News & Media

Edwards may win, but Nationwide earning identity

July 27, 2011, Joe Menzer,

LEBANON, Tenn. -- To say the past of the Nationwide Series was sitting next to the future of the Nationwide Series would be incorrect.

That was proven one night later, after Carl Edwards had sat down at a small, cramped table next to Roush Fenway Racing teammates Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the media center at Nashville Superspeedway last Friday afternoon. Edwards, of course, would go on to win the Federated Auto Parts 300 at the 1.33-mile track on Saturday and display once again that, as a long-time veteran of NASCAR's junior series, he still has plenty to say about what goes down in it.

"It'll be more exciting at the end of the year, I think, and that's something that is great for the fans. If it gets our attention, it's sure to get their attention, too."


But on this day, the trio was discussing the benefits of NASCAR's ruling prior to this season that drivers must declare in which of the three national touring series they intend to run for a championship. Once that declaration is made, there is no turning back. Points can be accumulated in one series only.

For a rock star like Edwards -- for that is what car owner Jack Roush rightly calls him -- it presented a bittersweet pill to swallow. The man loves to race. As a former Nationwide champion, he would love to be running for another driver's championship in the series. But his top focus is the Sprint Cup Series, where he currently leads in points, and so that is that.

By removing Edwards and others such as Kyle Busch and reigning Nationwide champion Brad Keselowski from the Nationwide championship equation, the hope was that it would pave the way for Nationwide-only regulars -- such as Bayne and Stenhouse -- to become stars in their own orbit and breathe new life into the series.

And the fact is, it is working.

Proving ground

Despite the fact that 17 of the first 20 Nationwide races this season have been captured by Cup regulars such as Edwards, the new rule has helped strike a balance that is giving the junior series its own identity. Yes, Busch -- who was not in the field at Nashville -- has won a series-high six times in 15 starts; yes, Edwards won for the fifth time on Saturday.

But instead of the championship battle coming down to those two, and all the focus being on them, it's landing instead on the series regulars such as Reed Sorenson, who took over the points lead from Elliott Sadler on Saturday. And even though those two are former Cup regulars who ended up back in Nationwide because their full-time Cup rides evaporated, the spotlight also has been on the likes of Stenhouse and Bayne, Justin Allgaier and Aric Almirola, and other up-and-comers or Nationwide veterans such as Kenny Wallace.

Edwards, meanwhile, can try to win something else of value. He's trying to help Roush win the owner's points title.

"That's our mission this year: to win the owner's points. But for us in the Nationwide Series -- and in the Cup Series, for that matter -- it's about going to the race tracks and trying to win races," Edwards said. "I think Ricky, from my perspective, has proven this year that it's not a cakewalk for us Cup drivers. There is massive talent in this Nationwide Series. ... From my perspective, I go and race and whether I'm racing against a Cup driver or a Nationwide-only driver, they all seem to race very hard."

Indeed, Stenhouse, now second in points behind Sorenson, was the young man who broke the Cup regulars' grip on Victory Lane earlier in the season after the Cuppers had won the first 11 races on the Nationwide schedule. Two weeks after Stenhouse did so by winning at Iowa Speedway, Allgaier followed suit at Chicagoland Speedway -- and two weeks after that, Sorenson did so again at Road America in Elkhart, Wis.

Together, they shattered the myth that this year's top Nationwide-only dog probably was going to be crowned champion without winning a single race. (That still could happen, of course, but no longer is likely).

Meanwhile, Stenhouse correctly pointed out that having Cup guys such as Edwards to run against on a regular basis is not a negative for the young drivers who usually, inevitably, find themselves eating the exhaust fumes of the more experienced veterans. If they're smart, at least they're learning something from them along the way.

"It's obviously working out great for us right now. Like Carl said, we're all paying attention to the points and we want to win the points in this Nationwide Series -- but we also want to come out here and beat Carl, Kyle, Kevin [Harvick] and all those guys when they're here. Because that's really what proves us, running with those guys," Stenhouse said.

"For the fans it gives them another story to follow and to build on. Every time we do autograph sessions, they're talking about the points. So I think that's a great thing, that fans are really into following us Nationwide-only drivers in the points. We've still got to go out here and win races against guys like Carl and Kyle and see where we stack up at the end of the season. But so far, I think it's been real good."

Another perspective

Bayne was very much a part of the points conversation earlier this season. Then he missed five races because of a mysterious illness from which he says he's since recovered.

During his time away, he said he gained some unique perspective.

"I think as far as media attention, especially when we were up there in that points battle earlier in the year, I could see a big difference [from in years past] because there was a story to build on there. It was something for these guys [running for the Nationwide championship] to get excited about," Bayne said. "Since I've come back from the five races I had to take off, I can see a difference in the attention from my standpoint -- because at one point I was in the battle for the lead and I'm no longer in that points race. But I think it's great for the Nationwide-only drivers, when they are in that battle and they can be because of the choose-your-own-series rule."

Bayne, if you will recall, was even given a special chance to change his mind and declare he was running for a Cup championship after winning the season-opening Daytona 500. He decided not to and said he does not regret that decision.

"There are drivers who would be contending with or without the Cup guys -- like Ricky and Reed Sorenson. These guys are tough this year," Bayne said. "I'd love to still be in that battle; I think it would be awesome. But it's a good thing to have to choose.

"It was a tough thing for us to do. Especially after winning the Daytona 500, we wondered if we had made the right decision. But I think as a driver it's good to focus on one series and know you're competing for that championship."

As the season heats up in the coming weeks, Edwards said the new rule will only serve to make it even more interesting.

"I think by the end of the year, all of us who aren't in the points battle will be watching it closer," Edwards said. "It'll be more exciting at the end of the year, I think, and that's something that is great for the fans. If it gets our attention, it's sure to get their attention, too."

In the process, the younger drivers may grab the attention of others who eventually will give them their shots in Cup cars. Perhaps they will attract the interest of some new sponsors who will want to take a chance on investing in them, at the Nationwide or Cup level. Plus winning a Nationwide driver's championship will take on its own special identity.

And really, aren't those things what the rule change was all about?