The Rich Keep Getting Richer While The Xfinity Series Dies
It's become common this year to hear NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers and owners say the current business model for team ownership doesn't work. Although there is validity in that, many if not most of those talking about it are also helping destroy what was once a great racing series, the Xfinity Series. The race this past Friday night at Bristol is a perfect case in point. It highlighted the fact that there are now only two types of teams racing in the lower tier, Cup affiliated teams who consistently win the races and those that have no chance. There no longer is any middle ground.
Ten years ago, this same race had a full field of 43 cars. Of those entered, over half were owned by non-Cup affiliated car owners. Several of those owners had carved out a nice niche in the series and were able to field race winners and championship contenders. Clarence Brewer and his Brewco Motorsports was a great example. Although Greg Biffle drove his #66 car that night, David Green was the team's primary driver in the 27 and not only won a few races but almost won a series championship two years prior. Greg Pollex saw his team earn 24 Xfinity wins in the early 2000's. Neither of those men field cars now. They're not alone. Men like Armando Fitz, Sam Rensi, Frank Cici and Todd Braun along with others were once mainstays in the Xfinity Series who fielded competitive cars capable of at least running in the top 10. None are racing now. What happened and what does that mean? It means this series is now nothing more than a money grab by Sprint Cup owners and their drivers.
Leaving Bristol, the top ten in owners points looks like this: Penske, Roush, Gibbs, Childress, Childress, Earnhardt, Jr., Earnhardt-Miller, Hendrick, Gibbs and Hendrick. See a trend? Some might claim Dale Jr. and Kelly Earnhardt-Miller are evidence that everything is fine but that ignores the fact they are essentially satellite teams of Hendrick. Greg Mixon, owner of the number 28 driven by J.J. Yeley is the highest non-affiliated Xfinity Series owner and he comes in at 18th. Next on the list is Rod Sieg's team with son Ryan driving. They are currently 20th in owner points. This year's Bristol night race also featured only 40 cars, 3 of which left the race before ten laps were finished. Everyone following the series also knew those cars wouldn't complete more than a handful of laps. Of the two stand alone Xfinity teams previously mentioned, Sieg's best finishes of 2015 are a couple of 12th place runs. Outside of a 4th place finish at Talladega, Yeley's best effort has been 12th at Watkins Glen.
The argument has been used in the post-recession world that Cup drivers racing in the Xfinity Series helps sell tickets. Any honest race fan who looks at the grandstands can tell differently. NASCAR made a feeble attempt a few seasons ago to help stop this Cup domination by forcing drivers to declare which one series they would run for points. They really did this more for themselves than for the best interest of the series as they faced the possibility that a full-time Cup driver would end up being the Xfinity Series champion. They knew it would prove nothing and make them look bad. After all, it wants to be considered as a major sport and you don't see Aaron Rogers playing in college games on days before the Packers play. Bryce Harper isn't playing minor baseball on days the Nationals don't play. If the sanctioning body was serious about helping car owners and full-time drivers in the second tier, they would implement some serious and immediate changes.
First, they could either award no purse money to Cup drivers in Xfinity races or just award them all last place money regardless of where they finish. Doing so would show fans pretty quickly which of those guys truly are running these races, "for the love of racing." There were only four Cup drivers in Friday's race which is fewer than there normally are on shared weekends yet they combined to win $158.878 or more than 10% of the total purse. Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin were the top 3 finishers. In Saturday's Cup race, they combined to win $447,689. I assure you, owners like Johnny Davis, Rick Ware and Rod Sieg could use that $158,000 plus, a lot more than Gibbs, Harry Scott or the Earnhardt's.
I spoke to an Xfinity Series owner Friday night who told me his team had broken a particular part on their car last season. NASCAR confiscated it because they didn't believe that part should have broken. They thought the part had been tinkered with. It was discovered the part in question was eight years old. NASCAR officials told this owner those parts shouldn't be used for eight years, they should be thrown out before then. The owner said that at a cost of $1,000 for the part in question, he'd run it as long as he could; he had too. Besides purse money, there's so much television money in the sport now, things like this shouldn't have to happen. Through 22 races, with 11 remaining, full-time Sprint Cup drivers have taken over $3.2 million in Xfinity Series prize money. Split that among full-time Xfinity Series teams and you'll see drivers in better cars, probably putting on a better show because owners will be able to replace more eight year old parts.
