Top 10 drivers separated by just 70 points heading into home stretch
After 16 races and 2,778 laps, the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship is as unsettled entering Saturday’s New England 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway as it was when teams showed up in Daytona Beach to kick off the season.
The only thing that is decided heading into the weekend is that Elliott Sadler -- who is third in the championship standings -- is leading the series' Dash 4 Cash bonus program and collected $100,000 for his third place last week at Daytona. He’ll compete against Dillon, rookie Kyle Larson and Hornish this week for another $100,000 bonus. If Sadler can best the group again at New Hampshire then July 21 at Chicago and win the July 27 race at Indianapolis outright, he’ll have earned a $1 million prize from Nationwide.
"We just need to keep our heads down and move forward. I’m happy it’s as close as it is."
-- Sam Hornish Jr.
In the meantime, there’s a championship to decide. And no one’s running away with anything.
“It’s really been kind of crazy because normally the summer stretch is where we kind of stretch out,’’ observed Justin Allgaier, the driver of the No. 31 Brandt Chevy and fourth place in the championship, only 15 points behind Smith.
“You get through the beginning months and see who the cars are that you’re going to have to beat, then you hit the summer stretch and it usually goes one way or the other. This is probably the oddest I’ve seen it being as close as it is.”
The standings have varied widely from Hornish hanging on to a single-point advantage in April to Smith holding more than a full-race lead in June.
With four top-five finishes -- a win and two runner-ups -- in the first five races of the season, Hornish jumped out to a commanding 28-point edge in March only to see that dwindle.
Smith picked up where Hornish left off and had amassed a 58-point lead three weeks ago and put 10th-place Brian Vickers a distant 100 points back.
Yet as the teams arrive in New England, it’s almost as if the season’s been re-set.
“If you would have ask me leaving California how I felt, I’d be pretty upset to come back here and have it be as close as it is, but leaving Michigan, if you were to ask me, I’m pretty happy about it,’’ said Hornish, who drives the No. 12 Alliance Trucks Ford.
“Three races ago we were 58 points out and now we’re back in. I’m happy about that and we knew going into the road courses would be where we could make some up. We just need to keep our heads down and move forward. I’m happy it’s as close as it is.
“Hopefully we’ll have this reset and get out of here with a decent finish and start getting that points lead back and building on it.’’
The extreme fortunes have also given new hope to drivers such as Sadler, Allgaier and Dillon, who are very much in the thick of things even though Smith and Hornish have been the only names atop the standings this season.
“I would say the top eight are closest I’ve seen in a long time for this part of the season,’’ Allgaier said. “I’d like to say it’s going to separate itself out so that you have a little breathing room if you have a bad race you’re not worried that you’re back 10th in the points.
“But at same time, the way we’ve seen the competition level this year has been amazing here in the Nationwide Series and that’s why you’re seeing guys closer. It’s how hard it is to separate yourself from somebody.
“You have a good day and it’s top-five and they (the guys leading the championship) are running seventh. Last week in Kentucky, we had a decent day and I lost a spot in points. We’ve all noticed it’s really crazy how competitive it is.’’
Dillon couldn’t agree more.
“I think you see the guys up there still that you’ll see come and go, you see the guys that you know you’re going to have to race slowly move their way back into the top five, top three,’’ said Dillon, driver of the No. 3 AdvoCare Chevy.
“It’s such a long season, people are going to have bad luck. It’s just so hard to be consistent for 33 races and as tight as the competition level is right now you can’t have a mistake or a fall to get the lead. And once you have the lead, it seems like it’s even harder to keep it. ‘’
That’s certainly been the case. Despite their best efforts, neither Hornish nor Smith has riden off into the sunset yet.
Hornish has a win, a series best six top-five showings, and only four finishes worse than 10th. But when he’s not challenging for a win, it’s been the opposite extreme -- 34th at Texas and 32nd at Michigan.
It’s been a similar situation for Smith, who also boasts impressive statistics but had had his points lead suffer on consecutive 32nd- (Road America) and 30th-place (Kentucky) outings.
“It’s exactly what we knew could happen,’’ Hornish said. “There’s a lot of people we felt like would have opportunities to run good and be there for the championship. I felt like Regan was going to be a tough competitor and obviously, Elliott (Sadler) and Austin (Dillon). When I look at who’s around me when we park here in line, it’s the same guys and that’s how it goes.
“You’re going to have (off) days like that. People will catch up to you. We just need to get back to doing what we did the first five races of the year and find that stride because we were just gaining points and had a strong lead early.
“When I look at how we’ve run, there’s no reason why we can’t gain points every weekend and win this championship. I feel like we have all the opportunity in the world to win the championship if we do the right things.’’