Craig Murto: Cup drivers stealing the show

Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Michigan International Speedway put an exclamation point on what’s wrong with NASCAR’s feeder series; the Cup drivers stealing the show.

It appeared that William Byron was headed to his first Xfinity Series victory. The 19-year-old rookie, a Hendrick Motorsports development driver behind the wheel of a JR Motorsports car, led at the white flag, but lost by .012 seconds in the closest Xfinity Series finish ever recorded at the track to Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin.

The win was Hamlin’s 16th career Xfinity Series win. But it didn’t seem to thrill the crowd, nor did it please too many people on social media.

Hamlin did nothing wrong; he drove a fantastic final lap to win in a thrilling finish. But sentiment was on the side of Byron, who was so close to winning the loss had to be painful.

Usually fans complain when Kyle Busch wins these races, but that’s just because he wins so much. Is there anything that can be done about the Cup drivers in these feeder series?

In Formula One racing, you don’t see F1 drivers compete in GP2. In Indycar, you don’t see Indycar drivers get a ride in Indy Lights. Those open-wheel feeder series are there to outgrow, not revisit.

But NASCAR views the Camping World Trucks and the Xfinity Series as top series of their own. Why keep any driver out of competing in a top-level series? As far back as the ë70s the Cup drivers competed in what is now the Xfinity Series.

But if you go back to the days of Harry Gant and Dale Earnhardt, when those drivers competed in the lower division, they competed for teams that regularly raced in those divisions. Now Cup drivers are basically competing for their Cup teams. JR Motorsports is affiliated with Hendrick, and even Kyle Busch’s Truck team is affiliated with Joe Gibbs.

That’s no argument, however, as Byron was essentially racing for Hendrick. So if Byron was in equal equipment, the loss should be a learning experience that will make him a better racer.

It’s come to light recently that many of these appearances of Cup drivers are mandated by sponsors. It costs a lot of money to sponsor an Xfinity or Truck team, so if a sponsor wants a Cup star in the seat four times a year, that’s what the sponsor gets. That allows the teams to afford to give young drivers their breaks, although even then the drivers usually bring money.

At least Cup drivers don’t run these series full time. NASCAR addressed that issue in recent years when they made drivers pick the series in which they got points. Cup drivers can no longer win the Xfinity Series title, or the Camping World Truck Series championship. Denny Hamlin scored the Xfinity Series victory at Michigan, but he received no points.

The car, however, did receive points.

And all of the top car owners put vehicles in the Xfinity and Truck Series races in hopes of winning the owner’s championship.

Maybe that’s where the issue needs to be addressed. Simply change the rule to state that if the driver in the Xfinity or Truck Series is a full-time Cup regular, then the car or truck only gets half the owner points.

That way Team Penske or Joe Gibbs Racing won’t stick a Cup regular in Xfinity races just for the car owner points. Sponsors may continue to demand a Cup presence for their money, but in just as many cases the successful argument to the sponsor might be that it’s more important to go for the owner’s title. Just as removing driver points from the Cup regulars minimized their presence in the lower series, taking owner points out of the equation may help to do more of the same.

As the Cup Series competes in Sonoma, California, this weekend, the Camping World Trucks and Xfinity Series have races at Iowa Speedway. It is perhaps the best race of the year for both series, as the Cup drivers are not there.

Denny Hamlin did nothing wrong in Michigan. In fact, he drove a great race, a spectacular final lap to grab a thrilling victory. But somehow it just didn’t sit right with fans. And ignoring the fans never does NASCAR any good; they’ve got to find a way to stop the Cup drivers from stealing the show.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.

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