Johnson City Press Friday, November 28, 2014

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Sports Jeff Birchfield NASCAR/Racing

Cup veterans continue to rule Nationwide races

March 15th, 2014 7:43 pm by Jeff Birchfield

BRISTOL — Pole winner Kyle Larson didn’t stand a chance.

Neither did the other young drivers like Ryan Blaney, Trevor Bayne and Chase Elliott in Saturday’s Drive to Stop Diabetes 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

When it comes to Nationwide Series races at the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile,” Bristol Motor Speedway remains the playground of Sprint Cup Series veterans.

Although there were few Cup drivers entered in Saturday’s race, they included a trio of heavy hitters who have combined to win 15 Nationwide Series races at the .533-mile oval.

It was no surprise that one of them, Kyle Busch, would win his third straight Nationwide Series race and his record seventh win overall on Bristol’s high banks.

He ran among the top three all day along with fellow veterans Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick. In fact, Kenseth and Busch led the entirety of the race after Larson paced the first two laps.

While Larson is officially a Sprint Cup Series rookie, he’s still a relative newcomer to NASCAR racing. 

Sure, there is an occasional challenge to the Cup veterans’ domination like a year ago when Larson came up less than a half-car length short of beating Busch. On Saturday, he was aggressive at the end of the race getting past Harvick and Busch to finish second.

Even with that, Busch ended up with the checkered flag both times.

This season started with Regan Smith winning the season-opener at Daytona. While Smith is a Nationwide Series regular, he is also a Cup Series veteran with 171 career starts on the top circuit.

No surprise, it was Busch who won at Phoenix before adding to his Nationwide Series record with career win No. 65 at Bristol. Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, split up Busch’s victories by winning at Las Vegas.

The last true non-Cup driver to win a race for a Nationwide Series-only  team was Justin Allgaier at Montreal in August 2012. 

However, it was a road-course race on a weekend when Busch was the only Cup Series regular competing.

One positive for the Nationwide Series drivers is the fact that Sprint Cup regulars are no longer eligible for the Nationwide championship.

It allowed Austin Dillon to claim the championship last season instead of Busch cruising to another title. Busch ran 26 Nationwide Series races a year ago, racking up 12 wins and 22 top-10 finishes.

This year, it’s producing a great points battle early on.

Smith leads Bayne by a single point (151-150) with Ty Dillon, the younger brother of last year’s champion, eight points behind. Elliott and veteran Elliott Sadler round out the top five and they are both within 16 points of Smith.

If you look at the owners’ standings, the No. 54 car driven by Busch, leads by seven points over the No. 22 Ford which Keselowski won with at Las Vegas.

In fact, you have to go to fifth place in the standings to find the No. 7 of Smith, behind Larson’s No. 42 and the No. 5 which has been driven by twice by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and twice by Harvick.

The days of guys like Jack Ingram, Sam Ard and L.D. Ottinger holding their own against the best drivers in the Cup Series are long gone.

When the Food City 300 rolls around in August, there looks to be one sure bet. Look for a Sprint Cup Series regular to be hoisting the winner’s trophy over his head at the end of that August Nationwide Series event.

Jeff Birchfield is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at jbirchfield@johnsoncitypress.com

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