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Nuts for Nationwide: The Highs and Lows of 2013 (So Far)

Just five races into the NASCAR Nationwide Series season, we’ve already learned some things—some are important, some you probably couldn’t care less about. Do we know the clear front runners for the title yet? Maybe, but there’s also still a lot of season left to count some drivers out this early in the year. Do we have a good feel on what the 2013 season as a whole will be remembered for? Again, too early, but a few common themes are emerging.

Some of these common themes can be construed as positives. Some, on the other hand, leave us scratching our head or banging said head on a table in frustration. Either way, the 2013 Nationwide season is shaping up to be an interesting year, though it’s unclear as to whether or not it will remembered fondly, if at all. We might remember it as the year Kyle Larson became a household name, or a season of redemption for former Cup drivers like Elliott Sadler, Brian Vickers, Regan Smith and Sam Hornish, Jr.

Below are some things we’ve learned so far in 2013 for the series. Think of it as a chapter summary, as well as an introduction to the next chapter. We’re still early in the year, but the players are starting to come into focus, the story beginning to unfold. We’ll start with the not-so-greats of the year, the themes that might make you cringe or shake your head (or maybe you’re actually heartened by these themes — let us know!). Then we’ll end on a happier note.

Kyle Busch has been running all over the Nationwide Series so far this year, which is not good news for most fans of the Nationwide Series.

First, Kyle Busch.

Busch has been driving in the Nationwide Series for years now; it’s not like he ever went away. But in 2012, the Las Vegas native had a rough year driving for his own team, during which he won zero races all season. Someone, somewhere decided it was time for a change, and Busch returned to his Cup owner, Joe Gibbs Racing, for a Nationwide run in 2013 with his No. 54 he drove in 2012.

And the results? Five races, three wins, one runner-up finish and a DNF that could very well have been a victory, too, if he hadn’t blown an engine. For folks who watch the Nationwide Series for younger, up-and-coming talent, Busch’s domination is often annoying and frustrating, causing question as to why one watches the series to begin with if it’s just Rowdy beating up on guys he’s expected to beat up on.

What we’re learning is that barring a car breaking down or a herculean effort by another driver (see: Hornish, Las Vegas), Busch will probably be at the front in just about every race he runs, if not all of them. In that case, if your favorite driver is a Nationwide regular, forget hearing about them during the race broadcast. He’s an exceptional talent, but it does get old. You can call people haters all you want for thinking that, but not everyone watches this series wanting to see a guy whose talent exceeds most of the field’s coming down and running away with the prize money.

While we’re in the Gibbs stable, how about the early-season efforts by Brian Vickers and Elliott Sadler?

Before the season began, most expected Sadler and Vickers, former Cup guys with a lot to prove, to be in contention from the get-go. But mechanical and other issues have thwarted big runs from the heavy hitters, relegating them to eighth and 11th in points, respectively. By no means are they having poor seasons; both have two top-five finishes. That said, did you expect to have to look this far down in the standings to find either of them, especially given the strong runs from teammate Busch?

I know they will climb in points — we all do, I think. But with the way Sam Hornish has raced in the first five events, have they (especially Vickers, who is 63 points out of the lead) dug a deep-enough hole that climbing back into contention will be too tough a feat to overcome? That’s the million dollar question. This isn’t a negative in as much of a sense as others, but it’s still disappointing to see both guys struggling when many pegged them as pre-season favorites.

Finally, let’s talk about the bad luck from some of the series’ little guys.

Eric McClure started off the year with his first top 10 EVER in the series. What’s followed is problem after problem, most notably two DNFs in the two races following Daytona. He’s already dropped to 17th in the points after such a strong showing to begin the year.

Mike Wallace and JD Motorsports in general can’t be enjoying 2013 too much either. Though having competed all five races, Wallace is a mere 26th in points with an average finish of 29.2. Both the No. 01 and the No. 4 are outside of the top 30 in owners points, meaning they have to qualify into each race on speed — something that did in the latter team, which missed Bristol with Danny Efland. That said, the team has made some changes; more on that later.

And Michael Annett, usually a decent competitor in the series, has been out since Daytona with an injured sternum and will continue to be out until late spring.

But there are some high points — let’s talk about those.

To do a complete 180, a few smaller teams can count themselves among the lucky ones. As I mentioned last week, Mike Harmon is having one of his best starts to any NASCAR season he’s had, his No. 74 team currently sitting 28th in owners points, thereby guaranteeing him a spot in the field. After missing the first race of the year, Dexter Stacey‘s new No. 92 organization is also locked in — albeit barely, in 30th place.

Start-and-parks aren’t as abundant as in years past, either. Only Tristar Motorsports’ No. 10 remains as a full-time start-and-park organization, while Key Motorsports has brought out the Nos. 42, 46 and 47 at varying frequencies. SR2 Motorsports has the No. 27, and Jimmy Means has had to park his No. 52 once. This is something that could change in a few weeks’ time (see: more parking), but for now, seeing more guys out there actually racing has been great.

Aside from Busch, there haven’t been a ton of Cup regulars otherwise. Brad Keselowski has run every race for Penske, but has rarely been a factor unlike his teammate. Kevin Harvick has been out occasionally, as has Matt Kenseth. But these guys are fewer and further between than in past years, so while Busch has dominated, it’s still great to see battles between Nationwide regulars on other parts of the track — that is, if the TV focuses on them long enough.

Sam Hornish Jr. is having a career year, with a win, four top-fives and five top-10 finishes and a 28-point lead in the standings; if there’s one guy who has been in contention more than Busch, it’s Hornish, and I think most would rather see the latter happen. Regan Smith has been a fantastic presence for JR Motorsports early in the year, and Brian Scott hasn’t finished outside the top 10 yet. And let’s not forget Mike Bliss, who’s still doing things in Tristar equipment I didn’t think were possible.

Oh, and Kyle Busch is only going to be around 20 more races this season, out of a scheduled 28. That’s kinda good, right?

Quick Hits:

-JD Motorsports and Danny Efland have parted ways. Efland piloted the No. 4 in one race this season, finishing 25th at Daytona, and did not qualify at Bristol (Daryl Harr drove the car at the west coast events). Said the team: “This is a move to make our organization better.” Efland drove the car in 18 races in 2012, with two 13th-place finishes.

-And that’s it! Slow news week, guys… check back next week for (hopefully) more developments in the series.

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