The 2012 Nationwide Series is almost a third over as the drivers head to North Carolina this weekend for the Charlotte 300. We'll see the regulars such as Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Elliott Sadler, Danica Patrick, Sam Hornish Jr., and Austin Dillon, who return to the track with Sprint Cup veterans Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch joining them.
Stenhouse has been on fire lately as he has collected three wins this season, including last weekend's win at Iowa, his third consecutive win there. Stenhouse currently leads Elliott Sadler by 28 points. Rookie Austin Dillon is third, just 43 points behind Stenhouse with Hornish Jr. and Cole Whitt rounding out the top five, 74 and 92 points back, respectively.
Although this Nationwide Series is very different from the early 2000s, it has still been relatively exciting. Unfortunately, sponsors have been a rarity for most drivers this season and there is a decent amount of drivers that are considered "start-and-parkers".
It's a far cry from the early 2000s when we saw companies like NesQuik, Kleenex, AC Delco, Reese's/Hershey's, Lowe's, GMAC, Kingsford Charcoal, Bass Pro Shops and many others sponsor cars in the then-Busch Series.
Sponsors have been so hard to come by that Trevor Bayne has not been able to run a full schedule and compete for a championship like he had hoped. What company wouldn't want to throw their name in the hat to sponsor an up-and-coming driver who has won the Daytona 500? If I owned a company, I'd do it instantly.
Because of this lack of sponsorship, we have seen former Nationwide regulars such as David Green, Elton Sawyer, Jason Keller, Stacy Compton, Bobby Hamilton Jr., Jason Leffler, Scott Wimmer and Kenny Wallace not be able to find rides. Former "hot shots" like Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray have already made it to the upper echelon of NASCAR and it is unlikely that any of them will return to the Nationwide Series full-time.
NASCAR's recent new rule that a driver can only compete for a championship in one of the three divisions has led to a rather short list of drivers that could win a championship in the Nationwide Series. Stenhouse Jr., Sadler, Dillon, Hornish Jr., Whitt, Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier, Danica Patrick and Brian Scott make the list, but not many more do.
I'm not saying it's a bad thing. I'd much rather see a Nationwide regular win the championship over a Sprint Cup regular.
However, the Nationwide Series seems to have a few up-and-coming drivers that could become very talented wheelmen such as Darrell Wallace Jr., who placed ninth in his debut last weekend at Iowa. Yes, he was in Joe Gibbs equipment, but his teammate Brian Scott, who has 85 more starts than him, finished 11th. Wallace seems like a very good driver, though he is just 18 years old. There's also Ryan Blaney, who finished seventh in his Nationwide debut at Richmond a few weeks ago.
In addition, Brad Sweet, Steve Arpin, Ryan Truex and Travis Pastrana have all run seemingly well in their limited starts and all have showed glimpses of hope. Parker Kligerman, who ran Brad Keselowski's No. 22 at Iowa, finished eighth in his only start of the season in the Nationwide Series. Kligerman currently runs full-time in the Truck Series for Keselowski's team and ranks fifth in the standings.
The Camping World Truck Series also has a few promising drivers that could find their way into the Nationwide Series sooner than most people think.
James Buescher won the Nationwide's season-opening race at Daytona and also collected a win at Kansas in April. Justin Lofton won the series race at Charlotte last weekend, the first win of his young career and is also leading the series standings. Regular Austin Dillon's younger brother, Ty, currently ranks third in the standings, although he has yet to win a race this year. Joey Coulter, who runs Richard Childress' No. 22 Chevrolet, will make his Nationwide debut this weekend. Coulter, who sits tenth in the standings, will pilot the No. 21 Sherwin Williams Chevrolet for Childress.
The Nationwide Series looks very bright to say the least.
In ten races this season, a non-Sprint Cup regular has won six of them. Stenhouse has captured the checkered flag at Las Vegas, Texas and Iowa. Sadler has crossed the finish line first at Phoenix and Bristol—he looked to be headed to a victory at Darlington before Joey Logano punted him into the wall. James Buescher, who runs exclusively in trucks, won at Daytona after a wreck in Turn 4 collected most of the front of the field on the last lap.
The other four races—Fontana, Richmond, Talladega and Darlington—were won by Sprint Cup regulars. Logano managed to win three of those events with Kurt Busch barely edging out Denny Hamlin at Richmond.
Honestly, the series is so much better when it is not completely dominated by Sprint Cup drivers.
Last season, just six of the 34 races were won by Nationwide regulars. Stenhouse collected two victories with Allgaier, Hornish Jr., Trevor Bayne and Reed Sorenson all winning one. The season before that, Sprint Cup regulars won 33 of the 35 races. The only two that weren't won by regulars were Justin Allgaier at Bristol and Boris Said at Montreal. In 2009, Mike Bliss and Brad Keselowski were the only non-full time Sprint Cup guys to capture a checkered flag—Bliss did it once at Charlotte and Keselowski did it four times throughout the season.
Needless to say, the 2012 season has been a breath of fresh air.
Six of the ten races thus far have been won by Nationwide regulars. That's a tremendously good thing for the sport. I think that NASCAR should not have both races at the same track on the same weekend so we can see more of this. Sprint Cup guys don't want to make the trips, so the Nationwide field either has none or upwards of three or four drivers for their race that weekend. Last weekend at Iowa, there was only one full-time Sprint Cup driver—Kurt Busch. People can make arguments for Michael McDowell and Joe Nemechek, but they seem to be mostly "start-and-park" drivers at the Sprint Cup level. It was nice to see the regulars battle it out even though there wasn't very much battling, as Stenhouse led 209 of the 250 laps.
The 2012 Nationwide season has been one of the best of the decade because it has been "dominated" by the regulars instead of the "Buschwhackers". I am one of those fans that likes to see the Nationwide guys win and one of those fans that likes to see the underdogs capture the checkered flag every once in a while. The series seems to have a bright future because of emerging young drivers, although sponsors have been unbearably hard to come by.
This season has definitely been a welcome relief. And I hope it stays that way.