In honor of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s win last weekend in Iowa — and in protest of a rather dull All-Star Race — I’ve decided to focus on the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series drivers in this week’s Hot/Not. Underdogs are always a better story anyway, right?
So let’s take a look at the drivers making some noise in the lower tier series, those who are hiding in the shadows, and those who just might need to disappear.
Stenhouse – FINALLY, I can justify throwing Stenhouse into this column almost every other week. In case you missed it, Stenhouse became the first Nationwide Series regular to win a Nationwide Series race last weekend since Justin Allgaier pulled off the same feat in Bristol in March 2010. Granted, there were only two Sprint Cup Series drivers in the field that day (Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski), but he out-raced both drivers in a three-way battle as the laps wound down in the Iowa John Deere Dealers 250 at Iowa Speedway.
While one win doesn’t necessarily propel Stenhouse to Sprint Cup Series level, one has to wonder how many more top-five finishes Stenhouse is away from replacing his Roush Fenway Racing teammate David Ragan in the Cup Series. It’s interesting, since Stenhouse wasn’t doing much better than Ragan at this point last season. However, Jack Roush apparently saw something in the driver worth developing over time (a chance that past drivers for Roush really weren’t given) and it has paid off. Stenhouse now sits third in points, eight points out from leader Elliott Sadler.
By the way, have you noticed anything with Stenhouse’s teammate Edwards? Most of the time you really don’t want to see Edwards in your rearview mirror, but between Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith and now Stenhouse, Edwards has finished behind every first-time winner in the 2011 season. So to all the so-far winless drivers in your career, just find that No. 99/60 car and you should be good to go!
Cole Whitt – Whitt is a driver I had a difficult time believing in when I first heard his name. Red Bull Racing has some good equipment, but hasn’t exactly produced any superstars in NASCAR just yet. Plus, after Whitt missed the field in Camping World Truck Series Daytona qualifying and landed (read: bought) his way into another ride, I labeled him as just another rich kid “cha-chinging” his way up the NASCAR ladder.
But this past weekend in Charlotte, Whitt finished third behind Sprint Cup Series regulars Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer, making him the highest finishing points eligible driver in the series and propelling him to the points lead. Whitt now leads the series standings by one point over Johnny Sauter, making him the first rookie driver and youngest ever to lead the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series points standings.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Whitt has me sold. It’s only a matter of time before we see the red-headed California native wheeling that No. 60 Chevrolet into victory lane.
Honorable Mention: Reed Sorenson led 77 laps in Sunday’s race at Iowa, more than other other driver. He finished fourth after a slow leak in the right front tire was discovered, causing the handling of the No. 32 to go south.
Michael McDowell – You don’t hear much about McDowell anymore, but when he is put in a decent ride he can usually advertise his skills pretty well. Last weekend in Iowa, McDowell was put in a top-quality ride and freaking nailed it.
Joe Gibbs Racing announced in January that McDowell and sponsor Pizza Ranch would be teaming up for both Nationwide Series races at Iowa Speedway (the second one is in August), and so far the decision looks to be a great one. McDowell led 19 laps — more laps than he led in his entire Nationwide and Sprint Cup series careers combined — and finished seventh. He might have made a stronger run at the win had a round of green-flag stops not trapped him a lap down, leaving him to fight for every position. Though, I must say, seventh was much higher than I thought he’d be at the end of the day.
Considering the fact that McDowell hasn’t finished any higher than 32nd in 11 Sprint Cup Series starts this year, I’d say seventh is just short of a victory in the Nationwide Series.
Austin Dillon – Movin’ on up to the Nationwide Series and still going strong. Camping World Truck Series driver Dillon made only his second Nationwide Series start of the season in Iowa last weekend, finishing in the 10th position. He wound up seventh in his previous start in Nashville. Quiet yet consistent. That’s better than what most drivers can say.
