NASCAR centerpiece: Double Duty

Speedway Illustrated

Nationwide: Sprint Cup’s Parallel Universe

Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards are competing for two championships this year. In addition to running the full Sprint Cup schedule, the two drivers plan to run the complete Nationwide circuit. It’s the continuation of a trend that Kevin Harvick inadvertently started in 2001. Before that, the Nationwide series (formerly known as the Busch series; the name was changed before the 2007 season) served as Cup racing’s equivalent of Triple-A baseball. It provided a place for up-and-coming drivers to gain experience and for veterans who lacked Cup rides to earn a living. Granted, Cup interlopers have always cherry-picked select Busch/Nationwide events, such as the season-opening 300-miler at Daytona. But in recent years they’ve taken the double dipping to a new level. Here are some noteworthy instances.

Kevin Harvick: 2001, 2006

He didn’t plan to be a pioneer. When the 2001 season began, Harvick was simply a second-year Busch series driver at Richard Childress Racing. But after Childress’s primary Cup driver, Dale Earnhardt Sr., was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500, Harvick got a sudden, pressure-packed promotion. He took over Earnhardt’s Cup car (with the number changed from 3 to 29) for the rest of the season and continued to run the full Busch schedule. By year’s end he had won multiple races in each series, and he was both Busch series champion and Cup series rookie of the year.

After focusing on his Cup ride for the next four seasons, Harvick pulled double duty again in 2006. As good as his Cup performance was (five wins, fourth in points) his Busch season was even better: nine wins and a second series title, by a record 824-point margin.

Carl Edwards, 2005-present

This is the fifth straight season that Edwards has competed full time in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series. During that time he’s missed just one event – and only because he couldn’t figure out how to be in two places at once. Due to a one-day postponement, a 2005 Nashville Busch race ran at the same time as a Pocono Cup event, which Edwards won. He romped to the 2007 Nationwide title and is the early points leader this season.

Kyle Busch, 2006, 2009

Last year Busch finished sixth in Nationwide points. Not terribly impressive – until you consider that he ran just part time. Despite missing five starts, he finished ahead of seven drivers who ran the full schedule, thanks to a record-tying 10 wins.

This year Busch has decided to go the distance to try to capture the Nationwide championship. And he’s off to a good start, with a win at California’s Auto Club Speedway. For good measure, he’s won two of the first three Camping World Truck Series races this season.

Clint Bowyer, 2006, 2008

Last year Busch and Edwards combined to win almost half the Nationwide races. Yet it was Bowyer, whose only win came in a rain-shortened race at Bristol in March, who won the championship. He did it with rock-steady consistency, finishing in the top 10 in 29 of 35 starts. The Nationwide series doesn’t use Sprint Cup’s Chase format, so wins are less important in the points standings.

Bowyer, who chose not to defend his Nationwide title in order to concentrate on his reorganized RCR Sprint Cup team, expressed some ambivalence over his reduced schedule. “It’s going to be relaxing,” Bowyer said. “But I don’t want to relax. I’m a racer.”

NATIONWIDE SERIES 2009 SCHEDULE

THE LOWDOWN. Of the remaining 32 Nationwide races, 23 are “combination” events, run at the same track as that week’s Sprint Cup race. The first stand-alone Nationwide race is at Nashville in April, when the Cup cars are idle for Easter. The real fun for double-duty drivers starts in June. The Nationwide and Sprint Cup series are at different tracks in different states on three consecutive weekends, culminating in a brutal Milwaukee-Sonoma, Calif. combo.

2009 Nationwide Series Schedule

Feb 14  Camping World 300  1st Tony Stewart  2nd Carl Edwards  3rd Clint Bowyer

Feb 21  Stater Bros. 300  1st Kyle Busch  2nd Kevin Harvick  3rd Joey Logano

Feb 28  Sam’s Town 300  1st Greg Biffle  2nd Carl Edwards 3rd Brian Vickers

Mar 21  Scotts Turf Builder 300  Bristol Motor Speedway Bristol, Tenn.   

Apr 4  O’Reilly 300 Texas Motor Speedway Fort Worth, Texas

Apr 11  Pepsi 300  Nashville Superspeedway  Nashville, Tenn.

Apr 17  Bashas’ Supermarkets 200 Phoenix International Raceway  Phoenix, Ariz.

Apr 25  Aaron’s 312  Talladega Superspeedway  Talladega, Ala.

May 1 Lipton Tea 250 Richmond International Raceway  Richmond, Va.

May 8     Diamond Hill Plywood 200 Darlington Raceway  Darlington, S.C.

May 23  Carquest Auto Parts 300 Lowe’s Motor Speedway  Charlotte, N.C.

May 30  Heluva Good! 200 Dover International Speedway  Dover, Del.

Jun 6 Federated Auto Parts 300  Nashville Superspeedway Nashville, Tenn. 

Jun 13  Meijer 300  Kentucky Speedway  Sparta, Ky.

Jun 20  Camping World RV Rental 250  The Milwaukee Mile, West Allis, Wis.

Jun 27 Camping World RV Sales 200  New Hampshire Motor Speedway  Loudon, N.H.

