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Ingram: More Ponies (And Money?) For Nationwide

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, July 1 2010

The Ford Mustang Nationwide Series car took laps at Daytona this week. It will race there this weekend. (Photo courtesy of Ford Racing)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Daytona Beach, Fla.–- The new racing Mustang sallies forth along with the Challenger from Dodge in Friday’s Nationwide Series race at the France family’s Speedway by the Sea. Will the new cars become a sea change for NASCAR?

What you see is what you get with this new generation of cars, because they actually look like cars. What a relief to look at a race car that’s attractive while at a standstill. This alone qualifies the new Mustang and Challenger as radical departures in the current era of racing machines that look like contraptions compared to what people actually drive around in.

Watching the old generation Nationwide cars on TV at Road America – which afforded a wider variety of angles than an oval – reminded me of looking at cheated up dirt trackers due to fenders, wheel wells and front ends that had long since been skewed for racing. For a sanctioning body that continues to carry “stock cars” in its name and races only on asphalt, it’s about time some attention was paid to the actual appearance of the cars rather than just slapping different name brand stickers on a generic front end.

To paraphrase one of the Ford engineers, there’s no reason why the performance and appearance of a race car can’t both be right. Judging from initial practice times, the Mustang and Challenger are in the same ballpark with the new generation of Nationwide cars from Chevy and Toyota, brands that chose to stick with the same model as raced in the Sprint Cup. The Impala and Camry at least benefit from front and rear overhangs that are proportional as well as the absence of a snaggle-toothed front splitter.

But are we at a defining moment in NASCAR history? Are brands and approaches like those made with the Mustang and the Challenger the wave of the future in the Sprint Cup, a veritable sea change?

The cynic in me suggests that there must be a lot of greenbacks at the bottom of this particular barrell.

In addition to adding much needed safety upgrades, distinguishing the Nationwide Series from the Sprint Cup was the stated goal all along when it came to getting companies to “pony up” some new and different performance brands. Manufacturers’ racing departments are always under pressure from the board of directors to demonstrate a connection between racing and sales. In this case Ford and Dodge have gladly provided different brands that are more easily recognized on the track, in the garage or in the board room.

Going forward, NASCAR and its promoters need to see growth in the Nationwide sector, which still has a lot of upside in terms of ticket sales and TV numbers. At present, it’s the one piece of the economic pie that has the most opportunity to grow bigger.

Ultimately, we’re still in the same old argument that reigned back in the Late Model Sportsman days, long before the Busch Series. On the big ovals, the Sprint Cup veterans and their teams continue to dominate the Nationwide Series — much to the dislike of team owners in the understudy series who suffer financially while supporting it over the course of an entire season. Because the promoters need the Sprint Cup drivers to sell tickets in the preliminaries and NASCAR needs to sell TV time, however, that situation is not going to change.

In this light, distinguishing the Nationwide Series by having distinctive cars is not only a good idea, but about the only other way to make it different. If growth occurs, there’s an opportunity for better purses – as well as changes to the purse structure. Theoretically, a smaller team can buy the cast-offs from bigger teams during the development stages or at least race without a fleet of chassis.

You won’t get any argument from me about the Sprint Cup drivers and teams pillaging in the understudy series. The fundamental purpose of the Nationwide Series is to temper with fire those who envision stepping up to the Cup. If you can beat Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, etc. in the preliminary, or Joe Gibbs Racing and Jack Roush, then you’re ready for the Big Time. It makes for a very good racing formula and up-and-coming new stars such as Brad Keselowski.

In the near term, I don’t have too many hopes for a transfer of the “new look” to the Sprint Cup. As last week’s race at New Hampshire indicated, teams are coming around on how to tune the current COT, which may yet produce the needed ebb and flow over the course of a race. The car’s development by teams along with the new generation of tires from Goodyear seems to have the COT headed in the right direction when it comes to performance. Above all, the front splitter is an aerodynamic device in more ways than one: it forces teams to maintain a minimum ride height, which cuts down on aero dependency, the real culprit in races without enough lead changes.

As for the preliminary race at Daytona, the aerodynamics of the new Nationwide Series cars are likely to work much like those in the Sprint Cup on the superspeedways, which should make for some dramatic overtaking. Some cars, no matter what the brand, will not be recognizable after crashes by time Friday’s race is over, but that’s usually the case at Daytona with the mixture of veterans and up-and-comers. At least the cars are now relatively safer.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, July 1 2010