As the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series revs up, we look at the preseason favorites.
1. Brian Vickers
Vickers won the then-Busch Series championship in 2003 with Hendrick Motorsports and is back for more a decade later, on track to rebuild his career following part-time Cup success in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55. Facing plenty of challenges during his time up top — from health problems to an entire race organization shutting down around him — he returns older, wiser and much more experienced at age 29. Vickers will campaign Joe Gibbs Racing’s powerful No. 20 Toyota with funding from Dollar General. In the past five years, JGR has averaged 13.6 wins in the series as an organization, running in a different time zone from the rest of the field, so expect instant success here.
2. Elliott Sadler
Sadler moves from Richard Childress Racing to JGR for 2013, where he teams with Vickers. Bringing solid backing with longtime sponsor OneMain Financial, Sadler moves into JGR’s No. 11 machine, the 2012 Nationwide owner’s champion. And after runner-up performances himself in 2011 and ’12, he has the equipment to contend for the title again. But with two straight collapses down the stretch (including a self-induced wreck at Phoenix last November), is there mental toughness here to get over the hump?
3. Trevor Bayne
Illness and sponsorship woes have kept Bayne from contending full-time in any NASCAR series since his 2011 Daytona 500 shocker. But with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moving to Sprint Cup, Bayne will get his shot with the same Roush Fenway team that’s won back-to-back titles. The pieces are in place, although for a driver who hasn’t run a grueling, nine-month schedule since being down for the count with Lyme disease, learning to balance his stamina will be crucial.
4. Austin Dillon
With Elliott Sadler gone, Dillon will be the focus of RCR’s Nationwide efforts in 2013 after a two-win rookie debut with sponsor AdvoCare. The 2011 Camping World Truck Series champion is talented and knows how to run for a title — he finished third in the Nationwide standings last season — but he doesn’t have the experience of drivers ahead of him. Some spot starts in the Cup Series in preparation for a 2014 jump may take some of his focus away, as well as a downgrade in teammate information sharing (from Sadler to Brian Scott).
5. Regan Smith
Smith will run full time for JR Motorsports in 2013. The car, essentially a Hendrick offshoot, should mean A-plus equipment. But whether JRM has been lacking in the shop or in the driver’s seat, it’s not been on par with Gibbs and Roush in this series. With Smith, a winner in the Cup Series and in this ride in last season’s Homestead finale, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his ownership team can now use deductive reasoning to find the shortcomings. A potential negative is teammate Cole Whitt, who remains without sponsorship as of late December, meaning this team could run only one car full-time.
6. Sam Hornish Jr.
Hornish will return with Penske Racing for another run at the championship after missing out on the team’s No. 22 Cup ride. The biggest challenge for this team will be a switch from Dodge to Ford. Can it adjust quickly enough after a consistent but winless 2012? Veteran Ford crew chief Greg Erwin will undoubtedly help get this group up to speed, but Hornish — despite his open-wheel prowess — still seems a step behind in the stock car cockpit. After a strong audition at the sport’s top tier last season, he still needs to refocus here to get that second chance.
7. Michael Annett
Annett had his best Nationwide season to date in 2012, posting six top-5 finishes after going 0-for in his first 105 series starts. Such improvement was amazing considering that his Richard Petty Motorsports team came together just weeks before the start of the season. The team returns intact for 2013, but the biggest problem here remains RPM’s place in Ford’s pecking order; becoming the third, perhaps fourth, hand to feed makes a race win, let alone championship contention, a difficult assignment.
8. James Buescher/Justin Allgaier
Buescher won the 2012 Camping World Truck Series title for Turner Motorsports, and the team is considering campaigning him in Nationwide for 2013. Allgaier, the main driver for the organization the last two seasons, is still working on funding to return to his seat. One of them should be poised to be the leader here, and the pieces will be in place for at least a victory or two. Turner is the best of the non-Cup affiliated teams, although that's a handicap in a series where money is precious.
9. Parker Kligerman
Kligerman will man Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 77 Toyota in 2013 after a fifth-place finish in the Truck Series standings last year. The 22-year-old registered one win, eight top 5s and 15 top 10s in the 22-race slate. In its first season in the Nationwide Series last year, KBM fought mechanical issues with brothers Kurt and Kyle at the wheel. However, it built momentum as the year progressed, notching 12 top 10s in the final 13 races. Sponsorship will be an issue with this team, as Monster Energy will sponsor Kyle in his Joe Gibbs Racing Nationwide efforts. However, if given a full season, Kligerman could improve substantially on this ranking.
10. Brian Scott
Scott will move to the No. 2 car of Richard Childress Racing, replacing Elliott Sadler as teammate to Austin Dillon. Yes, it's the car that contended for the championship with Sadler, but Scott drove for JGR the last two seasons and finished eighth and ninth, respectively. No amount of money replaces driver talent, and until Scott proves he can win (0-for-109 thus far) he’ll be considered a work-in-progress.
—By Toni Montgomery