The Frontstretch: Nuts for Nationwide: As Season Nears End, Opportunity Knocks for Young Prospects by Kevin Rutherford -- Friday September 6, 2013

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It may be tough to believe, but we’re in the home stretch.

February seems like just yesterday at least in this neck of the woods, but here we are in September, with just over two months of each major NASCAR season left.

That’s a grand total of nine races remaining for the Nationwide Series, which has entered the last fourth of its season.

Mostly, that means the series championship battle that has been so hotly contested over the past few months is finally nearing its end, with Sam Hornish Jr., Austin Dillon, Regan Smith and Elliott Sadler emerging as the frontrunners.

It also means that it’s prime time for a team or driver to sneak in some valuable prep time for the 2014 season.

Jeb Burton is among the drivers Kevin Rutherford thinks should get a shot in a Nationwide car before the end of the season.

Right now, NASCAR is in one of its best periods in recent memory in terms of young, new talent rising through the ranks to challenge the mainstays for relevance and the big rides. Already, the Dillon brothers, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and more have jumped up to either fill voids left by departing drivers or make new paths entirely.

Chances are they won’t be the only ones.

The Nationwide Series has long been thought of as a breeding ground for young talent that’s trying to prove itself, and with the recent surge of up-and-comers, that could continue to be the case not just next season, but even toward the end of this year.

Who are some of those drivers that could — or should — get a shot in the Nationwide Series before the end of the year that haven’t already?

Here are five picks by yours truly, for your consideration.

Corey LaJoie. Easy pick, especially considering he’s already signed to a major team — Richard Petty Motorsports — as a development driver. Still, we haven’t the son of former series champion Randy LaJoie in the Nationwide Series just yet, perhaps a byproduct of lack of sponsorship. Heck, LaJoie hasn’t even been full time in a series like ARCA — though when he’s been there, he’s been lights out, winning both of his two series starts in 2013. It would be nice to see LaJoie in a Nationwide car by season’s end, whether it’s for Petty or for another organization, such as the Tommy Baldwin-assisted Lagasse team he was originally announced to drive for at the beginning of the season but hasn’t actually raced with. While it’s doubtful he’d continue his winning ways, seeing a LaJoie in the series again would be a treat.

Brennan Poole. How does this guy not have a full-time ride? After taking ARCA by storm in 2012 with two wins, 15 top-10 finishes and a third-place spot in points, Poole has been relegated to part-time duty in 2013, driving five ARCA races for Venturini Motorsports. He’s won two and finished in the top 10 in all of them. Poole, a Texas native, is 22, so he’s certainly not too young to race in the series like some of his talented, but younger, contemporaries (Erik Jones and Chase Elliott, anyone?). He’s shown he can challenge for wins almost weekly, even though the equipment he’s been in for ARCA tends to be far superior to much of the field. Sponsorship, again, appears to be an issue here, but given his results so far, Poole seems like a driver worth risking some dollars on.

Jeb Burton. It’s time to get Ward’s son into a Nationwide Series car, and of the drivers listed, he possibly stands the best chance of getting that opportunity before the season is over. It was originally speculated that Burton would drive a limited series schedule for his Camping World Truck Series team, Turner Scott Motorsports, in 2013, though his focus thus far has remained on his home series, perhaps due in part to Turner Scott’s part-time No. 34 team only coming out a small handful of times this season so far for Danica Patrick and James Buescher. That’s ideally the car he’d drive if he got a chance, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with his usual duties, it’d be a great opportunity to season the young gun for what will likely be a full-time Nationwide schedule sometime in the next two years. He’s cooled off a bit after a strong start to the Truck Series season, but he’s still fourth in points and just a little behind third — not bad for a guy in his first full season in the series.

Dylan Kwasniewski. Last year’s champion in the K&N Pro Series West had something in common with Matt Crafton’s Truck Series title run this year: neither finished or has finished outside the top 10 in any race. Now, Kwasniewski has turned his attention to the K&N East Series, where he’s — hey, shocker — leading the points and has won five races. There’s no doubt that the 18-year-old Las Vegas native could follow in the footsteps of two brothers from Sin City on a path to the Cup Series; he’s shown an immense amount of talent in his three years in the K&N ranks. Now that he’s old enough to run in the Nationwide Series — he came of age in May — even a one-off start could be a great decision for a driver who’s shown exceptional promise in stock cars so far.

