It's one of the biggest damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situations in sports today: what to do about the Busch Series.
Or is there anything NASCAR really should do?
Nary a week goes by that I don't receive emails from readers wanting to vent about what they perceive as significant inequities in NASCAR's junior circuit. Those complaints typically revolve around that group of drivers informally known as "Buschwhackers" – full-time drivers in the Nextel Cup Series who moonlight in the Busch Series.
There are two kinds of Buschwhackers:
There are seven full-time Cup drivers who currently are also running the Busch circuit full-time, with three others who are almost full-time. Well over a dozen other full-time Cup drivers have taken part in at least one Busch event this year.
But has the influx of Buschwhackers knocked out young up-and-coming drivers who are trying to develop their racing skills?
Or are Cup drivers racing in Busch a necessary evil, not only because they fill the fields but also because they help sell tickets at race tracks and put tons more viewers in front of TV screens that otherwise might not watch the Busch events?
It's a combination of the two. And as much as I hate to say it, the Busch circuit wouldn't be what it is today if it weren't for Buschwhackers.
There are several benefits for Cup drivers and teams to participate in Busch races. There's the practice time (which is especially beneficial with this year's testing limits) for car setups, the extra seat time and the financial gains not only for the driver but also for sponsors, who enjoy having a big-name Cup driver behind the wheel of a Busch car for a much smaller price tag. Also, full-time competitors like Harvick, Busch, Waltrip, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, J.J. Yeley and Reed Sorenson have the opportunity to go for two championships in the same season.
However, there also are risks for Cup drivers in Busch, with the possibility of injury being the most significant. How many of you held your breath when Tony Stewart went airborne and landed upside down in the Busch event at Talladega? Fortunately, he escaped uninjured.
Whatever the motivation, more and more Cup drivers are running Busch races. It's even gotten to the point that some fans have taken to calling the Busch Series "NASCAR Lite" or "NASCAR II."
Since it was formed 25 years ago, a primary mission of the Busch Series has been to act as a developmental circuit to prepare drivers for an eventual move up to the Cup ranks. And many drivers have indeed done just that, including drivers such as of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Jarrett, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton and defending Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart.
Then there are the likes of David Green and Jason Leffler, who have made careers out of remaining in the Busch Series. It gives them enough competition to satisfy their competitive urges while also earning them a decent paycheck and lifestyle. It might not be Cup racing, but it's the next best thing.
Eyeing the accomplishments of those drivers, it is without a doubt that the Busch Series certainly has fulfilled its mission over the past 25 years.
But with the ever-increasing number of Cup drivers venturing into its ranks the last few seasons, the Busch Series mission has become clouded. In baseball terms, the Busch Series has become so big that it doesn't know if it's still Triple-A or truly major league. It doesn't seem to know if it is helping or hurting not only itself but also the Cup series in the process.
I've long advocated that Cup drivers either not be allowed to participate in Busch races or have their participation severely limited. I've also said that if they choose to go Busch racing they should not be eligible to run for the championship or accumulate points and their prize winnings should be limited.
That way, the Busch circuit stays true to its roots, giving up-and-coming drivers a taste of what it's like to race with Cup competitors yet at the same time fulfilling its overall mission as a true developmental series. Everyone would win in that kind of scenario.
But can the Busch Series remain relevant without the Cup divers? Or has it morphed into a series that still is developmental in nature and theory but desperately needs the involvement of Cup stars to keep it competitive and financially viable?
Thus far, NASCAR hasn't made any changes – although I'm told the entire situation will be looked at following this season, with at least some alterations possible for 2007 or 2008 (the sanctioning body wouldn't want to unduly interfere with some teams' sponsorship situations).
But changes aren't easy. It's hard for the Busch Series to bite the hand that feeds it, with Cup drivers helping sell tickets and increase TV ratings to make the Saturday show an anticipatory warmup for the next day's Cup event.
So maybe the Busch Series really has strayed from its mission. The questions that remain are, again, whether that's a bad thing and whether anything needs to be done about it.