- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- It's an age-old debate that never seems to progress past banter: Should Sprint Cup Series drivers be allowed to run for Nationwide Series championships? Heck, some fans don't want to see Cup drivers in lower-tier races at all.
That's naïve, but I get it. It's always nice to see up-and-comers get a chance and blossom as competitors. And if there is to be a culture change in this area, only NASCAR can facilitate it. Everyone else involved loves it.
The drivers have a blast racing and make good money while doing it. The owners love having big-name Cup drivers in Nationwide to lure corporate sponsors. The sponsors like getting the rights to a Cup driver's likeness for a fraction of the money. The tracks love selling the seats that those big names draw. Television loves the ratings increase those big names produce.
That leaves the sanctioning body. To change the culture it'd have to change the rules.
It's contemplating it.
"It's kind of like where we are with the Chase [in Cup]," NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said. "There is not a deck of ideas at this point that says we will or won't do this. We're bouncing ideas off drivers and teams to see what can be done to get Nationwide drivers more exposure. To say there was any one leading concept at this stage is premature."
Among the ideas would be a separate points system for Nationwide-only -- or at least Nationwide-mostly -- drivers to crown a series champion.
Cup drivers that own Nationwide cars have mixed feelings on the matter.
"I think there's definitely a need to give the younger guys a place to come up," said Kevin Harvick, owner of the No. 33 Chevrolet. "When I came up through the Nationwide Series there wasn't any Cup guys racing for the championship on a weekly basis, so it was definitely different than it is now. "
Harvick feels the 2001 season, when he was pushed into the Cup Series prematurely to take the place of Dale Earnhardt in the wake of the legend's death, changed everything.
"Everything changed from there," he said. "For us, as a team owner, we don't go down the road of trying to put young guys in the car anymore. But I think there definitely needs to be a place for the younger guys to establish themselves as a Cup-quality driver.
"You also have to look at the balances. If somebody is winning the Nationwide championship who is a 15th-place car, is that really credible as far as being a championship winning team?"
Good point. But in that series, the driver makes a world of difference in team performance.
Harvick's teammate, Clint Bowyer, won the 2008 Nationwide title as a full-time Cup driver. He says eliminating Cup drivers from Nationwide competition would jeopardize the series' future.
"I don't think you can survive without them," Bowyer said. "I think that is what attracts the fans, the attention, the sponsors. But at the end of the day that series is a support series. It is a stepping-stone for younger drivers like me, and every other driver that came through the ranks of the Nationwide Series and owes the Nationwide Series for their Cup ride."
The biggest concern is the potential for the talent pool to dry up. The days of driver development are basically dead. Remember 2003? Owners were racing to sign the next big thing. No more.
"It gave me the opportunity to showcase my talents next to the best drivers in the world -- the Cup drivers," Bowyer said. "When I was able to run equally as good, or maybe beat them every now and then, it gave Richard Childress what he needed to see to give me an opportunity. I owe a lot to that."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., owner of the Nos. 88 and 7 Chevrolets, agrees that outrunning Cup drivers is what earns a young driver his wheels at the pinnacle. It did so for two of his former drivers -- Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski.
"You can look back over the years and see where the guys who get picked out of that series are the ones that are able to compete at the same level as the Cup guys who come down to that series," Earnhardt said. "So I think you have to kind of have [Cup guys] as a measuring stick to some extent."
But again, there's that all-important pile of green paper that ultimately decides who drives.
"I mean, it's real difficult to tell [sponsors] to believe in Josh Wise or somebody when they could have Jamie [McMurray] or somebody like that," Junior said. "But that's just the way it is, and that's fine with me. But I do like to bring Brad along or somebody like that, like we did with Truex and Brad.
"That was a blast to be able to do that and make friendships with those guys that will last forever and have been a part of their careers in some way. That's fun. That's the ultimate. That's the ultimate victory as far as being an owner."
That, though, is rare.
"It doesn't happen every season. It's not easy, even if you had the dollars, it's not easy to go pluck a guy and make a Brad every year. Not everybody has that talent within them," Junior said. "And I don't have this eye for talent where I can nail it every time.
"I mean, you're going to make mistakes in some of the people that you decide to bank on. And you just have to, you know, you just have to roll with the punches and keep regrouping and trying different things and hoping something works, something sticks."
"I think those kids need a little time in the sun -- a little bit more than they're probably seeing," Bowyer said. "It seems like it is becoming the norm to have Cup drivers winning all the races. That's not necessarily fair for those kids.
"I think they need some opportunities to showcase their talents all by themselves and get some momentum and confidence behind them. To be able to give those kids a little more limelight would be good."
The debate continues
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.