Photo Credit: John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR
By: Toby Christie – Follow on Twitter @Tobalical
Ever since NASCAR enacted the rule that limited drivers to running for just one of NASCAR’s National Series championships, things have gotten extremely competitive in the Nationwide Series.
Last season Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler battled back-and-forth all season long, before Stenhouse ultimately took his second-straight championship in the series. But Sadler and Stenhouse weren’t the only guys who impressed last season.
Heading into this season everything is pretty much wide-open. And with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moving on to the Sprint Cup Series in 2013 it seems as though there is not a clear-cut favorite to take home the hardware in the Nationwide Series.
So who are the biggest names that have a shot at the championship this season?
Elliott Sadler has finished second in the point standings in each of the last two seasons, but he has swapped rides heading into this year. He moves from Richard Childress Racing’s No. 2 Chevrolet to Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 Toyota Camry. He took home four checkered flags last season, and he look like a revitalized driver who was happy to again be competing for wins and a championship. Expect him to come back even more hungry this season, but with all of the changes he is hardly a favorite to take it all this year.
Austin Dillon finished third in the standings last year, and since his team is intact and everything around him has basically stayed the same I would imagine he’s as close to being a favorite as you can have in this garage area. If you remember back to his stint in the Camping World Truck Series, he won two races in his rookie season and finished fifth in the standings, then the next year he took home the title. Last year in his rookie season in the Nationwide Series he won two races, and finished inside the top-five of the standings — will it be deja vu all over again?
Then there’s Sam Hornish Jr., who had his best year since he moved to NASCAR from the IndyCar Series. No he didn’t get his second-career Nationwide Series victory in 2012, but what he found was much more imperative — consistency. He racked up 10 top-five finishes as well as an impressive 22 top-tens. He also filled in admirably in the Sprint Cup Series for 20 races after A.J. Allmendinger was suspended and released from his ride at Penske Racing for a failed drug test. He seems to just continue to improve year-in and year-out, and there should be no reason for that trend to end in 2013.
So what about some new contenders to keep an eye on? How about Regan Smith, Trevor Bayne and former x-games champion Travis Pastrana?
Smith is looking to kick-start his NASCAR career. He helped Furniture Row Racing achieve their first (and to this point only) Sprint Cup Series win in the 2011 Southern 500. But late in the season last year he was replaced in the No. 78 Chevrolet by Kurt Busch. He got the chance of a lifetime to fill in for Dale Earnhardt Jr., after Earnhardt suffered a concussion that sidelined him for two races, and not long after it was announced that he would drive for JR Motorsports full-time in the 2013 Nationwide Series season.
In a tune up for his new endeavor, Smith and JR Motorsports teamed up in the final Nationwide race of last season in Homestead — which they went out and won. Expectations are high for the No. 7 team.
Trevor Bayne has been on the slowest fast track to stardom ever. He became the youngest champion of the Daytona 500 ever in 2011, and it happened in just his second Sprint Cup Series start. Since that day though a full-time ride in any of NASCAR’s national series (Sprint Cup, Nationwide, Camping World Trucks) just hasn’t materialized. However that all changes in 2013 as he will assume the role that his friend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enjoyed over the last two seasons — driver of Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 car.
In addition to his Daytona 500 trophy, he also won the Nationwide race in Texas in November of 2011. Bayne has always been fast, now he has a chance to show what he can do when running for a championship.
For Pastrana he is looking for a serious shot at NASCAR, he got his feet wet at Pastrana-Waltrip Racing, but it seemed a lot less serious than everyone was expecting. His first start got delayed for what seemed like forever after he was injured in an X-Games crash in 2011, but when he finally started to compete in 2012, he did a decent job. In his nine starts last season Pastrana racked up four finishes of 17th or better, including a career-best 13th at Indianapolis. He moves to Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 60 Ford in 2013, and he will be looking to take the gold.
And don’t forget the other young talent that is brewing in the Nationwide Series…
Justin Allgaier notched a victory for the third-straight season, and things are really on the upward swing at Turner-Scott Motorsports. They have paired Allgaier with a very formidable crew chief Scott Zipadelli for this season, and the entire organization is still on a high after capturing the Camping World Truck Series championship with James Buescher in 2012. Allgaier has to be excited for the new season.
Michael Annett quietly put together a great season in 2012 after a not-so-quiet offseason in 2011. He had never finished inside the top-five in any Nationwide Series race before last season began, but once the 2012 campaign was over he had accumulated six top-five finishes, as well as 17 top-tens which led to a career-best fifth place finish in the final point standings.
Also don’t forget Brian Scott. Scott has been at Joe Gibbs Racing for the last couple of seasons, but in 2013 he moves to Richard Childress Racing’s No. 2 car which had served Elliott Sadler so well over the past two years. Last year he racked up a fourth place finish in California, and then backed that up with a third place finish at Dover later in the year. He also took home his second-ever Camping World Truck Series victory. Maybe a change of scenery can elevate him to championship contender in 2013.
The overwhelming excess of young talent in the Nationwide Series isn’t the only headline heading into this season — fans of the sport have been anxiously awaiting the battle of Mustang vs. Camaro. Since the Nationwide C-O-T was released a couple of seasons ago, Ford has ran the Mustang in the Series, but Chevrolet opted to use it’s Impala nameplate for their car. Late last season however General Motors unveiled their new Nationwide Series car for 2013 — The Camaro.
The energy is high for the NASCAR Nationwide Series — a series which put on a heck of a show all year long last season. Expect this year to be more of the same, as any weekend anyone can take home the checkered flag. Who will be the next Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? Tune in all year long to find out.