It’s hard to establish a standard of success in the world of NASCAR, and no standard is higher than that of the fans. A few wins here and there won’t cut it, as the sport’s loyal legion of followers will take nothing less than week-to-week competitiveness and several victories (though not TOO many, just ask Kyle Busch!).
For some drivers, they just couldn’t achieve that very high standard in the Sprint Cup Series. For whatever reason, be it sponsorship issues, lackluster equipment, or lack of talent, their rise to the top came to a crashing halt when they reached the pinnacle of the sport.
While most drivers either disappear from existence or scrape together start-and-park and low quality rides to keep their name out there, a few competitors settled for their next best option: the Nationwide Series.
The Nationwide Series, the last stop on the way up the ladder before the Sprint Cup Series, is extremely popular in the United States and around the world. And with NASCAR’s rules changes saying that drivers can only run for points in one series this year, the “regulars” have a chance to showcase their names and talents just a little bit more than usual.
Through 24 of 34 races this season, no one drives this point home further than Elliott Sadler. Sadler had competed as a full-time Sprint Cup Series regular the last 12 seasons before leaving Richard Petty Motorsports at the end of 2010 to drive for Kevin Harvick, Inc. full-time in the Nationwide Series and part-time in the Camping World Truck Series. Currently, Sadler is second in points, just eight marks behind leader Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Sadler has a total of ten top-5 and 16 top-10 finishes this season, and has held the points lead following the conclusion of five races this season. While he is without any victories in the Nationwide Series this season, Sadler did win a Camping World Truck Series race at Pocono Raceway last year, his first win in any of NASCAR’s three national series since 2004.
Like Sadler, two other drivers who have seen their drops from Sprint Cup Series to the Nationwide Series prove successful are Aric Almirola and Reed Sorenson.
Almirola himself never spent an entire year in Sprint Cup, but gained quite a bit of exposure when he split a season with Mark Martin in the No. 8 car for DEI. The next two seasons, he ran a partial schedule for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Phoenix Racing, respectively, while running a partial schedule in the Camping World Truck Series for Billy Ballew Motorsports. Last year saw Almirola run full-time in Camping World Trucks while cherrypicking Nationwide Series before moving back up to the Nationwide Series full-time for JR Motorsports in 2011. Currently fifth in points, the move seems to have worked well for him.
Sorenson, on the other hand, spent several full-time seasons struggling in the Sprint Cup Series for various teams, with his most successful season ending with only six top-10s and a 22nd-place finish in the standings. While Sorenson ran a partial schedule for Braun Racing last year, Sorenson moved to full-time when Steve Turner turned the team into Turner Motorsports and has remained in the top-3 in points for most of the season, with a victory in the Bucyrus 200 at Road America in June.
While all three drivers have not won as races this year as they would like to have, they’ve come close on many occasions and have held their own very well against the Sprint Cup Series regulars who like to steal their thunder. While Almirola is most likely out of this title hunt, both Sadler and Sorenson still have a realistic shot of winning as the top-3 are only separated by nine points.
With success stories like these, I can’t help but wonder what a step down would do for drivers who also struggle in the Sprint Cup Series. Drivers like David Ragan, Joey Logano, and David Reutimann are all lauded as talented drivers, but have little to show for it. Logano has had a ton of success at the Nationwide Series level, and Ragan has some fairly impressive numbers as well, not to mention drivers like Martin Truex, Jr. and A.J. Allmendinger, who do little more than show up every weekend, and eventually bring out a much needed caution flag. Or drivers who are bound and determined to remain at the top level of NASCAR, settling for blank, white hoods in back-of-the-pack equipment until (hopefully) something better comes along.
Maybe, just maybe, that “something better” is the Nationwide Series.
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