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Star Power Not Exactly Welcomed in Busch Series

Auto racing: Some say presence of Winston Cup regulars hinders development of up-and-coming drivers.

April 28, 1999|JERRY CROWE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You don't expect Mark McGwire to play for the St. Louis Cardinals' triple-A affiliate.

Tiger Woods doesn't tee it up on the Nike Tour.

And Brett Favre won't play in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.

But in a scenario that some believe is almost as incredulous, NASCAR Winston Cup drivers--stock car racing's creme de la creme--regularly race on the Busch Grand National circuit.

Though the Busch series is supposed to be for young drivers preparing for the main event, the sport's headliners keep dropping down to crash the undercard--and often win the fight.

Five of the nine Busch series races this year have been won by Winston Cup drivers, most recently last Saturday's Touchstone Energy 300 at Talladega, Ala., where two-time Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte picked up his 11th Busch Series victory in a photo finish over fellow Winston Cup regular Joe Nemechek.

Jeff Gordon, winner of the last two Winston Cup championships and three of the last four, has raced in two Busch events this year and says he will race in three more.

And here, about 15 Winston Cup drivers plan to race Saturday in the Auto Club 300 Busch race at California Speedway in Fontana.

The star power has certainly helped the Busch Series thrive--NASCAR says the television ratings are up more than 10% this year--but some say the stars' presence hinders the development of up-and-coming drivers.

Says Todd Bodine, a Busch Series regular, "The downside of having the Winston Cup guys coming in is that the younger guys--the guys who are going to be around this series for years to come--are having a hard time getting into the races. They can't get the experience they need [to develop] if they can't get into the races."

In fact, whenever Winston Cup drivers qualify for Busch events, Busch teams with full-season sponsorships fail to qualify and have to sit out.

Most of the Busch drivers who do qualify, however, say that racing against the sport's best makes them better drivers and builds confidence.

"For drivers like me who are in need of experience, the Winston Cup guys are a lot of help," says defending Busch Series champion Dale Earnhardt Jr., who plans to launch a full Winston Cup schedule next year. "I wouldn't be nowhere near the driver I am if it weren't for Mark Martin and Jeff Burton and those guys. . . . I learned tons from those guys and benefited from it greatly."

But Earnhardt acknowledges, "It's pretty obvious that they are taking our points and taking our money and sending guys home that otherwise would be racing."

Randy LaJoie, a two-time Busch Series champion, says the Cup drivers simply don't belong on the junior circuit.

"Shaquille O'Neal can't go back to college for the NCAA tournament," LaJoie said last month before the Coca-Cola 300 Busch race at Fort Worth, Texas. "Let us have our series back."

The issue has become more heated this year because Cup drivers are racing in the Busch Series in greater numbers.

In years past, only a few Cup drivers came over regularly when both series were at the same track, as will be the case this weekend at Fontana.

But at Las Vegas last month, 17 Winston Cup drivers were in the 43-car Busch field. At Darlington, S.C., and Fort Worth, there were 14, and at Hampton, Ga., there were 11. Only four Cup drivers made the Busch field at Talladega last week, but that number will probably triple here.

NASCAR has no immediate plans to stem the tide.

"The PGA doesn't say Greg Norman or Tiger Woods or Fred Couples can only play in certain events," Kevin Triplett, director of operations for NASCAR, told the Associated Press. "They play wherever they can, all over the world. That's how they make their living. They're golfers. Our guys are drivers. They want to drive."

With no help from the sport's governing body forthcoming, Bodine says the Busch regulars have had no choice but to improve.

"In years past, you'd see Mark Martin dominating every week he raced," Bodine says of the Winston Cup veteran who has won a record 36 Busch races but last week at Talladega failed to make the field for a Busch race for the first time since 1993. "He didn't do that last year. He was very good every time he raced, but he didn't dominate like he usually does.

"And this year, it's gotten better. The Busch regulars have become much more competitive."

BUSCH GRAND NATIONAL

ENTRIES

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