LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) – There’s something about the roar of the engines that makes Greg Biffle itch to climb inside a race car. Incapable of sitting inside his motorhome as cars zoom around the track without him, Biffle entered 31 of 35 Busch Series events this year.

Unless NASCAR tells him he can no longer do it, the Sprint Cup star has no plans to scale back.

“Don’t tell anybody, but if we never got any money or points and they didn’t pay me, I’d still race the Busch Series,” he said. “Just because I love driving the cars. It’s my passion. But I don’t feel like Cup guys should be eligible for the championship. They just shouldn’t be.”

That very debate raged Thursday when NASCAR gathered the top 10 drivers from its junior varsity series. Five are full-time Cup drivers, including champion Carl Edwards, who ran the entire schedule to win his first NASCAR title.

But as new sponsor Nationwide prepares to take over the No. 2 racing series in America, the inclusion of Cup drivers is again drawing scrutiny as the series searches for an identity it sorely lacks.

The Cup series is clearly the premier division, and in 12 years, the Truck Series has developed into the place for older drivers to compete. But this series has no clear role, 25 years after its inception. “We are never content with where we are. We are No. 2 and No. 1 just happens to be in the same family, and we’ve got a lot of growth and a lot of work to do to keep reaching out,” series director Joe Balash said. “People ask “Where does the Nationwide Series fit?’ Are we development? Are we a destination? Well, we’re all of the above.”

But it doesn’t look that way on race day, when the field is loaded with Cup stars who combined to win 33 races this season. Rookie Stephen Leicht was the first non-Cup driver to win, beating a sparse field of superstars at Kentucky in June, and Jason Leffler won in Indianapolis in July.

Now many are calling for NASCAR to curb the Cup driver participation in some form or fashion, and chairman Brian France has indicated changes are on the way.

“We will deal with the Cup drivers who are in it in some way,” he said last month. “We will look at everything from the format of the events. We will look at a way to energize the manufacturers better, who we want to play even a bigger role in that series. We will look at a lot of things to enhance that series. We will do that … probably looking at ’09.”

Biffle thinks it’s as simple as not allowing Cup drivers to race for points. He wants the purse money and trophies, but is willing to sacrifice a shot at the title.

Edwards doesn’t like that idea, at all.

“If you can’t race for a championship, but we’re still racing, then at the end of the year it devalues whoever is champion,” he said. “It’s not right to them and it’s not right to anybody. If they don’t want us to race, we just shouldn’t be allowed to race.

“They can’t half-and-half it. You can’t say “Oh, you are in the race but you are not really racing.’ “

Matt Kenseth, like his Roush Fenway Racing teammates Biffle and Edwards, believes the issue needs to be addressed by NASCAR because the series has strayed from its role as a place to prepare for the Cup series.

“This is kind of dumb for me to say because I ran like 24 races this year, but I’d like to see more young kids work their way up,” Kenseth said. “When Stephen won Kentucky, I was watching it on TV, and I thought it was one of the most exciting races of the year.

“I’d like to see it be a place where some kids make a name for themselves and try to work their way up. It would be nice if it was maybe balanced a little more.”

Capping the number of races a Cup driver can enter is a solution Kenseth would support because he doesn’t want to banned from the events.

“I’d still like to participate, but if they said we couldn’t get points, or you could only participate in a certain number of races, I’d be all for it,” he said. “I really like running it, and I’d like to keep running it. But certainly on the other hand, I’d like to see some of the other young drivers get a shot.”

Nationwide officials said Thursday they have yet to discuss strategy with NASCAR, but are eager to work on ways to carve out a clear identity for the series.

“I think it will be business as usual for right now, but I would envision some types of changes down the road,” said Jim McCoy, sponsorship marketing manager for Nationwide. “Right now our priority is to launch the series, launch the new brand and help people make the transition from Busch to Nationwide, that’s step one.”

For now, the series regulars are content with the Cup competition and don’t want anything to change. Leffler said his victory at Indy – which came with five Cup drivers in the field – meant more to him because he beat stiffer competition.

“For me as a driver, I want to race against the best drivers that are out there,” said Leffler, who at third in the standings was the highest finishing non-Cup driver. “Even if you don’t win, you run a top five or a top 10, it is gratifying for me, and for the team.”

Marcos Ambrose, a rookie from Australia who finished eighth in the standings, said he needs the Cup drivers on the track to help him gauge his progress. But he feels for the teams who struggle to compete against the big-budget Cup operations.

“A lot of Busch teams that only run Busch are closing their doors and that’s a worrying sign when you’ve got teams not being able to survive, let alone compete against these Cup deals,” Ambrose said. “The Cup teams have a lot of sponsors they can hand down, technology and Cup drivers. It’s an uphill battle for the rest of us, but we all enjoy the challenge. Enjoy the chase. Those guys are our benchmark.”

AP-ES-12-06-07 1738EST


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