Jason Leffler Credit: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images for NASCAR
The last four Nationwide Series champions have come from the Sprint Cup Series ranks, but will 2010 be the year of the Nationwide-only driver? Not since Martin Truex Jr.'s second-consecutive series championship in 2005 has the title trophy gone to a driver running only the Nationwide Series.
Series regulars got closer in 2009 than they had since that 2005 season to claiming that trophy for the Nationwide-only camp. At the end of last season, eight series regulars (granted Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch were regulars in the Nationwide Series, but they didn't count in this equation since they were also full-time Sprint Cup drivers) finished in the top-10. That was the most since 2005, a season that also saw eight Nationwide-only drivers in the top-10 at season's end.
It will help that, as of now, Kyle Busch, who pretty much stunk up the field throughout 2009, plans to scale back his Nationwide Series edeavors to focus on his still full plate of Sprint Cup racing, Camping World Truck Series multi-truck team ownership and part-time driver, and still-part-time driver in the Nationwide Series.
Still planning to run full-time in both Nationwide and Sprint Cup, though, is Carl Edwards. Running two series full-time has got to be becoming old hat to him by now. The 2007 Nationwide champ has become far and away the seasoned veteran of full-time double duty.
Brad Keselowski and Paul Menard will also be attempting both series full-time. It will be Menard's first full-time Nationwide Season since 2006. Meanwhile, Keselowski will have so much on his plate -- concentrating on his first full-time Sprint Cup season in a somewhat new ride (he only has three starts in the Penske No. 12 Cup car under his belt heading into 2010), he's starting up a whole new Nationwide Series team at Penske, and he's a Truck Series team owner.
Edwards will most definitely have the biggest target on his back as the Sprint Cup driver to beat for the Nationwide title, and Keselowski, a four-time race winner in 2009 and third-place points finisher the last two years, may still very well be a threat -- even with a start-up team. Keselowski was, after all, breathing down Edwards' neck until the checkered flag fell at Homestead for second-to-Busch honors in 2009.
Even so, 2010 looks to be the best shot non-Cup drivers have had in the Nationwide Series in awhile. Drivers out of last season's eight who are returning and not running regularly in the Sprint Cup Series include long-time Nationwide veteran Jason Leffler, who finised fourth in 2009; last season's rookie of the year Justin Allgaier, who finished fifth in 2009 and will have a teammate this year in Keselowski; Rusty Wallace Inc. teammates Steve Wallace and Brendan Gaughan, who finished out 2009 seventh and ninth, respectively; and Michael Annett, who will have a year of Nationwide experience under his belt after finishing out his rookie campaign 10th in points last season.
Of those series regulars, Leffler may be a favorite to play spoiler to the double-dippers. He returns with his Braun Racing team intact after a 2009 season that saw him as the highest points finisher after Busch, Edwards, and Keselowski. He'll also have the benefit of Sprint Cup teammates who'll make at least occasional appearances in the Nationwide Series, including Brian Vickers and Reed Sorenson.
Another favorite would probably also be Allgaier. After all, he finished fifth in points his rookie season of 2009. This season, he has a year of experience under his belt, and he'll also have a teammate in Keselowski -- two things he didn't have working in his favor in 2009.