Heading into the fourth race of the 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule, teams are already buckling down and putting their focus on points.
The standings thus far are deceiving though, as to how drivers are performing.
So far, Nationwide race winners have only come from the Cup garage—Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Mark Martin. As per the new rules, which state that a driver must choose only one series to run for a champtionship, none are in contention for the NNS Championship.
Lets take a look at just the drivers in which are contention for the Nationwide Series Championship, as they each declared in preparation for the 2011 season.
Here are the top five drivers in points thus far in the season:
5.) Justin Allgaier, driving the No. 31 Chevrolet for Turner Motorsports
So far this season, Allgaier has a 27th place finish at Daytona, an eighth at Phoenix and a second place finish at Las Vegas. In last year's points championship, Allgaier finished strong—competing even with the Sprint Cup drivers who were running in the series. Considering his strong finish last year, and his strong start this year, he could easily be in contention for a championship come November.
4.) Danica Patrick, driving the No. 7 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports
Patrick started the season with three top-20s—including one top-five. Her finishes so far have been 14th at Daytona, 17th at Phoenix and fourth at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. After Bristol, though, she will leave NASCAR for multiple races to fulfill her contract in her full-time ride in the IndyCar Series. While she may not be in contention for the championship this year, her finishes may still be strong enough to pull out more top 10's this season.
3.) Jason Leffler, driver of the No. 38 Chevrolet for Turner Motorsports
Leffler finished sixth at Daytona, 11th at Phoenix and ninth at Las Vegas. This current string of good, even finishes has helped him hold up in the standings. If it continues through Bristol, a track that may jumble the points a great bit, he will be one to keep an eye on this season.
2.) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, driving the No. 6 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing
Stenhouse Jr has been fighting back so far this year with an eighth place finish at Daytona, a seventh place finish at Phoenix and another eighth place finish at Las Vegas. A string of top-10 finishes without a fault is what can build a champion in the Nationwide Series. If he can continue on this path, it won't be wins that matter—it'll be consistency.
1.) Reed Sorenson, driver of the No. 30 and No. 32 Chevrolet for Turner Motorsports
In 2011, Sorenson has already collected a fifth place finish at Daytona, fifth place finish at Phoenix and 11th place finish at Las Vegas. Three races in, he has had a strong run against the Sprint Cup Series drivers. With such a good start, he may be one to steal the show and collect the first win for a Nationwide-only driver this year.
What could this mean for NASCAR? Could a driver really win a championship without winning a single race? Many believe so, and can see it happening. Others believe that a Nationwide Series regular could come out of nowhere and steal the show.
Another driver to watch out for is Trevor Bayne—winner of the 2011 Daytona 500. Aric Almirola, the only full-time Nationwide Series driver for JR Motorsports, could also be a contender in this year's championship. Keep an eye on Kenny Wallace, who has posted consistent top 10's so far this season, as well.
Needless to say, the new rules will give everyone something to talk about during the Nationwide Series season.
Could a driver take the big purse home with no wins?
Could veteran drivers like Kenny Wallace or Joe Nemechek burst the young-guns bubbles and take it all home?
If Patrick was running full-time, could we have seen our first female champion in NASCAR?
Will Trevor Bayne prevail and possibly walk into the Sprint Cup Series next year with both a Daytona 500 win and Nationwide Series Championship under his belt?
NASCAR set the points up this way to have constant action in the points standings, and it's working. The points give us something to think about—even in a second-tier series where the Nationwide-only drivers may not finish as high with the Sprint Cup Series drivers taking wins—and keeps the points tight and changing up every week.