|PHOTO: Brock Beard|
by Brock Beard
Last Friday, amid video clips featuring other athletes who returned from retirement one time too many, Kyle Busch announced he would come back to run five XFINITY Series races this season. This comes less than two years after he scored the last five of his 102 series wins by sweeping his maximum allowed number of starts. Now in this, his first Cup season for Richard Childress Racing, Busch will drive for fellow Chevrolet team Kaulig Racing. He’ll fill in five open spots that were previously for full-timer Landon Cassill – that is, before it was announced last winter that Cassill would scale back to a partial schedule.
You were probably expecting this article after the one I posted last year. Good news – here it is.
Kyle Busch has no business being in a XFINITY car, nor should he compete in the Craftsman Truck Series. “But it’s only for a few races,” you may say. “At least it’s not for a championship like a few years ago.” To that, I ask, how did that go in 2021? Were those five races that Busch won the best of the season, enhanced by his presence? Hardly.
The experience of a Cup regular coming down to dominate a XFINITY or Truck Series race, while not a weekly occurrence, is still a regular enough irritation, and a distraction to full-season storylines. Most irritating is that such “start-and-win” drivers and their hollow victories are feted as actual accomplishments, not dismissed as the most tolerated sham in professional sports.
The XFINITY Series doesn’t need Kyle Busch, either. This season promises to be the strongest in years in terms of the number of full-time entries, both large and small. A decade after his Cup ride with Swan Racing was snuffed out, Parker Kligerman finally gets a full-time ride with Big Machine Racing. Parker Retzlaff, impressive in his first few starts for RSS Racing and Our Motorsports, gets a full-time ride with Jordan Anderson, which expands to two cars. Even Joe Gibbs Racing has opened opportunities for Myatt Snider and Joe Graf, Jr. A Cup driver doesn’t add to this intrigue – it distracts from it – and the excuses for tolerating it just don’t stack up.
To be clear, this controversy is separate and apart from any discussion of drivers competing in NASCAR modifieds, the Indianapolis 500, your local dirt track, or any other series. Put those thoughts away. Those series and others like them are second to no one, and are completely different disciplines. In fact, in many ways, those races bring new fans to NASCAR by bringing NASCAR’s best to different parts of the country. But XFINITY and Truck Series races are different. These are feeder divisions for Cup. A top Cup driver’s presence brings nothing but predictability. They don’t bring fans, either. Most XFINITY and Truck races are hosted on the same weekend as Cup races. Any Cup driver’s fans are already on the track, if only to see how they run on Sunday.
I. THE PROBLEM
Contrary to what you may think while reading this, this is not actually a “Kyle Busch Problem.” The same thing goes for any other driver of his caliber – Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, the list goes on. And that right there is the problem. What are the proper parameters for a driver that should be excluded from the XFINITY or Truck Series? Should it be all Cup drivers? NASCAR has yet to create a firm definition. In its place are restrictions that affect all drivers in all three series, and only incidentally affect the biggest offenders. The rule that any driver can only declare for one championship between Cup, XFINITY, and Trucks has at least allowed series regulars to compete for the title, as has excluding Cup drivers from the Playoffs and bonus-paying races. But loopholes remain.
When it comes to “trophy hunting,” drivers with five full seasons’ worth of Cup experience can still run five races during the regular season in XFINITY and Trucks. This is not as much of a limit as it first appears. If, say, Hendrick Motorsports wanted to put all four of their drivers into XFINITY just for a lark, there’s nothing to keep Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron, and Alex Bowman from each running their five races, occupying 20 of the year’s 33 races. This isn’t a mere hypothetical. Just last year, Hendrick debuted their #17 team in XFINITY – sponsored by HendrickCars.com itself – which gave all four of their Cup drivers a shot at replicating Busch’s dominance.
Teams will always test the limits they are given. Changing the limits is the only solution. For that, I have a suggestion. And it’s not as restrictive as you might expect.
II. THE “IF YOU’RE IN, YOU’RE OUT” SYSTEM
Do we have to have the Playoffs? Must we have the Charter System? If so, it’s about time we use both to do some good.
Earn your spot among the 16 drivers in the Cup Series Playoffs? You’re prohibited from running XFINITY or Trucks the following season. Win the Cup championship? You’re prohibited for the next two seasons.
Miss the Cup Series Playoffs? Eliminate the experience requirement. Base it on whether that driver runs for a Chartered team. Why? Because those are guaranteed starts with guaranteed paychecks.
Miss the Playoffs and have a Charter? You only get one XFINITY or Truck start the next season – not both. Why one? Because multi-car teams dominate. They can have up to four drivers, which equates to four starts. It’s about time the Charters have strings attached.
Miss the Playoffs and don’t have a Charter? No limits. These drivers need all the starts they can get.
