Anyone that’s followed NASCAR’s scheduling habits the past decade was far from surprised that one of the sure-fire races of the Nationwide Series season (Lucas Oil Raceway) was yanked from the schedule in favor of a 250-mile jaunt at the Brickyard. Never mind the logic that less crappy stock car racing is still crappy stock car racing.
But having said that as the Nationwide Series approaches its debut on the big track in Indy, the 2012 season has been, well, surprising, on a number of fronts. Enjoying a compelling title race for the second consecutive year after an ugly stretch of Cup dominance from 2006-2010, this year’s campaign has actually been worth watching. Now, heading down the summer stretch, here’s a few of those surprises that have made the season just that.
It’s a great weekend to look back. Because in the seasons prior to this, NASCAR’s AAA would be short-tracking this Saturday, instead of playing IndyCar in an empty cavern.
*Austin Dillon’s a Rookie?*
Richard Childress Racing’s return to Nationwide competition has gone exactly as past history would indicate; they scored their first race win in week two, are fielding two of the top three cars in the standings, and essentially picked up at the high level that the former Kevin Harvick, Incorporated had been running at.
But for all the team strength, Austin Dillon’s performance in his rookie Nationwide campaign has been surprisingly good. Nobody expected him to struggle; between having Richard Childress for a grandfather and enough talent behind the wheel to score the 2011 Truck Series title, Dillon is arguably the hottest prospect at any level of NASCAR racing. But despite being a rookie and driving for a team transitioning from trucks to NNS cars, they’ve already found victory lane and more importantly been the most consistent team in the garage.
Dillon’s proven adept at staying out of trouble on the track and logging laps, having finished in the top 20 for all 18 races thus far in 2012. There’ve been scarcely any rookie moments in this season, and as a result the No. 3 has proven the third wheel in Elliott Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse’s 2012 Act 2, with both of last year’s contenders winning more races but proving streaky down the stretch.
Not since Martin Truex Jr. nearly a decade ago has a Nationwide driver looked so…experienced…in his first full-time campaign. Looking at where Truex is right now, Dillon ought to be quite pleased with how his season…and career…have gone thus far.
*Dramatic drop in Cup involvement*
For all the races Joey Logano won in the spring, the days of Cup regulars scoring 10 of 10 positions at the front of the field are seemingly dead. A trend that emerged with the 2011 decision to prohibit Cup drivers from running for the Nationwide title has gotten even more pronounced in 2012. Carl Edwards, nowhere to been seen on the minor league tour. Kyle Busch’s appearances have dipped to make room for both his brother and his ownership responsibilities. Even Kevin Harvick has been seen a little bit less this season, making way for Brendan Gaughan, Paul Menard and others providing sponsorship for the No. 33 car.
It’s very surprising to have seen such a trend, seeing as how the transition of the Nationwide Series to a COT platform has perhaps made the lessons of running Saturday races on the Cup tire package even more valuable.
Which begs the question…was it ever about the lessons learned or the love of racing? Or was it about the money, the trophies, and the ego-stroking that came with years of dominance?
The purses are down, the championship is out of the question, and suddenly the Nationwide regulars are proving capable of running up front and winning any given Saturday. All of that’s combined to a dramatic reduction of double-dipping.
Coincidence? I doubt it.
*True sponsorship desolation*
There’s always drivers and deals that evaporate a few races into the season, unable to land sponsorship to keep it moving. Joey Gase losing his seat in the No. 39 with Go Green Racing was one such example; Randy Hill Racing turning to start-and-park with greater frequency, these developments at this level of the Nationwide garage is to be expected.
But having said that, there’s been just as much trouble at the front of the garage as the back when it comes to putting paint on the quarterpanels. Joe Gibbs Racing has proven to be just as stout with their Toyotas as ever, even with Kyle Busch out of the seat, yet the No. 20 team is still skipping races for lack of backing. Kenny Wallace is no longer a full-time on the circuit despite a career resurgence less than a year ago.
And most notably, Trevor Bayne has been all but absent in NASCAR at large, with no sponsors materializing to back the 2011 Daytona 500 champion or the vaunted No. 60 Roush Fenway Racing squad.
Coupled with the exodus of former Nationwide Series sponsors to the Cup ranks (5-Hour Energy, Aspen Dental, Kingsford), the sponsorship situation is not challenging anymore.
It’s dire. For a series that’s taking the right tack in terms of eligibility and stock cars that at least halfway resemble their on-street counterparts, that’s cause for concern.
*The Indianapolis 250 worth watching*
Well, we can all hope right? There would be few surprises bigger than to have a stock car race at the Brickyard be worth a few hours of viewing time.