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Buschwhacking blues

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Busch Series celebrates its 25th anniversary season this year, but a serious issue plagues America's No. 2 racing series.

While NASCAR officials tout the series' growth over the years, independent team owners – once the backbone of the series – are being squeezed almost to the breaking point.

Established Cup teams have looked to the Busch Series as an opportunity to gain an advantage as competition in the Nextel Cup series has become closer than ever over the past three years. As a result, every major Nextel Cup team now has its own Busch Series team, either through an alliance with an existing team or from having built one from the ground up.

While some have taken to describing these programs as "developmental," others just say it's all about the money. For if a veteran Cup driver has to be at the race track on Saturday anyway, why not pick up some extra money driving a Busch car?

The practice of Cup drivers entering Busch races is known as Buschwhacking, and this season it could be more common than ever. On any given race weekend this season, expect to find seven to 15 Cup regulars competing in the Busch race.

Cup regulars Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, J.J. Yeley and Reed Sorenson all will compete full-time in the Busch Series in 2006, and 17 of the 43 drivers running Saturday's season-opening Hershey's Kissables 300 here at Daytona are Cup regulars, including polesitter J.J. Yeley.

Aside from drivers picking up cash or seat time, there are real benefits for the Cup teams who enter Busch races.

Beginning this season, NASCAR tightened the rules on testing in the Cup series, limiting teams to only six authorized tests per year. This makes the ability to obtain critical data on tires, car setup and engine performance during Busch races invaluable to the Cup teams.

That data also goes back into the Busch programs, giving organizations like Roush Racing – with its five Cup teams, three Busch teams and two Craftsman Truck teams – a huge advantage against independent Busch teams like Team Rensi.

Team owner Sam Rensi, who fields Ford Fusions for Ashton Lewis Jr. and Regan Smith, isn't happy about the presence of so many Cup teams and drivers in the Busch Series, but he understands it's all part of the price you pay to play the NASCAR game.

"It's great for the fans, but ... it's impossible for us to compete on a financial level because the celebrity of these Cup drivers is almost like rock stars," Rensi said. "We have good drivers whose celebrity is certainly diminished compared to the Cup drivers."

And celebrity is appealing to the people who sign the checks.

"When the sponsors bring monster dollars to these programs, they want the greatest amount of exposure that they can get," Rensi said. "They feel that they can get the most exposure with a Cup driver, so the money is migrating towards Cup and Cup-affiliated teams rather than us standalone teams.

"You're trying to slay the dragon week after week."

Busch Series veteran and '94 series champ David Green thinks it's no longer a level playing field, and that every week it becomes more and more difficult for a smaller team to compete.

"I know that if I'm going to win a race, I'm going to have to beat a Cup team and most likely a Cup driver," Green said. "They can take the data they've learned from research on the Cup cars and directly apply to these cars. We don't have that."

Still, Rensi doesn't agree with the voices in the garage that say NASCAR should limit the number of Cup drivers who compete in the Busch Series. Instead, he'd like NASCAR to increase the payout for each race.

"Give us a better share of the purse, let us have some more money so we can compete," he said.

NASCAR officials regularly use the budgetary requirements of the 15th- or 20th-place team as a gauge for how much money is needed to run successfully in the Busch Series. Rensi says that's dead wrong.

"If I'm going to run with Rick Hendrick, I've got to have the money he's got," he said. "If I'm going to run with Jack Roush or Robert Yates or DEI, I've got to have the resources they have.

"Don't measure me with the 20th-place Busch car, because I've come to win these things."

The season kicks off Saturday at 1:20 p.m. ET.

Rookie class

Another promising Rookie class makes its debut at Daytona on Saturday.

Led by 2005 Craftsman Truck Series Rookie of the Year Todd Kluever, the 2006 class also includes Kluever's Roush Racing teammate Danny O'Quinn, Kevin Harvick Inc. driver Burney Lamar, former IRL racer A.J. Foyt IV, JR Motorsports – as in Dale Earnhardt Jr. – driver Mark McFarland and Chris Wimmer.

The oldest rookie in the group is 42-year-old John Andretti, who despite many years as a Cup regular qualifies for rookie status in the Busch Series. Andretti makes his second Busch start in nine years on Saturday.

Other rookie candidates expected to compete this year are Joel Kauffman and David Gilliland.

Notes

  • Past Champ Car champion Paul Tracy will make his NASCAR debut in Saturday's Busch race in a car owned by Frank Cicci and NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. Tracy starts 37th.
  • Although the weight of a Busch car remains at a minimum of 3,400 pounds (sans driver) this season, the weight will be redistributed with 25 pounds moved to the right side of the car.
  • Anniversary tidbits: The series debuted in February 1982 at Daytona, and Dale Earnhardt won the first race. ... There have been 18 champions, starting with Jack Ingram in 1982. Six drivers have earned two crowns while five, including last year's champion Martin Truex Jr., have won consecutive championships. ... The series has grown from races held in seven states in 1982 to 21 states and one international venue – Mexico City – in 2006.