By Lee Montgomery
I've always regarded Brad Keselowski as one of the smartest drivers in NASCAR, an opinion I've held for a lot longer than most.
But I must disagree with his comments following his victory today in the Kansas Lottery Nationwide Series race at Kansas Speedway.
First, let's take a look at what Keselowski said in regards to many who believe he shouldn't be racing in the Nationwide Series:
"A lot of people give me shit about driving in the Nationwide Series," Keselowski said. "'You should let Parker (Kligerman) drive the car,' or, 'You should not run it so a Ricky Stenhouse can win the race.' Kind of the stealing-candy argument. And it's very frustrating for me. There's a much larger picture to this series and my involvement in it than that."
Yes, I would agree there is a larger picture.
But more Keselowski:
"It's hard to do sometimes because people see what they want to see," Keselowski. "Take a guy like (crew chief) Todd (Gordon) who worked at Michael Waltrip Racing. Todd's a great guy and built a hell of a race car today. Look at Michael Waltrip's Nationwide program, its shut down. So a guy like Todd, without this program, is looking for a job and that's not fair.
"It's tough, because you sound arrogant, but without me driving this car, there's no sponsor. With no sponsor, there's no team. Without a team, there's no Todd. Without Todd having a team, there's Todd on unemployment. A guy like Todd is going to find a job somewhere, but when he does, he's going to push another guy out.
"It's tough and everybody wants to look at it and say, ‘You're running the races just to make the money or get them fame.' I love winning. I'm not going to try and tell you that I don't like winning, but there's a bigger picture than just that.
"There's a much larger cause to the Nationwide effort at Penske Racing. It's about giving opportunities to people and showing depth and doing some things that I take a lot of pride in. I'm just trying to share that accordingly."
That's a noble sentiment, and Keselowski should be applauded for looking beyond his paycheck and trophy for winning in the Nationwide Series.
But he needs to look a little deeper.
Yes, without Keselowski, there likely isn't a Penske Racing team in the Nationwide Series. And, yes, it's because sponsors demand Sprint Cup drivers.
And THAT'S the bigger picture. No one is blaming Penske or Joe Gibbs Racing or any of the Cup teams for simply doing what sponsors want. In this day of economic struggles by all teams, getting ANY sponsor is a triumph.
But what about the series itself? Does it do the Nationwide Series any good to see Keselowski and Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch win all the races? Does it do any good to the future of NASCAR for Cup drivers to dominate the Nationwide Series? It is called the Nationwide Series, not Sprint Cup Lite - though that's most certainly what it is.
NASCAR took a solid step in eliminating Cup drivers from the championship hunt, but that's only a first step. I've long argued for more standalone races, not fewer like we're getting, as a way for the series to tilt back into the balance it needs.
It simply costs too much money to run a competitive Nationwide Series team; hence the need for Cup drivers. If the series were substantially cheaper to run, sponsors wouldn't need Cup drivers like Keselowski.
And how do we make it cheaper? For starters, continue to divert attention from Cup drivers by scheduling standalones away from Sprint Cup races. That way, Cup drivers couldn't make those races.
And continue to bring attention to the Ricky Stenhouses, the Trevor Baynes, the Justin Allgaiers, the Reed Sorensons. They won't be stars on the Cup level until they reach the Cup level. But they still can be a draw - like a big fish in a small pond.
Right now, they're simply small fish in a pond that's way too big. No wonder sponsors stay away from them.
At the outset, it will be tremendously difficult for the Nationwide Series to "downsize." But in the long run, having a Nationwide Series that stands alone as the Nationwide Series will be much healthier.
And that's the bigger picture, Brad Keselowski.