In a sure sign that life moves pretty fast and I’m getting older by the day, we’re down to just seven races to go before the crowning of the inaugural NASCAR Nationwide Series champion. I feel like it was only yesterday that I wrote a Nuts for Nationwide column entitled 4 down, 31 to go. And yet here we are at the very sharp end of the season with just a handful of races left on the schedule. This weekend, the drivers of the second series get a well-earned break and one final chance to juice up their engines for the stretch run. Both the top-two drivers in the second series, Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards, will instead concentrate on what you could term their “day jobs” at the Sprint Cup level with each man itching to make solid starts to their respective Chase campaigns. So with a momentary pause at the Nationwide level, let’s take a look at the top 10 drivers in the current standings and see who is where they should be, who isn’t and who’s overachieving.
At the top of the chart sits Bowyer who has stretched his lead over reigning champion Edwards to a handy 207 points. Bowyer has been the very definition of consistency in the Nationwide Series this season, picking up 23 top-10 finishes in 28 races but just the solitary race win. Edwards is a little way back of that with “just” 15 top-10 efforts, but he does have four wins to his credit – matching his total for all of last year. Bowyer is also up 279 markers on the third-place wheelman Brad Keselowski, who has dropped out of contention in recent weeks. After his win on the high banks at Thunder Valley, Keselowski was just 122 points out of first and in a bullish mood regarding his chances of winning the big prize. But a 33rd-place finish at Fontana and a ho-hum 21st-place effort at Richmond has seen Keselowski’s momentum evaporate like ice cream left in the sun. While it’s not impossible for him to still take the crown, the chances are infinitesimal given the form, know-how and sheer consistency of the two drivers above him. Still, a third-place season finish would be a hugely creditable effort for the driver of the JR Motorsports No. 88 Navy-sponsored Chevrolet. He’ll be running full-time with the big boys sooner rather than later – and you can take that to the bank.
Mike Bliss, in fourth place, is some 484 points of the lead, but it’s been an excellent season for the 10-year veteran from Milwaukie, Ore. The 2002 Craftsman Truck champion swapped teams mid-season from Fitz Motorsports to the Phoenix Racing team owned by the maverick James Finch. Bliss, who replaced Johnny Sauter in the No. 1 car sponsored by Miccosukee Resorts & Gaming, has not let the early-season team switch affect his performance and has garnered 12 top-10 finishes with a best of third place at Indianapolis Raceway Park. If he can hold onto his fourth-place spot, it will be his highest season finish in the second series – a fantastic effort given the number of moonlighting Cup drivers we see week in, week out in the Nationwide Series.
Not far behind Bliss is David Ragan, some 505 points off the lead. The Roush Fenway racer has had a solid second season following his 2007 Rookie of the Year performance and 17 top-10 runs in 28 tries just underlines this fact. Ultimately, Ragan might view the season as a disappointment – just missing out on the Chase and failing to make a true run for the Nationwide Series crown – but the 22-year old should still feel proud of his efforts. As with Keselowski, you sense there is much more to come from the second generation NASCAR racer and he’s already run more Cup races than his father Ken Ragan (64 and counting compared to 50 for his Dad). Everybody’s favorite other driver (well, mine at least), David Reutimann, sits in sixth place. The Reut had pretensions at winning it all but that hasn’t worked out. Still with seven top fives and another six top-10 runs, the affable driver from the Michael Waltrip Racing stable has shown he knows how to circle a track with the best of them.
And from one personality extreme to the other, in seventh place is the indomitable Kyle Busch. He’s won an incredible series’ best seven times and has another six top-five finishes in just 24 races. Had he so chosen, Busch could have run for the title and given his consistent success (at this and to be fair every level of racing) it’s not an unreasonable argument to make that he would be leading the points handily had he run those additional four races. Mike Wallace, silent star of the extremely funny GEICO ads, runs eighth, 834 points back from Bowyer. After 19 seasons in the second series and some 323 races, it’s good to see the veteran is still going strong. It would, however, be great to see him get back to victory lane (the last win came at Charlotte in October 2004) and judging by his snippy interview following Joey Logano’s maiden win, he still knows how to get it done he’s just not quite got the equipment to make it happen. With GEICO unable to continue their sponsorship next season due to conflicts with Nationwide, I can only hope his screen cousin “Loren Wallace” gets hitched up with a Sprint Cup team.
In ninth place, after a slow start, is the Tasmanian Devil himself, Marcos Ambrose. The Aussie has followed up his rookie season with another solid effort at the Nationwide level. Predictably his best two results have come at the road courses. A third-place finish in the rain in Montreal was followed by his first victory at Watkins Glen and seeing the STP paint scheme back in victory lane (albeit driven by a man from Down Under) was one of the feel good stories of the Nationwide Series. Just four points back from Ambrose in 10th spot is Jason Leffler and that haircut – seriously the kid must spend at least half his winnings on hair products unless his sponsor Great Clips provides them for him. Regardless, his 10 top-10 finishes in 28 tries represent a solid effort, even if he’s still looking for the elusive season victory.
All told, five Nationwide regulars hold spots in the top 10 and given all the concerns preseason about moonlighting Cup Drivers (the guys formerly known as Buschwackers), these five wheelman have shown they know how to hold their own against the best of the best. In total, some 115 drivers have started their engines at the Nationwide Series level and for the most part, the second series has provided some excellent racing. With seven races still to go, there’s a lot that can still happen but if the season plays out following the same script we’ve seen thus far, Bowyer will become the first NASCAR Nationwide Series champion and all things considered you couldn’t ask for a better person to follow Cousin Carl.