in the season-opener at Daytona last month.
That quartet of NNS wins by Cup drivers includes Saturday’s winner at Fontana, Kyle Larson, who even though he earned his first NNS triumph, is still a full-time Cup driver this season.
Let’s extrapolate things even more.
Of last season’s 33 Nationwide races, just five were won by true full-time NNS drivers, and two others were won by essentially an NNS ringer (now full-time Cup driver), AJ Allmendinger.
Sam Hornish Jr. won early last season at Las Vegas, Smith won last spring at Talladega and Michigan, Trevor Bayne won last spring at Iowa, and Ryan Blaney won late last summer at Kentucky.
And for the record, Allmendinger won both his races on road courses at Road America and Mid-Ohio, the only two NNS events he competed in all season.
Take away Allmendinger’s two wins, and that means full-time Nationwide drivers won just 15 percent of the 33 races on the 2013 schedule.
That’s not even one-fifth of the schedule.
NASCAR is in a Catch-22 situation because track owners and race promoters need Sprint Cup drivers to run in Nationwide races to put more fans in the stands.
Many fans will come on Saturday’s to see their favorite Cup driver race in the NNS because it usually takes less of a bite price-wise from their wallet than a Sunday Cup ticket.
There have been countless ideas floated over the years on how to minimize the number of Cup drivers in.
Some are better than others, but no one has ever hit upon the best solution for a compromise to a very vexing problem.
I’ve been giving this problem a great deal of thought over the last couple of weeks and think I may have hit upon a possibility that may just fly.
It’s actually a pretty simple idea, combining fans’ desire to still want – and get – to see their Cup favorites, while also enhancing NNS drivers’ chances of wins and getting more deserved notoriety for themselves and the series.
Here’s my suggestion:
First, there are 23 tracks that host NNS races. Ten of those tracks host two races each season, most in conjunction with a Sprint Cup race weekend.
This part is easy: allow Cup drivers to only drive in the first race at a particular track that hosts two per year, and not in the second race later in the season. Even better, cut off Cup drivers from competing in NNS races after the midpoint of the Nationwide’s 33-race season, effectively capping Cup drivers to participate in a maximum of 17 NNS events each year.
Sure, fans want to see their favorite Cup drivers compete in NNS races. But if fans know they’ll only be able to see “their driver” only once per year at a race in the first half of the season, it shouldn’t be overly hard for those same fans to adjust their schedules and still satisfy their need for speed.
Which dovetails nicely into the next part of my plan to fix the Cup/NNS dilemma.
Create an eight-race format (the last eight races of the season) for the NNS that mirrors the Chase for the Sprint Cup, with only Nationwide drivers eligible to compete in those events.
At the same time, allow the top 15 or even 20 NNS drivers after the second Richmond race (which is also the cut off to determine the Cup series’ Chase) to contend for the championship after resetting the points prior to the start of the NNS “Chase.”
The first race of a hypothetical eight-race Nationwide Chase could be on the same weekend as the start of Sprint Cup’s Chase at Chicagoland Speedway (there are only eight races remaining on the NNS schedule by the time the series returns to Chicagoland for the second time in the season).
Both series would be able to dovetail off each other, bringing even greater overall attention to all of NASCAR.
Admittedly, five of the 10 tracks that hold Cup Chase races also host two NNS races per season – Chicagoland, Dover, Charlotte, Texas, Phoenix.
But my proposal would give more meaning – and increased attention – to NNS drivers to truly win their own series’ championship while not having to share attention – and more importantly, wins – with Sprint Cup interlopers.
And it’s a heck of a lot better than the potential alternative – not being able to see their favorite Cup driver in ANY Nationwide race, if NASCAR were to ban such.
Follow me @JerryBonkowski