Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series Season Preview

Five questions heading into the 2011 Nationwide Series season, which opens on Saturday with the DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway ...

1) What's this about full-time Cup drivers no longer being able to win the championship?
NASCAR ruled in the offseason that drivers must select one national series -- Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide Series or Sprint Cup Series -- in which they will pursue championship points in the coming season. Drivers can still run as many races in the other series as they want, but they will only receive points in one series. Full-time Cup drivers have won the last five Nationwide Series titles, with Martin Truex Jr. the last Nationwide-only driver to claim the title in 2005. Defending champion Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards are still planning to run the full Nationwide schedule -- mostly because of sponsor commitments -- but they will not be elgibile for the title because they selected the Cup Series. This opens the door for guys like Justin Allgaier, Aric Almirola and Trevor Bayne to battle for the championship.

2) So who's the favorite, then?
Hard to tell, really; Allgaier is in a new ride with Turner Motorsports, and this will be Almirola's first full-time season in the Nationwide Series -- though he's in a competitive ride in JR Motorsports' No. 88. Bayne will make some noise, but don't be surprised if the series champion winds up being a former Cup driver; Elliott Sadler will run the full season for Kevin Harvick, Inc., and he has just as good a shot at the title as anyone else. Right now, I see the title coming down to Sadler and Almirola; there's still too much uncertainty surrounding Allgaier and Bayne, and I don't see anyone else capable of rising to the occasion right now.

3) But if the Cup boys can still run all the races, will we see a champion without a win?
It's possible; I would've liked to see NASCAR limit the number of races a full-time Cup driver can run in the Nationwide Series (like, say, 17 races) for that reason. With Keselowski and Edwards still running the full slate -- and Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick likely running their share of races -- the series champion could wind up with one win or none. However, it wouldn't surprise me if Keselowski and/or Edwards bow out midway through the season, if their sponsors allow. I think knowing they can't win the title will deter Cup drivers from saturating the Nationwide Series in the coming years, and the series can once again become a proving ground for the country's young up-and-comers. After all, that's the point of the Nationwide Series -- to groom the next generation of Cup stars.

4) What about the new car? That thing was sweet!

The new-generation Nationwide Series car, which saw the track four times in 2010, will be run full-time this season. The car incorporates all the safety advances in the current-generation Sprint Cup car, but the spoilers and front ends are designed to look sleeker and give back the idea of manufacturer identity; already, Ford and Dodge have benefited by rolling out the Mustang and Challenger, respectively. The cars look great, and the racing in those four races last year was pretty good. NASCAR wants to use these cars as a template for future Cup cars, and I'd say they're doing a pretty good job so far.

5) Will Danica Patrick be back?
Yes, Patrick will run 12 races this season, including the first four before moving over to her ride in the IndyCar Series. Her slate will include a debut at Bristol in March, and Patrick will look to improve on 2010 -- in which her best finish was 19th at Homestead. I still don't see how she can improve if she's spending the year driving in two separate series, going between two cars that are so drastically different. Frankly, I'd like to see her pick a series and stick with it. If she wants to run in NASCAR, I think she needs to fully commit to it. The transition from open-wheel to stock car racing is so jarring that some of the best drivers in the world have struggled with it (Sam Hornish, Dario Franchitti, Juan Pablo Montoya), and she doesn't have nearly the resume of those three. She'll improve, but switching between series will not do her any favors.

Coming Wednesday: 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Season Preview

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