Nextel shadow irks smaller teams

Posted: Wednesday, July 07, 2004

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mike Wallace struggled to find the words that described his victory last Friday night in the Busch Series race at the Daytona International Speedway.

"Magical. Unbelievable. Outstanding. Inspirational. All of the above."

There's a reason Wallace portrayed himself as an underdog. His team is one of the few Busch Series operations that's neither part of a Nextel Cup team nor a team with an official tie to a racing conglomerate on the senior circuit.

Race fans see the number of drivers from the Nextel Cup Series that moonlight on the Busch Series and wonder if it diminishes the importance of the series. After all, Barry Bonds doesn't bounce between the Major League and Triple-A baseball every week. But Busch Series regulars insist it's not the drivers that are stealing their identity, it's their backing from high-dollar Nextel Cup teams.

Wallace is the only winning Busch Series driver this year without a tie to a Nextel Cup team.

"People just don't know how tough it is," Wallace said. "We have eight full-time employees -- eight. That's it. They do everything: Hang the bodies, paint the cars, get them ready to put on the truck. It's an uphill battle. That's why it's so big to beat Dale Earnhardt Inc., to beat Richard Childress Racing. It gets old to have to battle like this, but every once in a while all that hard work pays off."

The Busch Series was created as a training ground for young drivers and crewmen. It remains that today, but not without considerable backing from the Nextel Cup Series that eliminates a lot of the learning curve.

"With the way the sport is going, it's a great way to develop young drivers, young crewmen and equipment," said John Rhodes, a spokesman for Dale Earnhardt Inc. "Sure we use it to enhance your Nextel Cup program. That's why you see so many do well on Sunday (during a Nextel Cup race) after racing on Saturday (in a Busch Series race)."

Mark Martin is the winningest driver in Busch Series history with 38 victories. Those came in cars prepared by Roush Racing, which operates four Nextel Cup teams. Last year's champion, Brian Vickers, won with a car prepared by Hendrick Motorsports, which also has four cars in the senior division. In 2002, Greg Biffle won the Busch Series championship while running for Roush. The top four drivers in the current Busch Series standings all are part of big Nextel Cup operations, including points leader Martin Truex Jr. (Dale Earnhardt Inc.) and second-place Kyle Busch (Hendrick Motorsports).

"I don't have a problem with the Cup drivers," said Busch Series owner Clarence Brewer. "You can plug any driver into the 8 car (Truex Jr.) or the 5 car (Busch) and all they have to do is push the gas pedal. The toughest part are the teams. You can't compete against their combined wealth of knowledge. I'm probably stupid for being this way (not having a tie to a Cup team)."

Brewer's top driver, David Green, has been one of the few true Busch Series drivers to successfully compete against the "Buschwackers" from the Nextel Cup side. Green finished second in the points race a year ago, losing the title by a mere 14 points -- three finishing positions.

"That uphill climb gets old," Green said. "We're an underdog and all we want is equal footing, equal opportunities. If that happens, nobody can get in our way. It's hard to run against their technology. The Cup teams have all the top drivers, the top engineers, the top engine guys. Driver to driver, they're no better than the Busch drivers."

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