Rather than wasting more ink trying to make some profound statement of how this year’s Cup showdown in the minor leagues will play out, here it is. Edwards will win the 2010 Nationwide Series championship. Cup drivers have won the last three Nationwide championships, and there’s no reason to think that the interlopers who can’t beat Jimmie Johnson on the sport’s biggest stage will stop short of a four-peat beating up on the little guys. Keselowski will likely finish second. And Cup drivers will win at least 30 of the 35 races run this season.
But even though the championship is pretty much decided before the season even starts, there are still plenty of storylines permeating the Nationwide ranks in 2010 that race fans should take note of. For the stakes are high for a series that despite NASCAR’s ‘best efforts’ is still struggling to find an identity.
As with any season in the Nationwide ranks, there are plenty of new faces ready to make their mark. Roush Fenway Racing will feature an impressive rookie duo with former Truck Series regular Colin Braun and former ARCA driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. slated to run the full schedule. Other prospects migrating from the Truck Series include Brian Scott, who will run a full schedule for Braun Racing, joining Jason Leffler in the team’s hunt for a Nationwide crown, and James Buescher, driving for Phoenix Racing. Building on 2009, Trevor Bayne takes over the No. 99 seat he ran so impressive with last summer full-time. And ARCA runner-up Parker Kligerman will run the first five races of the season for Team 42 Racing, hoping to secure sponsor dollars to run a full campaign.
A number of veterans find themselves driving for (or owning) new teams as well. Jason Keller found himself a seat in the 25th hour, taking over driving duties with the re-established TriStar Motorsports (owner Mark Smith hasn’t worn that cap since 1997), an organization that has partnered with Front Row Motorsports’ No. 34 NNS program. Duane Deese, who was involved with the now defunct Bost Motorsports team in 2002, has announced the formation of Deese Racing Enterprises as well as a sponsor in Bios Energy Drink, though details about the team remain scarce; numerous attempts by Frontstretch to contact Deese regarding the team did not pan out.
The Nationwide Series will also be playing host to perhaps the most ambitiously growing organization this side of Front Row Motorsports in the Stratus Racing Group. Co-owned by Derrike Cope and Dale Clemons (who was involved with Cope during the 2008 season with FlipNBags sponsorship), the team has announced plans to field a full-time Nationwide Series entry (Derrike Cope will drive the No. 73 Dodge). And a full-time entry (No. 74 Dodge) in the Camping World Truck Series. And a part-time entry (No. 75 Dodge) in the Sprint Cup Series. And even a limited number of ARCA races for “driver development as needed.”
“As with most teams we have key personnel that are surrounded by good support staff,” says Clemons, “but make no mistake, our hands stay full. [Fortunately] crew chief Rick Markle is a very accomplished fabricator, a key team asset and keeps us grounded in [the] area of shop operations.” Another one of those key personnel is the co-owner and veteran Cope, who in addition to his full-time Nationwide Series schedule will also be driving the team’s Cup car and Truck through Martinsville, starting with the Budweiser Shootout this Saturday.
Clemons’s experience as a sponsor before an owner seems to be paying dividends for the team, which has secured multiple sponsors, including for Cope’s Shootout entry. “We’ve been very fortunate so far with sponsors,” concedes the owner.
Stratus also was also fortunate in its ability to quickly procure equipment; the formation of the Group included the purchase of most of the team’s NNS and Truck equipment from Derrike Cope Inc., while a merger with Cope/Keller Racing provided the team access to it’s Cup cars. The team is also in the process of building a NNS CoT, according to the co-owner. But despite their rapid growth, Clemons remains grounded in his plans for the organization, recognizing that the team still has sponsorship needs to fill.
“We are going to race for the front each race we enter, we hope to continue to build sponsorship and be running strong at Homestead at season’s end. Derrike and Derrike Cope Inc. paid the dues over the 2008 and 2009 season to position us so well for our new effort and that meant some start-and-park activity.”
“Unlike many other businesses this is not one you can build on paper, you have to go to the track.”
And while Stratus may be at the track, there are a number of drivers that have for years been the face of the Nationwide Series that may not this season. Scott Wimmer appears to be without a ride as Daytona looms, with Key Motorsports opting to put Mike Bliss in the No. 40 for at least the first three races of the season. Bobby Hamilton Jr.‘s plans for the year are also not publicly known, though Frontstretch has learned that he will no longer be taking an ownership role with Team Rensi Motorsports (which ran as Rensi-Hamilton Racing in 2009). And several of the sport’s recent Rookies of the Year, 2006’s Danny O’Quinn and 2008’s Landon Cassill, enter the season with no races on their respective dockets.
For the drivers that will be racing, the paychecks will likely be smaller, with NASCAR’s recent announcement that purses would be trimmed 10% for the 2010 season due to current economic conditions. This is a move that made few waves in the Cup garage and has even been applauded by several members of the Frontstretch staff as both appropriate and necessary, but that’s been far from the consensus in the Nationwide Series garage.
Said one driver of the cuts, “We need every bit of money we can get from those purses, that’s what keeps us going. It’s going to hurt, but there’s nothing we can do about it. I wish that if they’re going to cut the purses 10%, they’d cut the licenses by 10%. Or the tires, or something. They cut the purses, but everything else is the same.”
“We’ve got to pay $6,000, $7,000, $8,000 for our licenses, and we’re not even a big team. It just don’t make sense.”
Another Nationwide driver was even more pointed.
“Devastating. It’s devastating. For fear of retribution I’ll refrain from further comment.”
Agree with their assessment of the impact of purse cuts or not, it is certain that less money will be paid out to the race teams in 2010. And that’s about the only certainty (outside of Cup dominance) that’s facing the Nationwide Series in 2010. Teams across all ends of the spectrum, from Roush Fenway Racing to Germain Racing to Jay Robinson Racing (and as of Thursday night, Phoenix Racing) all need additional sponsorship to sell out their cars. With the Nationwide Series CoT set to debut at Daytona this summer, a number of teams are still wondering where the cars they’ll race are going to come from, or be assembled; at least three Nationwide teams have confirmed to Frontstretch that they have acquired CoT chassis but are unsure as to where the personnel and assistance to complete the cars will come from.
And perhaps most notably, there’s a collective feeling that this season has just snuck up on people. Be it TriStar Motorsports literally assembling as a team a mere 10 days before the green flag drops at Daytona or drivers and owners alike unsure of what to expect from the Series and even themselves, the Nationwide Series appears no closer to finding the identity and direction that the Series has been seeking the past several seasons.
Here’s what we do know. 35 times this year, NASCAR’s future will take to the track. 35 times this year, David will battle Goliath.
And 35 times this year, fans will have a chance to see the next David Gilliland shock the racing world at Kentucky. The next Keselowski show no fear in taking on the best that the sport has to offer, and prove up to the challenge. The next Morgan Shepherd defying the odds week after week.
See you in Daytona.