By Lee Montgomery
Finally, it seems, NASCAR will publicly announce what has been rumored for months - and speculated upon for several years: That Sprint Cup drivers won't be eligible for the Nationwide Series championship. Well, unless the Cup drivers DON'T want to run for the Cup title, which doesn't seem likely.
NASCAR.com reported Monday that a driver who applies for a license in one of the three national series must decided which championship for which they want to run: Cup, Nationwide or Camping World Truck Series.
I applaud the move, even though it's been a long time coming. (To toot my own horn, I first reported this back in 2007 at SceneDaily.) Too long for some teams in the Nationwide Series, those that have been adversely affected by the strange economics of NASCAR's No. 2 series.
And I also ask: What's next?
The move to limit Cup drivers' participation in the Nationwide Series championship isn't enough, not nearly enough, to alter the financial landscape of the series. It's a good start, and many in the Nationwide Series will welcome the change. Finally, a non-Cup driver will again win the championship in 2011, for the first time since Martin Truex Jr. won the old Busch Series title in 2005.
But will it really matter? Will the non-Cup drivers receive any more attention this year than last, when Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards dominated the discussion?
Will sponsors, who have been sold a bill of goods about Cup drivers, finally learn than having a non-Cup driver can be better for them?
Will non-Cup teams, which are dependent on sponsorship, see any benefit?
Will the media and television pay any more attention to the Nationwide-only drivers?
What will happen in 2011 is that the Nationwide Series championship will become a consolation prize to an Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier or Reed Sorenson. Keselowski, Busch, Edwards, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick will continue to win all the races, leaving ESPN to say, "Oh, yeah, and in the championship race, Allgaier finished ninth and Sadler 11th as they battle for the title."
And fans think the Chase for the Sprint Cup is boring, believing you don't have to win a race to win the championship. It'll be worse in the Nationwide Series this year. If the Nationwide champion wins A race, I'll be surprised.
Limiting Cup drivers' participation in Nationwide is a start, but the series needs fundamental change.
Instead of having eight standalone races and 27 Cup/Nationwide weekends, why not 20 standalones and 10 companion races? Oh, and did you notice there would be only 30 races on the Nationwide schedule under that scenario?
Those two switches would help with the biggest problem facing the series: Cost. it simply is way too expensive to run a competitive Nationwide organization, which is one reason why sponsors are loath to back non-Cup drivers.
But if there's 20 standalones, well, Cup drivers simply can't be at most of the races. And with fewer races, teams would need less money from sponsors. Plus, sponsors could spend less on non-Cup drivers and get as much bang for their buck because they could build a marketing program around the Nationwide driver.
Now, sponsors believe they have to have a Cup driver to get any return on their investment, which is too great to begin with. Sponsors may be half-right, given television's and most people's attention is fixated on Cup drivers, which do indeed lead most of the laps and nearly all the races.
But with Cup drivers mostly out of the picture, sponsors couldn't get them - and teams could ell an entire season for about half of what they need now and get a full-time driver whose sole responsibility is to the Nationwide sponsor.
Critics will say it will cheapen the series, since there will be less money to go around for everyone - and who wants less money?
Well, the series has needed a market correction for several years now. A non-Cup organization has a built-in disadvantage from the start and simply can't afford to keep up with the Cup teams. Survival of the fittest, you say? Fine. You'll have 10 cars fielded by Cup teams, 10 fielded by non-competitive Nationwide teams and 23 start-and-parks.
No, the cost to run a team in the Nationwide Series simply must come down. Limiting the participation of Sprint Cup drivers in the series' championship battle is a start, but only a start.
More needs to be done, much more.