Last year’s battle between Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler was about as much entertainment as Nationwide Series fans had gotten in a decade. After five consecutive years of having the trophy bestowed upon a double dipping all-star with premier equipment, Cup pit crews and talent that had long proven ready to graduate to the Sprint Cup Series, finally the points battle had some suspense…and some fresh blood to boot.
This year, it’s only gotten better. With Cup involvement down, leading title contenders Stenhouse and Sadler have combined for nine race wins and proven among the class of the field for the vast majority of the season’s 27 events thus far. Not only is the battle for top of the charts close, it’s among drivers that are viable threats to win every weekend.
A number of factors outside the cockpit can be held responsible for this. With sponsorship money drying up, many of the double-duty Cup rides that have long been available have dried up in 2012, leaving the field with a lesser concentration of ringers. Sadler has enjoyed the benefits of having a strong teammate in Austin Dillon as well as the return of Richard Childress Racing to Nationwide competition, a series they’ve dominated whenever they’ve competed in it. On the flip side of that coin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and his No. 6 team have thrived without the No. 60 of Carl Edwards hogging sponsor dollars and equipment.
But the most important difference that’s making this year’s championship as compelling as it has been is the same thing that made 2005’s battle between Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer (decided by 84 markers, but a battle that saw Bowyer gain ground on Truex for four consecutive races late in the season) worth watching. Namely, the two guys battling for the title can not only win, but they’re hungry. Promotion is nearly at hand for both drivers, and they’re driving like it.
For Stenhouse, the Cup ride is on the books. He will be racing the No. 17 starting with the Daytona 500 in February 2013. But there’s still plenty to be done; only 70% of the races are sold on his Cup car, as the defending champion is wading into a Cup environment and sponsorship market that bested even former Cup champion Matt Kenseth. Stenhouse is not only racing for a championship, but for his future.
For Sadler, his impending move to Joe Gibbs Racing for 2013 is about as well kept a secret as Matt Kenseth’s was. And for as strong as RCR has been in 2012 with their Nationwide program, JGR’s Toyotas have still proven to be the strongest horses in that garage. This can’t be considered a lateral move; it’s a step up, even if it’s another Nationwide ride for a driver that’s made no secret he wants to return to Cup. It makes more sense for Sadler as well, with a stable at RCR full of Dillons ready and able to fill in when Jeff Burton is ready to step aside. But there’s still plenty to be done. Sadler, as stated, wants to be back in Cup, very badly, and is now heading to a team where he’s not going to get an empty seat…he’s going to have to make his own, seeing as how Kenseth, Hamlin and Kyle Busch aren’t leaving the sport anytime soon.
That both drivers are literally in a situation where their futures and promotions are not 100% concrete has shown on the track. Nine wins among the title contenders are the most dueling Nationwide regulars have won battling for a title since 2003. Both drivers have already equaled their top 5 finish totals from last season…with six races still to go in 2012. And both have lost quality results and points due to self-induced driver error.
Some would argue that’s a product of misplaced over-aggression. But in a sport that’s suffering from an overwhelming case of points racing, it’s a true indicator of just how hard these two are pushing themselves and each other. An indicator that goes beyond the obvious, such as Stenhouse pulling the bump and run on Sadler at Bristol.
Elliott Sadler spun himself out at Richmond because he wanted to pass Ricky Stenhouse Jr., then and now. Stenhouse drove so hard trying to get back to the front after a pit road incident at Kentucky this past weekend that he slapped the wall again…only to battle back from 31st to 17th despite the damage present all over his Mustang.
It’s amazing what a little carrot on a string can do. 2012 is a repeat of 2011…only difference is the results are stronger. The racing is more aggressive. And both drivers are facing uncertainty that wasn’t there last year…even if rides are all but secured for 2013.
Even if its only two drivers, the Nationwide guys actually have something to prove again. That alone will make Dover worth watching.