Kevin Rutherford · Friday November 22, 2013
I’m an Ohio professional sports fan, which tends to make me inherently, perhaps naively hopeful for what’s to come, without question. Yeah, things might be bad now, but there’s always next season, right? So maybe it’s a burst of blind optimism when I put my faith in the future of the Nationwide Series, because on the surface, things aren’t looking great after 2013.
Following a season during which Cup regulars won all but five of the 33 races (seven, depending on where one places AJ Allmendinger), the health of the Nationwide Series looks bleak. Even the series title race, while originally set up to be a grand chase with a bevy of eligible drivers, ended up taking a backseat in the eyes of both the TV broadcasters and some of the team owners themselves in favor of the owners’ points championship, which a large percentage of NASCAR fans have professed to not care about — at all.
You know things are a bit desolate when the lack-of-sponsorship bug is even hitting the series’ top teams. Sam Hornish, Jr. and Penske Racing have officially parted ways days after nearly winning the driver championship, and it’s likely the No. 12 won’t be back at all. Kyle Busch Motorsports won’t return with its No. 77, a top-10 contender most races. There seems to be a great probability of Joe Gibbs Racing’s part-time No. 18 shuttering and the No. 20 effectively taking its place, meaning yet another loss to the series on a full-time basis.
As a whole, there’s still not even a whole lot announced for 2014 — unlike the Cup Series, which has the vast majority of its teams’ plans set in stone. At press, around 10 teams have definitive plans, most of which coming out of the series’ premier camps. Obviously there will be plenty more teams coming out of the woodwork to nail down protocol for 2014, but already there seems to be a question of how many actually will, especially with many young competitors defecting for Cup.
Still, there are some bright spots in the series — with more likely to follow — that should make the series worth following next year.
For instance, there’s the series rookie battle that’s bound to entertain. Two drivers are already announced to be competing for the prize — and for top-tier teams. Ty Dillon comes in the perennial favorite, taking over the ride that won this year’s series championship with older brother Austin. Ryan Reed will look to follow up a solid limited campaign in 2013 with a full-time ride in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 16, and while he figures to be a bit behind Dillon as a whole, too many slip-ups on the former’s part could lead to a chance for the latter.
They may not be all. Chris Buescher will pilot a Roush car in an undetermined amount of races next year, while the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 ride is currently open — and Corey LaJoie is signed to the organization.
The title race has plenty of returning contestants to compete for the ultimate victory, too. Regan Smith, Elliott Sadler, Trevor Bayne and Brian Scott will all be back in the same rides in 2014, while Dillon also figures to factor in as a contender. Imagine a title battle like last year’s, except the race remains close up to the finish. That could very well save the series.
Plus, they say you need to hit rock bottom before progress can be made again. Perhaps this is actually what the Nationwide Series needs — a little while of not-so-savory results before things get better. Remember the Truck Series a few years ago? Certainly not one of the more interesting aspects of NASCAR, it now tends to be one of the best shows in the sport, thanks in part to a crop of young guns coupled with dates at standalone tracks.
The Nationwide Series might not be far off from that. The 2014 schedule may not bring much to cheer for, but large changes often don’t take less than a year to complete. If NASCAR can see that the series could gain a better identity with a more unique schedule — as well as unique drivers — 2015 could be a great rebuilding year.
For now, 2014 may end up a year for the Nationwide Series much like 2013, but with a glimmer of hope. There’s still quite a bit to be announced, though. Stay tuned for February, where there will be much more to reveal — and, understandably, a clearer picture of what to expect going forward.
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