Heading into 2009 it is time once again to take a look at the "Buschwhackers." The term refers to Sprint Cup Series drivers who compete in the Nationwide Series, formerly called the Busch Series, hence the name. Since the series has been known by its title sponsor Nationwide for a full year now, perhaps the term will change to "Nationwhackers" - then again, maybe not.
While the Buschwhackers' existence is still a controversial one, their impact is undeniable. Only two non-Buschwhackers finished in the top-five in the 2008 Nationwide standings. The arguments against the interlopers are the same as they have been in the past. It is said that aspiring drivers are losing opportunities to establish themselves by honing their skills or picking up some extra cash. These arguments will never change, and for the moment, the Buschwhackers are a fact of life in the Nationwide Series. As long as there is money to be made and competitive knowledge to be gained, there will be Sprint Cup drivers plying their trade in the Nationwide cars. No rule from NASCAR has been established banning the cross-feeding, so it seems here to stay.
For the Sprint Cup drivers, not only are the races good for preparation, but the financial reward is also tempting. Buschwhacker Clint Bowyer, 2008's Nationwide Series champion, collected $1.04 million in winnings, or 23 percent of his Sprint Cup Series total. Carl Edwards, runner-up to Bowyer, earned $1.3 million, which was roughly 16 percent of his winnings in the Sprint Cup Series.
Many Sprint Cup Series drivers continue to run select races and not commit to running the full Nationwide schedule. Buschwhackers claimed five of the top-10 spots in last year's Nationwide Series, while just a handful of Sprint Cup Series drivers that finished in the top 12 didn't compete in a Nationwide Series race.
There were more than 20 Buschwhackers who competed in both the Sprint Cup and at least one Nationwide Series event last season. A rundown of the six drivers who finished in the top 10 in Nationwide points offers some interesting insight into the reasons Buschwhacking is so popular among Cup drivers.
Bowyer won the 2008 Nationwide Series Championship and finished fifth in the Sprint Cup. He did not win a Chase race in 2008, but he picked up one win, 14 top-fives and 29 top-10s from 35 Nationwide starts. He also finished third in the Cup series race one day after his 2008 Nationwide Series win at Bristol Motorspeedway. That finish was one of his seven Sprint Cup top-fives last season.
Edwards finished the season in second place in both the Nationwide Series and in the Sprint Cup Series. In two of the Chase races that Edwards won, he was able to also win the corresponding Nationwide Series event. He started a full season of Nationwide events and must feel unlucky to have come up short of at least one championship in 2008 after taking each to the last race.
While Ragan missed out on the 2008 Chase, he finished fourth in the Nationwide championship standings. He showed a great deal of improvement and consistency in the Sprint Cup; a lot of that had to come from his extended experience of running full Nationwide Series schedules along with Sprint Cup duty the past two seasons. He didn't win any Nationwide races in 2008, but he picked up 21 top-10 finishes in 35 starts. That compares with his 2008 Sprint Cup results, when he tallied 14 top-10s from 36 starts.
Busch had a stellar beginning to both the 2008 Sprint Cup Series and the Nationwide Series. By the end of the season, he finished 10th in Cup points and sixth in Nationwide. That sixth-place finish in Nationwide points is impressive considering he didn't run a full season. Busch ran just 30 of the 35 races and was the only driver not competing in the full season to finish in the top 10 in points. Busch ended the year with a series-high 10 Nationwide wins.
Reutimann had a decent Sprint Cup run in 2008 with four top-10 finishes, but his time spent in the Nationwide Series was much more productive. He finished the season seventh in points after picking up one pole, eight top-fives and 15 top-10s. Interestingly, though, scoring the pole in the Dollar General 300 didn't translate to success on the Cup side. He was only able to qualify 29th for the LifeLock.com 400 one day later and finished just 14th.
You have to go a bit further down the Nationwide standings to find the next Buschwhacker, Kevin Harvick. He only competed in 22 of the 35 races and finished 18th in points. He didn't score a win in either series in 2008, but with seven top-fives and 19 top-10s in Sprint Cup, the year wasn't totally lost. The two second-place finishes Harvick picked up in the Nationwide Series also propelled him to top-10 finishes a day later in the companion Sprint Cup events.
Other Drivers of Note
Denny Hamlin ran 19 Nationwide races in 2008, scoring four wins, 10 top-fives and 14 top-10s. The time spent in Nationwide also helped propel him to eighth in the Cup standings.... Kyle Busch might run the entire 35-race season in 2009.... Clint Bowyer will scale back his involvement in the series to focus on his new Cup team.... Carl Edwards will return to run a full season in the series and will be the only driver of the four 2008 full-time Cup participants that will do the full double again in 2009.
Many driver and team combinations are new for the Cup series in 2009, which may encourage more participation from the Buschwhackers as they scramble to get as much track time as possible. Even though only Edwards is returning for sure to run the full 2009 Nationwide series, Busch will be there with him and there will be others who announce their plans over the coming weeks. Regardless of what happens in the offseason, rest assured that the Cup drivers will continue top hone their trade in the Nationwide series as long as there is money and practice available.