For all intents and purposes, the 2012 season has been a pleasant surprise for the Nationwide Series. A razor-thin title fight, series regulars capable of winning races and doing it, its been at least on paper the best season the Nationwide ranks have enjoyed since 2003. But all good things come to an end, and this cast of characters is no different. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has been promoted to Cup, and will be doing his best Matt Kenseth impression in 2013. Sam Hornish Jr. remains without a contract, even in the Penske Racing camp that has stuck behind him so loyally. And through the rest of the top 10 in points, uncertainty is abound; Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt, Mike Bliss and Brian Scott all aren’t guaranteed to return to their respective cockpits next season.
The harsh reality of the Nationwide Series today is minus the top of the field is all but constantly in flux, with countless rides available to the highest bidder on any given Saturday while others are trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents in making an entire season of racing happen. That rather large segment of the field not looking at any improvement heading into next year.
But having said that, there’s already a storm brewing over who’s going to fighting for the crown in 2013…as the talent pool is set to be even deeper than the four-way battle that dominated much of this season. On the final bye weekend of the season, here’s an early season preview of the potential big guns that will take to the track starting at Daytona, hoping to one-up what’s been a thrilling two years of Stenhouse vs. Sadler.
*Trevor Bayne* – The heir to Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s throne finally gets the shot he seemingly had in 2011. Rewind back two years, and Trevor Bayne was the hottest thing in NASCAR, the face of Ford Racing after scoring arguably the biggest upset in Daytona 500 history. But a roller coaster start to the Nationwide season, along with an extended hiatus on the track after a bout with lyme disease left Stenhouse to take the reins of Ford’s development ladder. Though Bayne has done reasonably well given both his lack of experience and what he’s had to drive in the Wood Brothers stable, a full-time Nationwide campaign is just what this youngster needs. Consistent seat time and an opportunity to finally learn points racing will awful ample opportunity for the youngest Daytona 500 winner ever to hone his talent.
One will be hard-pressed to find a driver more motivated than Bayne. While he hasn’t fallen off the radar, there’s few drivers out there who have seen their stock deteriorate so rapidly after a career-defining victory. He’s been waiting years for this opportunity, and given the state the No. 6 team is being left in by Stenhouse, it’s a golden one to have. It’s very plausible that the No. 6 team won’t suffer even a minor hiccup in switching drivers after three consecutive seasons with Stenhouse behind the wheel.
*Austin Dillon* – The next big thing at Richard Childress Racing, the 2011 Truck Series champion is still in the running to win a Nationwide championship this season, less than 20 markers out of the lead with five races to go. Unlike with any of the other drivers he’ll be competing against at the top of the pyramid next season, Dillon has a year with his No. 3 team under his belt. The team, which moved up intact with Dillon to the Truck Series this season, didn’t miss a beat despite moving to a series with longer races and unique race cars. In their first season as a Nationwide operation, the first-year team and their rookie driver have given both defending NNS champion Stenhouse and longtime NASCAR veteran Elliott Sadler everything they could handle for the entire season. Just imagine what they’ll do in a field where they’ve got the most continuity in the bunch.
*Elliott Sadler* – The current points leader for 2012, Sadler is making what could be considered an upward move (at least in Nationwide terms) by leaving RCR, reportedly for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. As good as RCR has been this season after taking over the operations of the former Kevin Harvick, Incorporated, JGR’s vaunted Toyotas have still remained the most consistent and stout entries the Nationwide Series has to offer. And while development drivers haven’t been able to make that equipment translate into consistent success, the same can’t be said for the veterans that wheel those Toyotas; Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano have all won and won big in their stints with the Nationwide program. Sadler has already set a career-high for wins in 2012, and has a very strong shot at making that record short-lived next season. Plus, considering his motivation remains to return to Cup racing, he’ll have to bring his A-game in 2013…because his teammate is likely to be…
*Brian Vickers* – After upsetting about 90% of the Cup Series garage at Martinsville in 2011 (the only ones not affected were the start-and-parkers), Vickers had nowhere to go but up after Red Bull Racing folded. And up he has. Even with only a handful of starts to his credit in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 this season, Vickers has led hundreds of laps and kept Mark Martin’s ride competitive week after week. Those results put him back on the radar screen. Add in his previous history with JGR backer Dollar General, and there’s some real logic to putting the former Cup driver in a Nationwide seat. Besides, if both Vickers and Sadler are driving for JGR, that’s less races for their current Cup drivers to distract themselves with.
Also worth noting…last time he was in a narrow battle for a championship, Vickers won the Busch Series title in 2003.
2013 will be a season worth watching, at least up front. Be it trying to build a career after nearly losing it, carrying on the family legacy or taking one step back to take two forward back to Cup racing, there will be ample motivation behind the wheel next year to compete for the Nationwide Series championship.
It’s a shame the rest of the NNS field isn’t so healthy.