Full-time Nationwide drivers taking back the series from part-timers
There was Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., too. The top five in the Nationwide Series race last Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway was littered with Sprint Cup drivers, those erstwhile Buschwhackers, who have long invaded, and dominated, NASCAR's second-tier series.
But it was a full-time N'wide driver, Elliott Sadler, who was the one holding the checkered flag at the end of the race -- a theme that's been the series' defining, and most surprising, storyline.
In 2011, it took 12 races for a Nationwide driver to finally win a series event; a year later, they have won each of the first four races for the first time since 1995, with James Buescher, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Sadler (twice) all reaching Victory Lane.
"I think it's cool ... but I think it would be better if we [the No. 6 team] won all four of them," joked Stenhouse, the defending series champion.
Simply put: the Nationwide guys are defending their turf. And it's not as if they're facing a lack of Cup competition, either. In 2012, an average of 6.25 drivers from the premier series have started in N'wide races, down only slightly from the 6.5 average last season.
But what's behind this uptick in wins? How, after winning just six of the 34 races in all of '11, are the N'wide drivers closing in on that total in just the season's second month?
One reason: major changes for Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, two drivers who combined to win eight of the first 11 races last year.
Kyle Busch, the series' all-time wins leader, reached Victory Lane in 40 races over the past four seasons in Joe Gibbs Racing equipment, claiming a stunning 38.8 percent of the 103 events he drove in. But this season Busch opted to start up a N'wide arm for his team, Kyle Busch Motorsports, and it has struggled to live up to Busch's reputation in the series, going 18th, 11th, 33rd and 17th.
Meanwhile Edwards, who has run in all but two Nationwide events since 2005, opted not to race in the series at all so he could focus on the Cup side.
Then there's the oft-discussed impact of the economy. As much of a downer as the topic has become in NASCAR, it's also the sport's bottom line, literally, with less sponsorship dollars equaling less opportunities for drivers.
It's why Sadler (430 career Cup starts) and Sam Hornish Jr. (109 starts) are driving in the series full-time a season after losing their Cup rides, and why drivers like last year's Daytona 500 winner, Trevor Bayne, aren't racing every Sunday.
But they have helped add quality and depth to a series that saw a major boost in popularity this season with the addition of Danica Patrick, along with new rising young talent like rookies Austin Dillon and Cole Whitt.
While the confluence of luck and the sport's economy plays its part, Stenhouse believes the biggest reason for the stunning start by the Nationwide drivers is simply a matter of the drivers progressing.
"I feel like over the last year a lot of us Nationwide guys were getting better and better every week and then we show up this year and we're right there with [the Cup drivers]," Stenhouse said. "We feel great about it, but it was just a lot of hard work put into it, I believe."
He may have a point. It's a relatively small sample size, but in the first four races of this year, N'wide regulars have occupied 25 of the 40 top-10s, up from 19 in 2011. It seems more seat time is leading to better results.
As for that streak, the question now is how long can they possibly keep it going? Every indication would be that it ends Saturday at Auto Club Speedway.
A non-Cup driver hasn't won at Fontana since Scott Riggs in 2002, and in the 10 years since, no one from N'wide has finished better than third (Stacy Compton finished third in '04; Shane Hmiel also finished third in '05).
Stenhouse says there's no pressure among the N'wide drivers to keep this string of wins going. There's no Cup vs. Nationwide mentality to back up on the track. If and when it ends, Stenhouse believes it won't be long before a series regular is back in Victory Lane.
"We always put that pressure on ourselves and if we can keep it going, that's great," Stenhouse said. "But if not, we feel like Nationwide regulars are going to win more throughout the year anyway."
Junior Showing What He's Been Lacking
The Drought -- which has taken on Biblical proportions as it draws closer to its four-year mark -- could have ended last April in Martinsville. Dale Earnhardt Jr. needed only to nudge Kevin Harvick out of the way and he would have made his long-awaited return to Victory Lane.
He couldn't. He wouldn't.
But the past two weeks have seen Junior put Mark Martin into the wall for cutting him off at Las Vegas and sideline Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon at Bristol after Earnhardt's tail pipe cut Gordon's tire, sending the No. 24 spinning away.
Much has been made about the confidence second-year crew chief Steve Letarte has instilled in his driver, and while that partnership has again made Earnhardt a legit contender, we haven't seen him drive with attitude -- until now.
Sure, Earnhardt was apologetic after those incidents, but the tactics he flashed at Vegas and Bristol may be exactly what Junior needs after finishing second four times since his last win on June 15, 2008. They were reminiscent of another Earnhardt, and if it comes down to another duel for Victory Lane, it's at least a sign we may see Dale Jr. deal with the situation like his famous father.