Craig Murto: Should Cup drivers stay in Cup?

For years there has been an ongoing debate as to whether NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers should be allowed to compete in the Camping World Truck Series and the Xfinity Series.

At Chicagoland Speedway, Kyle Busch won the truck race. It was his 46th win in the series. But the fact that his win kept Daniel Hemric from scoring his first series win, and Cameron Hayley from racing way into the truck series’ version of the Chase, reignites the debate over Cup drivers in the lower series.

The next night it appeared Busch was headed for victory in the Xfinity Series when he cut a tire. Kyle Busch leads the series in total wins with 83.

A number of years ago, NASCAR ruled that drivers could only score driver points in one of the top three divisions. That, however, doesn’t keep vehicles with Cup drivers behind the wheel from scoring owner points. And sponsorship deals often require Cup drivers to participate in the lower divisions.

In the 1980s, what is now the Xfinity Series was the Busch Series. It was not uncommon to see Cup drivers entered in Busch Series races held the day before a Cup race. Dale Earnhardt, Harry Gant, Geoff Bodine; there’s a long list of Cup drivers in that era who routinely participated in Busch Series races.

But there was a big difference; the Cup drivers who drove in the lower ranks back then drove for teams other than their Cup teams. Hal Needham, who put Harry Gant in his Skoal Bandit Cup car No. 33, didn’t field a Busch car. Gant drove for Busch Series owner Ed Whitaker.

And it was the same throughout the field. If a Cup driver wanted to drive in the Busch Series race, he or she had to find a Busch Series owner with a seat that needed filled that weekend.

And Busch Series teams were not affiliated with Cup teams. Hal Needham didn’t funnel money into Whitaker’s team. Needham’s engineers didn’t help Whitaker’s team.

But today it’s a different story. Kyle Busch Motorsports is affiliated with Joe Gibbs racing. Brad Keselowski Racing is associated with Penske. JR Motorsports is associated with Hendrick Motorsports. In exchange for engineering help, these teams are often used by the Cup organizations as the training ground for their future Cup drivers. But the sponsorship deals that pay for the operations often require a minimum number of races with star drivers.

You end up with Cup drivers in Cup-level equipment competing against truck and Xfinity teams and drivers with nowhere near the resources.

The argument was made for decades that Cup drivers in the lower divisions helped put fans in the stands. But have you looked at the stands lately? It appears that stand-alone races with few (if any) Cup drivers in the field actually attract more fan interest.

Some tracks and series don’t allow racers to step down. You don’t see IndyCar drivers competing in Indy Lights races. You don’t see Formula One drivers competing in GP2. However, it’s not uncommon for racers who competed in prototype sports cars to land a ride in a GT car, and move back and forth among classes. And at one time it was common for F1 racers to step down to lower formulas.

Perhaps NASCAR can tweak the rules again. Perhaps if a car didn’t get owner points when the driver didn’t receive driver points in the particular division, it would keep Cup drivers out of the lower divisions. But that would also prevent Xfinity racers from getting opportunities during the season to land one-off Cup rides.

You can’t really police ownership. If you say that Cup owners can’t own Xfinity or truck teams, the teams will appear in the names of relatives. And there’s no way to prevent the sharing of engineering and other resources.

Maybe NASCAR should institute a rule limiting the number of races in which a driver can compete in divisions he or she does not receive points. If NASCAR limited that number to four for each series, then Kyle Busch could only race in four truck races and four Xfinity races each year, as long as he was a full-time Cup driver. The rule would also allow truck or Xfinity regulars to compete in four Cup races throughout the year.

Hopefully NASCAR does something. It’s hard for fans to get excited about the trucks or the Xfinity Series when Cup drivers play a hand in the Chase for each series by winning the races.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.