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Track Talk: Nationwide Series heart, soul of NASCAR

Published: Thursday, March 7, 2013 11:39 a.m. CST • Updated: Thursday, March 7, 2013 1:47 p.m. CST
Caption
(Daile News File Photo)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. celebrates in Pizza Ranch Victory Lane after winning the 2011 US Cellular 250 at the Iowa Speedway. Stenhouse won three races in a row at the track o his way to back-to-back Nationwide Series titles before being called up to the NASCAR Sprint Cup series this season.

The stars and cars of the NASCAR Nationwide Series have long been recognized as carrying on the tradition of stock car racing as it was originally intended. Fast, furious, and undertaken with the conviction that, no matter what the odds may be, you can still prevail and win the race.

It is that conviction that drives the current crop of eager, young racers, believing talent, courage and a little luck can carry them on to victory, and a shot at fame and fortune in NASCAR’s premier division. And that’s why savvy observers of stock car racing know that the series known as Nationwide represents the true heart and soul of NASCAR.

Let’s take a look at the series itself, which has been continuously promoted for more than 60 years, and has raced under six different names since it was founded by Bill France, Sr. in 1950. Originally known as the Sportsman Division, the series title changed to Late Model Sportsman Division in 1968, then Budweiser Late Model Sportsman in 1983-84 when the brewery giant Anheuser-Busch signed on as the series sponsor. 

In 1984, the series became known as Busch Grand National, owing to Anheuser-Busch’s decision to promote their Busch brand in the series’ predominantly southeastern marketplace, and remained titled as such through the 2003 racing season. For the last four seasons of A-B’s sponsorship it was simply called the Busch Series, but was due for a complete re-titling when A-B opted to invest in other NASCAR ventures in 2004 and beyond.

So it was in 2007 that NASCAR began searching for a sponsor to title this national stock car series, and by year’s end it had secured the backing of one of the largest and most respected insurance companies in North America, Nationwide Insurance of Columbus, Ohio. And with a comprehensive promotional partnership established between NASCAR and Nationwide’s network of insurance carriers, the 57 year old series was rechristened  the Nationwide Series for the 2008 season and beyond.

No doubt, NASCAR’s second series had become a major league entity and, befitting of the title Nationwide, the series had a truly national (and even international) scope by the turn of the 21st century, with races on both coasts, the midwest, Canada and even Mexico. An international television and radio audience numbering in the millions was tuning in to watch the spirited on-track battles and audiences at the tracks where the series raced were growing in numbers and enthusiasm. The series was truly coming of age.

Fact is, some of the biggest stars in the history of NASCAR have made their first significant mark in the sport racing in the Nationwide Series. A glance through the list of champions over the past six decades reads like a who’s who of racing superstars. Ned Jarrett, the two-time NASCAR Cup champion and father of 1999 Cup champion Dale Jarrett, won the Nationwide title in ’57 and ’58. Two Earnhardts have won three Nationwide titles as well – Dale, Jr. in 1998-99, and his grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt – ol’ ‘Ironheart’ himself – in 1956.

Even casual race fans will immediately recognize the names of more recent Nationwide Series champions, and that only lends more credibility to the notion that success in the Nationwide Series is a sure-fire road to NASCAR racing at the Sprint Cup level. So when stars such as Bobby Labonte (’91), Kevin Harvick (’01), Greg Biffle (’02), Brad Keselowski (’10) and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (’11, ’12) win Nationwide titles, it’s no surprise that premier division team owners want to hire them to drive their Cup cars as well.

That’s not to imply that the series is merely a pass-through for talented young drivers to gain experience on the major NASCAR speedways, and then move on. Quite the contrary.  Many very talented and accomplished racers have made successful careers racing in the Nationwide Series over the years. Past champions such as Larry Pearson (’86, ’87), Chuck Bown (’90) and Randy LaJoie (’96, ’97) were virtually full-time in the series well before the term “Nationwide-only driver” was coined. And they are recognized for their rightful places among the sport’s biggest stars.

Today’s Nationwide Series has some of the best and brightest racers in all of NASCAR racing, and they are driving racecars that are distinctly different from their premier division brethren in many ways. Most notable are the models of stock cars approved for competition. You will see Chevrolet Camaros, Ford Mustangs and a shorter-wheelbase version of the Toyota Camry when you watch a Nationwide race in 2013. These pony car silhouettes are reminiscent of the exciting cars of NASCAR’s Grand American division in the late 60’s and 70’s ... and the fans are loving it.

The rising stars of racing are making the Nationwide Series  a career destination, and the series is making room for the new crop of incredibly gifted, good looking and well-spoken young men and women on the sport’s fast track. The Dillon boys, grandsons of the iconic NASCAR car owner Richard Childress and perfect examples of the New Age racer, will both compete in the Nationwide Series this year. Austin Dillon is looking to parlay a 2012 Nationwide Rookie of the Year title into a 2013 championship, with younger brother Ty seeking to gain experience in a Nationwide stock car for six events while pursuing a Camping World Truck Series championship.

And there are so many more young lions in the NASCAR Nationwide Series ... Justin Allgaier, the 26-year-old former ARCA Series champion and Nationwide Rookie of the Year, is looking for a championship this year and nobody’s betting he won’t get it; Travis Pastrana, the Supercross champion and X Games superstar, racing a Ford Mustang for Roush-Fenway and nabbing a top-10 finish in Daytona this year; Parker Kligerman, the 22-year-old Connecticut wunderkind has a full season ride, driving a Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports and, with a fifth-place finish in Daytona to kick off his season, he will be a threat to win all year; and young Jeffrey Earnhardt, the fourth-generation driver, son of Dale Sr.’s oldest boy Kerry and great-grandson of series champion Ralph Earnhardt, who is a bonafide candidate for Nationwide Rookie of the Year.

The first two races of the 2013 season, in Daytona and Phoenix, were unqualified barn-burners. Dramatic, intense, side-by-side racing and action from green flag to checkered.  Two obviously different types of racing surfaces – a high-banked 2.5 mile superspeedway, and a nearly flat one-mile oval – and yet the racing entertainment was stellar at both venues. Next up will be the relentlessly fast, 1.5 mile tri-oval in Las Vegas this Saturday afternoon. Buckle up and catch it on ESPN 2 at 3:00 p.m. ... and don’t forget to breathe every now and then!

Race fans in this area are so fortunate that the Nationwide Series comes to Newton twice this year. The first event has moved from its original May date to the weekend of June 7–8 (Friday and Saturday nights), and the Dupont Pioneer 250 will be everything we’ve come to expect on Iowa Speedway’s 7/8-mile tri-oval when the Nationwide stars take the green flag Saturday night, under the lights. Ditto the U.S. Cellular 250 weekend (Friday night, Aug. 2 & Saturday night, Aug. 3), when the summer’s heat gives way to even hotter racing on the track.

Great seats for both exciting Nationwide weekends are still available via the website, www.iowaspeedway.com, through our toll-free Ticketing hotline, 866-RUSTY-GO (787-8946), or at the track Ticket Office, Monday thru Friday, 9 am to 5 pm, 3333 Rusty Wallace Drive in Newton. You won’t want to be anywhere but trackside when the stars of the Nationwide Series begin to rise and shine at Iowa Speedway this summer!

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