Want to Know the Path to Happiness in NASCAR? Just Ask This Trio of Drivers

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Want to Know the Path to Happiness in NASCAR? Just Ask This Trio of Drivers
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
JR Motorsports driver Regan Smith

Let’s say you’re a Sprint Cup driver who’s had an uneventful career. You may have won a race or two and you’ve been more likely to finish outside of the top 10 than inside of it. You’ve just been called into your owner’s office and told that your contract for the following year won’t be renewed.

It’s that proverbial time when drivers are told to explore other options. 

You head back home to tell your wife or girlfriend, and during the drive, you spend part of the time feeling sorry for yourself, because a minor pity party always makes one feel good, for a brief period of time. 

Or you think of what those other options might be. There only a few of them, if you want to stay in NASCAR as a driver. 

Option One is you can talk to lesser-financed or start-up teams about a full-time ride in the Cup series, knowing your chances of ever winning a Cup race are slim to none—unless they've got a killer restrictor plate program because everybody has a shot at winning one of those races.

Some will choose this option because there are some drivers who just can’t give up on the idea of racing on Sunday in "the Big Show." Even if it means they will have to start and park their ride or run laps down to the leader, the paycheck is nice and you do get to keep your face in front of the majority of the racing media and the television cameras. 

Let’s call this the “I’ve got a big ego and I need to satisfy it” option.

Option Two is you can talk to a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS) team, but the reality of what those drivers are being paid, even the good ones, would be a huge downer for you. Unless this is where you started your career and you might one day be interested in owning a truck team, there’s very little else attractive about this option.

Let’s call this the "I’m down to my last option" option.

Or you can choose Option Three (the best option, according to the drivers who have chosen to do so) and that’s to talk to a NASCAR Nationwide Series (NNS) team owner about a full-time ride in that NASCAR national series. NNS team owners are always on the hunt for good drivers.

This is called "the Path to Happiness" option.

There are three kinds of NNS teams: the satellite operations that are owned and operated by Cup teams and the teams whose owners want to take their operation into the Sprint Cup series one day and are using the NNS to learn the game.

The final type are the so-called "Mom and Pop" teams that are happy racing on Saturday in front of large crowds, think racing is still fun, have a very limited budget and like the idea of spending Sundays at home.

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The Nationwide Series, as it is now called, used to be the Busch Grand National Series from 1984 to 2003, and then it became just the Busch Series from 2004 until Nationwide Insurance, the current sponsor, took over in 2008.

A decade ago, the series was viewed by many drivers as an easy paycheck. Often, nearly half the field was made up of Cup regulars, which lead to the term “Buschwackers” to describe how most of those drivers would be racing on Saturday just to earn enough money to pay the jet fuel bills for the week.

This practice came under harsh criticism by nearly everyone but those on the competition side, like team owners, who saw having a Cup driver in their seat as a magnet for a big-name sponsor. Fans hated the fact that a handful of these Cup drivers usually (make that always) would win the race, and there was little opportunity for a young driver to advance.

Those same young drivers, while not winning races because of the Cup driver’s domination of the series, would tell the critics that racing against the Cup drivers was like going to school, and it made them better drivers. This was balderdash and was likely being said so that the following weekend, the young driver wasn’t put into the wall by a Cup driver, who was there to make some easy cash.

NASCAR acknowledged that there were two views to the issue, and they came down on the side of having Cup drivers adding value for the fans who came on Saturday because they couldn't afford to buy a ticket for Sunday’s race.

It was a pretty lame reason, but in the end, NASCAR changed the rules in 2011 after the champions from the previous five years were all Sprint Cup regulars. The rules were changed so that a driver could only run for one championship at a time.

This prevented many Cup drivers from moonlighting in the NNS, while at the same time, it opened the door for a new career for those Cup drivers that were described in the first paragraph of this column.

Which bring us to the current NNS driver lineup, which features three former Cup drivers who have made a very successful transition from Sunday racing to Saturday racing. 

