Are too many Winston Cup drivers double-dipping in feeder series?
Winston Cup drivers have always had carte blanche to drop down
to the Busch Series. Trouble is, they're doing it in large
numbers this year and, as a result, could hinder the feeder
system that produced Jeff Gordon and is currently the proving
ground for young drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt
Kenseth and Adam Petty.
Until this season the average number of Winston Cup drivers
competing in a Busch race was three. At Las Vegas on March 6, a
whopping 17 Cup drivers participated in a field of 43. A week
later 14 muscled into the race at Atlanta, and last Saturday
eight ran at Darlington. "There are too many Cup guys," says
Busch regular and two-time points champion Randy LaJoie. "It's
sending some of our regulars home, and it's hurting the young
guys in gaining seat time." That is, drivers trying to work
their way up through the system are being displaced because they
can't qualify ahead of the better-equipped Winston Cup drivers.
Jimmy Spencer, who carpetbags in Busch as a driver and is also
owner of the Busch car driven by Dick Trickle, counters, "If the
Busch Series draws good crowds on Saturdays, it's because Mark
Martin, Jeff Burton and especially Jeff Gordon are in those
races." Gordon, who has been off the Busch circuit since 1993,
plans to run in five of the 32 races this year, primarily
because he and his Winston Cup crew chief, Ray Evernhan, formed
their own Busch team during the off-season and secured a $1.5
million sponsorship from Pepsi for Gordon's appearance in a
handful of races.
The downside to competing in the Busch races for Gordon and
other big-name drivers is the risk of an injury that could
hamper or ruin their Winston Cup title prospects. Last Friday,
Bobby Labonte broke his right collarbone while qualifying for
the Busch race and had to shorten his time behind the wheel in
Sunday's Winston Cup race. In Gordon's case the marquee name for
all NASCAR racing could be knocked out of action. "They're
making [an extra] half-million dollars a year each, that's what
they're doing," LaJoie says of the stars. "What might put an end
to it is if one of them does get hurt on a Saturday."
Tennis and golf don't allow Pete Sampras and Tiger Woods,
respectively, to enter satellite tour events. "This is the only
sport that allows such a thing," says LaJoie. "Let us have our
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
CAN'T STAND SUCCESS
Dale Earnhardt's life as the most-heralded, best-financed
Winston Cup prospect in the history of NASCAR has become, he
says, "an overwhelming pain in the ass." Earnhardt, 24, is the
reigning Busch Series champion, where he won seven races last
year, but heading into Saturday's Coca-Cola 300 at Texas Motor
Speedway, site of his inaugural victory last April, he's winless
through five races this season.
"A lot of people say, 'You ought to be grateful, man. You've got
the opportunity of a lifetime, blah, blah,'" Earnhardt says,
"but they don't have to walk in these shoes. You can't eat, you
can't sleep, you can't do anything without thinking about
it--and dreading that life will never be like it was. A lot of
advantages and rewards come with this [situation], but hell,
you're so busy you don't have time to enjoy it. So sometimes you
wonder, what the hell good is it?"
On May 30, in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, Earnhardt will
make his Winston Cup debut under an eight-year, $80 million
sponsorship from Budweiser. A huge publicity
campaign--"Countdown to E-Day"--is planned. "Hell week" is what
he says he's anticipating.
"I'm not as good as I was last year," says Earnhardt, who has
finished 14th, 35th, sixth, third and 11th this season. "I'm not
as focused. Once the race gets going, I come around. But right
off the bat it's hard to go at it like I did last year. I'm not
burned out--just thinking about everything."
Little E, as the son of NASCAR driving legend Dale Earnhardt is
known, says the relentless travel and flesh-pressing
appearances, usually on behalf of sponsors, have left his head
spinning. "I'm carrying two loads," he says. "I'm doing Busch
sponsors and Cup sponsors. So I'm doing 60 to 70 appearances
this year." The younger Earnhardt also has his schedule of 32
Busch races and five Cup events. "As soon as I get home from a
race, I'm packing to go somewhere else," he says. "There's no
damn way I can remember all the people I'm meeting. It clouds my
mind, and I forget half of what I've learned about driving race
cars. Every time I get in a car to qualify, it's like I'm doing
it for the first time."
When asked if he talks to Big E about all this, Dale Jr.
replies, "If I try to talk to my dad about it, his answer to
that is probably that I'm not half as busy as he is, so I better
keep my mouth shut. He says I've got it easy.
"This is just a tough part of my life right now. Maybe it will
ease up next year," Dale Jr. says and then pauses, pondering
2000, his first full year on the Winston Cup circuit and all
that will be expected of the son of a seven-time Cup champion.
"Maybe next year might not be the time [when things ease up],"
he says, "but the year after that, maybe the vise will loosen
ALL WET AND HAPPY ABOUT IT
Another Jeff--Burton, not Gordon--is the hottest driver on the
Winston Cup tour. With Sunday's victory in the rain-shortened
TranSouth 400 at Darlington, Burton now has won two of the last
three races and sits atop the point standings heading into this
week's Primestar 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. His teammate and
kindred dour spirit, Mark Martin, won last year's Texas race.
Martin treats every visit to victory lane as if it were his last,
and Burton, who has never won back-to-back Winston Cup races,
likewise tends to expect the worst.
"We're always pessimistic," says Burton. "I'm this way by nature.
The better you get, the more you expect of yourself and therefore
the more you're open for disappointment. It's a miserable way to
live sometimes. My poor wife [Kim] wants to go out and celebrate
every time we win, and I won't let her. It's just the way I feel
I have to be."
So imagine Burton's reaction on Sunday when, with rain clouds
moving in and threatening to shorten the scheduled 293-lap race,
his front-running Ford Taurus got caught in a five-car pileup.
The right side of his car suffered extensive damage when it
smacked the wall, but he kept the car under control long enough
to stay in the lead after the caution flag came out. He then
steered to the track's apron, climbed out and began gesticulating
and fuming at himself. He knew that if the race resumed, he'd
fall off the pace. But then he felt the raindrops and began
gesturing skyward, pleading for the clouds to burst. They did.
"Hell, yes, I was waving for the rain to come on," he said. "I
was mad because I was afraid it wasn't going to rain very long. I
knew we'd had the best car [he led for the most laps, 59 of the
164 completed], and we'd done the best job in the pits. We would
have finished last if it hadn't rained. So I was mad at myself."
Even in victory, Burton didn't get overly optimistic. "We had
this car [the one he'd just wrecked at Darlington] slated to take
to Texas," he said. "Now it's torn up badly. We're very
disappointed that we can't take it." He drove his backup car to a
fourth-place finish at Atlanta on March 14.
"We're on a roll right now," Burton conceded, "but things can
still go wrong. They can go the other way even quicker than they
came this way."
COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN Gordon, who's co-owner of a Busch car and backed by a $1.5 million sponsorship, plans to run in five of the series' races this season.
COLOR PHOTO: NIGEL KINRADE Ordinarily comfortable behind the wheel, Dale Jr. feels as if he's behind the eight ball this season.
Days between the IRL's season-opening race, on Jan. 24 in
Orlando, and its second race, scheduled for March 28 in Phoenix.
Formula One's longest layoff this season is 35 days, CART's is
21 days and NASCAR's is 14.