Crossroads

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As it celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, NASCAR's Busch Series finds itself in the midst of the biggest transformation in its history.

What once essentially was a minor league circuit, a home for many drivers who saw the series as both a stepping stone into the upper division as well as an affordable place for them to pursue their racing passion, now is the No. 2 motorsports series in America according to both television and attendance figures supplied by NASCAR.

This boom in the last several years was accentuated in 2005, when an average 1.9 million households and 2.5 million viewers tuned into each event, representing increases of 22 percent and 24 percent over 2004, respectively.

Race attendance figures also are up, growing anywhere from 15 to 35 percent according to anecdotal commentary supplied by track officials (exact figures are rarely published by track operators).

The growth of the series over the past three years, which according to NASCAR now boasts 50 million fans – two-thirds of the fan base of the Nextel Cup Series – is a direct result of the increased participation by drivers and teams from the Nextel Cup Series. This practice, as old as the series itself, has been nicknamed "Buschwhacking."

The practice of Cup drivers racing in Busch has become a lightning rod for the series this season, as controversy swirls around whether so many Cup drivers should be allowed to participate. Regardless, one can not overlook the tremendous success the series now enjoys.

The Busch Series' success is based on a variety of factors.

  • A very talented mix of both young and aggressive drivers racing alongside well-known, experienced drivers.

  • Close finishes, tight competition and the rapid development of those younger drivers, who in the past did not have the benefit of using good equipment.

  • Increasing costs of attending a Nextel Cup event, as the Busch Series provides fans the opportunity to save money and see their favorite Nextel Cup drivers compete – regardless of what kind of stock car they are in – thus contributing to the increased attendance at Busch races.

Because of the recent success of drivers like Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin and others, race fans also look to the Busch Series as a showcase for the stars of tomorrow, many of whom spend just a year or two in the series before moving up into Nextel Cup racing.

Still, there is a very vocal group of series supporters that resents the changes that the current trend of Buschwhacking has brought. They fear that the smaller Busch teams are being overshadowed, and they have urged NASCAR officials to make rule changes that would, in the future, limit the participation of Cup teams in Busch races.

Look back

The irony is that the series was created to somewhat serve as an alternative to what is now Nextel Cup.

The birth of the circuit now known as the Busch Series actually dates back to 1950. The "25th anniversary" for the most part recognizes the year in which current sponsor Anheuser-Busch first began its association with the series.

In the early '50s, the then-Sportsman Division was created in response to car owners concerned about the mounting costs of building first-class stock cars for NASCAR's upper division. The original Sportsman cars looked very much like their big brothers on the outside, but mechanically they were mostly showroom stock with very few modifications allowed.

In its early years, series drivers frequently competed in three to four races per week and up to 60 races per year throughout the East Coast. Among the notable drivers claiming championships in this division were Ralph Earnhardt (1956) and Ned Jarrett (1957-58).

Despite being a supplementary series to NASCAR's premier level – the Grand National Division, now known as Nextel Cup – the Sportsman Division quickly spread nationwide and in 1968 was renamed the Late Model Sportsman Series.

Although its drivers and cars were not as well-known or as well-equipped as the Grand National Division, it nevertheless became the home for those drivers hoping eventually to make it to NASCAR's top tier or for those looking for a more affordable alternative to Grand National.

Title sponsorship by the Permatex Corporation in the late 1960s further helped boost the prominence of the Late Model Sportsman Series, and in 1982 the series' various regional divisions were unified into one national series when title sponsor Anheuser-Busch came onboard and renamed the circuit the Budweiser Late Model Sportsman Series.

The first event of this new series was the Goody's 300, held on Feb. 13, 1982, at Daytona and won by Dale Earnhardt in a Pontiac.

In 1984 Anheuser-Busch changed sponsorship to its Busch brand and in 1986 the series was renamed the Busch Grand National Series (the Grand National was dropped from the series title three years ago).

In the '80s the series featured smaller cars with V-6 engines, different than those being raced at the time in NASCAR's premier division, which was then called the Winston Cup Series. Eventually the cars became more like those run in Cup, with various differences, including shorter wheelbase length and the smaller V-6 engine.

Only recently have the Busch Series cars become nearly identical to their older brothers, but a few differences remain – a shorter wheelbase, smaller carburetor and a higher spoiler.

Buschwhacking

The relative similarity of the Busch and Cup cars certainly is more conducive to racing in both series, but the practice of Cup regulars competing in Busch races is not a new phenomenon. Since the inception of the modern-day Busch Series, about two or three drivers each year regularly have competed in both the Busch Series and the Cup Series.

"When we used to race, a lot of people didn't like the Cup guys coming over and taking all the money," said Tommy Ellis, who won the series title in 1988. "When the Busch Series first started, they had so much more technology and experience than we had on the big tracks, it was like stealing for them.

"They would come and they would get all the money, all the prestige. We could win on the short tracks and stuff that we were used to."

Nextel Cup veteran Mark Martin holds the record for the most wins (47) in Busch history, though he never has run a full Busch season and has run a full Cup schedule.

