Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sprint Nationwide Insurance Coverage Cup

Let me make sure I understand:
  • So Sprint is a cell phone company that sponsors NASCAR, right?
  • And they have nationwide coverage?
  • But Nationwide is an insurance company that also sponsors NASCAR, right?
  • And their races are shorter, quicker, and therefore more of a sprint?
  • But many drivers who race in the Sprint-sponsored series routinely race in the Nationwide-sponsored series?
  • And sometimes a Sprint driver uses the same car number in the Nationwide series?
  • But sometimes a different driver uses the car number in the Nationwide series traditionally used by a Sprint driver?
  • And some drivers only drive in the Nationwide races when the purses, prestige, and/or media coverage are greater?
If you are a casual race fan, I can see how you may exclaim ...

For decades, one could easily see the differences between NASCAR's top tiered tours - its Winston Cup series and Busch Grand National series (later shortened to just Busch Series). While some Cup drivers crossed-over occasionally to the Busch side, the Busch series had a core set of tracks the Cup series didn't run (e.g. Myrtle Beach, South Boston, Lanier, Hickory), a core set of competitive Busch regulars (e.g. Sam Ard, Tommy Houston, Jack Ingram, L.D. Ottinger, Jason Keller, Randy LaJoie), and often a different looking car.

Over the last 10-15 years, however, the lines have blurred to the point the two series (now Sprint Cup and Nationwide) are indistinguishable from one another. Most of the half-mile bull rings from the NW side have disappeared - just like they did in the early 1970s with the Cup series. Most of the old-line Busch/NW regulars either retired, got promoted to Cup, transferred over to the truck series, or simply went away. The drivers were replaced by a healthy dose of Cup regulars and a bunch of under-funded, less talented part-timers.

The only thing remaining to separate the series is the look of the car. Once NASCAR introduced the COT to Cup, the cars looked distinctly different than NW cars - as well as looking distinctly different from any kind of automobile.. However, now that a COT is being introduced in the NW series, that defining line may yet again be blurred.

I really don't know whether NASCAR has deliberately allowed the NW series to lose its identity or whether it happened slowly and unintentionally. But its clearly happened, and NASCAR seems to be content feeding off it.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win in the Wrangler #3 Chevy Friday night was wildly popular. Fans went crazy. Folks cried. Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland sang kum-ba-yah. Peace in the Middle East came *this close* to happening. Memories of Dale Earnhardt Sr. who most famously drove a #3 car were evoked. It was Daytona.

Dale Jr. and the NASCAR Hall of Fame are even discussing if the winning car should end up in Charlotte at the Hall. Only one small problem. While the emotional relevance may have blown the Richter scale, the historical significance isn't that great. The Junebug had to drop down from Cup to NW and lesser competition to get the win, and it wasn't even his first win in a #3 car since the passing of his dad in the 2001 Daytona 500. He also won in a #3 Oreos Chevy in the 2002 Hershey's Kisses 300 at Daytona.

Sure, Dale Sr. had a lot of success in the Busch series - particularly in the February 300 mile race preceding the Daytona 500. He always seemed to be able to win it; however, he only closed the deal once in the 500. But clearly Sr.'s fame is in the Cup series. 7 championships. 70+ wins. The Intimidator. The Man In Black. The #3 was THE number in the 80s and 90s as the relevance of Richard Petty's #43 and the Wood Brothers' #21 began to wane.

The fact Jr's win was in a lesser series and not in his (or his dad's) primary series doesn't seem to matter to anyone. A Wrangler #3 car won with an Earnhardt behind the wheel, and that's all that seems to matter. Think any of these parties will clarify it for the casual fan?
  • NASCAR? - Absolutely not. They're eating it up. Video footage and stories of Jr's win was everywhere over the weekend - possibly overshadowing Kevin Harvick's win in Saturday night's signature event.
  • Action Diecast? - No way. Licensed product sales are down across the board and are in bad need of a boost. Action will sell exponentially more die-cast of an Earnhardt #3 Nationwide car at $80+ than they will of Harvick's #29 Shell/Pennzoil Cup replica.
  • ESPN? - Don't bet on it. The network has the TV rights for all Nationwide races, and they'll use their footage to pimp the rest of the Nationwide races plus the upcoming last third of the Cup season that falls their way after TNT is done. Never mind that Dale Jr. doesn't have any additional Nationwide races planned - at least not in a #3 car.
Dale Jr's big-time NW win isn't the only area where NASCAR seems to enjoy blurred lines of its series. Consider...
  • A couple of years ago, Michael Waltrip's 1,000th career NASCAR start was promoted. At the time, I remember doing a double-take at the news. Richard Petty had 1,000+ career Cup starts, and I couldn't possibly understand how Mikey was closing in on that number. Then I realized the truth. Waltrip's milestone was total NASCAR starts - the old Daytona Baby Grand/Dash series, Trucks, Busch/Nationwide, and Cup series.
  • Articles have been written about Kyle Busch possibly ending up with 200 career NASCAR wins. Even Kyle has suggested it as a goal for himself. I knew this bit of hype was bunk from the time I saw it. The King has 200 Cup wins, and the closest to him is David Pearson with 105 Cup wins. Kyle is a huge talent, and he can seemingly win in any series when he hits the track. But wins by a Cup superstar in the truck and Nationwide series just don't rank the same in the annals of Cup history in my opinion.
  • On ESPN's NASCAR Now show Monday night, Alan Bestwick referenced an on-line poll for fans: Will Dale Jr's NW win help him win soon in the Cup series? What????
  • The latest bit of NASCAR blurred-line buzz is Danica Patrick. In late 2009 and throughout 2010, Danica-mania has invaded NASCAR. Media coverage has increased. Lines are long at her souvenir trailers. And her 30th+ place finishes get mentioned in newscast blurbs and fine print of newspapers alongside the top 3 - even when the rest of her race competitors get next to no coverage. ESPN is even running a commercial of Danica's voice mocking her critics: "She's no Tony. She's no Juan Pablo." You'd think she was locking horns with the best of the best in the most competitive motorsports series - The Sprint Cup Series. But she isn't! She's running abysmally in the Nationwide series, and no plans have been announced for any sort of Cup effort. By running 30th or worse in the minor leagues, she's still hedging embarrassment that would surely be even greater if she ran the same way on the Cup side.
At Daytona over the weekend, NASCAR Chairman and Chief 3rd Generation Flunky Officer Brian France intimated changes may be made in 2011 for the Nationwide series. Is this going to be a case of too little too late? With the passage of time, the lines between the two series may have become inseparably blurred. Many tracks now depend on Cup drivers dropping down to the NW race to help sell tickets. When Cup drivers don't participate, attendance is down dramatically. (If you don't believe me, ask Nashville Superspeedway.)

In the end, congrats to Dale Jr. A win is a win I suppose. And I do long for a return to a clearly defined line between the Cup and NW series, so I guess I somewhat anxiously for what Brian has to say.

But until any substance is put on the table, the "form" I see is a continual melding of the two series without an effort by NASCAR to re-establish an identity for both.


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