The Frontstretch: Nuts For Nationwide: Season Best Nationwide Points Race In A Long Time by Kevin Rutherford -- Friday July 12, 2013

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With the Nationwide Series traveling to New Hampshire this weekend, the circuit has reached the halfway point of the 2013 season, after which the second half — and the beginning of the real chase for the series title — will begin. And looking at the points going in, you’d think the series was but a few races into its schedule, with small deficits between first and its pursuers.

The Nationwide points race might just be the best in a long time.

For a long while, the series was chock full of exciting points battles, helped along by a prevailing identity as a feeder series into Cup. The drivers vying for the title were often up-and-comers, guys who were looking to make their way into a big ride and big chance in NASCAR’s highest rank.

A recent run of bad luck for points leader Regan Smith has tightened up the Nationwide standings significantly.

But in recent years, the interest in the championship race waned, mostly when Cup drivers began racing full-time for the distinction. A multi-year period in the late ’00s reflects this trend.

Two years ago began the shift back to Nationwide-only drivers competing for the title, but while the series most certainly had its share of a points chase, the amount of players weren’t as plentiful. After Daytona in 2011, Reed Sorenson led the points by a miniscule margin (nine points) over Elliott Sadler. Third and fourth were both within 40 points of the lead, with fifth and sixth nearby but more distant. Kenny Wallace, who sat seventh, was a whole 116 points behind Sorenson.

The next year didn’t change much. By now, Elliott Sadler also led by a small amount—eight markers—over Austin Dillon. Eventual champ Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. was 18 back. Sam Hornish, Jr. had a 35-point deficit, Justin Allgaier with 72 and Michael Annett with 95. Seventh place, again, was over 100 points behind the leader.

But 2013 is different. Way different. Remember your six drivers in sort-of contention for the title? Try 10 this season. Entering New Hampshire, the top 10 in Nationwide points are separated by a mere 70 points. In particular, the top 5 have only 17 points between them. It’s still almost anyone’s game.

The players in this story differ in a lot of ways. Some are Cup Series castoffs, looking to rediscover glory in NASCAR’s second-tier series. A few have been in the series for multiple years, becoming Nationwide mainstays. Even more are young prospects that figure to one day become superstars.

There’s unpredictability, for sure. Current points leader Regan Smith holds down the fort by six points right now, a byproduct of chronic bad luck and poor results in recent weeks. A lead that had hit 58 points has been quartered and then halved. Call the paramedics.

Smith’s recent woes have allowed a number of drivers to creep into the picture. Early leader Sam Hornish, Jr. is the closest competitor at six points behind, but Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier and Austin Dillon are 14, 15 and 17 points back, respectively. As it stands, any one of those five could be leading the championship once NASCAR exits New Hampshire.

Imagine if it’s that way entering Homestead.

The number of close challengers could increase. Newest boy wonder Kyle Larson is 42 points behind Smith after a slow start, currently riding the momentum of eight straight top-10 finishes. Eleven points behind Larson sits Brian Vickers, a perennial favorite for the championship before the season even began, but a driver with his share of struggles for different streaks in the season. If their struggles are finally behind them, both Larson and Vickers could figure into the title battle before season’s end, given their current proximity. It only takes some more slip ups — and given that both major leaders this season (Hornish and Smith) have had rough patches, it’s not too hard to imagine.

Looming in eighth through 10th, Parker Kligerman, Brian Scott and Trevor Bayne make up the drivers with more outside chances for the title, but the mere fact that they’re still, at most, 70 points back and in toward the tail end of the top 10 continues to give rise to a points battle that’s close and has more hopefuls.

It’s obviously not a given that all of these drivers will still be that close to the front come even a month from now, but for the time being, the chase for Nationwide glory has been incredibly entertaining to watch.

If it stays this close, it will only continue to be. We could have quite the Homestead on our hands, folks.

Quick Hits:

- Marcos Ambrose is returning to the Nationwide Series. Ambrose, a former full-time competitor in the series who last drove a Nationwide car in 2011, will pilot a Richard Petty Motorsports No. 9 when the series visits Mid-Ohio next month. The Stanley-sponsored machine will be a teammate to Michael Annett, Petty’s full-time driver in the series. Ambrose is a four-time winner in the series, all coming at the road courses—Watkins Glen and Montreal, in particular. Racing at Mid-Ohio gives him a shot to scratch yet another road course off his ‘must win’ list.

- Speaking of Richard Petty Motorsports, both Corey LaJoie and Ryan Truex still haven’t made starts for the team in the Nationwide Series this season despite signing development deals that came with an announcement that both drivers would do so in the future. That all may change at Bristol next month, as Truex tweeted that the organization is looking for sponsorship to run him in the race. Given that the team will have fielded two cars in a race by then, the resources would likely be there; it’s just a matter of finding the backing. No word on LaJoie’s current plans, though he has been at the racetrack with the team some weekends.

- Three drivers are looking to make their Nationwide Series debuts this weekend at New Hampshire. Two — Brett Butler and Chad Hackenbracht — are locked into the field by points, while Ryan Preece will have to qualify his way in. Butler is a former Camping World Truck Series driver who is splitting time in the SR2 Motorsports No. 24 with his brother Ken, while Hackenbracht, who will drive for Tristar Motorsports in its No. 44, is an ARCA standout who made his NASCAR debut with Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series race at Texas. Preece, meanwhile, is a longtime competitor in the Whelen Modified Tour, with eight wins to his credit in the series. He currently leads the points after five races and will pilot Scott Lagasse’s No. 8 with help from Tommy Baldwin Racing.

Looking Ahead: New Hampshire

Stats (Entered Drivers):

Most Wins: Kyle Busch (3)
Most Top Fives: Kyle Busch, Jeff Green (4)
Most Top 10s: Matt Kenseth (5)
Most Poles: Joe Nemechek, Joey Logano, Jeff Green, Landon Cassill, Kyle Busch (1)

Top Average Finish: Sam Hornish Jr. (4.0, 1 race), Kasey Kahne (6.8, 5), Brian Vickers (8.0, 2), Trevor Bayne (9.0, 2), Justin Allgaier (9.2, 4)

Entered Past Winners: Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth

New Hampshire Nationwide Debuts: Ryan Preece, Billy Johnson, Brett Butler, Nelson Piquet Jr., Kyle Larson, Chad Hackenbracht, Parker Kligerman, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Dexter Stacey, Alex Bowman

Season Nationwide Debuts: Ryan Preece, Brett Butler, Chad Hackenbracht

Series Debuts: Ryan Preece, Brett Butler, Chad Hackenbracht

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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
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