NASCAR's biggest stars dominating minor league series

Posted: Thursday, May 13, 2004

Imagine opening the newspaper one morning to find Barry Bonds among the Class AAA home run leaders.

Improbable? No, impossible. A star at the top of his respective sport never spends an off day playing in the minor leagues. Except in NASCAR.

Stock-car racing's superstars don't mind driving in NASCAR's bush league known, appropriately enough, as the Busch Series. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray and Michael Waltrip are just a few of the Nextel Cup regulars who often drive the developmental circuit.

They're called "Buschwhackers", and they've won seven of the 10 Busch races this year. Waltrip is second in the series' point standings.

Some, like Earnhardt Jr., do it for fun. Others, particularly young Nextel Cup drivers, race the Busch Series to gain experience at particular tracks.

And oddly enough, they're welcomed by the aspiring Busch drivers, even as they steal victories and top purses.

"I thought it helped me," said Kasey Kahne, a Nextel Cup rookie who spent the last two years on the Busch Series. "There were a couple races we could have won if they weren't there, but I never thought of it like that. To me, these were the best guys and the guys I wanted to learn from."

The Nextel drivers are schooling their Busch counterparts this year. Martin Truex Jr. is the only Busch regular to win a 2004 race he's won three and he works for Earnhardt Jr. Technically a part of Chance 2 Motorsports, Truex still has access to all the resources of the Earnhardt's Nextel Cup team, Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Other well-funded Nextel Cup teams field cars on the Busch Series, including powerhouses Richard Childress Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Racing. They have the facilities and can afford to put Busch cars through wind tunnel tests and provide the best equipment.

The teams' presence skews the competition on the series more than any driver could.

"They've raised the bar," said Rick Houston, manager of communications for NASCAR's Busch Series. "The Busch teams have to live up to it."

All of them try, and a win by a Busch regular usually sets off a wild celebration in the series' garage. Busch drivers admit they benefit from the exposure someone like Earnhardt Jr. brings to one of their races. The Talladega Busch race drew close to 100,000 fans.

For all the positives, there are negatives. Earnhardt Jr. won 18 races and two championships on the Busch Series early in his career. But that was before the current trend of racing on both circuits became popular.

Earnhardt Jr. said NASCAR superstars who race full-time on both circuits could be a detriment.

"When you have Nextel Cup guys racing on the Busch Series, it helps the series." said Earnhardt, who will race in three Busch Series races in 2004. "I believe there is an argument for guys who race here all season having a negative impact."

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