Jul 3  Winn Dixie 250  Daytona International Speedway  Daytona Beach, Fla.

Jul 10 Dollar General 300  Chicagoland Speedway  Joliet, Ill.

Jul 18  Missouri-Illinois Dodge Dealers 250 Gateway International Raceway  Madison, Ill.

Jul 25  Kroger 200, O’Reilly Raceway Park Indianapolis, In.

Aug 1  Iowa 250  Iowa Speedway  Newton, Iowa

Aug 8  Zippo 200 Watkins Glen International Watkins Glen, N.Y.

Aug 15  Michigan 250  Michigan International Speedway  Brooklyn, Mich.

Aug 21 Food City 250  Bristol Motor Speedway Bristol, Tenn.

Aug 30  NAPA Auto Parts 300 Circuit Gilles Villeneuve  Montreal, Que.

Sep 5  Degree V12  300 Atlanta Motor Speedway  Hampton, Ga.

Sep 11  Richmond 250 Richmond International Raceway  Richmond, Va.

Sep 26 Dove 200 Dover International Speedway  Dover, Del.

Oct 3 Kansas Lottery 300  Kansas Speedway  Kansas City, Kan.

Oct 10 Camping World RV 300 Auto Club Speedway  Fontana, Calif.

Oct 16 Dollar General 300  Lowe’s Motor Speedway  Charlotte, N.C.

Oct 24  NASCAR Nationwide Series 250  Memphis Motorsports Park  Memphis, Tenn.

Nov 7  4  O’Reilly Challenge Texas Motor Speedway Fort Worth, Texas

Nov 14 Arizona 200 Phoenix International Raceway  Phoenix, Ariz.

Nov 21  Ford 300 Homestead-Miami Speedway  Homestead, Fla.

PAST NATIONWIDE SERIES CHAMPIONS

2008    Clint Bowyer

2007    Carl Edwards

2006    Kevin Harvick

2005    Martin Truex Jr.

Driver profile: Kurt Busch

WHY HE MATTERS: Kyle’s older brother proved he’s still relevant with a dominating win at Atlanta.

WHAT HE SAYS: “I’ve got to hold up my end of the bargain – Kyle’s on the gas right now.”

WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: Of the eight perfect driver ratings recorded since NASCAR started tracking “loop data” in 2005, Kurt has four, including one in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500.

Quote of Note

“We’ll keep knocking on the door until we get into Victory Lane.”

–Jeff Gordon, who holds the Sprint Cup points lead and has two runner-up finishes in four starts, but hasn’t won since Oct. 2007

The Idle of March

This week marks the only time all season that the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series are all idle on the same weekend. Sprint Cup and Nationwide resume next week at Bristol, Tenn., while the truck troops are off until Mar. 28 at Martinsville.

UP TO SPEED

Best of the Rested

Which Sprint Cup driver benefits the most from a little R&R? Jimmie Johnson. Over the last five years, Johnson has won five Sprint Cup races following an off weekend. Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart have won two each, and no other driver has won more than one. Maybe the extra rest will help Johnson next week at Bristol, where he’s winless in 14 career starts, with just two top-fives.

Pointed Exchange

So far this season, provisional starting spots have been based on the top 35 in owners’ points from 2008. But after the fifth race, next weekend at Bristol, NASCAR will begin using 2009 owners’ points. Earnhardt Ganassi driver Aric Almirola is on the bubble, with David Gilliland of the fledgling TRG Motorsports team just one point behind. But most surprising is the three drivers just ahead of Almirola: Ryan Newman is 32nd, Joey Logano 33rd and Mark Martin 34th.

Cautionary Tale

Pit problems continued to plague contenders at Atlanta, where Jimmie Johnson and Brian Vickers were bagged for speeding and Greg Biffle pitted outside his stall. But the most bizarre, and most significant, pit-road episode of the season occurred on lap 67, when a loose wheel from the No. 47 Toyota of Marcos Ambrose rolled from the team’s pit stall onto the grass between pit road and the track. Gas man Jimmy Watts ran out to retrieve it, which compelled NASCAR to throw the caution flag. Watts was suspended for the remainder of the race – but he wasn’t the only one who suffered a penalty. Because the yellow flag came out during a round of pit stops, several drivers – including Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, who had combined to win the season’s first three races – ended up down a lap (or two) because they had just pitted under green-flag conditions.

WEEKLY STATS

Current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Points

RANK            DRIVER            POINTS    BEHIND

1            Jeff Gordon            634           --

2            Clint Bowyer        591           -43

3            Kurt Busch            588           -46

4            Carl Edwards        547           -87

5            Matt Kenseth        546           -88

6            Tony Stewart        521           -113

7            Kyle Busch            514           -120

8            Kevin Harvick        511           -123

9            Kasey Kahne        484           -150

10            Greg Biffle            480           -154

11            Brian Vickers        477           -157

12            David Reutimann        475           -159

13            Jimmie Johnson        457           -177

14            Denny Hamlin        456           -178

15            Jeff Burton            437           -197

16            Michael Waltrip        434           -200

17            Elliott Sadler        427           -207

18            Jamie McMurray        423           -211

19            Martin Truex Jr.        423           -211

20            A.J. Allmendinger        417           -217