The Nationwide Series has seen very tight racing in the 2012 season (Getty Images Photo)
The final off weekend for the Sprint Cup Series gives NASCAR's second and third divisions a chance to shine.
The Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series are both in action at Chicagoland Speedway for a spotlight doubleheader.
It's been an interesting year in both circuits in 2012 with good racing, compelling storylines and championship battles in each.
NASCAR's “pick-a-series" policy forcing drivers to chose which division they'll accumulate championship points has done its job of creating attention on new talent. While Sprint Cup interlopers still make regular Nationwide and truck series starts, fresh faces are in the title races.
As the series heads to Chicagoland, where it will return in the September along with the Sprint Cup Series, the championship list is growing with three drivers within 32 points of the lead.
Elliott Sadler has a three-point advantage over Austin Dillon, his Richard Childress Racing teammate. Reigning series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 16 points back while resurgent Sam Hornish Jr., 32 points behind, is very much in play.
“This is going to be a fight to the finish in terms of the championship,” said Sadler as he readies for Sunday's STP 300 at Chicagoland. “We've had some ups and down and challenges but the fact of the matter is we're right in the middle of this thing but I don't see either Austin, Ricky or Sam for that matter going away.
The guy sitting fifth in the standings is looking for a little home cooking and momentum this weekend at what he considers his home track.
Justin Allgaier, from Riverton, Ill., had a popular win at Chicagoland in this race last year when he coasted across the finish line ahead of Carl Edwards after both drivers ran out of fuel. But he wasn't able to turn that momentum into a run at the points lead the rest of the way.
Allgaier is 73 points out of first but feels he's still in the mix for the title but time is starting to run out.
“Obviously I have been looking forward to going back to Chicagoland,” said Allgaier, who is on a streak of four consecutive top-10 finishes and seven in his last eight races. “We certainly feel we have a chance to win more races this year and need to start gaining ground in the points race to get closer to the top and challenge for the title.”
There's also a little added cash on the line in Chicago this weekend with the second of four consecutive "Dash 4 Cash" races, where the highest finisher (not necessarily the winner) among the four eligible drivers for this race – Dillon, Stenhouse, Hornish and Sadler – will take home a $100,000 bonus in addition to his race purse. Indianapolis and Iowa round out the 2012 D4C races.
Dillon won the first $100,000 bonus last week at New Hampshire with his third-place finish, best among the eligible drivers. He now has a head start on a chance at a $1 million payout should he capture the bonus at Chicago and at the Brickyard, and then win outright at Iowa. The bonus winner from Chicago automatically advances to Indianapolis. The next three highest finishers among series regulars from Chicago also are eligible for the bonus at Indianapolis.
“Of course I'm thinking about it,” said Dillon. “We're trying for wins every week and to be eligible for this bonus is pretty exciting.”
The truck series is the opening act in Chicago this weekend with its race under the lights on Saturday night.
There's quite a logjam at the top of the standings with Timothy Peters leading Justin Lofton by only twelve points with Ty Dillon just 14 behind.
Peters started from the pole and led 87 laps en route to his win at Iowa Speedway last Saturday to up his advantage over Lofton to a dozen, the largest points margin this season.
His Red Horse Racing team now has won three of the first nine races with one victory per team, Peters, John King (Daytona) and Todd Bodine (Dover).
Speaking of Bodine, the veteran driver hits a milestone this weekend when he makes his 200th career series start.
Along the way Bodine has racked up a pair of championships as well as 22 victories, which he hopes to add to Saturday night.
“While you try to win them all, it would be pretty special to win the 200th," said Bodine, the only driver to hold 200 starts in all three of NASCAR's national series, NASCAR Sprint Cup, NASCAR Nationwide and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
“To have that kind of longevity in the sport and still be able to get it done, especially in a significant moment like that, definitely would make it a lot more special."
While Bodine has no chance at a title this year, don't count Matt Crafton out of the championship hunt just yet.
A crash at Daytona followed by a part failure in Martinsville resulted in back-to-back finishes outside the top 20 to start the season and created a deep climb for Crafton in the championship standings.
Now things are headed in the right direction with 13 races remaining in the 2012 season. Three consecutive top-five finishes at Texas, Kentucky and Iowa provided much needed momentum for the Ohio-based team.
Crafton sits sixth in the championship standings just one point outside the top five - an impressive accomplishment considering he was in 23rd following the second race of the season.
“We're obviously running a lot better now and getting the results,” said Crafton. “There's still a long ways to go and a lot of racing yet this season so we'll see what happens. Winning races usually takes care of the points deal.”