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 series back."
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.