(Stenhouse Jr. will be back to defend his championship in 2012 and looks to bring Mustang another title)
The days of the Nationwide Series being referred to “Sprint Cup Lite” may be coming to a close.
Thanks to NASCAR’s new championship system, the disappearance of Cup regulars running full-time in the series and a brand new race car, stock car racing’s number two series is beginning to find an identity of its own.
The sanctioning body’s decision to mandate drivers choose which championship they intended to compete for at the beginning of last season provided an opportunity for Nationwide-only competitors to shine. Although Sprint Cup drivers won their share of races last season, the title fight that went down to the wire between series regulars Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler did exactly what NASCAR had hoped it would by providing more exposure and awareness.
"I think it's worked just the way we wanted it to," said NASCASR CEO Brian France. "We wanted to showcase the young drivers in their own series, and still have the participation of drivers with a lot of experience, and that's exactly what we've gotten. I think it's been good for the young drivers to get some different notoriety and the honor and prestige of winning a championship, and the money that comes with that, and all the best. It's been a good thing."
Eventual champ Stenhouse had to fight the likes of Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski for wins throughout the year but he didn’t have to worry about battling those Cup interlopers for the championship.
"When they changed the points system, nobody really counted us in," Stenhouse said after claiming the crown for Roush Fenway Racing. “But we felt like as a race team, that gave us an even better shot to win it. We just fought really hard all year. We came into this season feeling like we had a shot at it."
As the 2012 season nears, Stenhouse will get a shot at back to back titles. Despite some sponsorship issues and the challenge of finding the necessary funding, team owner Jack Roush has committed to bringing Stenhouse back for another title assault.
“They’re working on sponsorship for it right now, so everything is good,” said Stenhouse, who will also run a handful of Sprint Cup races for RFR including his first Daytona 500. “It sounds like we’re going to be able to go and defend our title again. … We’ve been planning on running for it.”
The road to a second straight crown won’t be an easy one for Stenhouse who will face a tough group of challengers including Sadler and his Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon, last year’s Camping World Truck Series titlist.
The duo is pumped up about their assault on the championship for the restructured and re-energized RCR Nationwide effort, which absorbed the Kevin Harvick Inc. program Sadler drove for last season.
“I’ve already seen a difference on a lot of stuff,” said Sadler, who will also run the Daytona for RCR in a limited Sprint Cup program. “We feel like right now our cars are prepared as good as we can make them. We really feel like we’ve got our stuff together here to start the first four or five races.”
Luke Lambert, who worked with RCR Cup driver Jeff Burton at the end of last season, will guide Sadler’s No. 2 Chevrolet team.
Dillon, team owner Childress’ grandson, will carry the iconic No. 3 entry into his full Nationwide Series program after brining RCR the truck title in 2011.
He believes his experience and subsequent success last season will be paramount to the road that lies ahead in the Nationwide Series.
“In 2010, I was able to learn all the Truck Series tracks and that’s what helped me in 2011,” said Dillon. “Kind of knowing what to expect the next year and how to pick up my game, I guess.
“It was a good year last year winning a championship,” Dillon said. “You want another championship because you know what it feels like standing up there at the table and everything. But I think where we’re at, being a rookie, top five in points and winning a few races would be great. Winning rookie of the year would be great. It’s going to be fun and exciting.”
(Patrick makes her full-time move to NASCAR in 2012 with a Nationwide Series program for JR Motorsports)
While Stenhouse, Sadler and Dillon bring their own recognition into the new campaign the will have to battle for attention against the highest-profile name on the Nationwide Series driver roster in 2012 – Danica Patrick.
The former open wheel driver will go from dipping her toe into the NASCAR waters to a full dive into the deep end of the pool with a fulltime Nationwide effort at Junior Motorsports.
Patrick, who spent parts of the last two seasons juggling an Indy Car-NASCAR schedule, believes she’s ready to make the complete move to stock cars.
“There's a lot of things that are unknown, especially with running the full-time Nationwide championship, wanting to do really well in that and wanting to make a good impression in the Cup races I'm doing," said Patrick, who has a ten race Sprint Cup schedule as well in a collaborative Stewart-Haas Racing/Tommy Baldwin racing effort. "But overall, I'm feeling comfortable, as comfortable as I could imagine myself in this situation."
Patrick admits she’s learned a lot in her so far limited stint in NASCAR and that she may have to change her approach going forward now as a full-time competitor.
“There’s still going to be moments for sure where I’m going to be patient and I’m probably am not going to go all the way, but I’m getting more comfortable around the drivers,” Patrick said. “I didn’t want to come in and start pushing my way around because that’s not my style.
“Now I’ve been here for a little while, I feel more comfortable with the style of racing, when you can push and when you can’t push. Ultimately, just having a bigger comfort zone with the car is going to give me the ability to push harder and put the car on the track wherever I want and do more with it.”
Patrick will be teamed up with another driver making a full Nationwide season debut in Cole Whitt, who takes the wheel of the JR Motorsports No. 88 entry vacated when Aric Almirola got the call to drive for Richard Petty Motorsports in the Cup Series.
The young driver made a solid impression in the truck series and now hopes to capitalize on the opportunity afforded him by co-owners Dale and Kelley Earnhardt.
“This is a big opportunity for me, and I’m happy to be a part of the JR Motorsports team,” said Whitt. “I’m grateful to Dale, Kelley and everyone at JR Motorsports for giving me this chance. It’s an honor to work with the Eurys, and I will do everything in my power to put this No. 88 team where it belongs in Victory Lane.”
There are others who will try to make their mark in the Nationwide Series title race this season including Justin Allgaier of Turner Motorsports, Sam Hornish Jr. in a full-time program for Penske Racing and Michael Annett, who wound up at RPM after Rusty Wallace’s team was forced to close up shop.
There will still be Sprint Cup regular influence with the likes of Keselowski, Kyle and Kurt Busch with the new Kyle Busch Motorsports entry, Kasey Kahne at Turner, Trevor Bayne for RFR and the Joey Logano/Denny Hamlin combo at Joe Gibbs Racing.
But there is a distinct flavor of excitement and anticipation to the 2012 Nationwide season that hasn’t been present for some time.
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