Kevin Rutherford · Thursday October 24, 2013
It’s yet another off-week in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, so what is there to talk about?
When the series resumes next week at Texas, it’ll have a mere three races left in the season. The storylines, of course, are copious, and have been pressed by TV broadcasters and the rest of the media for weeks. Who — Austin Dillon or Sam Hornish Jr. — will win the series title? Who will take home the owner’s championship? How will drivers like Dillon and Kyle Larson fare before they take the next step to the Sprint Cup Series?
Thing is, those aren’t the only stories you can follow as the season winds down. The 2013 Nationwide season hasn’t been chock-full of drama and interesting stories, but it has had its share of intrigue. The 2014 season — Nationwide’s last as series sponsor — has quite a bit, too.
With three races to go, here are three stories to watch that will help shape the end of this year, as well as next year.
1. The Rookie of the Year Race
This doesn’t get thrown around much as a major thing in the Nationwide Series anymore. Why? Could be the shortage of rookies for a few years there, but these days, the owner’s championship gets way more hype than the rookie battle.
That said, this year’s Nationwide Series rookie title chase isn’t much of a chase at all. Kyle Larson currently leads the battle by over 70 points, owed of course to a series of top-notch finishes, particularly from the beginning of May to the beginning of July. At the beginning of the year, it looked like Alex Bowman stood a chance, but Larson’s pulled away in a big way.
Still, if you’re looking for a slightly closer battle, check out the race for second. Bowman’s got it, but Nelson Piquet Jr. is still within striking distance as both slowly get a handle on the Nationwide Series cars.
2. What’s Sam Hornish Jr.‘s Future?
The Penske Racing driver, who’s in the thick of the championship battle, doesn’t have anything lined up for 2014. Originally, it was thought he could be going Cup racing next year, but at this point, even a Nationwide ride would be better than nothing.
Winning the championship might be the thing that gets Hornish a full-time car next season. Beating Austin Dillon — a projected future star in NASCAR — while also scoring the title on a team that admittedly seems more interested in the owner’s battle it’s locked in would show initiative and a drive to take a sponsor all the way despite the odds being stacked against him.
And if even that does nothing, perhaps it’s time for a return to open-wheel racing — sponsorship permitting, of course, but I guess that goes without saying with any racing series these days.
3. Who Can Make a Big Impression Before Next Season?
The final three races of the season are all companion events, meaning Cup drivers will be out in full force. Still, that doesn’t mean there’s no opportunity at all for Nationwide-only guys to have strong finishes to the season, especially with more focus on them given the points race.
One driver with much to prove is Regan Smith. He ended 2012 on a high note by winning the season-ending race at Homestead. If Smith can rattle off a superb finish in that regard in 2013, he’ll have plenty of momentum going into 2014. Same goes for Elliott Sadler, but after underperforming in 2013, he may be a lost cause.
Others? Alex Bowman has had a strong rookie season but has nothing lined up for 2014; some top-five finishes or even a win could change that. Parker Kligerman has all but confirmed he won’t be back at Kyle Busch Motorsports next year; if he doesn’t head back to the Truck Series, he’ll be needing a ride somewhere else, and strong finishes to close out the season would help tremendously. Brian Scott could also use a boost, though word is he’ll return to Richard Childress Racing in 2014.
Finally, there’s Travis Pastrana, who’s looking more and more like a potential bust in NASCAR. Can the popular driver prove his worth at Roush Fenway Racing by finally stringing together three straight races without any problems? Your guess is good as mine, but he sure does need it. A lot.
-Another Canadian driver is coming south of the border to run in the Nationwide Series, with an intent to run full-time in the future. Kelly Admiraal, who competes on occasion in the Canadian Tire and K&N Pro West series, will make his Nationwide debut at Phoenix, with plans to follow it up with a start at Homestead the next week. Admiraal, 18, will pilot the No. 56 for newly-formed Kapusta Racing, with sponsorship from Western Camp Services. The hope for Admiraal is that he’ll be able to fulfill the license requirements necessary to compete in the series for the full run next year. He’ll hopefully have better luck than fellow Canadian Dexter Stacey, who made a similar transition earlier this year but curtailed his schedule midway through the season with sponsorship woes.
-Kyle Busch Motorsports has begun layoffs, with more possibly coming. According to FOX Sports, the team has laid off 10 employees in the past week, while Parker Kligerman confirmed to Dave Moody that his tenure at the team will end after Homestead. “I don’t think the resources are there, and I don’t think the philosophy is there to compete successfully at the Nationwide level,” Kligerman noted, and with his departure, there’s question whether the team will even compete in the Nationwide Series in 2014.
-Brendan Gaughan is returning to the Nationwide Series. The Richard Childress Racing driver will field his No. 62 full-time in the series in 2014, moving up from the Camping World Truck Series. He last raced a full season in the series in 2010 for Rusty Wallace, finishing 11th in points.
-Denny Hamlin and Drew Herring will split Brian Vickers’ Joe Gibbs Racing ride in the Nationwide Series through the end of the year after Vickers was sidelined due to a blood clot. Hamlin will make his first Nationwide starts of the season, racing the No. 20 at Texas, while Herring will finish out the season at Phoenix and Homestead.
-The 2014 schedule for the Nationwide Series has been released. The changes: Darlington’s race is now April 11, while the first Iowa event moves to May 18; both changes put the events a month earlier than in 2013. The first Texas race will also move a month earlier, to April 4.
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