Another quick and easy fix to this disparity is to limit the number of Xfinity races full time Cup drivers can run. I can already hear the howls that, "Sponsors want to see those name drivers carrying their colors." Sponsorships are all about creating value. Through Bristol, Austin Dillon has 13 Xfinity Series starts in 2015, the most of any Cup driver. If his sponsors knew he'd only be able to race in that series perhaps six times in the season, how much are those six sponsorship opportunities now worth? Obviously a whole lot more per race than they are now. Some will say that will lead to reduced car counts at races. Here's some news, the series is already struggling to field a full complement of cars. Perhaps by drastically reducing the number of races the Austin Dillon's or Kyle Larson's run, more Xfinity owners will have opportunities to field cars, thus creating more parity on the track. Fans claim they want better competition. That's what they would get if this plan was implemented. When I hear fans say Cup drivers help make the Xfinity Series better, I know I'm probably listening to someone who's never heard of Jack Ingram, Sam Ard, Larry Pearson or others, let alone ever saw them race.
It's obvious to anyone paying attention, that NASCAR has decided to place a premium on how its product is presented on television. This last idea will help that, while at the same time create more excitement and grow the fan base while also limiting the number of Cup drivers running Xfinity races. Are you ready? Return to the small tracks that built the series. No sport looks good when thousands of empty seats are visible on TV. Does anyone remember seeing grandstands when the Xfinity guys raced at IRP (Lucas Oil Raceway)? Not only is it horribly boring to see the series run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the negativity is reinforced when watching on TV as it looks like there is literally no one there. Not only did IRP provide great racing, the stands were full! Isn't that the goal of any sport, to perform in front of a full crowd? Memphis, Nashville, Milwaukee and Pikes Peak are just a few of the places the Xfinity Series used to go. Those are also the places it needs to return to. With more stand alone events, there will be fewer Cup drivers. Running at smaller venues will create more value in the tickets and make for better television viewing. It would also acknowledge the sports past and create more fans. How?
In the early years of the series, drivers earned a name for themselves by racing late models at places like Myrtle Beach, Hickory and Birmingham. Then when the (then) Busch Series came to town, the local fans looked forward to seeing how "their" guy stacked up. Many of those drivers went on to compete full-time in the series. Now, under this proposal, fans are going to find other drivers to support and become fans of. If the Xfinity Series ran at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, a handful of local drivers would probably attempt to make the race. Without Harvick, Hamlin and Keselowski there, fans are going to cheer those local guys or some of the series regulars, thus becoming fans. It also creates more opportunities which should be part of NASCAR's goal to start with. That's a large reason why so many fans are rooting for Ryan Sieg. He drives for a family owned team, not affiliated with any of the Cup teams. His story is the kind of story the Xfinity Series used to be filled with. Fans made at these races are going to remain fans of those drivers. How much is that worth? Returning to stand alone races at smaller, historic tracks will give more up and comers the kind of chance they used to have.
It also creates more pressure on the Sprint Cup drivers. Chris Buescher is a great example. Jack Roush has already stated Buescher is ready for Cup. With the way he's running this season and as poorly as the Roush teams have performed in Cup, don't you think there are a couple of nervous Roush drivers right now on the rich side of the garage? If more drivers are given more opportunities, owners are going to quickly find the ones they believe have the potential to improve their team. Just like in baseball, there's always someone pushing to make it to the next level. At the same time, guys in the big leagues have to keep fighting and improving to ensure they're not replaced.
There are a lot of drivers in Cup right now who seem pretty content with riding around, getting rich and not really competing. Give more Xfinity drivers the chance to show how good they really are and some of those fat cats will learn they need to start racing.
Although this is by no means an exhaustive list, any combination of these ideas would help the Xfinity Series while at the same time doing absolutely nothing negative to it or to the Sprint Cup Series. It's truly a win/win situation. If NASCAR truly cares about its on track product, fans and teams, they'll examine these ideas and quickly. Otherwise, go watch an Xfinity Series race while you still can.