Despite a solid rookie year, Cole Whitt likely won't be racing a full season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2013.
The 21-year-old Californian finished his first complete Nationwide season a respectable seventh overall driving for the JR Motorsports (JRM) squad.
He took four top-5 finishes and 14 top-10s in 33 races and put up better numbers than famous teammate, Danica Patrick, in just about every category. In the end, he outscored her by 156 points, which would be close to the points tally for four wins. It was only Whitt's second full season of racing stock cars.
But his performance wasn't enough to keep his seat at Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Nationwide squad.
The team signed Sprint Cup driver Regan Smith to take over Patrick's car next year. Patrick will race for the Stewart-Haas team in the Cup Series this year.
The other JRM car will see Cup regular Kasey Kahne share the ride with Nationwide driver Brad Sweet, who joined the outfit from the Turner team. Team owner Earnhardt will also drive the outfit's third car every so often.
With no room left for Whitt in the cars, he'll likely spend 2012 watching from the side lines unless something happens soon. He's probably not holding his breath.
The problem for Whitt is the same one that has plagued the Nationwide Series for years: Cup drivers taking spots in what is supposed to be a development series. In the years when it was known as the Busch Series, these drivers were known as the Buschwackers.
While NASCAR moved before the 2011 season to force drivers to pick the series where they would earn points toward the championship, it didn't stem the tide. In the past two seasons with the new rule in place, Cup interlopers have won more races than Nationwide-only drivers. With those Cup drivers ineligible to be champion, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took home consecutive Nationwide titles. Prior to the new rule, five straight Nationwide titles went to Cup drivers.
In 2012, Cup drivers won 18 of 33 races in the Nationwide Series. However Carl Edwards' decision not to run a full season can account for most of the 10 fewer victories from NASCAR's top tier compared to 2011. He won eight times in 2011 and only once in his sole start in the series last year.
Regrettably, the problem runs much deeper than Cup drivers taking spots away from developing talent. Having recognizable names in the series is not only seen as a way to get exposure for the Nationwide Series, but also the main tool in attracting sponsors who get to be linked to a Cup driver at a much cheaper cost.
In addition, it's a good deal for the Cup guys, who can make a nice bonus over a weekend for being a big fish in a little pond. Cup driver Joey Logano, who won nine of 22 Nationwide starts last year, had winnings of more than $1.12-million in the second tier series.
The main argument for Cup drivers in Nationwide is that the young talent will learn and improve by competing against some of the best stock car racers on the planet. There may be some truth in that theory, although most of the time the Cup drivers play among themselves. Besides, a young driver would need to be an exceptional talent to go head-to-head with Cup champions and other top talent from the big series. Simply put, drivers like that don't come along too often.
Besides, if this reasoning made sense, other development series would encourage the same practice. Instead, it's almost impossible to find any other development series in the world where the drivers from the top echelon drop down to compete with the up-and-comers to see what the young kids have to offer. It's a safe bet that racing fans will never see Formula One stars Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel trying their luck in GP2.
At the root of all of this is the simple fact that many development series are now more concerned with making money than developing talent. GP2 owners fleece rich kids and drivers with big dollar sponsors in their pockets to pay the more than $2-million price tag to run a full season. So, many real talents who deserve rides either sit on the sidelines or racing in lesser series where they won't get noticed.
Nationwide teams essentially do the same thing by dangling their Cup driver lures to raise money from sponsors.
Unfortunately the bottom line on the accounting ledger might look good with the Cup drivers in the field, but the numbers don't add up for Nationwide young guns or the future talent pool for NASCAR. Of the 13 drivers who started all 34 Nationwide races in 2012, only six can be considered as up-and-coming talents. That number will likely stay about the same in 2013, with Trevor Bayne getting a full-time ride and truck series driver Parker Kligerman moving up.
The young talent stays at about six because at least two of rising stars from 2012 — Whitt and Stenhouse Jr. — will not be back this year. Stenhouse Jr. rightly heads to the Roush Fenway Cup team on the strength of his two Nationwide crowns.
Sadly, Whitt is simply out in the cold.
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