Saturday, May 21, 2022

OPINION: The time has come for NASCAR to ban Cup drivers from the lower series

PHOTO: @WilliamByron

Despite multiple rule changes that have allowed the lower series to develop unique identities of their own, there remains a concerted effort to get Cup Series regulars into the lower series, and the XFINITY Series in particular. 

As with too many things these days, this subject has become a war of semantics. Those happy with Kyle Busch running fewer XFINITY races have been dismissed by their detractors as obsessed with “the Kyle Busch problem,” as if the source of their frustration was just from Kyle Busch running in the lower series, and not the presence of any Cup regulars. This forgets that Busch made himself the problem by staying in the series longer and for more races per season than the other post-2001 “Buschwhackers.” The culmination of this was the perversion of Richard Petty’s 200-win mark that allowed Busch’s combined top three series wins to be made part of the same conversation. But the concept of a “Kyle Busch problem” has now been used to silence these same critics as other Cup drivers creep back into the XFINITY series unchecked.

Some “Buschwhackers” are brought in under the guise of helping smaller teams evaluate their competitiveness. This occurred in February at the Auto Club Speedway, where SS-Green Light Racing brought on Stewart-Haas Racing driver Cole Custer, and this past Saturday in Texas, where Big Machine Racing brought on Richard Childress Racing driver Tyler Reddick. Both drivers were far from picked at random – SS-Green Light is as closely aligned with SHR as Big Machine (thanks to a renegotiation last October) is to RCR. These technical alliances have undoubtedly helped these teams become more competitive – both Custer and Reddick brought those teams their first wins. 

But, as with anything, this benefit has not been given freely. Running Cup level equipment has cost these smaller teams some of their identity and autonomy. Custer and Reddick's wins, while tremendous for their respective teams, are not equal stories to Jeremy Clements' win at Road America in 2017, nor David Gilliland's at Kentucky in 2006. Only the latter were true examples of series regulars sticking it to the big teams. Instead, too many small teams have become Trojan Horses, creating a path for Cup drivers to more easily slide into the XFINITY Series and at a direct detriment to series regulars. For barely over a season’s work, Jade Buford’s full-time schedule has now been reduced to just one more regular season race, to be replaced by not one, but both of RCR’s Cup drivers. Say what you will about Buford's performance in just 44 series starts, but other up-and-coming drivers for Cup-affiliated programs should be concerned if this becomes a trend.

In another case, Cup drivers are being airdropped into the field with impunity. Enter the case of JR Motorsports’ #88, which in April decided to expand its part-time schedule to allow the last two series champions Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott – plus current point leader William Byron – to run a combined five additional XFINITY races. This announcement came while Hendrick drivers were also entered in Truck Series races for fellow Chevrolet team Spire Motorsports. In both cases, none of the traditional excuses for Cup guys running the lower series adds up. There's no sponsor demanding the drivers be entered - both the XFINITY and Truck efforts carry logos for HendrickCars.com. The selected races are not at new venues, negating a reason to familiarize themselves with the track. Even if they were, the Hendrick quartet are all championship winning or title-caliber drivers. Each drive new NextGen cars in Cup that are radically different from any other vehicles raced in NASCAR national competition. This feels no different than the 2001-era “Buschwhackers” – a means of racking up easy victories by taking spots from other teams trying to qualify.

Neither of these phenomena are entirely new, but this steady escalation this season should raise an eyebrow. I personally believe that Kyle Busch finally scaling back has encouraged other Cup teams to stuff the field with their own drivers. NASCAR has not responded by making any changes to their current rules. Part of this is because, to some, there is no issue. Many XFINITY drivers themselves have been on record saying they like having Cup guys in the field to match their skills. But just because someone wants something doesn’t mean they should have it. The very reason we have XFINITY drivers capable of regularly contending for wins is because Cup drivers are not allowed to earn points and are limited in their number of starts. But these are passive measures, and teams will continue to find workarounds for as long as they’re able. 

The time has finally come for NASCAR to make things black-and-white. If their intent with past rule changes has been to keep Cup drivers out of the lower series, then they need to ban Cup drivers outright. Anything less will only encourage Cup teams to come up with even more workarounds to get their Cup drivers into races where they don’t belong, which will remain a threat to both the identity and health of the lower series.

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