With Justin Allgaier announcing his full-time return to the Nationwide Series next season, the pieces are starting to fall into place for the division championship in 2013. The most notable changes include the absence of defending champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and most popular driver Danica Patrick, who have both graduated full-time to the Sprint Cup Series next season.
The early favorite for Nationwide Series champion appears to be Elliott Sadler, coming off consecutive runner-up finishes to Stenhouse while driving for Richard Childress Racing. But he has questions too as he moves to Joe Gibbs Racing for the upcoming season. He replaces Brian Scott in the No. 11 who in turn replaced him at RCR.
A new crop of contenders will also debut or in one case -- return to the Nationwide Series next season including Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith and the 2003 champion Brian Vickers.
This year’s roster is perhaps the deepest and most diverse since the pick-a-series rule was established prior to the 2011 season. At least 10 drivers have realistic designs on the championship and Travis Pastrana retains the mass-market spotlight Patrick left in departing for the Cup Series.
Patrick isn’t completely done with the Series either, competing in 10 races for Turner Scott Motorsports this season.
With just a little more than a month before the start of the Nationwide Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway, here’s a brief power ranking list to whet the appetite.
1. Elliott Sadler
If all goes right: Third time is the charm for Sadler, who has been haunted by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s reign as Nationwide Series champion over the last two seasons. The Virginian will thrive with new team Joe Gibbs Racing and finally win his long sought-after championship with Stenhouse finally away from the division. Gibbs won nine races last season with Joey Logano and Sadler picks right up where he left off, winning seven races en route to the easy championship.
If all goes wrong: This team will undoubtedly have speed and should contend for wins even under the worst-case scenario. But consecutive accidents at Daytona and Phoenix to start the season ends Sadler’s title hopes before they even begin. Daytona is always a crash-fest in February and Phoenix bites the veteran for a second straight race after derailing his title hopes last fall.
Sadler spends the next few races trying to play catch up but can’t catch the rest of the field with the improved competition level. Sadler receives a top-5 championship finish as a consolation.
2. Regan Smith
If all goes right: The former Southern 500 winner continues the momentum established with his victory at Homestead in November and carries JR Motorsports to its’ first-ever NASCAR championship. Smith has the potential to win multiple races paired with crew chief Greg Ives who was the race engineer for Jimmie Johnson during all five of his Sprint Cup Series championships. This was a pairing designed to win immediately and that’s exactly what will happen in 2013.
If all goes wrong: Regan Smith joined a JRM team that had completely rebuilt its front office during the off-season and momentum is slowly gained throughout the season. Smith finds it harder to win races without Steve Letarte who guided him to victory at Homestead and the pairing with Ives doesn’t show chemistry until midseason. Smith fails to win until the summer while the championship is mostly out of reach.
3. Brian Vickers
If all goes right: Like Smith, Brian Vickers put on a preview of what he wanted to accomplish in 2013 at Homestead in November, finishing second to Smith in the season-ending Ford 300. Like those above him, Vickers is also a championship favorite entering this season. But unlike them, Vickers has already accomplished the feat -- in 2003 for Hendrick Motorsports.
Vickers steps into the full-time Nationwide Series No. 20 for Joe Gibbs Racing and steals victories from his veteran teammate, Sadler. Like Logano in 2012, Vickers’ wins comes in bunches and leads to the Series championship and speculation that Vickers could return to the Cup Series full-time in 2014.
If all goes wrong: Vickers finds success cherry-picking his best tracks in the Cup Series in 2013 but struggles in the Nationwide Series due to the lack of seat time over the past few seasons. Vickers falls behind his teammate and plays a support role in aiding Sadler towards his own Nationwide Series championship. The 2013 season becomes a building season in reestablishing Vickers as a full-time NASCAR presence.
4. Trevor Bayne
If all goes right: In his first real opportunity to chase a championship, Trevor Bayne picks up where the no. 6 team left off and delivers crew chief Mike Kelley his third-consecutive Nationwide Series championship. Bayne is a proven winner in the division and uses his Cup Series seat time to enhance his Nationwide Series chances. Bayne picks up three wins at Texas, Charlotte and Iowa en route to the title and proves his 2011 Daytona 500 victory was no fluke.
