Juan Pablo Montoya's win wowed 'em in Mexico City even as it underscored the problems on NASCAR's junior circuit
LAST MONTH the Busch Series turned 25, and today the circuit is a lot like a twentysomething who's unsure of his place in the world, caught in a crisis of identity. Not even the drivers, after all, can pinpoint the defining characteristic of the series. Is it a feeder circuit—the motor sports equivalent of baseball's Triple in which young talent can blossom? Is it a testing ground for Nextel Cup teams? Or is it just a sponsor-driven warmup act for the main show on Sunday, designed to rev up the crowd for the money event? The answer: all of the above. And that's the problem.
"Back in the day, the Busch Series was where you learned the ropes and tried to prepare for Cup racing," says three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, who won 13 Busch races between 1982 and '89. "But now the Busch Series has basically become Cup Lite, because Cup drivers are stealing the show."
Since the start of the 2006 season, Cup drivers have won 36 of the 38 Busch races. On Sunday the trend continued as Juan Pablo Montoya, this season's most celebrated Cup rookie, staged a driving clinic, passing 18 cars in the final 26 laps to take the checkered flag in the Telcel-Motorola 200 in Mexico City. Montoya's spectacular victory—his first in NASCAR—included spinning out his teammate, Scott Pruett, to take the lead with eight laps left, and it offered a tantalizing glimpse of the former F/1 driver's extraordinary talent. But the race also served as a reminder that it's now virtually impossible for small, independent teams to be competitive in the Busch Series. On Sunday none of the top five finishers were drivers who are racing only on the Busch circuit this year; a decade ago those drivers made up the meat and potatoes of the series.
Beyond the obvious allure of prize money, Cup drivers have flooded into Busch for one fundamental reason: They can use the races as glorified training sessions to try different setups and different lines around the track. Track owners love the practice, known as Buschwhacking, because it fills seats, but it's clearly hurting the sport. Cup competitors are taking starting spots away from drivers who are trying to make a name for themselves in the Busch Series. It's no coincidence that Cup owners are now bemoaning the dearth of young racing talent.
What can be done? NASCAR should step in and curb Buschwhacking by limiting Cup regulars to, say, five Busch races each year. Also, the Busch Series should refrain from adopting the Car of Tomorrow design that the Cup series is moving to in '08. The Busch circuit needs a distinguishing feature, a hallmark, and if it sticks with its current car, the series will be noticeably different from the Cup next year. That would also give Cup owners less incentive to race in Busch, because the testing data won't translate to the COT.
"Our goal is to try to differentiate ourselves from the Cup series," says Steve O'Donnell, the Busch Series' vice president of racing operations. "We're not ruling anything out, but we certainly want to be a series where young drivers can develop."
That's exactly what the Busch Series should be—and why NASCAR needs to whack the Buschwhackers.
ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's Cup analysis every Tuesday and Friday.
An insider on one of Cup racing's top teams dishes on the hottest topics in the NASCAR garage.
1 Elliott Sadler and Scott Riggs are really disappointing team owner Ray Evernham. Ray's trying to build a big team, and those guys have done nothing. They just haven't clicked with their crew chiefs. The only one who has been fast is Kasey Kahne (above), so it looks like Evernham will only have one strong car this season.
2 Trust me, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to stay at DEI, but the guy needs to sign a new contract already. His team is so worried that DEI won't exist next year that they're tripping all over themselves wondering about their future—and it's showing in their performance on the racetrack.
3 Kyle Busch might be the fastest of all the Hendrick drivers this year. He has looked really, really good. I've been surprised at how bad Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have been so far. Both of those teams are having chemistry issues right now.
DANIEL AGUILAR/REUTERS (CARS)
LEAN ON ME Montoya (42 and inset) iced the race when he put some heat on teammate Pruett.
HENRY ROMERO/REUTERS (MONTOYA)
[See caption above]
RUSTY JARRETT/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR (KAHNE)