The Frontstretch: Nuts for Nationwide: Truck Regulars Look To Shine On Higher Level At Chicagoland by Kevin Rutherford -- Thursday July 18, 2013

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Generally speaking, this NASCAR Nationwide Series season has been plagued by winners from other series. They’re drivers who decide to venture outside their usual circuit, getting some experience in this second-tier division by battling against a different breed of competition. Too often, they’ve been successful, letting the Nationwide regulars play second fiddle while basking in a second weekend day of glory.

This Sunday’s STP 300 at Chicagoland Speedway might end up no different… but not exactly because of the same type of driver.

On a standalone weekend, where Nationwide Series regulars hope to shine near the front it’s men like Truck Series regular Joey Coulter who will look to play spoiler.

Usually, the Nationwide Series features Sprint Cup drivers “double-dipping,” oftentimes because both series happen to be at the same track on the same weekend. True to form, Joey Logano will be racing at Chicagoland, piloting Penske Racing’s No. 22. He could easily waltz his way into Victory Lane.

But the buck, which often runs upward of half-a-dozen Sprint Cup regulars stops there. Logano is the only driver competing for Cup points that’s competing this weekend. Seriously. The only one.

This time, the entry list features a different type of threat: three drivers moving up from the Camping World Truck Series. In advance of NASCAR’s return to dirt track racing, Wednesday at Eldora Speedway Matt Crafton, Dakoda Armstrong, and Joey Coulter are entered in this weekend’s Nationwide race. It’ll be the second 2013 starts in the series for Crafton and Coulter; Armstrong will start his third, granted he qualifies on time.

The matter of outsiders coming into the series is hotly debated, but for Camping World Truck drivers, the issue is often defused, as it’s perceived as a step up rather than a step down. All three have three starts or less under their belts in the series, so it isn’t like they’re ringers coming to cherrypick a win.

Still, don’t be surprised if one or more — perhaps all three — end up near the front by the end of Sunday’s race. It may be the first Chicagoland start in the Nationwide Series for all three drivers, but each has had his share of starts in a truck at the Illinois track.

Crafton is both the most seasoned and successful of the bunch. The Truck veteran, who made his Nationwide debut late last month at Kentucky with Richard Childress Racing (finishing third) has four starts at the track, notching an average finish of eighth with one top-5 and three top-10 finishes.

Armstrong and Coulter also have experience, though the results are less desirable. The former has only managed a best finish of 16th, in two starts, while the latter has bested that number with a 12th and 15th in his two showings.

But the most formidable weapon each driver has on his side? The team for which he is driving.

Both Crafton and Armstrong are competing as part of Richard Childress Racing this weekend. Crafton will return to the No. 33 car, in which he scored that third-place finish in his series debut at Kentucky. It’s a team that usually finds a considerable amount of success in the series, though it’s currently only 13th in owner points with an array of drivers. Armstrong, meanwhile, pilots the part-time No. 21 machine for the organization, which he drove to a 31st-place finish at Charlotte after a late accident.

Coulter’s sitting even prettier. His ride this weekend is Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 54, normally raced by Kyle Busch. It’s won more than any other car this season and is always fast, regardless of who’s driving it. Coulter himself had a nice hot rod when he raced for the team at Talladega, leading three laps before being caught up in a wreck close to the finish that relegated him to 21st.

This race could get interesting.

Logano, who’s already won once this season, is certainly around to spoil, and it’s surprising that more Cup drivers didn’t decide to come out on their weekend off. But don’t be so sure a Nationwide regular might prevail at a standalone race, either (though if I was a betting man, Austin Dillon’s bound to break back into Victory Lane soon, and this cookie-cutter track seems like the place).

They may not be series regulars, but keep an eye on Crafton, Coulter and Armstrong. Given the teams for which they’re driving, they’ll certainly be visible, and there’s little reason to believe they won’t be mixing it up at least inside the top 10, if not further up.

Quick Hits:

- Speaking of Richard Childress’s No. 33, Ryan Gifford, a regular in the K&N East Series, will make his Nationwide Series debut with the team when the series rolls into Iowa next month. Gifford, a 24-year-old African-American who’s part of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, will also race in the East Series event the day before at Iowa, in preparation for his big Nationwide debut. The race is currently a one-off for Gifford, who has close ties with the Dillon family, working in Childress’ shop and driving a dirt late model for the Dillons’ race team.

- In sponsorship news, Mike Wallace’s No. 01 owned by Johnny Davis Motorsports will be sponsored by Gerber Collision and Glass at Chicagoland. Kyle Larson’s No. 32 Turner Scott Motorsports ride will have International’s orange and black colors adorn his Chevrolet.

Looking Forward: Chicagoland

Stats (Entered Drivers):

Most Wins: Joey Logano, Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler (1)
Most Top Fives: Brian Vickers (3)
Most Top 10s: Reed Sorenson (5)
Most Poles: Brian Scott, Joey Logano (1)

Entered Past Winners: Joey Logano, Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler

Top Average Finish: Austin Dillon (4.5, 2 races), Sam Hornish, Jr. (6.3, 3), Joey Logano (7.8, 4), Justin Allgaier (8.2, 6), Brian Scott (8.8, 5)

Chicagoland Nationwide Debuts: Ken Butler III, Dakoda Armstrong, Harrison Rhodes, Nelson Piquet, Jr., Kyle Larson, Matt Crafton, Matt DiBenedetto, Chad Hackenbracht, Joey Coulter, Kyle Fowler

Season Nationwide Debuts: None

Series Nationwide Debuts: None

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SB
07/19/2013 06:00 AM
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Outsiders are fine as long as it’s a step up, like you said, or a step into the unknown, like a Cup guy running a supermodified race or something where his lack of experience evens up the deck for the regulars.

Although Coulter’s car might be better than Crafton’s, I think Matt has the edge due to his experience. But we’re probably kidding ourselves if expect them to be battling for anything higher than second place, behind Logano.