Fifteen races into the 2011 Nationwide Series season, we're beginning to get a better idea of how the championship might be decided over the summer and fall months -- and along the way, we've discovered an unlikely title contender:
Points leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
After finishing second to Carl Edwards in Saturday's race at Michigan, Stenhouse took a two-point lead over Elliott Sadler (my preseason pick to win the title), while Reed Sorenson sits four points back in third. Stenhouse has four top-5s in his last five races, including his first career win at Iowa Speedway on May 22 -- making him the first Nationwide Series regular to win a race since Justin Allgaier won at Bristol in March 2010.
Considering the struggles Stenhouse endured throughout much of 2010, his 2011 resurgence is a pleasant surprise. No doubt bouyed by the overall strength of Ford and Roush-Fenway Racing in 2011, Stenhouse has nonetheless shown speed and competitiveness on several occasions, and easily could've picked up his second win at Michigan.
Among all Nationwide Series contenders, Stenhouse has been the most consistent, recording 11 top-10s and six top-5s in 15 races. He has just two finishes outside the top-15 this season: a 21st at Richmond and a 38th at Talladega.
Sadler and Sorenson aren't to be counted out just yet -- neither is Allgaier, who won at Chicago two weeks ago -- but of those four, Stenhouse has been the most consistent. Sadler's early-season troubles (including a wreck at Daytona) put him behind the eight ball, while Sorenson -- while consistent with five top-5s and 10 top-10s -- just hasn't shown the threat to win that Stenhouse and Sadler have.
Stenhouse has been the only Nationwide Series regular to consistently run with -- and in some cases, outrun -- the Sprint Cup drivers this season, and his performance gets better week after week. Whereas the No. 6 team had speed but couldn't capitalize early in the season (a 14th-place effort at Bristol after leading laps a perfect example), things are starting to come together for that team.
For the time being, I'm going to stick with my preseason pick of Sadler; despite his early-season troubles, Sadler's team has rebounded to the tune of second in points. This is shaping up to be an exciting title fight down the stretch, especially now that we've seen Nationwide Series regulars win two of the last five races.
All I'm saying is, don't count out Stenhouse. He just might be hoisting the trophy when we get to Homestead in November.