With 16 races down and 21 remaining in the Nationwide Series, we have a long way to go. But after two straight maiden victories for two of the most promising young drivers in the sport, there is a lot to like about this year’s Nationwide Series championship. After a couple of blowout seasons – Kevin Harvick won the title at a canter in 2006 as did Carl Edwards in 2007 – it looks like 2008 will be much more competitive. The chances are we’ll have a championship battle that goes right down to the final couple of races, possibly even the last. This can only be good news for NASCAR’s second most popular series. So who are the contenders and the pretenders for the 2008 NASCAR Nationwide crown? Who are we likely to be saluting come November? Who has a better than average chance and who are the pretenders – the men who might just pull off a surprise and win it all?
Let’s start with a look at the current standings. For the purposes of this article, I’m discounting anyone more than 300 points behind the leader. Although it’s still possible with a theoretical maximum of some 3,800 points available, it is as close to a racing certainty as you’re going to get that Mike Wallace is not going to make a charge from eighth place (392 points back) and overtake all seven of the drivers above him in the pile. So the wheelmen under consideration are:
Bliss is running in the Nationwide Series for a 10th consecutive year, although this will be only the third season in which he attempts every race. Bliss has had an eventful season so far, switching teams and manufacturers after six races. The predicted upheaval from such a transition just hasn’t happened and, if anything, Bliss has run better and better with five top 10s in the 10 races since. But while top 10s are nice, they’re not going to get it done for the championship. Still, a high-season finish will be just what the doctor ordered for the Milwaukie, Ore. native.
Ragan, meanwhile, has been the very model of consistency with nine top 10s in 16 races. Although Ragan is technically a Cup star first and foremost, it’s interesting to note that he’s run 58 races at the Nationwide level as opposed to the 53 he’s run at the top echelon. He’s still waiting for a first Nationwide win, but given his consistency and sure-handed driving of late, don’t be surprised if he breaks through this season.
With his debut win under his belt after 48 attempts, you get the sense that Keselowski is ready to take off. With five top 10s in eight races, including that all important victory in Nashville, Keselowski looks set for a sustained campaign for the big prize. Bouncing back from disappointment after a rare Mark Martin error prevented him from running for the victory at Vegas, his win in Tennessee has shown the kid from Rochester Hills, Mich. is the real deal and more than a good bet for Dale Jr. and his fledgling JR Motorsports operation.
Reutimann, piloting one of the two Toyotas in the top five, has quietly put together a great season with five top fives, eight top 10s and an average finishing position of 10.7. The Reut made it clear at the start of the year that he intended to run for the championship and, so far, he’s stayed the course. He’s only had two finishes in the 20s (20th at Dega and 25th at Vegas) and that’s the sort of consistency that can win you titles.
The Cup Stars
Relentless consistency accounts for Bowyer’s name being atop the greasy pole of the Nationwide Series. With six top fives, 12 top 10s and one win at Bristol (where he led 122 of 171 laps), his average finishing position is a jaw dropping eighth place. That translates into a 170 point lead. The chances are whoever finishes above Bowyer will win it all.
Edwards, on the other hand, has had a comparatively disappointing season given the way he tore up the competition last year. Go back and look at the records after the 15th race of the season in 2007 and you’ll find Edwards had a lead of 662 points over Harvick and was 811 ahead of Reutimann – the first driver running a full schedule. Edwards had also already back-flipped his way to four wins by this point last year. Despite the comparative lack of performance, Cousin Carl is more than in the mix this year. Expect Edwards’s name to be at the forefront when the gongs are given out.
The (Ahem) Wild Card
I would hate to see Busch’s “Carbon Footprint” for the 2008 season considering all the traveling he’s done. Immediately after the race in Kentucky, he announced to an ESPN reporter than he would not be going to Milwaukee. We’ll see what he does, but if he fails to take the green his chances of winning the Nationwide crown will take a significant, and possibly fatal, hit. But, based on Busch’s own words, I wouldn’t be so quick to discount the Vegas-born wheel merchant.
“I don’t have a family of my own that I have to focus on or be with all the time, and racing is what’s in my blood,” Busch said. “I want to race every day, all day, every minute. I want to be in a car, by myself, because that’s where I am happiest.”
Three “Kurt Smith-styley” shorts to finish up with this week
- Who says it’s not a developmental series? Four 18-year olds took the green flag on Saturday night in Kentucky – Joey Logano who finished first, Bryan Clauson (fifth), James Buescher (14th) and Landon Cassill (18th). How’s that for a youth movement?
- Wallace, driver of the of the GEICO Chevrolet (I like saying that as much as I like typing it), finished third – his first top five in two years. He didn’t pull punches in the post-race interview, intimating his finish was in direct correlation to the quality of his ride. As he said, he’d expected Logano to win in such top-class equipment. Let’s hope it’s the first of many fine finishes for a man that has run in the Nationwide league for more years than any of the four names in point one have been alive.
- Sliced Bread becomes the youngest ever race winner in the Nationwide Series. The previous record holder was Casey Atwood. It’s unlikely Logano will flame out in the same way Atwood did, but it does show that, for all the hype, things can change in an instant in NASCAR.