When NASCAR changed the championship eligibility rules before the 2011 season, officials knew it would allow the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series to spotlight new, young talent. Or, at the very least, distinctive talent.
One year later, Carl Edwards has no plans to run in the Nationwide Series and Kyle Busch will only run part-time for his own team. Meanwhile Danica Patrick, Sam Hornish Jr. and Austin Dillon will join the series full-time, helping to further give the series its own identity.
So, how will Patrick, Hornish and Dillon stack up against Nationwide regulars such as defending champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Elliott Sadler, and Justin Allgaier? Do the new full-timers have a shot to win the title in 2012?
She made 12 starts in the series last season and produced three top 10s. She even led 13 laps at Daytona in July. But overall, she struggled to be competitive. She only finished on the lead lap five times. I don't expect Patrick to be a serious contender (top three) for the championship in 2012, but focusing all her attention on NASCAR should make her more competitive.
Sam Hornish Jr.
Hornish took a step back last season and ran a partial Nationwide schedule. He looked like a different driver--winning a race and finishing in the top 10 six times in 13 races. The three-time IndyCar champion told Sports Illustrated recently that he'll be disappointed if he finishes worse than third in the standings. It's a lofty goal, and I would like to see him hit it, but I question his consistency (he finished on the lead lap just seven times last season).
The 2011 truck series champion makes the move to the Nationwide Series and expectations are high. Driving the famed No. 3 car will raise them even higher. He made four Nationwide starts last season and finished in the top 10 three times, so he knows how to handle a Nationwide car. He'll contend for the title, but I think he'll come up a little short to Sadler (my pick to win the championship) and Stenhouse.
Lee Warren has interviewed a number of NASCAR drivers over the years, including Trevor Bayne, Bobby Labonte, Sam Hornish Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Morgan Shepherd, David Reutimann, Brad Coleman and others. He is currently working on a NASCAR devotional book for Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, due out in the winter of 2012.