Although we're only four races into the 2014 Nationwide season, the title hunt is already starting to take shape. There are some interesting names in the mix, like rookies Ty Dillon and Chase Elliott sitting third and fourth, respectively. Veterans like Brendan Gaughan and Elliott Sadler are also making appearances in the top 10.
However, the two most formidable title contenders have risen to the top: Regan Smith and Trevor Bayne.
Smith, who leads Bayne by one point, has the momentum of his Daytona win last month, while Bayne has been much more consistent than he was at this point a year ago. Both drivers also had strong a 2013 season, with Smith winning twice and finishing third in the final points and Bayne scoring a win at Iowa in June and finishing sixth in the points.
Of the NASCAR Nationwide regulars in the 2014 roster, Smith and Bayne are both strong and consistent enough to stay atop the points standings all the way to Homestead in November. But which driver stands the better chance of hoisting the championship trophy?
Having participated in the Nationwide Series since 2002, Smith definitely has experience on his side. But while that experience is a benefit, what has really helped him is the strength of his No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevy.
Smith didn't have too many weak points in 2013, as he managed to score eight top-fives and 19 top-10s to go along with his wins at Talladega and Michigan early in the season. The top-fives and top-10s were scored at various types of tracks, including Fontana, Watkins Glen, Bristol and Phoenix.
For 10 weeks, Smith held the points lead. Once he lost it, he still stayed a close second before his season unraveled with a 15th-place finish at Mid-Ohio and a 21st-place result at Bristol in August. Even then, though, Smith managed three top-fives and five top-10s in the final 10 races, finishing no worse than 19th (at Charlotte in October) until he crashed in the season finale at Homestead.
Smith has always been good about finishing races, and 2013 was no different. His only DNF came in the Homestead crash. But his 2013 season essentially crumbled following Bristol in August, when he scored five finishes outside the top 10.
Besides the Homestead accident, Smith just seemed to struggle in four races and missed out on opportunities in the last 10 races to finish strongly. It didn't help that Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr. hit their stride at this time and pulled away from Smith. His troubles weren't really that bad, but they were enough to ultimately keep him from contention. Even with his spin at Chicago late in the season, he still finished 13th.
Smith has started the 2014 season with a win and four consecutive top-10s, though, and he is the current point leader. He's got momentum on his side, and if he can be as aggressive as he was for most of 2013, he'll be tough to beat.
2014 could be the year Trevor Bayne is rewarded for all of his hard work. Although he is known more for his unlikely 2011 Daytona 500 win, he's also shown himself to be one of the premier Nationwide drivers, having scored six poles, 20 top-fives and 55 top-10s in 122 starts.
What has hurt him, though, is that he has only won twice since his debut in 2009. Bayne's first Nationwide win came in 2011 at Texas, and he followed that up with a June 2013 win at Iowa. He's a fixture at or near the front in the Nationwide Series, and it doesn't hurt that he has accomplished this with Roush Fenway Ford power.
2013 was Bayne's best career season. He scored 21 top-10s in 33 starts, with only a DNF at Talladega to mar his finishing record. He finished the year sixth in points with seven top-fives to his name. Still, while seven top-fives to 21 top-10s is decent, it's not one that is wanted when it comes to a championship hunt.
Bayne is known for being one of the nicest guys in the garage, but he can't keep playing nice on the track if he wants to oust Smith for the championship at Homestead.
So far, he is doing well in 2014, finishing third at Daytona (a vast improvement from 2013, where his pole-winning mount broke and he finished 31st) and managing a top-10 in all four races this year. After four races in 2013, he had only a pair of fourth-place finishes to be proud of, so the improvement is there.
Smith may have momentum on his side right now, but Bayne is steadily gathering steam for his 2014 season. We could see that No. 6 Ford in Victory Lane more than once this season, and we could see him performing more aggressively than ever before.
Who Will Win?
It's a tough call. Smith is a contender, but we could very well see a different, hungrier Bayne in 2014. Roush Fenway Fords have a championship legacy in the Nationwide Series, having won four championships since 2002. It promises to be a thrilling fight. Whereas the 2013 title fight was won with consistency, 2014 could very well be a knockdown, drag-out.
Smith seems to be the driver most likely to win the championship. The JR Motorsports Camaros are extremely strong, and Smith has to be hungry following the downhill slide he suffered near the end of last season. On top of that, as previously pointed out, he's got a leg up on Bayne in the form of experience in the Nationwide Series.
However, there are still 29 races left in the season, and as unpredictable as NASCAR is, anything can happen. The only thing that can be done right now is to tune in to the Nationwide Series every weekend until November.