FORT WORTH, Texas -- The outcry from the NASCAR Busch Series garage has been replaced by the screaming sound of race engines more powerful, more expensive race engines.
A $500,000 rule change was the perfect muzzle, and cure, to what the junior circuit needed most.
The support circuit for the wildly popular Winston Cup Series still is trying to rebound from a new list of engine specifications that was intended to close the gap between the two racing series. Every team in the Busch Series garage was hit with a $500,000 price tag to make the changes, but with it came, at long last, peace of mind.
During the past three years, the biggest debate among Busch Series regulars was the influx of Winston Cup drivers who did part-time work on the junior circuit. They brought more experience, faster cars and faster pit crews, often relegating the Busch Series regulars to also-rans on their own circuit.
''You don't see Michael Jordan coming back and playing a few games for North Carolina,'' driver Randy LaJoie once said. ''It's not right that they (Winston Cup drivers) take spots away from the Busch Series teams that show up every week.''
Not only did Winston Cup drivers dominate a handful of Busch Series races especially the higher-profile, best-paying races but they also did it at the expense of Busch Series teams that were the backbone of their division.
As many as 15 Busch Series teams were sent home on a weekly basis as Winston Cup drivers earned spare change in their spare time.
New engines solved all of that.
The cost of making the switch was $500,000 per team. It chased a lot of the part-time teams out of the sport, and it forced a different kind of commitment from Winston Cup drivers who want to tinker at 180 mph on their off days.
''This is no longer for the faint of heart,'' car owner Tad Geschickter said. ''More than the money, it's taken a lot of education for the sponsors. It's required teams to spend a lot of time with their sponsors explaining why we needed the extra money. On the surface, it really doesn't look like anything's changed, but it has. It has, big time.''
Since Busch Series cars were so underpowered compared to a Winston Cup car, the circuit didn't pre pare younger drivers for success on the senior circuit. With the exception of Bobby Labonte and Harry Gant, the best Busch Series drivers rarely have made the successful adjustment to the Winston Cup level.
A year ago, 15 of 33 races were won by Winston Cup drivers making part-time appearances on the Busch Series circuit. NASCAR tried to promote the Busch Series in the past as being worthy of standing on its own merits. That became a hard sell when Winston Cup drivers won half of the main events.
Now it seems the emphasis has shifted. The Busch Series is exactly what it should be a training ground for future Winston Cup stars.
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The top qualifying speed at the Texas Motor Speedway a year ago for the Busch Series was 184.451 mph by Jason Leffler. This year, Matt Kenseth won the pole position at 189.880 mph, and that came with a harder tire that didn't have as much grip as the ones used in 2000.
The new engine also has created a chain reaction of costs. Since the new engines create more power, teams have had to buy new transmissions, rear end gears, brakes and drive shafts. It also has created a lot of work for teams that now have to deal with more power and faster speeds.
''I think what we're seeing is the natural progression of things,'' said Will Lind, team manager for Richard Childress Racing's two Busch Series cars. ''I think we would have seen a change in the sport regardless of the new rules. It cost us $500,000 to change engines, but I think we would have lost a number of teams anyway. That's the nature of the business.''
Instead of turning away 15 teams each week, the Busch Series now hopes to get enough cars to fill a starting grid. There were so few entries for the race at Rockingham, N.C., two months ago that the promoter offered to pay for tires and lodging to several part-time Busch Series teams. The ALLTEL 200 wound up with 42 cars, although the starting grid held 43 positions.
A year ago at the Texas Motor Speedway, 11 teams were sent home early. Last week, only one failed to qualify.
''For years, we complained about the Winston Cup guys,'' Geschickter said. ''Now we need them. It's funny how that works.''
The change should prove to have a more profound effect on the future of the Winston Cup Series. Since Busch Series cars were so underpowered compared to a Winston Cup car, the circuit didn't prepare younger drivers for success on the senior circuit. With the exception of Bobby Labonte and Harry Gant, the best Busch Series drivers rarely have made the successful adjustment to the Winston Cup level.
That's why most of the new drivers on the Winston Cup circuit have come from the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and from open-wheeled modifies, which have similar engines to Winston Cup.
The new engine rules may prove to be a small investment for the future and integrity of the NASCAR Busch Series. If nothing else, it has made the Winston Cup drivers feel more at home on their part-time jobs.
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