Race Weekend Central

Nuts for Nationwide: Analyzing The Nationwide Top Five

Kyle Busch may have stolen most of the glory so far in the 2013 Nationwide Series season, but the championship hunt is shaping up to be one of the better battles in recent memory — that is, if things stay as close as they are heading into next week’s ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond.

Despite an incident that resulted in a poor finish at Texas, Sam Hornish, Jr. remains the Nationwide Series points leader.

Sam Hornish, Jr. currently leads the points standings, as he has since the first race of the season (save for a one-race tie with Justin Allgaier). But while Hornish once led by as much as 28, that lead has evaporated after an incident at Texas that damaged his No. 12 Ford, relegating him to a 34th-place finish and allowing his closest rivals to catch back up.

Among those nearest Hornish at the moment are Regan Smith, Austin Dillon, Justin Allgaier and Brian Scott. Smith is two points behind Hornish, with Dillon eight back while both Allgaier and Scott face a nine-point deficit.

This means that, conceivably, any one of those five drivers could exit Richmond with the points lead. That would bring Hornish’s consecutive reign to an end.

But will Hornish even see any sort of challenge, over the long-term or will his mostly blistering pace in the series only continue as the season wears on? Things are definitely looking good for him to at least stay near the top spot, if not keep the lead. His results at the next few tracks on the schedule aren’t too iffy, and the only circuits in the next five races at which he hasn’t scored at least a top 10 are Talladega and Dover, the first of which tends to be a total crapshoot, anyway. Only bad racing luck has brought the other competitors back into the championship fold.

That said, chances are the Penske driver will begin to see some major competition from Austin Dillon. The current third-place driver in the standings has only raced a handful of times at the upcoming tracks, but already, his results are fairly impressive. Since it’s his second full season in the series, one can only imagine he’ll be even better the second time around, which could spell trouble for the competition.

Then, there’s the veteran Smith. He’s one of the major unknowns of the battle, having been out of a Nationwide car for many years while driving in the Cup Series full-time. He and his JR Motorsports No. 5 have been solid so far, and in three races, Smith returns to the site of his only Cup win: Darlington. Of the former Cuppers coming down to race in the second-tier series, Smith has either had the best luck or simply been the best driver of that group, and he’s likely to continue that kind of driving over the next month or so and beyond.

The other drivers in the hunt? Justin Allgaier and Brian Scott, two guys who have been around the Nationwide Series for a few years now. Earlier in the year, I talked up Allgaier as a major championship contender, and if he can replicate some past finishes at the next few tracks, that shouldn’t change. He has a top 10 at every upcoming track and a top-5 result at all but Talladega. If some of his rivals falter while Allgaier stays consistent, we could be looking at a Justin Allgaier-led points race going into June.

Brian Scott is the biggest question mark of all. In the move to Richard Childress Racing, Scott has been solid, scoring top-10 finishes in each of the first five races of the season. That consistency has been enough to keep him in the hunt, though his lack of top-5 performances isn’t encouraging, nor are his past results at some of the upcoming tracks. That said, each eventual champion had to start somewhere; maybe Childress becomes Mr. Scott’s starting point, finally after a few years’ preparation and stagnation.

Let’s not forget the rest of the top 10 in points, either. Though a distant 35 points back, Parker Kligerman isn’t totally out of this one yet, nor are Elliott Sadler, Alex Bowman, Brian Vickers and Trevor Bayne, who round out the top 10. All it takes is a few major slip-ups by those ahead and consistently fantastic finishes by those behind to even the playing field even more.

It’s still another week before any of these questions can be answered, but the suspense is already palpable. It may be early in the season, but the chase for the championship is already heating up, especially if the drivers currently in contention remain there.

Quick Hits:

– Two full-time Nationwide competitors plan to make their 2013 Cup debuts this weekend while the series is on yet another off week. Sam Hornish Jr. will compete in the No. 12 he drove last season in the series, part-time before taking over the No. 22 midyear for AJ Allmendinger. It’s the start to what Penske hopes will be the development of a third full-time Cup car for 2014. Meanwhile, Elliott Sadler teams up with Joe Gibbs Racing to drive the new No. 81 Toyota, a team that also could be expanded to full-time next year. Both do not have the luxury of a provisional, so Hornish and Sadler will have to qualify with a fast enough time at Kansas.

– Though it’s a week off from competition, multiple teams have done practice runs at multiple tracks on the circuit in preparation for events later this season. Sam Hornish, Jr. and his No. 12 team ventured to Mid-Ohio last Monday, while Turner Scott drivers Kyle Larson and Nelson Piquet, Jr. practiced at Darlington Tuesday and Wednesday.

– Danny Efland has picked up a ride in a different series. Efland, who was released as the driver of Johnny Davis Motorsports’ No. 4 a few weeks ago, has hooked up with MAKE Motorsports, which fields a Truck Series team and owned the No. 50 in the Nationwide Series in 2012. Efland makes his debut this weekend at Kansas, driving the No. 6 in a partnership between MAKE and Eddie Sharp Racing.

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