Heading into 2013, the Nationwide Series hopes to continue building momentum without some of its signature stars. Despite losing perhaps its two most notable drivers, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick, to the Cup Series, a quality consolation prize for NASCAR’s second-tier division is the fact that there are new up-and-comers to market.
Prior to the 2011 season, the sanctioning body began requiring drivers to declare one series in which they would receive driver points. It was an effort to rein in the “Cupwhackers” from NASCAR’s top series who would drop down on Saturday to “practice” through domination. From 2005 through 2010, these moonlighters won most of the races and controlled the second series’ championship chase.
Not anymore. Stenhouse Jr. won the title in 2011, with the new requirements in place, but 2012 was the season that truly saw a shift back towards series regulars. Without a single Cup driver running full-time, Stenhouse repeated the championship last year and would have done so without the new rules. More importantly, he and fellow regulars like Elliott Sadler, Austin Dillon and Justin Allgaier dominated the win column, capturing 13 victories among them. That’s the most for the full-time, Nationwide-only contingent in eight years.
Without the lure of a championship and the sponsorship constraints that come with it, Cup drivers no longer overrun the series, although they still participate enough to allow NASCAR and the tracks to use their presence to promote races. Against what seemed like long odds, the Nationwide Series is getting a chance to build its own personality and stars, with ratings that held steady year-to-year despite NASCAR’s Nielsen decline in Cup.
Looking to 2013, the “new face” of this division is beginning to resemble the perfect mix of young and old. When Cup drivers held the majority of competitive seats, development drivers either ended up with lower-tier teams or nowhere at all. Now, drivers like Dillon, Regan Smith, Trevor Bayne and Brian Vickers find themselves as legitimate championship contenders. Others, like James Buescher, Parker Kligerman, Ryan Truex, Ryan Blaney, and Darrell Wallace Jr., have opportunities to build solid résumés in the sport. They’ll race alongside veterans like Sadler, Mike Wallace and Joe Nemechek in 2013, gaining quality experience that’ll teach the young drivers the ropes.
What’s encouraging is that drivers are willing to stay for longer than just one full season — and the owners are happy to keep them there. Stenhouse and Patrick just wrapped up three-year stints; Cup hopefuls Allgaier and Michael Annett are starting season five. Once again, these young talents, especially when linked to Cup owners, are spending a meaningful amount of time in the second-tier series before making the leap. And when they leave, like in the case of Stenhouse, the opportunities remain for talented replacements. Bayne will run for Roush Fenway in 2013, while Dillon’s ride will go to brother Ty when he moves up to the Cup Series in 2014.
But while the series may be headed in the right direction, plenty of obstacles remain. This season, 27 of the 33 NNS races will be run as companion events to the Cup Series. Only Iowa (two events), Road America and Mid-Ohio remain as venues where the “big boys” never run, with the other standalone races taking place at Cup intermediates Chicago and Kentucky.
Yes, companion events have benefits. They offer fans coming to the track the ability to get the most racing action out of the weekend, and the tracks can offer package deals in an effort to sell more tickets and get otherwise uninterested fans hooked on young Saturday stars.
But six standalones are simply not enough for a series attempting valiantly to stand on its own. Racing “away from Cup” more would allow the series to further build its own identity and fan base. The races most fans seem to remember (and clamor for) are ones that were run at places like O’Reilly Raceway Park or South Boston — smaller, unique short tracks that provided the best action. For years, these venues were the home of what was then known as the Busch Series.
Since then, the conversation has centered on empty stands and switches to larger tracks, like Indianapolis Motor Speedway, that haven’t exactly attracted a larger audience. The Nationwide Series is now racing mostly at places built to seat Cup crowds. Realistically, the second series does not need to race exclusively at tracks that hold 70,000-plus fans when a sensible draw for an NNS event is less than half that number.
Of course, the key for an exclusive return to those quaint facilities is money. Renovations, including SAFER barriers, pit improvements and accommodations, on top of a $750,000 sanctioning fee, make staging events at smaller tracks more difficult in modern times. Perhaps NASCAR needs to take a more realistic look at the economics of attendance, ticket prices, purses, and sanctioning fees and adjust accordingly.
Economics remains a challenging subject for NASCAR. Purse reductions in the Nationwide Series continue to plague the smaller teams; so many of them start-and-parked in 2012 that the field size was reduced to 40 out of necessity. That will help the final payouts slightly, but the major-league expenses remain exorbitant for what is, at times, a league comparable to Triple-A baseball. The economy has still not recovered to the point that companies are clamoring to spend big bucks on team sponsorship in Cup, let alone the $6-$8 million that a top Nationwide team can command. NASCAR is fighting a two-pronged war, as attendance and ratings continue to decline, so controlling costs in its lower divisions has become a primary concern.
Still, the Nationwide Series offers a good option for companies looking to get exposure on a smaller budget. Cup teams have had to move to a new model of multiple primary sponsors, a strategy expected to trickle its way down. From a sponsorship standpoint, backing off the Cup drivers was a risk given their name value, but this shift in success back to the youngsters should get cash flowing again.
As a whole, though, the NASCAR Nationwide Series looks to be pointed in a positive direction for the future, and it’s primed for an amazing championship battle ahead. Anyone from Dillon to Sadler to Smith to Vickers could win the title. In the past, names like Kevin Harvick or Carl Edwards would dominate, and most fans could be better served falling asleep.
It may not show it in the stands quite yet, but that’s progress.
—By Toni Montgomery