With new brand and new vision, Nationwide now needs new identity

After losing its title sponsor of 26 years, NASCAR's second-tier division is in search of identity. Is it the feeder system for the big leagues? Is it simply an exhibition before the main event? Or is it the second-most popular motorsport series in the country -- a staple in racing entertainment in its own right?

These are the questions that face NASCAR's brass. For the second year in a row, the title winner of what is now the Nationwide Series was a full-time driver in what is now the Sprint Cup Series. It's the fruits of a trend set over the past several years in which Cup drivers increasingly participated in the lower division.

However, NASCAR sees the trend reversing itself.

"I think if you look right now, we've probably had over 140 different drivers take starts so far this year in the series and we look into the future that we'll have a continuous flow of young new talent that will be heading our way," Nationwide Series director Joe Balash said toward the end of this past season. " We may have been heavy for a little bit with the double-duty drivers, but we see that's a trend that's kind of migrating the other way, and we'll start seeking a more normal level."

From the beginning, Cup drivers have had their hands in the lower division's till. Now, however, the team owners are there, too. It's the brand-name owners who are better able to pull in the brand-name sponsors that have the money and the resources to win.

Drivers like Jasson Leffler and Bobby Hamilton Jr., longtime NASCAR drivers who were two of only three Busch-only drivers to finish in the top 10 in that series' final standings, suffer.

"We could have went and sold a big sponsor," Hamilton told reporters in Orlando for the Busch Series banquet. "There would have been four or five races we could have won. I think we have only one more year of getting our teeth kicked in, and then I think they are going to help us with some stuff."

If help comes, it may have to be in the form of a rule making it harder for Cup drivers to run Nationwide, or limiting the number of Cup drivers who can make the field. However, car-wise, it appears the Nationwide cars are going to start at least resembling the Sprint cars starting in 2009.

"There will be a different body style and different aerodynamic package," Brett Bodine said of the Nationwide cars in 2009. "We're working on all that stuff. We're just not there yet, still working through all that process.

"Aerodynamically, we're not there yet. We don't know what package we're going to settle on. But it's the NASCAR chassis. It incorporates all the safety features. That's the key thing. We want to get those safety features in the Nationwide Series."

To some Nationwide racers, this is another move that runs the risk of diluting the Nationwide Series' identity. This year, with the Cup Series running many Car of Tomorrow races, Busch Series races had the added intrigue of displaying a different brand of racing at the same tracks as the Cup races.

NASCAR is working to keep some disparity between the series' rigs by working on a so-called pony car to incorporate safety precautions into Nationwide rides. However, some fear this chassis will be close enough to the COT to nevertheless synchronize the type of racing fans will see from one to the next.

"I think the Busch Series has been stronger when it had its own identity," said Jason Keller, who last year broke the record for most starts in the series. "Now the cars are so similar, with the exception of the Car of Tomorrow, and I know we are going into a different era with the Cup Series. But when the cars were different, you didn't have such an influx of Cup teams in the Busch Series.

"So I'm all about the safety of the cars, and I love what the Car of Tomorrow brings from the safety aspect. And I hope that we implement that in the Busch Series, but I don't want the cars to get back to being very close technology-wise. I think if we can have the pony cars, so to speak, or a different version of the Car of Tomorrow, to maybe where the same shocks and springs won't translate from Saturday to Sunday, I think the series would be a little bit stronger."

NASCAR is still working on the technicalities of the new-age Nationwide rigs. Of most concern to the sanctioning body: safety.

"The continuous evolution of the safety of the sport is something that we seriously look at with our cars, so we will continue to evaluate the evolution of our car in the safety initiatives," Balash said. "We've put as many of those safety initiatives as we have going forward, and we will continue to look at those things as we go forward."

Rupen Fofaria has covered NASCAR for ESPN.com since 2002. He can be reached at rupenisracin@yahoo.com.