When it comes to the Nationwide Series title battle, many drivers are peaking or gaining momentum at just the right time.
Don’t consider it true for everyone, but when checking out the average finishes of full-time competitors in the second-tier series over the 2014 season versus what they’ve accomplished more recently, the results are simple: as the season progresses toward its end and a select few find themselves within reach of a championship trophy – in other words, as the stakes get higher – those for whom the series really matters are kicking into high gear.
In all, the results of 24 drivers were profiled here. That’s the 24 competitors in the Nationwide Series who are running for points and competing in the majority of the races. When comparing the average finishes over the entire season to that of the last five races, 12 have a higher average recently than their overall average, meaning things have been looking up for half the field the last few races. That may seem like a no-brainer, and it is on paper; that’s probably well around the usual, since drivers are always jumping above or below the average, rattling off good shows in some streaks while struggling during others.
But here’s the kicker: of those who have been improving, the majority are stacked toward the top of the point standings, rather than at the bottom.
In the top 10 alone, we’ve seen six of the 10 scoring better results over the last five races, with 11th-place Dylan Kwasniewski also keeping that trend. One of them – Brendan Gaughan – owns the only win a Nationwide Series regular has garnered in that span, earning his second win of the season a month ago at Kentucky Speedway.
One of the biggest improvements belongs to Brian Scott. The Richard Childress Racing driver, who despite less fanfare than some of his fellow title contenders sits third in points, has a 9.5 average finish this season. But over the last five races, that number jumps to 7.4 – a whole two-position increase, better than anyone else in the top 10, alongside top-10 finishes in every race.
Not bad for someone who needs a late-season surge to steal away the championship. With three races to go, Scott is 61 points out from the leader, needing continued consistency – and, sure, a win or two – to have a shot. And looking at what he’s accomplished more recently, you absolutely can’t say he didn’t try.
Unfortunately for Scott, one of the others enjoying some heightened success more recently is the very driver he has to catch. Chase Elliott has an even eighth-place average finish throughout 2014 that jumps to an even seventh over the last five races, with a perfect string of five top 10s also included. Again, you can’t say Scott isn’t trying, but his chief competition – the one he needs to slip up – is only going full steam ahead as well.
Scott and Elliott aren’t the only ones experiencing success at season’s end. Elliott Sadler’s eighth-place average is 1.7 spots better than his overall average, and he’s virtually in the same boat as Scott, 63 points behind Elliott. Trevor Bayne jumps 1.8 from 10.6 to 8.8, Chris Buescher a 15.3 to 14.2 increase and Gaughan, on the heels of his win, improving from 15.3 t0 14.2.
On the other side, Regan Smith, Elliott’s closest competition for the championship, has been lacking when it matters most. His 10.8 average finish isn’t bad by any means but it’s a nearly two-position drop from his overall season average of 8.9. Scott teammate Ty Dillon is equally frustrating, managing an average of 11th over the last five races despite a 9.6 over the full season.
But outside the championship hunt, no one is likely smiling more than two drivers who came into the season with high hopes, only to have them thwarted at first.
Kwasniewski had a lot on his shoulders after entering Daytona International Speedway a rookie who’d never run a Nationwide Series event but had gone out and scored a pole in his debut anyway. Sure, restrictor plate qualifying doesn’t mean as much and he had solid power from Turner Scott Motorsports under his hood, but the expectations were certainly there from the start after such a formidable first weekend.
Instead, Kwasniewski has only managed three top 10s all season and an average finish of 17.9. However, though small, he’s shown signs of improvement recently, garnering an average of 15th the past five races.
Matt DiBenedetto is another who has had a lot to prove more recently and hasn’t disappointed. He actually has the highest jump of anyone, his overall average of 31.3 complemented by a 27.0 since Richmond International Raceway. Sure, that’s due in large part to DiBenedetto moving into a ride that doesn’t start and park each week, but improvement is improvement – and he’s showing it more than anyone.
Everyone hopes to go out on top as the season ends, and a multi-week break for the series helps provide a bit of a blank slate entering Texas this weekend. But for drivers like Elliott and Scott, they’ll be looking to continue recent hot streaks all the way to Florida, while others like Smith and Dillon will look to reverse slight slides. On both ends, they may not be incredibly noticeable; however, in the long run, with only three races to go before the champion is crowned, these little fluctuations matter more than ever.
About the author
Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.