NASCAR Nationwide Series twice looked like a runaway, now anybody’s race

Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013

Twice this season, drivers have looked as if they could run away with the NASCAR Nationwide Series title.

Sam Hornish Jr. had a 28-point advantage after the season’s fifth race at Fontana, Calif., but that didn’t hold up long.

Regan Smith then built up a 58-point lead following the June 15 race at Michigan, but that has disappeared as well.

Entering the series’ inaugural race Saturday at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, it’s anybody’s championship.

Only 18 points separate the top five drivers, with Austin Dillon holding a tenuous three-point advantage over Hornish and a five-point advantage over Smith.

Last weekend’s road-course race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., narrowed the spread significantly, and another road-course race this weekend could tighten it further.

Hornish, who finished second at the Glen, hopes to capitalize with another strong run at Mid-Ohio.

“I think you’ve got to take the chances when you’ve got the car to do it,” Hornish said. “I felt (the Glen) was a great opportunity for me to try to get a couple extra points and try to get the win, so I pushed hard to try to make it happen.

“There are days when your car is not quite there. It’s a lot about making sure that you get it to the next pit stop so you can adjust on it or you just work on minimizing your bad days.

“That’s really been our Achilles heel this year. (Our races) have either been really good or really bad, and what we need to do is minimize.”

Smith has not excelled on road courses but made significant progress last weekend with a fourth-place finish – enough to where he feels much more comfortable turning left and right.

“We still have a little work to do before Mid-Ohio, but the guys at JR Motorsports brought me a great car to the Glen and I’m very optimistic about next week,” Smith said. “We got out with the car in one piece. I think every team was a little concerned with tearing up a lot of equipment with having to run a road course again next week.”

Dillon, another driver who has not had much success on road courses, set a modest goal for a top-10 finish at Watkins Glen. He ended up 12th, but that included a nagging problem with his car’s fuel cell that required extended pit stops.

“Last year we ran (23rd) here or something crazy like that and were 30 points out of the lead. Now, we’re three points ahead, so I’m happy with it.

“We’ll go to Mid-Ohio and figure out what’s wrong with our fuel cell and we’ll be fine. I think that track is a more level playing field.”

Recent races also have closed the margin for Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers.

Neither has been able to win this season, but both are within striking range of the title. Sadler is 12 points behind Dillon while Vickers is 18 back.

“Look at everybody and the way they are running. There are some good race car drivers, some great race teams (and) great pit crews,” Sadler said. “It’s going to be a heck of a championship battle, I think, all the way to Homestead (Fla.) and I don’t see anybody pulling away from anybody else now because we are going to different track that are stronger for different people.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter