Kevin Rutherford · Friday March 1, 2013
The crop of young talent in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series is deeper than it has been in years. After many years of Cup guys running the show, more teams are taking chances on rookie drivers to lead them on the path to victory — or, at least, some good finishes here and there.
In 2013, three of those drivers — Alex Bowman of RAB Racing, Kyle Larson of Turner Scott Motorsports and Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Parker Kligerman — lead the charge with full-time efforts and established organizations. Count on at least one, if not more of them making it to Victory Lane by season’s end. That’s how good this group is.
However, there’s another talented group of youngsters you’ll see competing in Nationwide, though they won’t be around every week. A number of up-and-comers are running part-time in the series after strong showings elsewhere, setting themselves up for a slow but steady climb up the ladder as well. The following are seven competitors to keep an eye on this season, whenever they show up to the track, as possible upset contenders with quality equipment.
Jeb Burton: Carrying on the Burton racing family tradition is Ward’s son Jeb, who joined Turner Scott Motorsports in the offseason. Burton’s running trucks full-time this year, starting off strong with a fifth-place showing at Daytona, but he’ll be running a limited schedule in Nationwide for the team as well, possibly in the No. 34 that Danica Patrick drove in Daytona. He showed great promise with Hillman Racing’s small truck team last year, so seeing him in better equipment should be a real treat.
Corey LaJoie: Speaking of carrying on family traditions, those who have been following the sport for a decade or two at least will recall Randy LaJoie, a champion in the Nationwide (then Busch) Series and infrequent Cup competitor. Corey is his son, and he’s already living up to the family name with a formidable resume coming out of the K&N East Series, where he racked up five wins and a second-place finish in points in 2012. He’ll run three-to-four races for Scott Lagasse’s No. 8 team, which has assistance from Tommy Baldwin Racing, first showing up at Dover in June.
Chad Hackenbracht: The New Philadelphia, Ohio, native did wonders in the ARCA Racing Series with his underfunded, family-owned No. 58 team, even winning a race in 2012. I said in a commentary last year that he was one guy who should definitely get a shot at NASCAR, and he’s finally getting it with Tristar Motorsports for five races, though no exact events have been announced just yet. The 21-year-old Hackenbracht seems like the kind of racer that just needs semi-decent equipment under him, and then he’ll wheel it for all he’s got. Tristar’s definitely a step up in that regard, whose driver Mike Bliss is typically a top-15 driver with the occasional top-10 result.
Ryan Reed: Another graduate of ARCA, Reed drove for Venturini Motorsports in 2012, knocking out one top-5 finish and six top-10s. This year, the 19-year-old will compete for Roush Fenway Racing in its part-time No. 16 Ford, with sponsorship from Drive to Stop Diabetes. He’ll be getting top-notch equipment for his debut in the series, which is always cool to see. I don’t expect the best since he didn’t set the series on fire in ARCA, but solid finishes are never out of reach with a Roush car.
Dakoda Armstrong: Armstrong started out 2012 with Thorsport Racing in the Camping World Truck Series, but sponsorship woes hindered that effort despite some OK results. For 2013, Armstrong is back in the series with Turn One Racing, but he’ll also be doing some driving for Richard Childress Racing in Nationwide, including events at Auto Club, Charlotte, Chicagoland and Kentucky, with a fifth race to be named soon. It’s easily the best organization the 21-year-old Armstrong has been with, and – judging by his ARCA results – he has a great shot at doing well.
Kevin Swindell: No one’s ever doubted Swindell’s talent, and his first race last season with Biagi-DenBeste Racing’s No. 98 showed it, scoring a ninth-place finish with a smaller, part-time organization. He’ll be back with that very team in 2013, though the amount has not yet been specified; all that’s known is that the team itself will run 15 events. Regardless, look for Swindell to give the car some more really good performances, despite a smaller budget than the series powerhouses. This opportunity could definitely be a springboard to bigger things in NASCAR.
Brad Sweet: Sweet, 27, has been around a bit longer than his peers in this article. However, after getting a look at Turner Scott Motorsports, he moves to JR Motorsports in 2013, driving the No. 5 as a teammate to Kasey Kahne, with whom he’ll split the season. I think this ride is Sweet’s best opportunity yet to show he can wheel a race car, and I believe he’ll really do some good things with it.
- Jeremy Clements’ career could have come to a screeching halt with his suspension earlier this week by NASCAR for using a racial slur in an interview. Though what was said exactly has not yet been released (UPDATE: it has, Friday morning. See below) and Clements has been extremely apologetic, one has to wonder if this incident could be about it for the young man from South Carolina, whose No. 51 team has quietly become one of the series’ best smaller organizations. The team has hurt for sponsorship in the past, and an event like this will likely have negative ramifications aside from the suspension. It’s a shame, because Clements has been a great underdog to root for the last two years, and would be one of the best in the series with better equipment. Still, especially with media scrutiny more potent than ever, you simply have to watch what you say.
- After a stellar 2012, Michael Annett had a bright future ahead of him this year. Then, Daytona happened — and now, Annett is sidelined with a fractured and dislocated sternum, sitting on the sidelines for six to eight weeks. Coming in, I expected him to get that elusive first win. Now I’m not even sure if he’ll get to the point he was in 2012, because injuries can take some time to come back from, even after you’re back in the car. Richard Petty Motorsports will have Aric Almirola in the car at Phoenix, with a driver schedule released in the coming days. Best wishes to Annett for a full and healthy recovery.
- It will be interesting to see if the series can carry over the attention it received due to the major crash last weekend at Daytona (a 2.2 U.S. Nielsen Rating was double what the series typically gets — and that’s before the post-wreck publicity). Phoenix tends to put on a good show, but unless there’s a real freak incident, the coverage of the race will probably much more understated.
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