The Frontstretch: Nuts For Nationwide: Larson Who? Alex Bowman Early Surprise In Rookie Battle by Kevin Rutherford -- Friday April 26, 2013

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By far, the most visible rookie of the year candidate coming into the 2013 Nationwide season was Kyle Larson. Touted as a future star the moment he was introduced to the masses, Larson had quickly progressed up the ranks in auto racing, emerging victorious in his debut K&N Pro East Series season in 2012 as its champion and scoring an average finish of 11.2 in four late-season Camping World Truck Series races, nearly winning one of them. Sure, there was his fairly controversial finish at the Whelen All-American UNOH Battle at the Beach, during which he turned C.E. Falk on the final lap to win the first race of the series.

Larson was just one of quite a few rookies in the 2013 class, though he was certainly the series’ most touted newcomer before the season began. However, six races in, a challenger to the rookie title has emerged: Alex Bowman.

Quickly, a recap of Bowman’s (recent) career. In 2011, the Arizona native debuted in the K&N Pro East Series, scoring four top-5 finishes and placing sixth in points. He also became one of the only drivers in ARCA history to win in their series debut, let alone their second race out. The following year brought a full ARCA season, during which Bowman won four races and finished fourth in points, and four starts in the Nationwide Series, earning a 15th-place finish at Phoenix for his season best.

Could Alex Bowman end up beating out the much-hyped Kyle Larson for the Nationwide Rookie of the Year title?

Now, despite a tepid start to his Nationwide career, Bowman is showing that he might just be the top rookie in the series in 2013. Move over, Kyle Larson.

In six races, the 20-year-old driver has earned a third-place finish at the season-opening DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona and followed it up with an eighth at the Sam’s Town 300. The last time the series was active, Bowman scored his first career pole, leading four laps before fading to 14th.

All this has been done while under employ of RAB Racing, a formidable but historically mid-tier organization in the series that tends to have trouble keeping a driver for an entire season, instead often become a buy-the-ride program. Kenny Wallace’s 2011 season with the team was an exception, and the results were certainly decent, with Wallace finishing in the top 5 once and scoring 11 top-10 finishes. Perhaps this is what the team needed; a full-time driver, and an up-and-comer at that. It seems like you’re seeing the No. 99 around the front a lot more these days, at least compared to last year, when it might have a new driver every week for a period of time.

That’s in contrast to Larson’s Turner Scott Motorsports organization, one of the series’ top teams. If Bowman beats Larson this season in the overall standings as well as in top 5s or 10s, it’ll be an accomplishment indeed.

It could be that Bowman’s simply had better luck than Larson thus far this season. Time will tell there. But Bowman has definitely done some things I don’t think a lot of folks expected from him this early in his career. A pole, a top five and a few top 10s is nothing to discount, especially given the Cup dominance spreading through the series thus far.

The cool thing about the battle between Larson and Bowman is that they’re fairly evenly matched in regards to traveling to the tracks for the first time. While fellow rookie Nelson Piquet, Jr. has raced at a few of the circuits from his Camping World Truck Series days, Bowman and Larson come from largely short track backgrounds, and simply haven’t been to as many of the tracks. They’re learning together. What will really be indicative of overall talent will be when the season moves into its later rounds, when a lot of the speedways have already been visited.

Keep an eye on this battle this weekend at Richmond and moving forward. It could quietly become one of the season’s better battles — especially if Kyle Busch’s winning ways continue. We have to look somewhere (besides the title battle) for something watchable.

Quick Hits:

-Derek Thorn, a standout in NASCAR’s K&N Pro West Series, is making the move to the Nationwide Series for at least a race, debuting with Jimmy Means Racing’s No. 52 at Richmond. Thorn, who turned 27 this week, has never driven at Richmond, but does have a considerable amount of success on west coast tracks, scoring two wins last season en route to a third-place finish in the West Series points. He’ll have his work cut out for him though; Thorn doesn’t have a guaranteed spot in the race, and six are scheduled to head home after qualifying. He replaces Joey Gase, who moves to Go Green Racing’s No. 79 for Richmond.

Thorn isn’t the only driver making his season debut at Richmond. Kenny Wallace returns to the track this weekend behind the wheel of a second RAB Racing car, the No. 29 Toyota Care Camry. Wallace has driven for the team multiple times in the past few years, though went to part-time status when sponsorship became an issue. He’ll be a teammate to full-time driver Alex Bowman. Ryan Reed, in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 16, will also make his season (and, in his case, series) debut, after a campaign in the ARCA Racing Series-and a lone start in the Truck Series (17th at Las Vegas)—in 2012.

Looking Forward: Richmond

Stats (entered drivers):

Most Wins: Kevin Harvick (6)
Most Poles: Kyle Busch (3)
Most Top 5s: Kevin Harvick (15)
Most Top 10s: Kevin Harvick (18)

Top Average Finish: Kyle Busch (6.7, 15 races), Kevin Harvick (7.0, 23), Brian Vickers (12.4, 5), Reed Sorenson (13.3, 9), Austin Dillon (13.7, 3)

Richmond Nationwide Debuts: Jeffrey Earnhardt, Ryan Reed, Nelson Piquet Jr., Kyle Larson, Hal Martin, Derek Thorn, Jamie Dick, Juan Carlos Blum, Joey Gase, Kevin Swindell, Alex Bowman

Season Debuts: Stanton Barrett, Ryan Reed, Tanner Berryhill, Kenny Wallace, Jason Bowles, Derek Thorn

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…
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