If all goes wrong: Since winning the Daytona 500, Bayne has suffered an improbable case of Lyme disease, costing him a chance at the 2011 Nationwide championship and was unable to secure funding for the full 2012 season championship. The worst case scenario for Trevor Bayne includes another freak injury or the Mayans being off by six months. Otherwise, Bayne should contend with the team that has won the previous two championships.
5. Austin Dillon
If all goes right: Austin Dillon is the first driver on the second-tier contender list, drivers who could win the championship under the perfect scenario but have more questions surrounding them than championship appeal.
Dillon proves that last season was just an acclimation process and wins several races en route to the 2013 championship. Elliott Sadler’s RCR departure makes Dillon the team’s featured driver and his performance reflects the designation.
If all goes wrong: Austin Dillon goes winless in 2013 as the uncertainty surrounding Richard Childress Racing seeps into the Nationwide Series operation. The car has speed but mechanical failures and bad luck keep the no. 3 out of victory lane. Dillon treats it as a learning experience and prepares for 2014.
6. Sam Hornish Jr.
If all goes right: Sam Hornish arrived as a NASCAR driver at the end of the 2011 season with his breakthrough victory at Phoenix. He carried that momentum into the 2012 season where he finally picked up full-time rides in the Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series once AJ Allmendinger was suspended from the latter.
All that experience starts paying dividends in 2013 as Hornish becomes a multiple-time race winner and keeps Hornish in the championship conversation deep into autumn. Hornish is unable to close out the title but nears ever-closer to returning to the Sprint Cup Series on a full-time basis.
Highlight of the season includes winning in front of his hometown fans at the new Mid-Ohio road course race.
If all goes wrong: Sam Hornish Jr. is still just 197 races into his stock car career – a small number of starts for the former open-wheel champion. Toss in the uncertainty of Penske Racing switching from Dodge to Ford and the season just doesn’t click for Hornish.
The driver of the No. 12 Ford continues to be unable to close out on race victories and finishes outside of the top-5 in the final Series standings.
7. Justin Allgaier
If all goes right: Justin Allgaier finally gets over the hump and wins multiple races in a season after winning just one time in each of the last three seasons. He contends for the championship deep in the season but comes up just short to one of the major-funded teams in a valiant battle down the stretch.
If all goes wrong: More of the same for Justin Allgaier as Turner Scott Motorsports is unable to take the next step towards contention. The streak of one victory per season is snapped and Allgaier finishes near eighth or ninth in the standings.
8. Michael Annett
If all goes right: The Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 builds on the momentum of a fifth-place championship standing last season to crack into the top-three of the final standings. Annett came close to capturing his first win last season, with six top-5s but the increased competition will probably keep him just short in 2013 despite continued improved performance.
If all goes wrong: RPM’s Nationwide Series program takes a step back with so many Cup Series-experienced drivers entering the division on a full-time basis. The driver improves but doesn’t get results indicative of the performance.
9. Parker Kligerman
If all goes right: Parker Kligerman leads Kyle Busch Motorsports to its first multiple-win season in the Nationwide Series and serves as a good baseline data provider for the relatively new NASCAR Nationwide Series operation.
If all goes wrong: Kligerman struggles in his first full-time Nationwide Series season, failing to win a race and just making the top-10 in the final standings.
10. Brian Scott
If all goes right: Brian Scott continues to keep the car off the wall in 2013, something he did much better last season than in previous seasons. He benefits from the change of scenery of joining Richard Childress Racing and gets closer to becoming a contender. It’s just hard to see him immediately competing for wins in 2013.
If all goes wrong: Richard Childress Racing’s equipment is not as stout as what he remembers from Joe Gibbs Racing and pushes his equipment too hard trying to get over the hump, returning to his pre-2012 ways.
That concludes our rankings. How do you think the Nationwide Series will play out next season? Tell us in the comments section below.