Michael Self. Let’s call Self the newest success story of Richard Childress Racing’s driver development, a guy that might be fairly serviceable in some of the lower NASCAR series as a potential prospect once the Dillons both graduate to Cup. Self started slow in the K&N Pro Series West, running OK but winning zero races in his first two full seasons in 2010 and 2011. Last year sparked something in the Utah native, and since he’s won six times — including three races in 2013, good enough for a third-place spot in the series points behind Derek Thorn and Cameron Hayley, with five races to go. Self doesn’t have the intrigue that the others on this list currently possess — yet — but at 22, he’s old enough to race in Nationwide and seems to have enough talent to be a good pick for at least a start in the series, like Ryan Gifford was earlier this year for Childress. If he does get a chance, don’t count him out.

Quick Hits:

-Hal Martin returns to the Nationwide Series this weekend after a brief sabbatical from the No. 44, during which Chad Hackenbracht and Cole Whitt have piloted the car, owned by TriStar Motorsports. Martin will have sponsorship from U.S. Forensic for the race.

-Hooters is returning to NASCAR. The wing joint has announced it will sponsor Nelson Piquet Jr.‘s No. 30 car in the Nationwide Series at Chicagoland next week. The chain is in its 30th year of operation, which of course makes Piquet’s Turner Scott Motorsports car a prime target for sponsorship.

-Ryan Ellis will pilot SR2 Motorsports’ No. 24 this weekend at Richmond. The race will mark a series of firsts for the 23-year-old Virginian: it’s his first race where he’s guaranteed a spot in the field given his team’s points position, his first time for SR2 Motorsports and his first Nationwide Series attempt outside a road course. Ellis has two starts in the series, both coming for Jimmy Means.

-Ricky Ehrgott is the lone driver looking to make his first career Nationwide start this weekend. Ehrgott will attempt to qualify Scott Deware’s No. 86, which has failed to qualify its only times out this season for Tim Cowen and Kevin Lepage. Ehrgott made his NASCAR debut last month in the Camping World Truck Series at Pocono, but crashed out on lap one.

-Kyle Larson has picked up new sponsorship. Snickers will adorn his No. 32 for Turner Scott Motorsports in two races this season, including this weekend at Richmond and then again at Chicagoland the following week.

Looking Forward: Richmond

Stats (Entered Drivers):

Most Wins: Kyle Busch (4)
Most Top Fives: Matt Kenseth (12)
Most Top 10s: Kenny Wallace (18)
Most Poles: Kyle Busch (3)

Entered Past Winners: Kyle Busch, Kenny Wallace, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Green, Morgan Shepherd, Joe Nemechek

Top Average Finish: Matt Kenseth (6.4, 19 races), Kyle Busch (6.5, 16), Ty Dillon (7.0, 1), Kyle Larson (8.0, 1), Brian Vickers (11.0, 6)

Richmond Nationwide Debuts: Brett Butler, Ryan Ellis, Jamie Dick, Ricky Ehrgott

Nationwide Season Debuts: Jamie McMurray, Ricky Ehrgott

Series Debuts: Ricky Ehrgott

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09/06/2013 11:21 AM

One reason to watch the Nationwide race tonight: Johanna Long is FINALLY back behind the wheel of the #70

Four reasons not to watch the Nationwide race tonight: Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski (there is your top-3 tonight! Bet on it!), and Jamie McMurray

When Kyle won the Nationwide race at Fontana, he said that it’s good to run the Nationwide race for practice, as the Toyota Cup and Nationwide cars are very similar. Guess that’s why Coach Joe has put Kenseth in the race tonight, to give him extra practice. As for Keselowski, well, at Kansas, Hornish said the Ford Nationwide and Cup cars are totally different. Advantage: Toyota!