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Are We Primed For the Closest Nationwide Championship Race In Years?

Are We Primed For the Closest Nationwide Championship Race In Years?

In the five weeks since I last penned (or should that be typed) a Nationwide Recap column, we’ve seen racing in a variety of different venues encompassing short tracks, road courses, super speedways and the more traditional mile and a half tracks. The schedule has tested both the skills of the drivers as well unearthing numerous logistical challenges – not least transporting cars and equipment to and from Mexico City. Following the conclusion of the Darlington race this evening, the Nationwide Series will take a deserved week off; before a spell of 16 straight weeks of racing that will run through the second Richmond date in early September. So with a third of the season in the books, give or take the odd percentage point or two, let’s take a look at some of the general themes that have emerged – or are beginning to emerge – in this inaugural season for new sponsor Nationwide.

*The Chase for the Championship might just go down to the wire:*

With Series points leader Clint Bowyer only nine points clear of 2007 champion Carl Edwards and a mere 12 clear of Kyle Busch (more on him later), it looks increasingly likely that the Championship will be much more closely contested. This can only benefit the series as a whole after two runaway champions in the past two years. Looking back, at this stage in 2006 Kevin Harvick was already 313 points clear of second place, while in 2007 Cousin Carl had a staggering 402 point advantage over second place challenger Harvick and was 510 points clear of Dave Blaney in third place. The first Nationwide regular, Bobby Hamilton Jr., was 644 points behind in seventh place. This time round the Top seven drivers are separated by just 183 points and the first Nationwide only driver is Mike Bliss 141 points in arrears. While it’s still possible one driver (Kyle Busch maybe) will go on a unstoppable surge it looks, at this stage in proceedings, that we might have a genuine title chase for the first time since 2003, when six drivers went into the final race at Homestead with a shot at winning it all.

*Cup Drivers are still dominating in the win column:*

Kyle Busch is one of three Cup drivers to win three Nationwide events this season.

Of the 11 races run thus far, Cup moonlighters have completely and utterly dominated in terms of wins. The triumvirate of Kyle Busch (3), Tony Stewart (3) and Denny Hamlin (1) have combined to win seven races. Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer have all picked up one win apiece while the remaining victory went to part-time RCR wheelman Scott Wimmer who took the checkers in Nashville. Including 2006 and 2007 stats, that makes 76 wins out of 81 for Cup drivers. Don’t look for this stat to change much throughout the remaining two dozen races on the slate.

*But the outlook is surprisingly rosy for the Nationwide-only regulars*

We’ve seen something of a renaissance in terms of finishing positions for the Nationwide only regulars who have vacuumed up 20 of the 40 available Top 10 spots in the last four races – including a season high seven of the Top 10 places at Talladega. In addition, five Nationwide only regulars sit in the overall Series Top 10 with Mike Bliss leading the way in fifth spot – 141 points behind Bowyer. Brad Keselowski is seventh 183 points back while Jason Leffler, Mike Wallace and David Stremme round out the Top 10 in 8th, 9th and 10th place respectively. As I have with the previous recaps this season, let’s take a lot at the very unofficial Nationwide-Only Championship after 11 races. Overall Series standings are in parentheses before the name of each driver

1. (5) Mike Bliss 1424 -141
2. (7) Brad Keselowski 1382 -183
3. (8) Jason Leffler 1342 -223
4. (9) Mike Wallace 1297 -268
5. (10) David Stremme 1177 -388
6. (11) Bobby Hamilton, Jr. 1167 -398
7. (12) Kelly Bires 1154 -411
8. (14) Jason Keller 1150 -415
9. (15) Steve Wallace 1144 -421
10. (16) Marcos Ambrose 1110 -455

The Top 10 drivers are split by just 314 points and there is a point spread between 5th and 10th of just 67. In short it’s close. For Mike Bliss, the nine year Nationwide veteran who sits atop the standings, it’s been an excellent season so far. The Milwaukie, Oregon native has four top tens in the last four races and handled the switch (post race 6 in Nashville) from Dodge and Fitz Motorsports to Chevy and James Finch about as seamlessly as he could have possibly hoped.

*The Kyle Busch Factor*

Although he still has not officially declared his intentions to run a full schedule, Kyle Busch has not missed a Nationwide race yet. With three straight wins (Texas, Phoenix and Mexico City) and six Top 10s overall he has, however, more than made a case to run the complete slate. So far this season he’s led an astonishing 626 laps – 32% of the 1918 laps run in three different cars – the No. 18 and No. 20 of Joe Gibbs Racing and the No. 32 of Todd Braun. Whether “Rowdy” runs all 35 races still remains to be seen but one thing is sure: if he does, anyone finishing above the gangly Vegas-born 23-year-old is likely to be champion. Like him or not – and as evidenced by his latest contretemps with Steven Wallace and Dale Junior in the Cup race it’s clear he doesn’t care what people think – Busch is one of those drivers is hard to take your eyes off.

*A quick look ahead…*

* Following his win last week at his home town track of Richmond, Denny Hamlin will be looking to make it three straight at Darlington. The only other two drivers to have won back-to-back-to-back races at Darlington are venerable Cup veterans Mark Martin and Jeff Burton

* And speaking of the “Crazy Old Man,” Mark Martin, who will race for JR Motorsports for the second time this season, has a stunning record in the second series at the Lady in Black. He’s won eight of his 28 starts and has a total of 18 Top 10 finishes. If you’re the betting type you could do a lot worse than putting your money on the Batesville, Arkansas native

* Darlington is the second oldest track on the schedule with Martinsville (one of the original 8 tracks) being the oldest. The inaugural Nationwide race back in 1982 was won by Geoffrey Bodine with only 23 cars taking the green flag.

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