[media-credit name=”Barry Albert” align=”alignright” width=”238″][/media-credit]Perhaps the Nationwide Series regulars had grown tired of hearing about the Sprint Cup Series drivers dominating. Or maybe they’d had enough of finishing second on their own turf.
Whatever it may be, the field of 2012 NNS regulars have come out of the gate strong. Following Cup drivers winning 28 of 34 races last season, NNS drivers have upped the ante and have won three of the seasons first five races. James Buescher, who competes for points in the Camping World Truck Series, won the season opening race, while Joey Logano earned Cup drivers a win in California.
Elliott Sadler, the NNS point leader, says it’s great see a wide open field and that NNS drivers have worked hard to better understand their cars. Sadler has won twice thus far, at Phoenix and Bristol.
“I think everybody is learning more about these cars,” said Sadler earlier this week. “I think the Cup guys had a lot of experience in this style of race car for the last five or six years. A lot of Nationwide guys it was their first year in this style of car with the splitter and now the valance and stuff on the front end.
“The cars definitely drive a lot different, react a lot different in the race, react a lot different in traffic and aero wise. I just think everybody has learned more about these cars this winter and we’re all kind of closer on the same playing field and I think that’s why we’re seeing some different winners than what we saw in the past.”
Sadler believes that all the NNS drivers are building faster cars this year. While NNS drivers said they enjoyed racing against Cup drivers, many grew tired of seeing the same drivers win. Calling it beating the little guys in a series they didn’t belong in.
Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards were often the most criticized. They won a combined 16 races and never heard the end of it along the way. This season however, Edwards isn’t competing as he focuses solely on the NSCS.
Busch though is running in his own equipment, Kyle Busch Motorsports and hasn’t yet won a race. Busch turns over the wheel of the No. 54 to older brother Kurt beginning this weekend in Texas.
As the attention from the Cup stars starts to dim, it’s put back on the NNS drivers. Storylines turn from how many races Cup drivers have won to how many NNS drivers have won. No longer about the domination of Busch and Edwards, instead its the turnaround for Sadler and the championship hunt for Stenhouse Jr.
“It feels good,” said Sadler. “I’m not going to lie to you. It feels good personally when you can go out there and compete on Saturday’s against a lot of guys that win and run well on Sunday’s. The race we won in Phoenix, I had to outrun Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, guys that really run good at Phoenix.
“When I went to Bristol and won the race, I had to compete against guys like Kasey Kahne and Dale Jr. and Keselowski again and Harvick, and these are all people that win and run very well on Sundays and are high in the points.
“So of course it feels good when you can go out there and compete with these guys in the same equipment on Saturday. It gives you a lot of confidence, feels like it gives you some momentum, gives you kind of the attitude that if you’re in a good situation on Sunday that you could also run with those guys then.
“I think it’s neat that the Nationwide guys are running as good as we are this year. I think it’s good for everybody.”
Including Sadler. After making his full-time return to the NNS last season he went winless in a much anticipated campaign. He did however, finish second in points. Then during the offseason his Kevin Harvick Incorporated team was moved over to Richard Childress Racing.
Promised by Harvick that it would be a good move, Sadler entered the season with a renewed confidence. His win at Phoenix in the second race of the year snapped a winless streak dating back to 1998.
Two weeks later he won again, visiting victory lane at Bristol for the first time since 2001 when he won his first NSCS race for the Wood Brothers. Now after being the underdog in 2011, Sadler’s hot start has him the favorite for the 2012 championship.
“You know, last year we did have a great season,” he said. “But it was the first year with this Nationwide car, and we all kind of had to learn it together, not only myself but also my crew chief Ernie Cope and also everybody at KHI.
“We went through some growing pains towards the beginning of the season, I felt like we got okay there at the end of the season and just missed our goal a little bit. We really wanted to win the championship and that didn’t happen, but it wasn’t from a lack of effort. But we felt like we steadily improved as the year went on.
“Fast forward to this year, I just think being on the same campus as a Cup-affiliated team and being on the same campus with Cup teams that have so much engineering help and so much technical support, and a lot of that trickles down to our shop. Just helps our program a lot.”
Sadler points to many different areas that his No. 2 OneMain Financial team has improved. From competing at a higher level to communicating better, building faster cars and having members of his team made of experience. Some he says, have come from Harvick’s Cup team.
Says Sadler of his season, “We’ve got better, faster stuff coming down the pipeline but we’ve just got to compete at a high level week in and week out because that’s what we’re going to have to do to stay where we’re at in the points.”