Meanwhile, in the Camping World Truck Series, Dillon is laying some solid numbers down there as well. A seventh last weekend in Charlotte bumped him up one spot to fifth in points, and now trails leader Whitt by 20 points. Not lighting the world on fire, but definitely showing his worth, too. Slowly but surely, the grandson of Richard Childress is becoming the next big thing.
And if he doesn’t, he’ll probably still have a ride anyway.
Honorable Mention: James Buescher finished ninth in Iowa for his second top-10 in a row in the Nationwide Series, and then landed fourth in Charlotte for his third consecutive top 10 in the Camping World Truck Series.
Aric Almirola – JR Motorsports’ only full-time Nationwide Series driver continues to disappoint. Listed as a possible preseason candidate to win the 2011 championship, Almirola has failed to make any noise this year.
The top-10 category next to Almirola’s name will show that he has five such results, but the column shows that he has yet to finish higher than ninth and has spent minimal time in the top five in points. I’m not saying those stats are terrible, but when drivers like Stenhouse, Dillon and McDowell are up running with the Cup guys, tell me how a veteran like Almirola has any excuse. Is it equipment? I don’t think so. JR Motorsports may not itself be a Cup team, but it’s the next best thing, since the team receives equipment from Hendrick Motorsports.
I’m not sure what the deal is, but maybe Almirola will start to heat up over the summer months.
Joey Coulter – Like Almirola, I can’t quite accuse Coulter of being terrible. He is, after all, in his first full season in any of NASCAR’s top-three series and has managed to finish every single race, so far. Even some of the championship contenders can’t say that.
It’s his finishes that leave something to be desired. Coulter does have two top 10s to his credit, but every other race ended outside the top 15. The few good finishes mixed in with the mediocre to terrible have the Richard Childress Racing developmental driver mired back in 16th in points, 18 points out of the top 10.
I will give him this tidbit of credit, though: Coulter has managed to finish on the lead lap in all but two races this year, which adds some credibility to Coulter’s ability to run a clean race and not tear up a bunch of sheetmetal. Is there more to this driver than meets the eye? Time will tell.
Honorable Mention: Max Papis finished 25th in Charlotte and has only one top-10 finish this year.
Brian Scott – I seriously do not get this guy. Landing a ride with Joe Gibbs Racing was — at least in my mind — the big break Scott needed to show his true potential. Instead, Scott has finished outside of the top 20 in four of his last five races and even the fifth race was a 15th. Not exactly Joe Gibbs Racing material, especially considering the fact that McDowell finished seventh in his first start for the team this year.
Granted, Scott was involved in an on-track accident with Stenhouse and suffered for it, but Scott hadn’t been in the top 10 most of the day anyway.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Scott is a bad driver. Average, maybe, but I fully expected Scott to at the very least be sitting in the top five in points this far into the season. Instead he’s ninth. That’s OK, I guess, but the finishes themselves are incredibly disappointing.
Clay Rogers – Rogers left the Camping World Truck Series season opener with the points lead, finishing third behind two drivers ineligible for points in the series. Surprisingly, he’s been able to keep himself in the top 10 in points, sitting eighth in the standings after seven races.
Unfortunately, the third-place finish was his only top 10 of the season and he hasn’t been able to spend any time up front since then either.
Yeah, yeah, I know, restrictor-plate races are crapshoots. You can’t judge a driver’s season off of Daytona, blah blah blah. You have to admit, it was rather interesting to see a new face at the top of the standings and, come on, you know you would have loved to see him stay up there.
I’ll give him credit for keeping himself in the top 10 in points this long. Now he needs to get more top 10s.
Honorable Mentions: Amber and Angela Cope. If I have to explain why, you didn’t watch the Nationwide race. Angela finished 28th, Amber finished 32nd. It goes deeper than that, but you get the picture.
Note: Great job to Kimi Raikkonen finishing 15th in his NASCAR debut. Danica Mania, look out!
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