This season, however, there is an unprecedented number of Cup drivers (seven) running the full Busch season. Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Reed Sorenson, Carl Edwards, J.J. Yeley, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch regularly are joined by up to a dozen or more of their fellow Cup regulars on any given race weekend, especially when the Busch Series is running at the same track as the Cup Series.

What accounts for the sudden increase in Cup drivers? A combination of many factors.

With the Busch and Cup cars being so similar, teams that are restricted by new limits on testing in both series use the opportunity to race in the Saturday show to gain additional data. The acquisition of data from running a Busch car on Saturday is invaluable to both crew chiefs and engineers associated with Cup teams.

Tires, which are the same on both Busch and Cup cars, are key in setting up a race car, so any opportunity to learn how those tires will react from running them on a Busch car is readily accepted.

There also are, of course, the financial benefits. Cup drivers who have to be at a race track all weekend long anyway might as well earn several tens of thousands of dollars extra sitting in a race car for an additional 2½ to three hours on Saturday.

Many independent team owners lament that the Cup drivers usually finish the Busch race near the top of the field where the winnings are the greatest.

Independent team owner James Finch is among a chorus of fellow owners who have called on NASCAR to change its rules so that Cup drivers do not get paid purse money, while others want the Cup drivers to start at the rear of the field – not that it would make much of a difference.

Don't expect either one to happen anytime soon.

Still, there are more reasons for Cup drivers to compete in both series.

For Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Busch, who is in his second year as a full-time Nextel Cup driver and is racing in both the Busch and Nextel Cup series this season, the primary motivation for racing on Saturday is to have better results in his Cup car on Sunday.

"It's given me a lot more to use on Sunday," Busch said. "Our Sunday program is a lot better."

Sure, Busch wants another opportunity to win the championship he missed out on in 2004 when Martin Truex Jr. won the first of his two Busch Series titles. But Kyle Busch also aims to gain as much time seat time as possible – a critical factor for young drivers whose total time spent behind the wheel of a stock car is minuscule compared to some veteran series drivers.

"I can't figure out why [veterans] Tony Stewart or Kevin Harvick are doing it," Busch said of running double duty in both Cup and Busch. "But for me and J.J. Yeley and Denny Hamlin and some others, it's a useful tool. The Busch Series is a great learning tool."

Busch rookie Danny O'Quinn, whose background is late model stock cars, sees the Busch series as a stepping stone to the Cup series. While he does acknowledge that success in the Busch Series doesn't always translate into a good Cup ride, racing in the Busch Series nevertheless can be a lucrative proposition.

"Ever since I first started racing, my goal was to race in Nextel Cup," said O'Quinn, who drives for Roush Racing. "Racing here against the Cup drivers is a great learning experience for me.

"You can make a good living here. There's a level of prestige in this series that even if you never make it to the Cup level, you can be proud of racing here."

So far this year, every Busch Series race has been won by a Nextel Cup regular. That may be the pattern for the remainder of the season unless a Busch regular like Paul Menard, Johnny Sauter or Jason Leffler is able to break through with a strong showing.

Menard knows it's just part of the game. If you can beat one of the Cup regulars, then you know you've beaten the best.

"You learn every time you get on the track with those guys," Menard said. "I know that soon I'll get to race against them full time. And I know that they're probably more comfortable racing against me knowing that I've had some time in the Busch Series."

Younger drivers like O'Quinn and Menard might relish the opportunity to race against NASCAR's best, but the increase in Buschwhacking has led to growing resentment in the Busch Series garage – primarily from traditional Busch Series team owners and their drivers directed toward the Nextel Cup teams that now are operating full-time Busch teams.

Past series champion David Green (1994), one of the garage's most vocal drivers, agrees that the series is bigger than ever, but is it better? Given closer examination, Green says no.

"If you look past the better ratings and more exposure, there are problems with the series," Green said. "The pure Busch owners [those that own just a Busch team] are struggling to maintain against the better-financed Cup owners."

Those Cup owners are having plenty of success this season, as none of the 15 or so Busch-only teams currently occupy a spot in the top eight in Busch owner points.

That's not to say that Busch teams can't find some success. Independents like Kevin Harvick Inc. (Burney Lamar), Braun/Akin (Jason Leffler) and ppc (Kenny Wallace) have their drivers in the top 15 in points and regularly finish races in the top 10.

Then there is Sauter, who despite a slow start this season now stands ninth in driver points, accounting for one of just three Busch regulars in the top 10 (Menard and Jon Wood are the others).

Although Sauter's team, Haas/CNC, also fields a car on the Cup side, it is the Busch team that has been grabbing the headlines and can be easily tabbed as the "best in class" when faced with the challenge of racing against the better-financed Cup-aligned teams.

"The Busch Series has become so competitive and it's ever-changing," Sauter said. "The Cup drivers have been racing in the Busch Series for years but not to the extent that we see today. It's a big challenge but we're not going to concede. We're here to win a championship and so far we've proven that we can compete among the best."

Competing is one thing, but winning another. Not only have Cup drivers won each of this season's 11 races, just two races were won last season by non-Cup affiliated teams.

It hasn't always been that way.

