Young Series Talent Kick Off 2012 On The Right NoteRecord-setting lead changes (38), record-setting number of leaders (16), pack racing, tandem racing and a spectacle of a finish to top it off is just how the NASCAR Nationwide Series wanted to kick off the season – in high gear.
Young and talented Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders Cole Whitt, 20, and Austin Dillon, 21, who finished fourth and fifth respectively, did not waste time and took advantage of the opportunities the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway would afford them. Whitt is second in the series standings, just two points behind series standings leader Elliott Sadler, while 2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Dillon holds third in the standings just three points from the lead.
Heading to Phoenix, Whitt has made one series start at the 1-mile raceway (2010), posting a 15th-place finish. Dillon also has one series start at Phoenix, where he finished 34th.
Up-and-coming driver Tayler Malsam, 23, posted his career-best finish (sixth) at Daytona and heads to Phoenix fourth in the standings, four points off the lead. Malsam has made two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts at Phoenix, posting a best finish of 17th. Malsam will be attempting to make his series track debut at PIR this weekend.
Rounding out the top five in the standings is 2011 Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne, who finished 11th in the NASCAR Nationwide Series season opener and is eight points behind Sadler. Bayne has made five series starts at Phoenix, posting an average finish of 19.4. His pre-race Driver Rating is 82.1
Timmy Hill, who turned 19 on race day, finished a career-best seventh at Daytona this past weekend. Hill won the NASCAR Nationwide Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 2011 and recently announced he’ll move full-time to NASCAR Sprint Cup this season, where he’ll also compete for the award. Hill made his series debut in this race last year.
Another rookie contender, Pensacola, Fla., native Johanna Long, 19, was solid in her series debut, finishing 21st at Daytona.
Danica Down But Not Out: Just Ask SadlerThe spotlight was bright in Daytona for Danica Patrick. She started strong but didn’t end up with the hoped-for results. Although she is down, she isn’t out. One driver who can attest to that is Elliott Sadler, who faced nearly the same circumstance last season following the season opener at Daytona.
Patrick, a Phoenix resident, became just the second woman in national series history to win a Coors Light Pole when she did so in Daytona. But a potential strong run was cut short when her JR Motorsports teammate, Whitt, tapped her from behind, causing extensive damage to her No. 7 Chevrolet. She was able to return, but finished 38th. She comes home 26th in points.
In the 2011 opener at Daytona, Sadler – the media favorite to unify the NASCAR Nationwide Series driver and owner championships – finished 38th due to an accident. At the time, Sadler was 27th in the series standings, 35 points behind the leader. Ten weeks later, following the 11th race of the season at Dover International Speedway, Sadler had reached the summit, taking the standings lead for the first time in 2011.
Patrick has the opportunity to do the same. She has made three starts at Phoenix International Raceway, posting a best finish of 17th in this event last season. She almost mimicked her spring performance in the fall on the newly resurfaced Phoenix International Raceway, finishing 21st, six positions ahead of now-standings leader Sadler, who finished 27th.
Incidentally, Patrick is 35 points behind Sadler – the same deficit Sadler faced last season. Watch for Patrick to start to make her rebound over the next few weeks. Following Phoenix is Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the track where Patrick posted her series career-best finish (fourth).
Sadler Is Back With A VengeanceFighting back from a 35-point deficit in the standings after last season’s opener at Daytona to then go throughout the season without a win and ultimately finish the season second in the NASCAR Nationwide Series standings to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has fueled Sadler to return this season with a vengeance.
Out of the gate, Sadler is focused. He posted his best series finish at Daytona (third) this past weekend and now is atop the standings two points ahead of second-place Whitt and 17 points ahead of 10th-place Sam Hornish Jr.
Sadler has made six series starts at Phoenix, posting a best finish of second (2005); he finished 12th in the spring race at Phoenix last season. His pre-race Driver Rating is 83.8 and his Average Running Position is 15.2.
2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Stenhouse was relegated to a 19th-place finish at Daytona due to a last-lap accident and comes to Phoenix ninth in the standings, 17 points behind Sadler.