Putting some brakes on “Xfinity Moonlighting”

NASCAR Sprint Cup regulars have combined to take the checkered flag at nearly two-thirds of the Xfinity Series’ events this year, prompting new waves of discussion about the impact that “moonlighting” continues to have on the sport’s second-tier series. Considering the preceding season, when Cup regulars took the win at an even greater percentage of Xfinity events (70%, or 23 of 33), the speculation that the sanctioning body would take some form of action to address continued to grow in the waning months of the 2016 season.

The controversy had been brewing for several years (click here for our previous GimmeInfo post on this topic), and this year spiked early when Cup regulars won the first six events. Kyle Busch, of course, has been leading the charge here, winning 15 motorsports-kyle-busch2events in the past two seasons (despite missing about a third of the 2015 season due to injuries sustained in the Xfinity Series’ opening event). And he’s been the dominant Xfinity driver for a number of years, as evidenced by his Series career win total of 85…far outdistancing runner-up Mark Martin’s 49 wins. In fact, you’d need to go down to fifth place to locate the winningest non-Cup driver on the all-time list: Jack “Iron Man” Ingram, with 31 wins.

A Partial Step in 2011

As noted in our earlier post, NASCAR took a step several years ago to address the issue by stipulating that no driver could compete for a series championship in more than one tier. Thus, if a driver declares the Sprint Cup series as his championship target, that driver is no longer eligible for the Xfinity title and will not be credited with points in the Xfinity series championship battle. Of course, the Cup drivers could still pocket their portion of the Xfinity purse, and the winner’s piece is usually the largest slice of the pie.

While the 2011 adjustment helped elevate the visibility of Xfinity Series regulars by ensuring their championship efforts, the controversy continued. The argument that Cup drivers tend to have better equipment than the full-time Xfinity drivers as a result of their Cup-level budgets persisted, although the removal of championship opportunities for Cup regulars helped. On the flip side, however, this argument is countered by the observation that competing against higher-level drivers gives the lower-tier drivers a valuable opportunity to learn from those presumably better skilled. Also, the appearance of Cup-level drivers tends to boost attendance at Nationwide races, a factor considered beneficial to the sport in general.

The Rules for 2017

Last week, NASCAR took another step toward addressing the controversy by announcing new guidelines to govern the participation by Cup drivers in lower level series. Specifically, the new rules stipulate that experienced Cup drivers–those with more than five years of experience at the Cup level–will be limited to competing in no more than 10 events in the Xfinity Series. Likewise, the new rules limit the experienced Cup drivers to a maximum of seven Camping World Truck series, where the controversy also exists (but to a lesser degree).

Overall, the move by NASCAR to place limitations on participation is seen as an effort to help strengthen the visibility of the second-tier (Xfinity) and third-tier (Camping World Truck) drivers as they build their careers. Both of these series are considered to be stepping stones to the highest level–the Cup Series–and increased familiarity with individual  names is viewed as an important ingredient to helping these still-developing competitors build their personal brands within the sport and attract sponsorship.

Likewise, by not enacting an outright ban, NASCAR is preserving what many consider the benefits of Cup-level drivers competing in the lower-tier series, namely strengthening the competition and learning opportunities available to younger drivers, and meeting the interests of a fan base that welcomes any opportunity to see Cup drivers in competition.

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