The Frontstretch: Nuts For Nationwide: Weekend Important For Multiple Phoenix First-Timers by Kevin Rutherford -- Friday November 8, 2013

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A division like the NASCAR Nationwide Series is always bound to have a fairly sizable array of first-time drivers at a given track; that’s part of its allure as a feeder circuit into the Cup Series. Oftentimes this is most noticeable at some of the series’ smaller raceways, where up-and-coming drivers get a chance to cut their teeth before moving on to the bigger tracks or series.

Phoenix has always tended to be a chief example of this trend, assisted also by its placement on the west coast — making it one of NASCAR’s top three divisions’ best for rookies or journeyman west coasters in the sport. In the Camping World Truck Series alone, 14 drivers will be making their first Phoenix starts in the series this weekend (barring changes to the entry list). Meanwhile, that number is halved for the Nationwide Series race — though that’s still a fairly healthy number.

Ryan Blaney returns to Team Penske’s Nationwide roster this weekend. He won with a Penske ride earlier this season.

Most — and with good reason — will be following the main story this weekend, the championship battle between Sam Hornish Jr. and Austin Dillon as it heads into its final two races. That said, if you need something else to grab your attention if and when you watch Saturday, paying mind to these racers might be a good choice.

At many tracks, the rookie list is mildly intriguing at best. You might get a part-timer making his or her first trek to the track here and there, but the list might also be full of drivers who are rookies who would be making their first starts there anyway — after all, it’s their rookie season (see: Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman when Nationwide visited the track earlier this year).

The second visit to Phoenix is a bit different — in a good way. It allows the opportunity to zero in on some of these newcomers without looking at the usual suspects. This crop is especially interesting given that over half are driving for some of the series’ best teams.

Mostly, I’m just excited Penske Racing brought out a car for Ryan Blaney. While the team focuses on its driver and owners points championship runs with the Nos. 12 and 22, respectively, Roger and co. brought out the No. 48 — which ran once earlier in the year with Joey Logano — for Blaney, who’s of course racing in the Camping World Truck Series this weekend as well. It may not be any sort of gear-up for a full-time run in the series next year or anything (though we can hope!), but it’s great to see the organization giving another opportunity — probably his last of the year — to a guy who, you know, won them a race earlier in the year and is likely the future of their, if not someone else’s, Cup organization.

In a perfect world, Blaney’s situation would be more aligned with that of Ryan Reed, who’s also making his Phoenix debut in the Nationwide Series this weekend. Reed will again be piloting the No. 16 for Roush Fenway Racing, the car he’ll be driving full-time in 2014 in the series. In four starts this season, he’s finished in the top 10 once — a ninth at Richmond, a track that has similarities to Phoenix. It would certainly be worth it to keep an eye on Reed; if he can put together another solid race in that car, his stock for next season will rise considerably.

Blaney and Reed are joined by two other drivers in top rides making their Phoenix debuts in the series. Interestingly, Brad Sweet is among them; the JR Motorsports driver has started at least one race at a majority of the tracks on the circuit, but Phoenix has eluded him so far. With the momentum that team has gained with Sweet in the seat each week as of late, Phoenix could bring good tidings for him. Same could go for Drew Herring, Joe Gibbs Racing’s entrant in this little club. Herring has a two-race deal with the team to finish out the season in place of Brian Vickers, and a top finish — especially a win — would do wonders for his placement as a potential full-time contender in the series sometime in the future. Frankly, it’s surprising he hasn’t already gained such a ride.

The rest filling out the group of Phoenix debuts are less acclaimed but could still have solid runs. Kevin Swindell returns with his Biagi-DenBeste team, an organization that tends to do quite well whenever it races. Chad Hackenbracht will make his last series start of the season with TriStar Motorsports’ No. 44. Then there’s Kelly Admiraal, the Canadian making his first start in the Nationwide Series period. He’ll compete in the No. 24, a ride generally fielded by SR2 Motorsports.

It’s of course unclear whether or not any of these drivers will make a statement Saturday, as there’s a championship race and a sizable list of Cup full-time drivers entered. That said, I would not at all be surprised — especially if someone like Kyle Busch has issues — to see at least a few drivers, Blaney and Herring especially, near the front by race’s end, perhaps in position for a win. After all, this is the last chance for many to make themselves known before the 2014 season begins.

Looking Ahead: Phoenix

Stats (entered drivers:

Most Wins: Kyle Busch (5)
Most Top Fives: Kevin Harvick (15)
Most Top 10s: Kevin Harvick (16)
Most Poles: Kyle Busch (5)

Entered Past Winners: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick Sam Hornish Jr., Elliott Sadler, Matt Kenseth

Top Average Finish: Matt Kenseth (7.8, 12 races), Kyle Busch (8.1, 15), Kevin Harvick (8.3, 20), Justin Allgaier (10.2, 10), Brad Keselowski (11.5, 13)

Phoenix Nationwide Debuts: Brad Sweet, Ryan Reed, Drew Herring, Kelly Admiraal, Chad Hackenbracht, Ryan Blaney, Kevin Swindell

Season Debuts: Timmy Hill, Kelly Admiraal

Series Debuts: Kelly Admiraal

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
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Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
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11/09/2013 12:29 AM

Come on Sam…go get em!