Good day, race fans, and happy Championship Week to you all! The Sprint Cup Series, as everyone well knows by now, is having one of the closest points battles in the history of the sport. Whether you like the Chase or not, you have to be excited about what is in store this upcoming weekend.
The Nationwide Series, on the other hand, was officially decided last week at Texas, with Brad Keselowski taking this year’s title. It marks the fifth consecutive year that a Cup series regular has taken that honor, with Martin Truex Jr. in 2005 the last of what appears to be a dying breed: Nationwide-only contenders. This “Buschwhacking” against them, as it has been coined over the years, has received widespread complaints from the fans. The truth is, it has hurt the development of younger drivers and you only need to look at this year’s Sprint Cup rookie class as proof (there was no driver who ran the series full-time, with Kevin Conway likely taking the award with only one top-15 finish to his credit). Well, it looks like NASCAR has finally taken note. With talks of the sanctioning body possibly eliminating Cup drivers from competing for the Nationwide championship, it opens up the door for some younger guys with lots to prove as well as veterans looking to resurrect their careers. Keeping that in mind, let’s take a look at who are the early Nationwide contenders for the 2011 season should the sanctioning body follow through on its promise to keep the Cup drivers (at least partially) out of it:
Elliott Sadler – Not having a Cup ride for the upcoming season usually isn’t a good thing for a veteran driver in NASCAR’s top circuit. In Sadler’s case, it is the complete opposite. He will be going from a mid-level Cup team to arguably the most competitive one in Nationwide, driving the No. 2 for Kevin Harvick Inc. in 2011. Let’s be honest, Sadler’s Cup career has been less than spectacular, with his most memorable moments coming in the fall races at Talladega in ’03 and ’04, flipping upside down at the end of both events. Now, he will be driving in NASCAR’s second tier, and he already seems to be the favorite to win it all next year, coming to the table with unbridled enthusiasm and a heavy dose of confidence after winning at Pocono for KHI in a Truck this summer. Maybe Sadler will make the perfect example of how backtracking can be a good thing…
Aric Almirola – After racing in Nationwide and Cup in the early stages of his career with minimal success, Almirola went to the Camping World Truck Series this year where he established himself as a driver with something to prove and added two wins to his career stats. The part-time Cup and Nationwide driver does have a victory in this series, too, but it’s not exactly a normal one. In fact, I’d call it one of the oddest wins in NASCAR history, as he wasn’t driving the car when it took the checkered flag. It all went down when he drove for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2007 at the Milwaukee Mile. He started, but Denny Hamlin, who had flown all the way from Sonoma to do double duty, subbed for Almirola after 60 laps. Almirola clearly wasn’t happy and left JGR no too long after. Now signed on at JR Motorsports, he will be looking to pick up his first “real” win for the Nationwide Series, and hopes he could be the 2011 champ with an outfit that contended for it in 2008 and ’09 with Keselowski.
Justin Allgaier – My personal pick as your champ for next year. After getting released from Penske Racing due to lack of sponsorship, there were uncertainties that Allgaier would even have a competitive ride in ’11. Fortunately for the 2008 ARCA champ, Turner Motorsports picked him for a full-time position although sponsorship for the car has yet to be secured. In the last two Nationwide seasons, Allgaier has become a weekly contender; he’s scored the most points out of any Nationwide regular this year, and is the only full-time Nationwide-only driver to win a race in 2010. That alone makes him the odds-on favorite for next season. Only time will tell if Allgaier receives inferior equipment compared to Sadler and Almirola, but Turner will have Hendrick engines for next year, and that should dramatically improve the team formerly known as Braun Racing.
Jason Leffler – If Leffler is going to win next year’s Nationwide title, he will have to do it driving for two different teams. Turner has already announced he will continue driving the No. 38 Great Clips Toyota, but he will also race the Turner-owned No. 10 car in select races. For the past few years, Leffler has consistently been a top Nationwide driver, usually being the “best of the rest.” However, he has also seen his share of bad luck and mechanical issues that have taken him out of too many races. If he can avoid the mechanical gremlins, Leffler very well could win his first NASCAR championship.
Trevor Bayne – At just 19 years old, Bayne is considered one of the bright young stars in NASCAR. Bayne made great strides with Diamond-Waltrip Racing this year, scoring a handful of top-five finishes and nearly winning at O’Reilly Raceway Park before his unexpected release in September. He was picked up by Roush Fenway Racing, and will race full-time for the team next year. Early signs point to some struggles, as Bayne hasn’t had a top-10 result in six races with the team. However, he has actually done quite admirably with the part-time, unsponsored Roush No. 17 that actually wasn’t expected to compete in any of the remaining races this year. At this point, it is still uncertain which Roush car he will drive, making it hard to make a Bayne a clear cut favorite. However, the sky is the limit for this talented youngster, and he will be winning races in NASCAR before too long.
Brian Scott – There are a lot of question marks as to whether Scott can be a legitimate contender in 2011. For starters, will Joe Gibbs Racing still be the best team next year? It appears that the new car has leveled out the playing field. Secondly, Scott’s Nationwide resume thus far has not been anything to brag about; he’s got just one top-five and five top-10 finishes in 41 starts so far. Scott will certainly have a lot to prove next year, but having teammates like Kyle Busch and Joey Logano to learn from will certainly make Scott a better driver. It may be a slow start for the Idaho native, but expect big things for the sophomore-to-be as the season progresses.