Regan Smith, Elliott Sadler and Sam Hornish Jr. all had the kind of forgettable Cup careers that account for a total of four wins between them in a combined 30 years in the series.

Since moving into the NNS in the past five years, the same trio has had a total of six wins, with Smith responsible for half. Smith told Cary Estes with SI.com when he first went to JR Motorsports in 2013:

You want to be in Sprint Cup, but you also want to be competitive. Right now, I can go out with these guys and know I can win races week in and week out and contend for a championship if we do the right things and we're smart. ... I've never lost faith in my ability. I've never once wavered on that, never once thought that I didn't belong at the Cup level. I always felt good about what my prospects were. Certainly my first option was to stay in Cup. But when that didn't happen, I was hoping it would play out this way.

Smith is second in NNS points, four behind leader Chase Elliott, the young, second-generation driver whose father is former Cup champion Bill Elliott.

Smith heads to Iowa this weekend after a disappointing run in the NNS race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend where he finished 10th. The good news was that he finished two spots ahead of points leader Elliott.

Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Elliott Sadler

Sadler first drove in the NNS for the now defunct Kevin Harvick Inc. in 2011. At that time, he said the move had rejuvenated his career. KHI folded the following year, and Sadler went to drive with Richard Childress Racing in 2012.  

The following year, Sadler took his sponsor, One Main Financial, and moved to Joe Gibbs Racing, where he is today. He’s had the same team and crew chief for two years in a row, and it shows. He sits third in points, just 11 behind leader Elliott. Sadler told David Caraviello with NASCAR.com in 2012:

I had the option to stay in Cup at a lower-tier team. And racing is out of sight, out of mind. It's probably the worst sport we have as far as out of sight, out of mind. So, is it race on Sunday, but race with maybe a lower-tier team? Or race on Saturday and try to win championships, try to win races, and try to get back to Cup that way?

Hornish isn’t a contender for the NNS title this season, but he should be.

He moved from Team Penske to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2014, where he splits the driving chores on the No. 54 Toyota with Kyle Busch, mainly on weekends when the Cup and Nationwide Series are racing in different venues. He finished second in NNS points in 2013 behind champion Austin Dillon and lost his ride when Penske was unable to secure funding for him for a full-time NNS season.

So far, Hornish has had only five starts, but he’s made the best of each one of them. He started on the pole at Talladega and finished fifth. At the first Iowa race in May, he started on the front row and won. He has another top-five finish at Michigan, and his last race was at Chicagoland where his engine failed, and he finished 36th.

His move to Gibbs has given Hornish Jr. the freedom he’d not had earlier in his career. It’s given him time to spend time with family and just doing what he wants. Hornish Jr. told PopularSpeed.com:

I don’t know if I have a lot more free time, but I go around doing a lot of different things. It’s been a really good experience. It is just everything that I needed to do from a father-husband point-of-view. Obviously, I have to remember that at some point, you have to go out there and make money to buy the kids what they want and do what they want to do. I just try to remain as positive and happy as I can. The only thing that I need at this time, which revolves around me, is to race more.

Hornish Jr. gets to race this weekend in the No. 54 in the return visit to Iowa Speedway for the NNS teams on Saturday night. He and crew chief Adam Stevens expect to repeat their win from May, when Hornish led 167 of 250 laps.

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press
Sam Hornish Jr. wins the NNS race at Iowa Speedway in May

“I'm really happy about being the defending winner at Iowa and feel like there's a good possibility we'll be even better this go around,” said Hornish Jr. in his team’s pre-race media release.

While the payout for the winner of an NNS race is admittedly a bit smaller than in the Sprint Cup Series—the winner usually earns about half of what the 43rd-place finisher earns in a Cup race—life is arguably good for this trio of former Cup drivers who have found a new place to race that allows for them to be at home on Sunday with their family.

Happiness in life is measured in many different ways—just ask one of these three drivers.

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