Busch Series sponsorship closes the book after 26-year run

The Busch Series is almost gone, but it'll hardly be forgotten anytime soon. Next year when NASCAR's No. 2 series is known as the Nationwide Series, the only thing different will be the name.

In 2008, a series sponsored since its inception 26 years ago by Busch Beer will still feature a mix of young drivers trying to establish themselves and veterans looking to supplement their incomes the day before the Cup race goes green.

By '09, NASCAR is talking about giving the Nationwide Series a new identity, with a new chassis modeled off the one being used for the Car of Tomorrow. And changes being discussed to the points system could give drivers focusing only on that series a better chance at winning the title after Cup drivers have dominated the series the past two years.

Mark Martin

I've been fortunate enough to collect quite a few Busch Series trophies over the years and it would mean a lot to be able to take home that last one.

-- Mark Martin

But even if the series hasn't been perfect, rest assured that people will have fond memories when they inadvertently call it the Busch Series in years to come.

From the first race at Daytona in 1982 –- which was won by Dale Earnhardt, who would dominate the season opener for years on end -– to Saturday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the history will have featured most of those who have gone on to Cup stardom.

Not to mention those who by choice, or by happenstance, simply had their greatest racing moments one step removed from the glitz and glamour that the Cup Series has become.

In the formative years, Jack Ingram, Sam Ard and Larry Pearson won two titles apiece, with Tommy Ellis taking the crown in 1988. Promising Rob Moroso won the title the next year, but a highway accident ended his life before he could build a true on-track legacy.

Winning the 1990 Busch title was by far the highlight of Chuck Bown's career, and he has fond memories of those days.

"I loved the Busch Series," Bown said. "It was a heck of a lot of fun. Those were the best years of my career, really. You knew it was serious, hard racing because so many of those Cup guys raced with us on a regular basis.

"When you won races or won a championship there, you did something. You made your mark in motorsports."

Bobby Labonte's the lone Busch champion to go on to win a Cup crown, as he won Busch honors in 1991 and took the Cup title in 2000. Labonte will be in the field Saturday in Kevin Harvick Inc.'s No. 77 entry.

Other series champions to win Cup races are Joe Nemechek ('92), Johnny Benson ('95), Dale Earnhardt Jr. ('98-99), Kevin Harvick ('01 and '06), Greg Biffle ('02), Brian Vickers ('03) and Martin Truex Jr. ('04-05).

Perhaps the most dominant run by a team was the three-year stretch from 1995-97 when Benson won the first title and then Randy Lajoie won two straight driving for BACE Motorsports.

But the most dominant driver has clearly been Mark Martin, who has won a remarkable 47 races in just 224 starts spread over 19 seasons. Martin has accomplished this despite never making more than 17 starts in a year.

Considering he'll be in Hendrick Motorsports' No. 5 Chevrolet on Saturday, it would hardly be shocking to see him close out the series' remarkable run in style with a trip to Victory Lane.

The only thing that would have been more fitting was if Dale Jarrett was in Saturday's field. Jarrett finished 10th at Daytona on Feb. 13, 1982 and is the lone driver from that race running in any of the three NASCAR events at Homestead. Alas, that run will be in the Cup race, leaving it up to Martin to carry on the banner for the series on Saturday.

"I've been racing in the Busch Series for a long time and I have a lot of memories from that series. It's kind of hard to imagine it being called anything else, but if you stay around long enough just about everything changes, "Martin said. "I'm glad that we'll be running in the last Busch race this weekend.

"I've been fortunate enough to collect quite a few Busch Series trophies over the years and it would mean a lot to be able to take home that last one."

Kyle Busch put the No. 5 in Victory Lane at Phoenix, so the team is on a hot streak. Crew chief Chad Walter would do anything to get a win with Martin behind the wheel. He says winning with Martin would be an honor and a privilege.

"When a driver of his caliber gets in your race car, I think it elevates everyone on the team to work that much harder. Few people can have that kind of impact on a race team; Mark Martin does," Walter said. "I feel like it would be great for Mark, who is the all-time NASCAR Busch Series leader in victories, to win the last race with Anheuser-Busch as the title sponsor for the series. We would like nothing more than to help him do that."

And no matter how Jason Keller's race turns out, the all-time starts leader in the history of the series is simply honored to be attempting to make the race. His fledgling CJM Racing team will need to qualify on speed, so Keller hopes he's around to take the green flag Saturday afternoon.

"The Busch Series has been a huge part of my life and my family's life," Keller said. "I am very proud to say I was a driver in the NASCAR Busch Series. It's been my home and I've accomplished a lot over the course of my career. I guess one word would sum up my feelings and that is proud."

Keller is far from the lone Busch Series alum or fan who will be feeling that way come Saturday.

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.