Yesterday’s end to March Madness was the ultimate display of David vs. Goliath: the small school Butler Bulldogs versus the longtime tournament powerhouse Duke Blue Devils for a national title. But why put all your eggs in one basket, rooting for that classic “Big Brother vs. Little Guy” matchup when you can see the same type of battle in NASCAR every week? With the “Goliath” efforts of major-league drivers constantly double-dipping into Nationwide and Trucks, it’s a similar uphill struggle for the sport’s up-and-coming drivers vs. the series’ elite.
So let’s take a moment and give their efforts the pub they deserve. Looking for a new favorite driver? Or tired of the same old faces up front in Cup? Then latch onto the fates of these often-hidden but truly talented individuals in our latest look at Who’s Hot/Not in NASCAR’s other top two series: Nationwide and Trucks. One final note before we begin: if you’re looking for Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick on this list, you’re sadly mistaken! I wouldn’t write about LeBron James coming back to college to help a team like the Blue Devils win it, so why mention those two when their biggest focus should be on what brought them these extra opportunities in the first place: Sprint Cup.
Timothy Peters: One month after a stunning Daytona victory, this 29-year-old continues to hold onto the title of NASCAR’s “next big thing.” Armed with 61 laps led and an average finish of 4.0, he’s jumped to an 82-point lead in the standings while rubber-stamping his claim as Ron Hornaday’s biggest challenger for the season title. So, it’s no surprise that Red Horse Racing announced a budding Nationwide program starting at Texas for… rookie Justin Lofton? Justin who? Oh that’s right, I forgot! His parents have more money with Lofton Cattle than Mr. Peters has won his entire career. Did you know a full-grown male cattle has the nickname “bull?” How appropriate for the perfect example of why money, not talent, gets you the next-level opportunity these days. Sure, that victory trophy looks nice, Timmy. Let’s hope you don’t have to use it on the corner to beg for change.
Aric Almirola: Sure, his Sprint Cup season has been reduced to a quick wave to the crowd before parking James Finch’s No. 09 Chevy for “vibration” issues. But for a guy earning an easy paycheck in the midst of all those “DNFs,” at least Almirola is making the most of his opportunity elsewhere. Billy Ballew’s handpicked selection to replace Kyle Busch in the Truck Series, he’s had four straight top-10 qualifying runs, completed every lap, and hasn’t finished lower than 12th so far this season. As you might expect, those stats add up to a comfy second-place position in the overall standings, with Almirola trailing just Peters by 82 in the quest for his first Truck Title. The former Joe Gibbs Racing driver holds just one lone highlight on his resume: a Nationwide “win” at Milwaukee in ’07, one where he got replaced at the first pit stop by Cup regular Denny Hamlin. But the way this team is running, I think there might be a whole lot more to post on his LinkedIn profile before long.
Justin Allgaier: Nationwide’s newest first-time winner, Allgaier stands just 21 points away from leading the standings following Saturday’s fourth-place finish at Nashville. As Bryan Davis Keith pointed out, it’s the closest a Nationwide-only driver has been to the top spot five races into the season since 2003. Can the sophomore buck the trend and finally knock the Cup guys off the playground? I was cautiously optimistic, but then, I remembered a certain teammate who also holds the keys to a title trophy: Brad Keselowski. You see, Mr. Keselowski has already given Allgaier his break for the season, and let’s not forget he came back to run full-time Nationwide for one reason and one reason only: the championship. As the battle between them heats up, I have a hard time believing they’ll “play nice” all season long, and when the bottom falls out, chances are the scales won’t be tipping in favor of the No. 12.
Honorable Mention: Ron Hornaday Jr. (second, third after two straight wrecks to start 2010)
Scott Wimmer: Two top 10s in two Nationwide starts for JR Motorsports? It looks like Wimmer has everything he needs to stabilize the fledgling No. 7 program, except for two things: boobs and a baby face. The latter will put 20-year-old Landon Cassill in the seat for the next four events, while the former (along with her IndyCar expertise) gets Danica Patrick a free ride in the GoDaddy-mobile whenever she feels like gracing NASCAR with her presence. Where does that leave Wimmer, 34? Hitting the unemployment line with no ride in sight, even though he has more top-10 finishes than his former full-time teammate, Kelly Bires, in the No. 88. Hmm… Baker-Curb Motorsports, are you paying attention? They need a substitute driver for the races Greg Biffle won’t slide behind the wheel, and with the way Wimmer just hammered through the competition without the GoDaddy JRM funding, he could be the perfect candidate to fill the slot.