Green's viewpoint is shared by the many competitors in the Busch garage who have been in the series long enough to have watched it change dramatically. These drivers and owners would prefer NASCAR put the brakes on the increasing influence of Nextel Cup-supported teams.

But given the unprecedented growth and interest in the series, their voices are being lost in the chorus of success stories being told by both NASCAR officials and by the roar of the larger crowds attending Busch races – not to mention the increased positive media attention and the growing group of first-time sponsors in the series that benefit from the increased attention.

"Today basically in the Busch Series, the independent, the one-car team, it basically doesn't have a chance," said two-time ('86-'87) Busch Series champion Larry Pearson. "You've got Roush, you've got Hendrick, Childress. You can't beat 'em. You just cannot beat those guys. I'd hate to be running against them."

But without Cup drivers in the field, there would be a shortage of cars – a situation that independent team owners readily acknowledge but for which they blame NASCAR. They claim the cost of doing business in the Busch Series has gotten out of hand and the added loss of purse revenues (from the Cup drivers dominating the top spots in the field) has made it an even more difficult situation for them to survive.

NASCAR's response is that the Busch Series has evolved from being a starter series for drivers and team owners. Gone are the days when a driver or a team owner could look to the Busch Series as an entry point into NASCAR.

Television, advertising and marketing executives also support the presence of Cup drivers in Busch, saying the series would be stagnant without their increased involvement.

Former champion Ellis, who won his Busch title following an unsuccessful three-year stint in the Cup Series, agrees that there should be Cup drivers racing in the Busch Series – to a point.

"I think it's good for all the guys to get to compete with them and learn from them," Ellis said. "But you can have too many of them. Today, I think in this period of time, I think you got too many of them."

Some of those younger drivers learning from their Cup counterparts are doing so while driving in top-notch equipment, helping to make the racing in the Busch Series closer and more competitive than ever.

Teams like Roush and Hendrick are putting their young developmental drivers in the kind of equipment that just a few years ago would have been put in the hands of only veteran drivers. That fact alone contributes to the rapid development of many younger drivers, who for the first time in their careers find themselves in top-notch equipment and therefore excel more quickly.

Level playing field

How then does NASCAR keep the playing field level given that the larger, Cup-based organizations essentially are running Cup teams in Busch clothing?

"We always try and look at the rules package to make sure that we're developing a package and we have a set of circumstances where everybody has equal opportunity to race on any given day," said Busch Series director Joe Balash.

The financial disparity between teams is best illustrated by the ability of the better-financed team to buy more of a given part – such as springs or shocks – which gives it more latitude in choosing the best component for a given situation.

"It's the American free enterprise system at its finest," Balash said. "The bigger teams weren't always big, they started off small."

The key to success, Balash adds, is to make sure that the only rules in place are those that allow anyone and everyone to come into the series and purchase and use the same parts as everyone else to put a vehicle together to compete on the track.

Balash names the Johnny Davis-owned entry, driven by Davis' son Kertus, as an example of an obviously underfinanced team that's able to compete against some of the more well-funded organizations.

"Those guys work hard at making sure they field a competitive entry, and Kertus is a talented young driver," Balash said, adding that that several of the better-funded teams usually help out Davis and make sure he has the equipment to compete.

Davis' car has made just seven starts this season, but the idea is that the opportunity for the team to compete still remains.

That opportunity perhaps isn't as obvious as it used to be, however, as Balash acknowledges that racing in the Busch Series isn't what it was just a handful of years ago when it was a place for new owners and new drivers to get their start in NASCAR.

"The bar has been raised in this series," Balash said. "When you have close competition, the bar has been raised. When someone wins by four laps, then you are forced to say 'there are issues there.'"

NASCAR points to the Craftsman Truck Series, ARCA or one of its regional Grand National, Modified or Elite Division tours as being the competitive yet affordable alternatives for entry into the stock car racing world.

Moving ahead

NASCAR officials publicly and privately assert that despite the protestations, the series is heading in the right direction, and none of them even entertain the thought of limiting the participation by the Cup teams or drivers because the dynamic of Buschwhacking is multi-fold.

If you attempt to control the participation by Cup teams and drivers, how do you set the ground rules?

Can you compare Kevin Harvick driving an RCR car to Kevin Harvick driving a KHI (Kevin Harvick Inc.) car? Or Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart driving the same KHI car?

If all the Roush cars are supposed to be better than all the other cars in the garage, then why do some of the Roush teams qualify and race better than others? Is it because of the drivers, the crew chiefs or the cars? Are the Roush Busch Series cars Greg Biffle drives better than the cars that Roush rookie Todd Kluever drives?

Do you limit the cars or the drivers or both? And does doing either have the potential to stunt the growth of the series?

NASCAR understands that it's all about the show. Series officials also know that the key to success is to not mess with a good thing.

"The bottom line is, the shows are good," Balash said. "When you watch a Busch Series race, you're watching good racing all the way through the field.

"People come to watch the Busch Series races because they get some of the name recognition of the Cup drivers and also to watch the next group of drivers. That alone makes us unique in all of motorsports."