On NASCAR’s midweek teleconference was Nationwide Series points leader Brad Keselowski, and surprisingly his current exploitation of the Nationwide Series with Carl and Friends highlighted the session. When asked about the rumors swirling that the Nationwide Series will undergo alterations for the 2011 season, especially with regard to Cup driver participation, Keselowski acknowledged that big things were likely in the works.
“You can’t help but look and wonder,” said the Michigan-native as his home-track race approached. “Someone in the loop is going to be frustrated with whatever decision is made.”
The frustrated party may well be Keselowski, Carl Edwards and those planning to run double duty in 2011, as both limitations on Cup driver participation and a prohibition on Cup regulars running for the Nationwide title are reportedly being seriously considered by the sanctioning body. And while that might make things difficult for all 10 fans out there foaming at the mouth for Brad vs. Carl II as the 2011 NNS title chase, it would finally guarantee the first compelling Nationwide Series points race since Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer went down to the line back in 2005. Who stands to benefit from this turn of events that hopefully will come to fruition come Daytona next February?
What better time to take a look at the contenders for 2011 then on a weekend with the new car and a title chase that’s been decided for months now?
Should the Cup guys get the heave ho next season, the odds-on favorite to bring the Nationwide Series title home for the regulars in 2011 has to be the highest-ranked of them all this season…Penske Racing’s Justin Allgaier. With Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Sam Hornish Jr. now all confirmed to be coming back to their respective rides for next season, there’s not an open seat at the Cup level for the second-year Nationwide driver. A fourth car is also likely out of the question, with Penske already having to do a full sponsorship search for Hornish’s third car.
Besides, even though Allgaier broke through to score his first victory at Bristol back in March, the 2010 season hasn’t been quite the breakout that Keselowski had last year before his promotion to Cup. Allgaier has shown demonstrated improvement through this year (he matched his 2009 total of 12 top 10 finishes only 21 races into this season), but he’s still not to the point that he’s a contender to win races every single weekend. A third campaign in the Nationwide Series is exactly what the promising talent needs, and a recipe for a run at the big trophy. Penske’s Nationwide program is among the best in the business, and next year Allgaier will have not only his own notebook, but that of Keselowski’s No. 22 team to draw from.
Improve on the road courses, and the No. 12 team may well be the team to beat when what’s left of the Nationwide Series hits the high banks of Daytona in 2011.
Before last weekend’s hard wreck at the Glen, Trevor Bayne was the hottest driver on the Nationwide Series circuit. Already winning one of the most unlikely victories any Nationwide Series driver has scored this season by signing an 18-race sponsor in Out! Pet Care midseason to fill out his season in the No. 99 car, Bayne has proven to be an astute qualifier, with three poles in the last four races. What’s more, the MWR development driver finds himself on an upward swing heading through the summer months, demonstrating considerable resilience after circumstances out of his control ruined races for his team at Daytona and Nashville to name a few.
Driving for a Waltrip organization ensures that the sponsor dollars are more than likely going to be present when the next year rolls around. Add in Toyota’s obvious prominence in Nationwide competition, and a prospect in Bayne that is living up to the expectations he set for himself last year with a pole-winning run at ORP in only his seventh start, and the No. 99 team will likely be contending for their first Nationwide Series title since Michael Waltrip toyed with running the full schedule after a strong start to the 2004 season.
This one may prove to be a surprise to many, especially considering Ryan Truex has made only one Nationwide Series start in his brief stock car career. But the 18-year old brother of Nationwide Series champion Martin Jr. may well be sharing that title with his brother sooner than later. As described with Diamond-Waltrip Racing’s Bayne, the DWR Nationwide Series program is capable of running up front with the big boys. Truex demonstrated that just a few weeks back in his NNS debut, challenging for the top 10 in a second No. 00 entry for the team before a late-race tire failure relegated him to a 28th-place finish.
While the jury is still out on how Truex will adapt to the NNS CoT (though Saturday’s race at Michigan will go a long way to tell that tale), the defending East Series champion (and the current points leader in that series) has just that going for him; he’s spent the last two seasons racing for points. Being in a tight title chase the year before his first full Nationwide Series season led 2008 ARCA Racing Series champion Allgaier to a top-10 finish in points (fourth among regulars). Truex is going to have the advantage of competing for close titles twice heading into 2011, assuming the sponsor dollars materialize. That happens, and DWR could be packing a sharp 1-2 punch in the points next year.
The son of Rusty has gone from Mr. Crash to Mr. Consistency in now his fourth full season on the Nationwide circuit. With Rusty Wallace Incorporated’s technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing improving the cars the team puts on the track, Wallace is riding a streak of 10 consecutive top-15 finishes heading into the weekend’s events at Michigan. That sort of consistency has proven elusive to every single front-running regular in the series, from Allgaier to Bayne to series veteran Jason Leffler. It’s those kind of runs that allowed Truex Jr. to score back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005, the last Nationwide regular to hoist the series trophy.
Where Wallace is still a tick short, however, is challenging for his first career win. While the No. 66 team was among the class of the field the last short-track race at Iowa, making the jump from a consistent top 10-15 car to a top five week after week still hasn’t happened for one of the most improved drivers in the Nationwide ranks. When the first win for this team comes, multiple will follow in quick succession. But it still has to happen, and with the deluge of Cup drivers easily going to last through the rest of 2010, Wallace and his team will likely have to strike fast in the early part of 2011 to gain the momentum needed to become a top-five team and challenge for a championship.