A plea for the little guys

Jerry Bonkowski When it was first conceived, professional golf's Senior Tour was looked upon by many as a joke, a refuge for old has-beens or never-weres from the PGA Tour.

While the Senior Tour is not exactly enjoying immense popularity right now, there's no question it has made some older golfers quite wealthy.

While their aims are very different, there are similarities to be found in NASCAR's Busch Series. For the last 10 years or so, it has increasingly been looked upon as a refuge for former Winston Cup drivers, as a training ground for future Cup drivers, or a way to get extra practice time at select races for current Cup drivers.

But after the 2003 season, when the Busch circuit enjoyed its greatest TV ratings, race attendance, tightest championship chase (only 49 points separated the top four drivers) and unprecedented popularity, NASCAR's so-called "Triple-A league" is about ready to stand on its own as a viable, exciting class.

It's for those very reasons that some significant changes may be needed heading into 2004, particularly when it comes to the eligibility of Cup drivers competing in Busch races.

For too long, and on a steadily increasing basis in the last three seasons, many Cup drivers have used the Busch Series for what some could label less than fair reasons.

There are drivers who have raced in select events because they have the best chances of winning at a particular track. Sometimes it becomes a too-easy win for a Cup veteran, but it's a win nonetheless. And that can be very crucial when it comes to negotiating sponsorship contracts, particularly for Cup competition.

As team owner Joe Gibbs calls it, other Cup drivers come to the Busch Series to "cherry pick" races, competing in events where they not only have a better than normal chance to win, but also at racetracks where they can use more on-track time in preparation for Sunday's Cup event.

Don't buy it? Not to pick on him, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. entered a grand total of three Busch races this season -- and won all three.

And, what better way is there for Cup drivers to get a great deal of practice under race conditions for Sunday's big show than in Saturday's Busch undercard?

As the Busch Series has become more popular -- and with the resulting higher prize money -- it has become a magnet for more and more Cup drivers looking for a little extra edge or action.

Unfortunately, too many Cup drivers in the recipe do not always make for a good soup.

I'm not knocking Cup drivers like Mark Martin, Kevin Harvick, Michael Waltrip, Jamie McMurray, Jeff Burton, Joe Nemechek, Earnhardt Jr., and even reigning Winston Cup champ Matt Kenseth for coming over and -- more often than not -- dominating the Busch circuit. It's a good and easy way to pick up an additional $30 or $40 grand, not to mention a checkered flag, on a good weekend.

And, granted, having Cup drivers take part does put fans in the stands for Busch races.

But what about the guys who are full-time Busch Series drivers, guys like Ron Hornaday, David Green, Bobby Hamilton Jr., Johnny Sauter, Stacy Compton, Ashton Lewis, Mike Harmon and Larry Gunselman? For every Cup driver who comes down to race on Saturday, that oftentimes means one less Busch regular having a chance at making the field.

And, the more Cup drivers who qualify and race in a Busch event means a lot less Busch regulars having a chance at, for them, a decent payday every week.

To me, Cup drivers who come over to the Busch Series are increasingly becoming nothing more than glorified ringers. They know the pickin's are ripe and plump on the Busch circuit, so they take advantage of the opportunity.

But isn't that kind of like Tiger Woods entering a miniature golf tournament, where you know he'll easily be the dominant player on the course?

It might be time for new NASCAR chairman Brian France to step in and make some sweeping changes when it comes to eligibility of Cup drivers competing in Busch Series events.

One thing France could do is issue an edict that limits the number of Cup drivers in any given Busch event. Let's limit it to, say, the top three to five Cup drivers who take part in Busch qualifying on a particular weekend.

That way, fans still get to see some of the best in Nextel Cup racing, yet also get to see the best of the best in the Busch ranks, who are good racecar drivers in their own right.

As with Cup, there has been a move afoot within the Busch ranks to alter the current points system, in part because of the way Cup drivers have monopolized the standings and cut into the yearly race earnings of regular Busch drivers.

But with the '03 season being so popular, it's hard to imagine any reason to fix the current system.

Perhaps Hamilton said it best after the second-to-last race this season at Rockingham, N.C.

"It shows people are seeing just how exciting and close the competition is in Busch racing," Hamilton said. "I don't see a whole lot that needs to be fixed. If they want to change the points system, that's OK by me. You can let the Cup guys have all the points, just as long as we get all the money."

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.