“…the next Dale Earnhardt.”
Those words were spoken not in description of Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon or even Dale Earnhardt Junior. They were said by Doug Yates back in August of 2006 to praise non-other than David Gilliland.
“David who?” you might ask. I don’t blame you if you’ve forgotten, seven years is a long time in the world of sports. You most recently would have heard Gilliland’s name called on the final lap of the Aaron’s 499 earlier this year at Talladega when he pushed Front Row Motorsports teammate David Regan to his second career Sprint Cup win.
Before that though, the last significant time you would have heard his name mentioned outside of being involved in a wreck was on June 17, 2006, when Gilliland pulled off an upset win in the then Busch Series’ Meijer 300 at Kentucky Motor Speedway. Why was it an upset? How can it not be when it’s the only race in the season’s 35 total where a driver without any Winston/Nextel/Sprint Cup experience wins a race?
It was because of this domination by veteran drivers with no business in the “minor leagues” of NASCAR that two months after his win, Gilliland was introduced as the replacement of Elliott Sadler in the Robert Yates racing No. 38 M&M car and heralded by Doug Yates as the “next Dale Earnhardt.”
I’m glad to be able to say this was the lowest of lows when it came to NASCAR and its second largest touring series. A major Cup series team (at the time) hiring a driver after just ONE win in the Busch/Nationwide series? It’s the biggest knee jerk reaction I’ve ever seen in the sport, but it’s a reaction brought on by NASCAR itself.
7 years later, the product in the Nationwide and sometimes even the Truck series is marginally better, but it’s still an aggravating situation.
7 years after Yates’ short sighted hire, current and former Cup drivers continue to dominate the Nationwide series, though I would argue it should still be called the “Busch” series with the way Kyle Busch perpetually visits victory lane.
Through 21 races in the 2013 campaign, Busch, the face of Joe Gibbs racing in the Cup series and unfortunately Nationwide, has won eight races. Those eight wins have brought his total number of wins in the series to 59, making him the winningest driver in the series’ history.
The levels of irritation I, and I imagine many other NASCAR fans experience whenever pre-race analysts pick him to win, when he’s leading and ultimately wins, are immeasurable. I’m not going to deny that Busch is a talented driver. I respect his “Win or go home” philosophy. It’s a practice I wish my favorite driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. would adopt instead of hanging back on restarts at Pocono when he’s in the top 5 with less than 10 laps to go.
While Busch is dominating in Nationwide (save for his wreck at Watkins Glen and a few other problems) for Joe Gibbs Racing in the black No. 54 Monster Ford, he strangely, Busch doesn’t participate in Nationwide races that take place at tracks the Cup series won’t be competing in the next day. The most recent example of this was on August 2nd at the U.S. Cellular 250 at Iowa Motor Speedway.
Instead of Busch helming the 54, it was Drew Herring (who earned the pole). During a bye week for Sprint on July 21st, Nationwide raced at Chicagoland while the Monster team sat out.
Two years ago I attended my first Nationwide race at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis (the last race for the series at the track). Though the Sprint Cup series would compete across town at the Brickyard 400 the next day, Busch didn’t race that night, as Brad Keselowski, another Cup regular took home the win, to my dissatisfaction.
Am I accusing Kyle Busch of racing in select Nationwide series races as a way to find an advantage in the Cup series? Why yes, I am. Just a few years ago, NASCAR tried to stop the complete neutralization of any appeal in the Nationwide series by ruling that NASCAR drivers could only compete for points in one series. It helped to a degree. Since its implementation, Carl Edwards has disappeared from the circuit, while drivers like Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. still compete, but mainly at restrictor plate races.
But it clearly hasn’t been a completely successful strategy to make the Nationwide series more competitive or attractive to fans. In the 13 races Busch didn’t win, the race was won by either an active Cup driver (Keselowski: 4, Joey Lagono: 2, Matt Kenseth 1) or a driver who has at one point or another been a Cup regular (Regan Smith: 2, Sam Hornish Jr., Trevor Bayne, A.J. Allmendinger and Tony Stewart:1 each).
No one who is a full-time Nationwide driver with no experience in the Cup Series, has won a race this season. In the current points standings, the top 5 position are Austin Dillon (seven 2013 Cup races), Sam Hornish Jr. (has raced in Cup off and on since 2007), Regan Smith (4 seasons in Sprint, 1 win with Furniture Row Racing), Elliott Sadler (years with Robert Yates racing before Gilliland replaced him) and Brian Vickers (eight years in Cup, 2 wins).
The commercials on ESPN champion the Nationwide series as the place where names are made in NASCAR. Well as far as I can tell, names like Justin Allgaier, Parker Kligerman and Brian Scott will continue to be overlooked by the dwindling crowds as Cup regulars both old and current continue to pace the field on Saturdays.
Also, as long as Kyle Busch and his fellow “Buschwackers” to continue to win week-in and week-out, a potential championship by Dillon, Hornish or Smith will be as hollow as christening a one-time winner the next Dale Earnhardt.