Biggest names absent when NASCAR needs them

MEXICO CITY -- The cab driver from the airport to the hotel Thursday was a talkative young man named Ricardo, nattily dressed in a pressed long-sleeve white shirt and black slacks.

"We don't drink Budweiser."
-- Michel Jourdain Jr.

He quickly ascertained that I was here to cover the Telcel-Motorola Mexico 200 Busch race on Sunday.

"I love NASCAR," he said. "But why does Dale Jr. not drive here? He is my favorite driver."

Even in Mexico, no surname is needed for Earnhardt.

I tried to explain that his hero races in a different series, a higher level called Nextel Cup. But between his limited English and my limited Spanish, I don't think he understood.

All he knows is NASCAR races here this weekend and the man he wants to see isn't driving.

I told him that Juan Pablo Montoya (who I noticed was on advertising posters all over town) was here, along with Mexican racing star Adrian Fernandez. That didn't suffice.

"No, no," he said, shaking his head. "I want to see Dale Jr."

The Busch Series is entering its third year of staging an international event in one of the world's largest cities -- 18 million in the metro area.

In many ways, it's been a rousing success on the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez road course. But one thing is missing. NASCAR's biggest stars are not present.

Some big-name Cup drivers are competing -- Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and 2006 race winner Denny Hamlin, to name a few.

But we're talking about the Big Three -- Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. And having defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson in the show wouldn't hurt, either.

Mexican fans are no different from American fans. They want to see the superstars.

Busch races these days often have more Cup drivers than Busch regulars, but the Buschwhackers take a break when NASCAR really needs them.

"Those guys can't win," said Busch regular Todd Kluever. "Everyone complains that the Cup guys race too much in Busch, then they don't come here and people complain. You can't have it both ways."

A fair point, and these stars don't compete in Busch events regularly. Gordon didn't run any Busch races last season; Johnson ran only three. Earnhardt ran five Busch races and Stewart raced in 12 of 35 events.

This also is a rare weekend off for the Cup drivers in a brutal schedule that has 38 race weekends.

Hard to blame them for taking a weekend off, but this is not your average Busch race. NASCAR wants to find out if the interest from Mexican fans would justify a Cup date down the road. It's difficult to make that assessment if the biggest names in Cup aren't racing in Mexico.

Mexican driver Michel Jourdain Jr. doesn't think it matters if Earnhardt races this event: "We don't drink Budweiser," he said.

But most of the Mexican drivers racing this weekend say Ricardo the cabbie is not an exception.

"The Mexican people are really expecting to see Dale Jr. and Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon come here to race," said Jorge Goeters, who won the pole for inaugural Busch race here in 2005. "We need them here to grow the sport. A lot of Mexicans are following NASCAR now and they want to see those guys come to Mexico."

Driver German Quiroga Jr. said the Mexican fans still are educating themselves on how NASCAR works.

"They are starting to understand there are different levels in NASCAR, but everybody doesn't get it yet," Quiroga said. "All they know is guys like Dale Jr. and Tony Stewart are big stars. They see those guys on TV all the time in commercials."

Some fans across Mexico will see NASCAR commercials for the first time Sunday. The event will be televised in Spanish throughout Mexico by ESPN Deportes.

ESPN will simulcast the telecast in Spanish for audiences in the United States. ESPN2, which televises all the Busch events, will broadcast the race in English.

Quiroga wants to take advantage of the exposure to make a name for himself. He is part of a new NASCAR Mexico Series, a developmental league here that came to fruition as a result of NASCAR's growing interest south of the border.

Three Mexican drivers from the series, including Quiroga, will race a few events in the NASCAR Grand National East division this season.

Finding talented Mexican racers who have chance of making it at higher levels in the states is one of NASCAR's diversity goals.

Quiroga is thrilled for the opportunity. He says NASCAR awareness in Mexico has exploded over the last three years, but he thinks a little love from the big boys -- Earnhardt, Gordon, Stewart and Johnson -- would make things better.

"For sure, if those guys raced here it would add credibility to the event," Quiroga said. "And it would help us [the Mexican drivers] to compete against them. I would love to race Dale Jr."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.