Asked this past week at Pocono why he would be making his first Nationwide Series start of the year some six months into the season, Carl Edwards gave the expected answer: “It gives me a chance to have some fun and we can practice something we want to try on the Cup car.” But when asked if he’d be running any more races in 2012 after seven consecutive seasons of full-time double duty, Edwards remarked “This one just came up. There is the other factor that Ricky [Stenhouse] and those guys wanted someone at the road course to bounce information off of.”
There’s two facts to be taken from that statement. One, this race came about spontaneously, with longtime Cup sponsor Subway being the one to foot the bill for the Saturday race. Second though, and relevant to the Nationwide Series, is a drastic change in practice for the defending Nationwide Series champions. Sitting third in the standings behind arguably the most consistent driver on the circuit in Austin Dillon and a surging, red-hot Elliott Sadler, it’s clear that the No. 6 team realizes just how pivotal…and dangerous…the upcoming weekend at Watkins Glen is.
Of the three Nationwide title contenders atop the field, it’s Sadler that has the leg up when it comes to road racing, courtesy of his lengthy Cup resume and the road racing that for years was exclusive to the big leagues. Coupled with the current momentum being shown by the No. 2 team, there’s no doubt that Sadler and Co. will be on the attack come Saturday…a win this weekend would arguably be the biggest statement of the season by any team.
It doesn’t take an expert to recognize that. But Stenhouse’s team also recognizes that, despite what the scoring sheets say, Sadler has had them covered on the road courses. Late race contact was the only reason Stenhouse’s 11th place run at Road America earlier this year was good enough to gain ground in the standings. Rewind to a season ago, Sadler finished 16 positions better than Stenhouse at Montreal, six better at Watkins Glen, and four better at Road America. If last season’s results hold, the No. 2 team stands to gain some 22 points on team No. 6…enough likely to decide the season.
Considering this past history, it’s hardly surprising that Roush Fenway Racing finally woke up and realized that trying to campaign as a single-car team against a multi-car squad, even with Ford backing and three Cup cars across the garage to talk to, isn’t going to cut it this year. Richard Childress Racing was among the most dominant forces in Nationwide racing up until the operation was mothballed, and in their return season they’ve wasted no time challenging Joe Gibbs Racing for the top slot. It hasn’t hurt Sadler or Dillon either to have that third No. 33 car, and a roster of drivers including Brendan Gaughan, Paul Menard and Kevin Harvick to trade ideas with either. The results speak for themselves: a rebranded KHI operation or not, this is RCR’s first year back in the series, and despite fielding a rookie driver they’re 1-2 in points.
It’s a shame it has to be a Cup driver, but with Stenhouse getting a teammate the Nationwide Series title chase does get more interesting…the No. 6 team will be on a more level playing field with their competition at RCR, at least for one weekend. And likely for more if Edwards’ statements at Pocono meant anything: “if it goes well and we have fun and get in gear for Sunday’s race than there probably would be more.”
But there’s the rub, and a sad one at that. Even if Ricky Stenhouse’s No. 6 team may have been begging for a second car to team with as the summer stretch continues, it likely would not have come if it wasn’t for Carl Edwards’ current troubles on the Cup side (outside the top 10 in points with no wins). There’s a very logical reason for Cup backer Subway to come out of the blue and sponsor the Watkins Glen Nationwide entry on next-to-no-notice.
Just ask Edwards, whose initial response to questions surrounding his upcoming start in the AAA ranks was “I think that right now we are just trying anything. We are going to go out and throw it all up there and see what sticks.”
Another one of those deals with the devil. Yes, it’s great to see a championship contender get the tools he needs to be successful, and yes it’s good to see a sponsored race car added to the Nationwide Series entry list.
It’d just be nice to see it happen without a Cup-related exigency.