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Nationwide drivers on their own stage at Iowa

June 08, 2013, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com

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With Sprint Cup regulars away, Nationwide's best enjoy packed house

NEWTON, Iowa -- Hours before Friday’s first practice for the DuPont Pioneer 250, drivers walking around the garage and throughout the infield took turns stopping and admiring the sight above Turn 4.
 
There, above the outside retaining wall, was a door-to-door line of campers.
 
The view from the top was even better. There, on the sunken, muddy grass, one could see that the jam-packed line actually went four campers deep and was teeming with NASCAR fans a full 42 hours before Saturday’s race at Iowa Speedway is scheduled to begin (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
 
Yes, the NASCAR Nationwide Series is in town. And it’s the Big Show.

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“We know the Cup guys aren’t here this weekend, and we’ve sold this race out every time we’ve come here,” said Michael Annett, who drives the No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports and is from Des Moines. “As far as Nationwide goes, that’s huge. As drivers, we pay attention to that kind of stuff.
 
“We know the fans are out there cheering for us, and when you can race against a packed house, it makes you want to win. Not that you’re not trying to win in the other races, but it makes it more special.”
 
Saturday’s race is the 12th of the season on the Nationwide circuit, and it’s the first stand-alone event of the year. There are no Cup cars in the garage across the infield, and certainly not as many Cup drivers in the Nationwide lineup. In fact, Joey Logano -- who is also in the Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway on Sunday -- is the lone full-time Sprint Cup driver who will take the green flag.
 
Logano is gunning for his second consecutive Nationwide Series win. If one of the other 39 drivers gets the checkered flag instead, it’ll be just the third time this season a full-time Nationwide driver has won a Nationwide Series race.
 
Don’t expect the racing to suffer, though. In fact, it could thrive.
 
“With only one Cup guy, a lot of guys will think ‘This should be a lot easier, this is my chance.’ Well, everyone has that same mindset,” said Annett, who was wearing an Iowa Hawkeyes hat throughout the day. “A lot more times than not, (stand-alones) are harder to win than any others. A lot of guys that get that one sponsor for that one off-race, a lot of time it’s this one because we are in that spotlight. That’s their one time to shine. They’re going to take more chances than they normally would. Sometimes it works out and you see guys have really good runs, and sometimes it doesn’t. But it definitely makes for an exciting race.”
 
This stand-alone race is about more than just excitement, too. It’s about opportunity.
 
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got the first Nationwide Series win of his career here at this .875-mile race track that resides on a road named for NASCAR Hall of Famer and track owner Rusty Wallace, surrounded by miles of green Iowa farmland.
 
That victory was the spur that kick-started Stenhouse’s career. He went on to win the 2011 championship, sweeping the Iowa races, then won here again in the summer of 2012. He won the Nationwide Series championship that year, too.
 
There are several young, talented drivers looking for their first Nationwide Series win Saturday night as Stenhouse did two years ago. Parker Kligerman is among them.
 
Kligerman still holds the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series record at the track, and he finished eighth last year in his lone Nationwide Series attempt.
 
“Yes, it’s great for us to be the main show and maybe giving us a higher chance to go out there and compete for a win,” Kligerman said in his hauler following Friday’s final practice. “But at the end of the day, the top guys competing for a championship are the guys that have won a Cup race. Regan Smith, Elliott Sadler, Brian Vickers. Sam Hornish is going to back in Cup any minute. It’s the same level of guys, so I don’t feel any different racing them or racing Kyle Busch or Kasey Kahne.”
 
Kligerman is part of a crowded field that trails points leader Smith, who has a 27-point edge of second-place Hornish In sixth place, the Kyle Busch Motorsports product is 56 points behind Smith, but only 14 behind third-place Vickers. Vickers, in turn, is one point ahead of fourth-place Justin Allgaier, who is 10 points ahead of fifth-place Austin Dillon.
 
All of which will mean precisely nothing once the lights burn bright at Iowa, once the white flag drops and once drivers sensing a real opportunity start to dive down into the turns, wheeling themselves around a track that could change the trajectory of their entire season.
 
“Any time we have a stand-alone, it’s awesome. It really changes how we approach the race,” Allgaier said. “I think we’ve seen it in all the stand-alones -- the less Cup guys, the more challenging the races are. The Nationwide regulars step up their game and push that much harder. We’re really at the forefront here, at the center of attention. And that changes everything.”