After an off week while the Cup and Truck Series traveled to Martinsville, the Nationwide Series returns to action this weekend at Texas.
And the race for the series title couldn’t be much closer than this one.
With three races to go in 2012, three drivers sit within reasonable contention for the end-of-year trophy, with the top two separated by a mere half-dozen points. Elliott Sadler, in the final year of his tenure with Richard Childress Racing, holds the lead by a slim six-point margin over defending champion, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Rookie Austin Dillon sits third, 26 points back.
All three have been here before, in some capacity. Sadler and Stenhouse battled for the title in 2011 before a 27th-place finish at Phoenix killed the former’s chances completely. Dillon comes fresh off a championship in the Camping World Truck Series last season, a rookie in this division who clearly isn’t acting like one down the stretch.
So after a weekend to collect one’s thoughts, and calm one’s wits, it’s down to three weeks. Three races. Come Homestead, a champion will be crowned, as there will be in NASCAR’s other top series (which, of course, have similarly thrilling championship battles).
When the smoke clears, it will be Elliott Sadler hoisting his first-ever championship trophy. And that’s only because Austin Dillon is 26 markers behind with three races left.
Nearly three months ago at Watkins Glen, Dillon scored a 23rd-place finish that may have seemed relatively harmless at the time, but has turned out to be quite costly for the No. 3 team. In the ten races preceding Texas, Dillon has an average finish of seventh. Minus that outlier? 4.7, with a win, four top 5s and nine top-10 finishes. In the last five, the average is even better — 4.4, with a top 10 in every race.
Had Austin Dillon finished, say, fifth that day rather than 23rd, his deficit to Elliott Sadler would be cut to single digits, all else constant. It would be less of an uphill battle for the young gun and more of a real possibility.
Not to mention Dillon has a pretty good track record at the remaining three speedways. Aside from a fifth place at Texas, earlier this year, he has finishes of second and third in the Truck Series in the Lone Star State. Finishes of fourth, seventh and fifth tell the story at Phoenix in both series, and while he’s never raced at Homestead in a Nationwide car, he scored a pole at the track in his Truck in 2010.
His problem is the deficit. It’s a deficit that, barring big issues for Sadler, won’t be closed.
That’s because Sadler’s not too shabby at any of the remaining tracks, either. While his Cup results at the three courses aren’t much to look at (save for a Cup victory at Texas in 2004), his tenure in Nationwide has brought good tidings, including a win at Phoenix earlier this year.
And no one’s hungrier than he is. Despite being in a bit of a “lame duck” situation with his impending departure from RCR at the end of this year, Sadler has never won a championship at NASCAR’s highest levels — something his two closest competitors can each claim. While it may have seemed like a demotion at the time, this run in Nationwide has rejuvenated his career, and a championship can both cap off the impressive turnaround and make up for his runner-up finish last year. Granted, he may not have the kind of momentum Dillon has from the last, say, five races, but while Sadler doesn’t have a win, he does have four top 5s and five top 10s since Chicago.
Oh, and having the points lead does wonders, too.
Sadler only has the lead by six points over a man I haven’t mentioned much of in this commentary, which will undoubtedly ruffle a few feathers. Defending champion Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is very much still in the title hunt, mathematically and otherwise. Heck, over the last 10 races, his average finish is even exactly the same as Sadler’s, albeit with two more wins.
But the title’s not happening for Stenhouse in 2012. And if it does, well, I’ll eat my words, if one can do that via one’s computer.
Over a four-race stretch in August and September, the Roush Fenway driver won two races and finished second twice, quickly becoming everyone and their uncle’s favorite for the trophy if he wasn’t already. Since, a 17th-place result has sullied an otherwise decent showing of ninth, seventh and sixth.
But that’s just it — Stenhouse needs more than that. He needs to be back to the form that got him nothing but wins and runner-ups. And he just may. Recall that the driver of the No. 6 won Texas earlier this year. He has finishes of third and fifth in his last two Phoenix races, and has been scored second and fourth in his lone Homestead entries.
In other words, I’m probably crazy for averring that Ricky Stenhouse won’t be your champion in three weeks. I accept this diagnosis with my head held high, and perhaps a nervous twitch or two. Simply put, I think Stenhouse peaked too early. His results from Bristol to Chicago were and are outstanding and certainly indicative of a future champion. His results since? Eh. Not bad, but nothing great. Those results have, however, kept him in the hunt. Now it’s a matter of if he can get back on the offensive.
And frankly, I wonder how dedicated Stenhouse actually is. He’s already got a championship, and no one really remembers your second trophy when it isn’t in the Cup Series. 2013 is right around the corner, and with it brings a rookie campaign on NASCAR’s premier circuit for one of the sport’s top teams. What else does he have to prove this year? Then again, he has little to lose, too. If Stenhouse is bloodthirsty for the title, he’s going to be able to take a lot of risks to get his way. Doing so may be what wins him a second straight championship. I just need to see more than what’s been shown these last few races from Stenhouse.
My diagnosis could easily change post-Texas. Sadler could struggle, while Stenhouse sweeps the Texas races in 2012. And as Denny Hamlin can attest, one slip-up or mechanical failure can change the title picture drastically. That, of course, is just what Austin Dillon needs — and if he can get within, say, ten points… well, then my brain’s really going to hurt.
So keep a close eye on these three this weekend, and adjust your focus accordingly should major problems arise. But all things constant, your 2012 champion will be Elliott Sadler, following three top-5 finishes — and maybe even a win at Texas or Phoenix to seal the deal.
Just don’t even get me started on the Cup and/or Truck battle…
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