Reed Sorenson: Five months removed from watching his Cup ride evaporate into thin air, this 24-year-old has yet to lead a lap in the Nationwide Series… but he’s already on the verge of winning a race. A furious last-lap charge towards Kevin Harvick ultimately fell just short, but the runner-up finish earned at Nashville left him with more energy than we’ve seen out of the Georgian since he first appeared on the scene as a wide-eyed teenage prodigy. The knock on Sorenson has always been that he’s lazy, but his two starts in the Dollar General Toyota have shown us a man rededicated to his craft – and now with two top 10s to show for it. Funny how losing your job can go a long way toward finding your focus, right? But the season’s still early yet; only time will tell if he’s willing to keep putting in the work to make the most of his second chance.
Honorable Mention: Mike Wallace (four straight top-20 finishes have him eighth in the Nationwide standings)
James Buescher: It may have been “cool” for the once-teenage Buescher to land a plum opportunity with one of the top rides in the Nationwide Series: Phoenix Racing. But I don’t think everyone else digs his driving style or his attitude. The now 20-year-old Buescher, once known for an underlying cockiness, has been humbled by three straight DNFs for wrecks in which veterans taught him a lesson. Keep in mind, the latest totaled race car came courtesy of Jason Leffler, a laid-back Californian who’s possibly the hardest person to piss off inside the Nationwide garage. And considering boss James Finch has a tendency to change drivers at a moment’s notice, Buescher might be wise to put up, shut up and play nice with his fellow drivers for the next couple of weeks. Because when you’re an unproven rookie, the only thing talking trash does is get you thrown out the door along with it.
Mike Skinner: For all that the Truck Series’ inaugural champion has accomplished, he has yet to earn another title trophy since the one in 1995 that launched his career. That’s a surprise, considering how Skinner’s career has come full circle – a Cup career faded into his return to the series full-time in 2004. He’s had his chances the past six years, but costly wrecks and untimely DNFs have always seemed to derail his championship bids. And wouldn’t you know it, Skinner’s at it again in 2010! At Daytona and Martinsville, he led a total of 26 laps, virtually assured top fives in both races. But wrecks not of his making led to 24th- and 27th-place finishes, respectively, and now he’s fallen to 12th in points. It’s not exactly the sustained success Randy Moss envisioned when he came into the sport a few years ago; and with Skinner’s teammate David Starr yet to score a single top-10 finish, the receiver’s team is sharing an awkward similarity with the superstar’s NFL career: they’ve both lost a step.
Honorable Mention: Steve Wallace (38th, 36th, and broken foot after starting out the year with three top-10 finishes)
Roush Fenway Racing: Jack Roush made a big-time commitment to developing drivers when he put both Colin Braun and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the Nationwide Series full-time without sponsorship. But you wonder how much longer he’ll honor that pledge with both rookies playing Demolition Derby. Between them, they’ve wrecked nine! times in 10 Nationwide Series starts so far this season. That’s caused a total of five DNFs. In comparison, Roush’s former five-car Cup operation accumulated just six crash-related DNFs in 180 starts last season.
That’s caused a nightmare scenario, with both teams needing to qualify on speed this weekend at Phoenix and beyond. Could a DNQ be in their future? Probably not, with the way Roush is willing to pay off someone else to get his drivers in the field (See: Paul Menard – Daytona). But how much longer will it be before he tires of writing these expensive checks? The duo is supposedly filled with serious potential, and with David Ragan struggling on the Cup level there could be an opening at Roush Fenway down the road. As the old saying goes, “To finish first, you must first finish.” Well, all it will take is a few more DNFs to find their careers finished at Roush.
Jason White: The season started strong for GunBroker.com, with White acting like he was shot out of a cannon at Daytona. However, a third-place finish in the race didn’t translate into a season-long momentum boost for the No. 23. Finishes of 11th, 29th and 19th have him slumping to 20th in points, not exactly the breakthrough year he was hoping for after realigning himself with Green Light Racing. Denny Hamlin has termed the 30-year-old one of the funniest guys he knows; but between his ACL injury and the ticking time clock on White’s window of opportunity to move up, I don’t think poker night at Denny’s this week was a barrel of laughs for either one.
Honorable Mention: John Wes Townley (no top-10 finishes in five starts with Richard Childress Racing)