The Johnsonville 180 at Road America will go down as the best XFINITY Series race of 2017, if not one of the best races of the NASCAR season, period. There was plenty of on-track action, drama, spinouts, a first-time winner, and nine of the top-15 drivers scoring their season-best finishes.
One thing that was noticeably absent on a day that saw Jeremy Clements drive a nine-year-old chassis to Victory Lane were Monster Energy Cup drivers, a group that has won more races in the XFINITY Series in 2017 than XFINITY Series regulars. For that matter, it was a rare setting Sunday in which the field actually consisted more of XFINITY teams than Cup teams.
NASCAR has taken steps to try to remedy this situation for the regulars by limiting the number of XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series races in which Cup drivers can compete. For the 2018 NASCAR season, that number looks to go even lower, a move which frustrated some of the Cup contingent who regularly compete in those divisions such as Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.
Early in August Harvick spoke on the matter on his SiriusXM NASCAR show Happy Hours.
“Just let them race,” he said. “Who cares? Why not just let them race. I don’t understand it. That’s what we do. We race cars, we race trucks, we race late models. That’s what we did all our life, we raced. I don’t know why all of a sudden it’s become a problem.’’
Harvick’s argument centered around the idea that up-and-coming drivers could learn a lot from the Cup drivers moonlighting in the lower divisions. This is an age-old argument used since the early days of “Buschwhacking,” when the series was the Busch Grand National Series, but it’s also an idea that some of the lower division regulars have taken issue with.
“The way you make it to the bigs in every other sport is to consistently beat everyone else at lower levels,” explained Tommy Joe Martins, Owner/Driver of the No. 44 Martins Motorsports NASCAR Camping World Truck Series entry. “Cup drivers aren’t helping XFINITY/Truck Series drivers develop. At all. They’re hurting them. They’re taking the spotlight off of them in a sport where your ability to compete comes down to your ability to draw fans and sponsors to you.”
XFINITY Series regular Joey Gase, driver of the No. 52 Jimmy Means Racing entry, is a little more generous regarding learning from the Cup drivers in the lower divisions.
“We do learn from the Cup drivers when they come down and do the lower series,” Gase said, “although, the drivers that are in equal equipment will learn more from them than the drivers who are not. I think NASCAR limiting [Cup drivers] to seven races is good because that will still mean there is at least one cup driver in majority of the races.”
However, there are drivers like Truck Series competitor John Hunter Nemechek who do believe in the education value of racing against Cup drivers in the lower divisions.
“Any time you’re able to race against the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup guys, or even the XFINITY Series guys, they can help you as a driver learning how to race, some of their techniques, what they’re doing better than you, where they’re faster,” said Nemechek. “It definitely helps you overall to be able to race against them and beat them and kind of show your talent.”
“I definitely think that racing against them every time that you’re on the track, whether it’s practice, qualifying, or the race, you’re always learning and as a driver you want to learn as much as you can to be able to beat them one day.”
Cup drivers racing in the lower series isn’t a new dilemma that the sport is facing, and granted, it does have its merits for Cup drivers looking for an edge on the weekend. Dale Earnhardt Sr. made 136 starts in the XFINITY Series between 1982 and 1994, winning 21 times. In that same span of years, Harry Gant made 128 starts and also earned 21 wins. Mark Martin made 25 starts in the NCWTS starts between 1996 and 2011, scoring seven wins.
Although drivers like Busch, Harvick, and Brad Keselowski have all voiced displeasure at being limited in the lower divisions, XFINITY and Truck Series regulars do seem to be happy with the new rule.
“The way I look at it is, of course, the Cup regulars and drivers that are already in top rides are against it because it will limit them from driving or they are already in top equipment so it doesn’t matter to them,” Gase continued. “If you ask a full-time driver in the XFINITY or Truck Series I’m sure at least 80 percent are happy for the rule. Brad [Keselowski] tweeted he thinks if a Cup driver wants to drive in XFINITY or Truck Series they should be in equipment they own and I love that idea. Brad is all about giving back to the sport and helping up and coming drivers and I think that is awesome. I do think Cup drivers should be able to race in the XFINITY and Truck Series but on a limited basis like we are starting to see now.”
