LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) – The best of the Busch Series gathered Thursday to celebrate a successful season for NASCAR’s junior varsity series.

Only the Busch Series drivers were extremely hard to find.

Eight Nextel Cup stars crashed this party, including Kevin Harvick, who humiliated the competition this season by winning the Busch title by a whopping 824 points over fellow “Bushwhacker” Carl Edwards.

The two Cup stars will be joined on stage at Friday night’s Busch banquet by Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, J.J. Yeley, Kyle Busch, Reed Sorenson and Greg Biffle, who skipped five races and still made the top 10 in the final standings.

“It’s terrible for the series,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., a two-time Busch Series champion who ran five Busch events this season. “At this rate, maybe in five or 10 years, the entire series is full of Cup regulars and it ends up becoming a novelty race where people come see us goof off a little bit before the big deal on Sunday.”

That’s the pace the series is on, and its clearly not what NASCAR had in mind when it created the support series 25 years ago.

As Cup drivers continue to make the Busch Series their personal playground, questions are being raised about its legitimacy as a training ground for NASCAR’s future stars.

David Gilliland would argue that the series is working just fine. For Gilliland, it certainly did. He used an upset victory at Kentucky Speedway in June to launch his career from a no-name driver with an underfunded team, to an aspiring young talent who had top-level car owners tripping over each other in a bidding war to sign him.

Gilliland finally chose Robert Yates Racing, which gave him the keys to a coveted Cup ride just two months after his Kentucky win.

“I wanted to go Cup racing, that was always my goal,” Gilliland said. “To get there, I was going to have to race these (Cup) guys. You can learn now or learn later, and I got a jump on it in the Busch Series. Ultimately, the Busch Series got me where I wanted to go.”

But the Gilliland’s are few and far between these days, as he and Paul Menard were the only two non-Cup regulars to win a Busch event this season.

Of the 35 races, Cup drivers won 33 times.

Menard, who finished sixth in the final standings, is going Cup racing next season. So is Johnny Sauter, the only other non-Cup driver to crack the top 10 in points with an eighth-place finish.

But those three success stories are balanced out by Danny O’Quinn Jr., the top rookie who is now looking for work. Although he drives for powerhouse Roush Racing, the team hasn’t been able to find O’Quinn a sponsor for 2007 and without one, he can’t drive.

Roush does, however, have funding for Edwards, who plans to run the full Busch schedule next year. He also has sponsor dollars for Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray, who pick and choose races throughout the season.

Harvick can sympathize with O’Quinn.

As the owner of a two-car operation, he knows how difficult it is to put together the $4.5 million to $6 million he estimates is needed to run a competitive Busch team.

Companies have no problem handing over that kind of cash on a car Harvick or Bowyer or Edwards will drive all year. But for a driver they’ve never heard of, who might need two seasons to develop and probably won’t run up front? The purse strings tighten up quite a bit.

“It’s hard to find a sponsor for an individual, stand-alone Busch team because the sponsor wants to be competitive right off the bat,” Harvick said. “It’s a catch-22 because if they don’t succeed right away, they are out. Its hard to keep training someone year after year if they don’t get it because the sponsor wants to be on TV and wants to be rewarded for the money they are spending.”

But instead of blaming the series, Harvick points to the driver talent pool as a large part of the current problem. Today’s driver must appeal to sponsor, convince the company to invest in him, then keep the board happy for 35 weeks.

“If there were more good young drivers who were capable of driving the cars, you’d see them in the Busch Series,” he said. “But there just hasn’t been a Carl Edwards come along lately, or a Denny Hamlin, guys who can be competitive when you put them in a competitive car.”

But as long as the series has household Cup names for a sponsor to choose from, the opportunities for the rising young driver will always be slim.

The easy solution would be for NASCAR to limit the number of races Cup drivers can compete in each season.

This past year, seven drivers ran both the full Cup and Busch schedules, and Edwards and Yeley have already committed to doing it again in 2007.

Capping the number of starts in a season would certainly open up more seats, but NASCAR chairman Brian France said that’s a slippery slope for the governing body to enter.

“We like to have a free market where everybody can compete,” France said. “You could make an argument that we have a lot more crossover than we ever have, and maybe we have to look at that. But the ideal way to do it is to get more talented young drivers in the series.”

Frankly, NASCAR doesn’t want to keep the Cup drivers out of the field every Saturday. The stars sell tickets and raise interest levels. That in turn creates better TV ratings, which leads to bigger purses and payouts for everyone – including the low-level teams struggling to compete.

When its all said and done, the Busch Series is quite healthy and has the Bushwhackers to thank for it.

It ranks second only to Nextel Cup in terms of popularity in the United States, and its television ratings are comparable to both the NBA and Major League Baseball.

The series has grown from seven states in 1982 to 21 states this past season, and Busch cars will run in both Mexico and Canada next year.

“When everything is said and done, the fans want to see the mix of the drivers, the promoters want to see the mix of the drivers and the drivers themselves say they are learning from racing against the Bushwhackers every week,” said series director Joe Balash.

“Its been beneficial for everyone to have that mix on the race track, and the Busch Series is healthier than its ever been.”

AP-ES-12-07-06 1546EST

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