The Frontstretch: Nuts for Nationwide: Nationwide Prospects Face Uphill Battle Progressing to Cup by Kevin Rutherford -- Friday May 31, 2013

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Let’s take a look at the talent the Nationwide Series has given the Sprint Cup Series over the past few years.

Joey Logano. Brad Keselowski. Trevor Bayne. Danica Patrick. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Not bad. Actually, that’s pretty good. Who else?

Timmy Hill. Landon Cassill. Josh Wise. Stephen Leicht.

OK, that’s decent. Commendable, certainly. Continue?

Wait, that’s pretty much it?

It’s true. Over the past few years, the Nationwide Series has been unable to produce a formidable amount of young talent to fill the Cup ranks. The evidence is right there in the rookie battle; prior to 2013, the last Rookie of the Year competitions to really be competitive took place in the mid-2000s and before. The last rookie class to produce a big name competitor was 2009’s, with Joey Logano. The three years since have largely featured drivers who aren’t even a part of the series anymore.

Will drivers like Austin Dillon ever get a chance to shine with Cup drivers like Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski still taking most of the spotlight in Nationwide?

What happened? If you look at the rookie classes in the late ’90s and early- to mid-2000s, the talented crop rising through the ranks is impeccable, many of its entrants not only still racing today, but also winning. Often.

But toward the end of the 2000s, the turnover stopped. Few high profile rides were filled with young talent. The Sprint Cup Series began being plagued with a sense of ‘same old, same old,’ certainly not helped by Jimmie Johnson’s five straight championships.

Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series floundered. In 2007 in particular, it wasn’t uncommon to see over a third of the entries coming from Cup regulars. All but a handful of the 35 were won by the so-called Buschwhackers.

In 2011, in an effort to curb Cup Series competition in lower series, NASCAR implemented a rule stating that drivers could only declare for points in one of the three main series.

Certainly, the rule can’t be considered a total wash. Nowadays, most Nationwide fields include around four or five Cup drivers, if that.

The problem? They’re still winning. And that’s not good for regular Nationwide competitors.

In 2013, Kyle Busch has famously won six of the season’s 10 races. Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski add one each to that total. Two Nationwide regulars, Sam Hornish Jr. and Regan Smith, are the other winners heading into Dover. While not necessarily rejects, both are former Cup regulars who were unable to find the degree of success many of their compadres found.

Meanwhile, Nationwide drivers remain Nationwide drivers. Once-promising prospects like Justin Allgaier and Trevor Bayne become older, perhaps less desirable goods. New blood such as Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon sit in wait, wondering if their shot will ever come.

The Nationwide Series still has a problem with its big brother. It still can’t step outside its shadow.

Think about it this way: say you have a given race, in which five Cup regulars are entered (we’ll go with Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth, since they’re fairly common competitors). All five have great cars, and all five either finish in or near the top five. A vast bulk of TV time and attention is paid to said drivers.

Oh, sure, there’s 35 other drivers in the field, but those guys and gals get some notice every once in a while before it’s back to the superstars.

If that’s a recurring trend throughout the season (and over subsequent seasons), it does nothing but hurt Nationwide regulars. Oftentimes these Cup regulars are in top-notch equipment and have already proven themselves to be good enough to transcend from the series entirely. When the Cuppers are coming back to dominate, especially almost every week in Kyle Busch’s case, the young guns like Dillon, Allgaier and Larson don’t get their chance to shine, unless they’re able to challenge for the lead. Sometimes, that’s just not going to be the case.

It doesn’t help that many of the sport’s elite teams are putting together teams for their Cup drivers, often giving little chance for up-and-comers. Richard Childress Racing has Dillon and Brian Scott, but often get outshone by Kevin Harvick or other drivers of the No. 33. Roush Fenway Racing’s Trevor Bayne and Travis Pastrana have struggled to stand out. The Joe Gibbs Racing full-timers, Brian Vickers and Elliott Sadler, aren’t even young guns; even if good performance in the lower series earned them a Cup ride, it’d still be the ‘same old, same old.’

The new blood is most certainly there. Aside from its current competitors, guys like Ty Dillon, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and more figure to be potential factors one day. Now, those youngsters listed are certainly going to be helped along by name recognition, but new blood is new blood.

The question is whether or not they’ll make it all the way.

Something’s gotta give eventually; after all, the drivers of today will retire eventually, even if they pull a Mark Martin and continue to stick around part-time. Young guns will be given a chance eventually.

But how many promising young stars will remain roadblocked and ultimately never get a shot?

Quick Hits:

-At posting time, only 38 cars were on the entry list for this weekend’s 5-Hour Energy 200. Unless something changes, the series will have a short field despite shortening the starting lineup from 43 to 40 starting this season.

-Cole Whitt will return to the Nationwide Series this weekend after a break dating back to 2012’s final race in Homestead. Whitt, who was told he could shop around after JR Motorsports couldn’t find sponsorship and a ride for him, has been working in TriStar Motorsports’ shop. Now, he gets the chance to pilot one of the team’s cars, driving the No. 44 in place of Hal Martin. “I’m really excited to hop back in the seat of a race car; it feels like forever since last season,” Whitt said in a press release. “I’ve had success in my four starts at Dover and look forward to taking on ‘Miles the Monster.’”

-Go Green Racing and Jeffrey Earnhardt have teamed up again this weekend at Dover after a two-race break, during which the team fielded a car for Kyle Fowler. Earnhardt brings sponsorship from Oath Keepers, a Constitution-defending association of current and former military, firefighters and peace officers.

Looking Forward: Dover

Stats (entered drivers):

Most Wins: Kyle Busch (3)
Most Top Fives: Matt Kenseth (9)
Most Top 10s: Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Reed Sorenson (10)
Most Poles: Kyle Busch (3)

Top Average Finish: Brian Vickers (6.2, 5 races), Joey Logano (6.5, 8), Reed Sorenson (7.2, 11), Austin Dillon (8.0, 2), Ty Dillon (8.0, 1)

Dover Nationwide Debuts: Harrison Rhodes, Nelson Piquet Jr., Kyle Larson, Travis Pastrana, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Dexter Stacey

Season Debuts: Cole Whitt

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05/31/2013 04:11 PM

T-Bayne’s 22 and may be full time in the Cup next year, if he shows enough performance this year and Roush can fund the 6. He’s had bad luck, so results and performance don’t match up.