Martins took it one step further saying NASCAR’s theory that letting top tier talent play in the lower division is good for the sport, is, at it’s core, flawed.
“[You’re] never going to hear that in any other sport,” he said. “Then be audacious enough to defend it by saying they just love to play – and then that it’s good for the whole sport for them to be down there? It’s inconceivable to me.”
This isn’t to say that Cup drivers should be banned completely from racing in the lower tier divisions. But their dominance isn’t as beneficial to the XFINITY and NCWTS divisions as one would like to believe. In 2017 only four XFINITY regulars have gone to Victory Lane for a total of six wins in 23 events, while in the Truck Series there has been more parity; five regulars have gone to Victory Lane in 14 events and have won nine times.
What does that tell the other teams looking to grow and earn their place in the sport? What kind of growth does that encourage? NASCAR is a performance-driven sport, where the better a driver is the more guaranteed their growth and longevity is. Yet there are several XFINITY-only and NCWTS-only teams who may have a dream-driver – accessible, charming, a draw for the fans, and extremely talented, only to be hindered by a Cup team stealing the show in a lower-division race.
When NASCAR announced the further limitations to Cup drivers attempting to partake in racing in the lower divisions, Busch was open in his disdain for the new limitations during an interview on SiriusXM NASCAR.
“But if we keep continuing to put the limits on it, I’m going to tell you right now, if the limits to the Truck Series go to zero, I’m done,” Keselowski stated. “So you wouldn’t see Kyle Busch Motorsports teams out on the race track. That’s just the way I’m going to make it and we’ll see how that progresses as the years go along. You know, the XFINITY Series side, I’m sure Joe’s [Gibbs] frustrated. I know I’m frustrated. We’ll just continue to race the races we’re allowed to run with the sponsorship that we have. We got great partners.”
Another popular claim used frequently in this argument is that top-tier drivers like Busch, Harvick, Keselowski, and Larson racing in the lower divisions is that their participation brings funds, sponsorship, and attention to the divisions. However, according to regulars partaking in those divisions, that’s not entirely the case.
“They do bring funds to the top teams that they are racing for but that is not the case for the smaller teams,” said Gase. “A few of the top drivers say if they couldn’t race in the lower series it would risk the [Cup affiliated teams] and they would have to shut down, but I think that would be okay. That would help equal out the rest of the field and would let smaller teams come into the sport and fill in the gaps.”
Nemechek echoed Gase’s sentiments, saying, “I think when the Cup stars come down to run Trucks or XFINITY, it does bring funds and sponsorships, but to their own teams. It doesn’t necessarily help out other teams that they don’t own or drive for. I really don’t see those funds or sponsorships from where I’m in the Truck Series, maybe if I was driving for one of them or their teams you would see those funds trickling down to help out the program, help out the team, just to be able to use more resources and funding to make your equipment better.”
Martins offered a similar, more pointed, take.
“Funds to where?” he asked. “To their teams? That’s not helping Martins Motorsports. That’s not helping me. Their teams making more money isn’t helping the NASCAR economy. If anything it’s hurting it. They use the money to further develop the trucks and drive the price up for other teams in the series.”
Considering that the involvement of Cup drivers in lower divisions piloting Cup-funded equipment affects the respective regulars more than NASCAR realizes, they should take them into account more than anything. If a Cup driver threatens to fold their lower division efforts, the sanctioning body should take into consideration that it won’t mean a loss to the sport.
Instead, all they have to do is just check social media following a race at Iowa, Gateway, Road America, or even Mosport. When a XFINITY or Truck Series event has more regulars than outsiders and has regulars running at the front and winning, it’s a plus for that division. On top of that, it encourages growth in the sport. Any fan or competitor could tell you that that is a good thing.
So the next time a rule change affects lower divisions, instead of leaning on what a Cup regular has to say, what the division regulars have to say may have more gravity in regards to competition.