NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Nuts for Nationwide: For Series Regulars, The Time is Now

In counting down the days till the start of the 2009 standalone stretch for the Nationwide Series, I find myself constantly thinking back to my favorite time in college, the 2006-2007 football season. The slogan my beloved Demon Deacons took the field with that season was a simple one: The Time Is Now. No more stockpiling redshirted talent, no more 4-7 seasons full of moral victories, no more fighting Duke to stay out of the ACC cellar.

The time certainly was then, as “little old Wake Forest” won 11 games and their first ACC championship in 36 years, making it all the way to the Orange Bowl and giving Louisville, the No. 3 team in the land, everything they could handle and then some. That team did things that Wake Forest football had never done, and more importantly, were not supposed to do.

They were not supposed to go to Oxford, Miss. and demolish SEC foe Ole Miss on their own turf. They were not supposed to, along with Georgia Tech, deprive the ACC of a Florida State/Miami conference title game. And they sure as hell weren’t supposed to travel to Tallahassee, Fla. and start a new trail of tears in smacking down the vaunted Florida State Seminoles 30-0 on national TV.

I sincerely doubt that this is the specific story that is in the mind of this year’s stable of Nationwide Series regulars. But whatever specific example they’re using, this year’s Nationwide Series roster is doing what they’re not supposed to; they’re spoiling what was supposed to be the Carl Edwards vs. Kyle Busch battle royal.

Back in 2006, at this time of the season eventual champion Kevin Harvick held a commanding 589-point lead over the nearest Nationwide regular, Paul Menard. In 2007, at this point, eventual champ Edwards led Regan Smith by 792 points. And last season, Clint Bowyer held a 212-point lead over Brad Keselowski… with three other Cup regulars between Keselowski and the points leader. This season, as both Busch and Edwards find themselves in ruts, regulars Jason Leffler and Keselowski are both within 200 points of the Series’ lead.

The time is now.

At this point in the season, for the first time since 2005 (the last season a Nationwide regular, Martin Truex Jr., actually won the title), there are multiple Nationwide regulars in the top five in points. For only the fourth time since 2005, Nationwide regulars have scored back-to-back race wins on their own circuit.

The time is now.

And heading into Nashville, the chances for the Series’ stalwarts to make it three victories in a row are as good as they’ve been in years. Take a look at the entry list… there are only two Cup regulars on it. That hasn’t happened in years. Plus, Nashville has been a Nationwide regular hot spot the last few races. Though Joey Logano won this spring, Kelly Bires and Keselowski both hounded the Cup stars in the field the entirety of the 300 miles run. Rewind to last year, and it was the track that saw Scott Wimmer capitalize on Busch’s overdriving turn 4 to score his first win in nearly five years, as well as the home of Keselowski’s first career win… two weeks after he had his first win stolen by an angry Denny Hamlin at Charlotte.

A points race that’s closer than it’s been in years and a track that’s been kind to the regulars that frequent it. Wait, there’s more. Unlike the past three seasons, where the Cup regulars that carpet-bagged Nationwide titles were ultimately giants on the racetrack, completely overwhelming every team out there except for their fellow Cup driver brethren, both Busch and Edwards are, well, vulnerable right now.

Edwards is clearly missing having miracle crew chief Drew Blickensderfer on the pit box, as his cars are running very much like they did in the first half of the 2008 NNS season… steady top-10, top-15 racecars, but not contending for wins. And it’s not something that the No. 60 crew seems to have put a finger on… just look at how lost they were in the second half of the race in Charlotte two weeks ago.

As for Busch, the cars have been there… the results haven’t. Call it bad luck, call it Kyle abusing his equipment or call it karma, Rowdy and his team are not effortlessly winning like they’re used to. They’ve been fast, but they’re not pulling away from the field the way that Harvick did in 2006, Edwards in 2007 and Bowyer last year in pursuing the Nationwide title. And regardless of what press releases may say, I don’t buy that they were expecting to have to fight for this championship.

The counterpoint to the relative struggles of giants Busch and Edwards, are none other than Keselowski and Leffler. After showing signs that his focus was elsewhere following his unexpected Cup win at Talladega, Dale Jr.’s young protégé acted nothing like his age when slapped with a DNQ for the Cup show at Dover: he went out the next day and delivered a victory that he, Dale Jr. and the entire JR Motorsports organization needed bad. One look at the team’s celebrations in victory lane made it clear that their win last week has the makings of a watershed moment for this team, a fresh start towards challenging for a title they were in the mix for much of last year.

And where exactly did Leffler come from? Leffler, the senior driver at Braun Racing, is driving like it. Seven consecutive top-10 finishes and near-wins at both Darlington and Charlotte have his No. 38 Toyota team running much like a JGR operation… with Triad Racing Technologies under the hood. There isn’t a hungrier driver in NASCAR right now. Leffler’s tried the Cup thing and failed, his home is Nationwide… and the intensity he’s bringing to the track in 2009 finally reflects that.

A trip to Nashville isn’t only a golden opportunity for those looking to win a title, it’s a chance for the hometown boys to shine for their local fans. Veteran Jason Keller, who for some inexplicable reason just wasn’t cutting it for the CJM Racing operation he helped build, has taken to his new home at Baker/Curb Racing like a duck to water, and has led a resurgence for both the stalwart No. 27 car and longtime Nationwide sponsor Kimberly Clark. Having finished no worse than 17th in over two months, Keller is in position to move into the top five in points over the next few races (Logano is sitting out Nashville and Milwaukee).

And the short guy is back. That’s right, the always vocal, always honest Bobby Hamilton Jr. got his first shot behind the wheel at Dover… and delivered a top-15 finish for MacDonald Motorsports. Fortunately, owner Randy MacDonald realized how big a deal that was and has put Hamilton back behind the wheel at his hometown track. The quintessential Nationwide regular, there is no driver that more deserves to take to the concrete on Saturday… and no driver who will be more thankful to be there.

Be they the Tennessee boys or the title contenders, Nationwide Series regulars are doing things they’re not supposed to be doing. Keselowski is putting down the idea that success and Cup have gone to his head, and is emerging as the leader JRM needs in chasing their first Nationwide title. Leffler is taking on perhaps the most powerful juggernauts the Nationwide Series has ever seen with an independent team… and he’s holding his own. Keller and Hamilton Jr. are both making noise in the finishing order and the points with single-car teams.

The regulars of the Nationwide Series are making lots of noise. While the despicable episode of Carl Long has forever stained the Sprint Cup Series, the little guy is still proving able to fight in the Nationwide Series… and even to win a few battles.

Saturday in Nashville marks the start of true Nationwide Series racing.

The time is now.

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