A First! But not in every way Cup driver dominance may bring new rules to Nationwide series
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Brad Keselowski’s Nationwide Series championship, which he clinched two races early with a third-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday, was his first major NASCAR championship and also the first for his car owner, Roger Penske. The longtime owner and former driver has 12 championships in other forms of racing, but Penske had none in NASCAR before this, despite 63 Cup race victories and 10 on the Nationwide side.
But in many ways, Keselowski’s and Penske’s championship was too familiar for many in the NASCAR world. It was the fifth straight year that a full-time Sprint Cup driver won the championship in the second-tier series that once was looked upon as a developmental series and one where non-Cup teams would be competitive. And Keselowski’s triumph continued a streak of 10 straight years in which either a Cup team, or one closely affiliated with a Cup team, won the Nationwide title. The last independents to win the Nationwide crown were driver Jeff Green and owner Greg Pollex back in 2000.
The dominance of the Cup teams in Nationwide has officials at NASCAR pondering rules changes that would give the independent Nationwide teams a better chance in races and the championship hunt. With two races left to run this year, full-time Cup drivers hold four of the top five spots in the drivers standings and six of the top 10.
Cup drivers or Cup-affiliated teams have won every Nationwide race but one. Boris Said won at Montreal driving for Robby Benton.
In some aspects, the Nationwide Series is serving as the developmental series some would like it to see. Cup teams often put young Cup drivers in the Nationwide Series to help them gain experience, which is at a premium since private testing is banned at tracks that host Cup races.
But some experienced drivers, like Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, continue to compete in Nationwide and often dominate the races. Busch has won 12 Nationwide races this season, Edwards three and Keselowski six.
Edwards told reporters at Texas that he’s against limiting Cup driver participation in Nationwide or not allowing them to run for the championship.
“I hope we can run for the championship,” he said. “It seems odd to make rules that keep certain drivers out, based on where they race …
“Right now Brad is doing very well, but I am not dominating or anything like that. I hope we can run for the championship and do what has been done historically. To me the greatest achievement in NASCAR would be winning both championships in one year … I don’t know if it will ever happen, but it would be a neat opportunity.”
Keselowski said in his champion’s interview that gaining experience and doing things to make him a better Cup driver were arguments he used in convincing a skeptical Penske to let him run the undercard circuit full-time while also running every Cup race.
“Coming to Penske Racing, I told Roger I wanted to do this Nationwide deal,” Keselowski said. “I think he looked at me like I was crazy and was looking at this like it would only take away focus from the Cup program.
“But I said we’re building a foundation for success on the Cup level. It’s here that we’re building cars and people and attracting sponsors that will make the company stronger as a whole and give us a better shot at winning a Cup championship.”
Penske’s question about taking away focus seems to have merit. It wasn’t until the second Martinsville race this year that Keselowski got his first top-10 finish in Cup, and although he followed that 10th-place finish with another at Talladega the next week, he’s still 25th in the driver standings.
But he got to give his fellow Michigan native Penske, who can afford most anything he might ever want, something really special – a NASCAR owner’s champion trophy.
“It’s hard to give a billionaire something,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”
And Penske appreciated it.
“We’ve been in NASCAR a long, long time,” Penske said. “To me, this championship is like winning the Indy 500 for the first time.