III. THE BENEFITS
First, and most importantly, this would keep drivers who are capable of winning Cup races or performing consistently enough to make the Playoffs from voluntarily taking a step down just to score an easy victory. This would dispel the myth of the “Kyle Busch Problem” and establish a common-sense definition of who should be excluded: Playoff drivers. In fact, if instituted today, it would exclude not just Bristol Dirt Race winner Busch, but all five first-time winners of Cindric, Chastain, Suarez, Briscoe, and Reddick. This shouldn’t be viewed as a punishment for winning, but a recognition of the significance of a Cup win beyond mere Playoff positioning.
Second, this would eliminate the nonsense of a Cup team fielding XFINITY or Truck Series rides for the sport’s best Cup drivers. Under my system, which focuses on drivers instead of teams, Cup teams could still field entries, but can’t put their ringers behind the wheel. If teams can’t be trusted not to allow a sponsor to back a Cup driver in a lower series, then that ability should be taken away. Instead, those seats are open for rising talents, and those drivers can compete to earn them.
Third, even if it were instituted today, this wouldn’t interfere with current driver contracts. Consider the example of Ross Chastain, who came into 2022 without a Cup Series win, and would ultimately run XFINITY races for DGM Racing and Big Machine Racing. If this system were in place last year, Chastain would still be able to run the rest of his planned XFINITY and Truck races even after his first win at COTA. He would only be prohibited from continuing to do so this year. This also fits the natural rhythm the Playoffs have created. After that 26th race, drivers in the Playoffs set their sights on the title while non-Playoff drivers build momentum for the next year. If instituted this year, non-Playoff race winners Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace, and Erik Jones would not be excluded from running XFINITY or Truck races. A winless Ryan Blaney would. Whether or not any of these drivers could run XFINITY or Trucks in 2024 would depend entirely on their performance this year.
Fourth, it’s not an outright ban, but a flexible system that accounts for different phases of a driver’s career. By basing exclusion entirely on Playoff status (and mostly on winning), this becomes a storyline to follow from one year to the next. The option is left open for drivers who are struggling, or who have lost their rides – as it should. For once-winning drivers who struggle, this can be an opportunity to hone their skills in a lower series, then make another run at Cup (such as A.J. Allmendinger). For winless drivers or those on smaller Cup teams, they can also regain confidence or perhaps become series regulars in another division (such as Justin Allgaier, Matt DiBenedetto, etc.). We already see some of this movement today, which is why the XFINITY and Truck Series have become stronger. Codifying this process will turn an incidental effect of the current model into its intended purpose.
IV. A CHANGE TO THE CHARTER SYSTEM
Now, I would like to speak to the XFINITY and Truck Series drivers who defend the current system, and want to be on the same track as a top-caliber Cup talent like Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick.
Yes, this win-based exclusion I’m proposing would prevent that from happening. But you would still get to test your skills against Cup-level talent. It won’t be Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick – unless they went winless the year before – but it doesn’t have to be. Both series already have drivers like Justin Allgaier and J.J. Yeley. And this talent will, in general, be on more equal footing with XFINITY and Truck Series regulars, leading to more learning and more competitive races. If a driver starts to dominate – regardless of their level of experience – they can and should earn a chance at making it into the Cup Series just as they always have.
Still want to race Kyle Busch? Well, then, what about Cup? Yes, seriously. Why run mid-pack in a XFINITY or Truck race being dominated by one or two Cup drivers when you could simply make a one-off start in Cup against all of them? Impossible? It shouldn’t be. Before the Charter System, this was extremely common. The far end of the garage area included teams like Donlavey Racing, which jump-started the careers of countless Cup drivers. One-off starts with unheralded teams gave NASCAR some of its greatest drivers, including Dale Earnhardt, who made his first race for owner-driver Ed Negre in 1975. Yes, we have six "open" cars this week in Daytona, but that number is certain to drop off in the weeks ahead. Last year's 500 was saw the season's only 40-car field. The other weeks left open up to four spots that could be filled by anyone, but are instead left empty. It’s a complete waste of a golden opportunity.
The solution is simple, but not easy – make operating a Cup “open” team more financially feasible. If the Charter system is going to stay in place, this should be the number one priority. We already know that simply having the spots available isn’t enough. The “open” teams – both new and old – should receive a fair share of the purse. Is it going to be as much as the Chartered teams? No – especially since none are guaranteed of securing one of the final four spots in the field. But they must be afforded a chance to qualify and compete. NASCAR has done this before, dating back to the “plan money” awarded to owner-drivers in the 1980s. They’ll have to guide the hand of the RTA to make it happen, but that is work well worth doing.
The result of this will finally settle the “Buschwhacker” debate, make qualifying more consequential, bring back the one-off teams that used to add extra intrigue to each field, and most importantly give aspiring XFINITY and Truck drivers a better chance at competing on the sport’s biggest stage.