Big shoes could go unfilled with lackluster up-and-comers
For years, NASCAR has undergone a seamless transition at the top. In the '90s,
Who? Having no up-and-coming talent is a scary thought. But in NASCAR, it's a stark reality as the economy, combined with bad driving and a failing minor league system leaves the sport looking for someone, anyone to flash signs of future potential.
Much has been made of the awful Cup Series rookie class of 2010, where
That's a stark contrast from the stick 'n' ball crowd who, with college and their minor league systems, enjoy a steady pipeline of promising talent. On paper, NASCAR would seem to have the same structure in place, with its main feeder series, Nationwide, pumping out drivers like
But a quick look at the current Nationwide standings is all you need to enter crisis mode. Seven of the top eight drivers are Cup regulars, with only Penske's
To some degree, the rookies are to blame; it's impossible to keep a driver who's destroying your race cars three times a month. But in the case of Buescher and Braun, they've been replaced by more Cup drivers, men with nothing to prove in a feeder series except to stomp on the rest of the competition like big bullies. NASCAR's "Big Boys" have won 40 of the last 45 races in the series (89 percent) while taking up a quarter of the starting grid during any given weekend. That's a far cry from a decade ago, when they won only half of 32 events in spot appearances, while no Cup regular contended for the season championship.
It's hard to believe, but a turning point for the feeder series came through the death of
It's good for the sponsor, who goes from a small place on the side of the Cup car to a prominent spot on the hood elsewhere. But the drivers also enjoy the no pressure, slim pickins' atmosphere of competing for wins at lower levels. With the most experience, it's no surprise they dominate -- there's a reason they call them "minor" and "major" leagues -- but it's squeezed out opportunities for young drivers to showcase their talents.
It's slightly better at the Truck Series level (think AA baseball), with 29-year-old prospect
So what's the answer? During the past few years, NASCAR's reached out and pulled from other series like open-wheel and motocross to grab fresh talent. But for every
With the sport backed into a corner, it's a critical time for NASCAR to step up to the plate and create those opportunities for youngsters. In a world where attention wavers until the next best thing comes along, keeping the product fresh is key to keeping fans tuning in. That's something the sport's already struggling with after Johnson's four straight titles have left fans searching for new blood. And with no new drivers for the disenfranchised to hang their hat on, they'll only stick around for so long before deciding to move on to something else.
• The NASCAR Hall of Fame made news this week for falling short of its sponsorship goals. My question is, since when is a major sports museum for-profit? I understand the millions the sport must pay back to the city of Charlotte, but the stick 'n' ball sports all run their museums as non-profit organizations. Considering the financial problems rampant within NASCAR, wouldn't those sponsor dollars be better spent funneled towards teams in need of funding to compete?
• Keep an eye on Phoenix Racing's potential sale. With