Plenty on the line for Nationwide regulars

For Nationwide Series hopefuls, the clock is ticking.

Last May in the Nationwide Series race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Denny Hamlin could not understand why Brad Keselowski raced him so aggressively in the closing laps of the race.

The answer was simple, Keselowski explained. Nationwide drivers only have a limited number of laps to not only prove their worthiness in the feeder series, but to use that opportunity to audition for potential rides in Cup.

And the sense of urgency only fuels the intensity and emotions in NASCAR’s version of minor-league stock car racing.

For Keselowski, his forcefulness was rewarded with a shot to drive at stock car’s highest level. Rick Hendrick granted Special K the chance to drive in three Cup races at the end of last season and five races so far in 2009. But Keselowski’s breakthrough moment was winning the Talladega Cup race in the James Finch-owned No. 9 Chevrolet.

Keselowski, 25, admits the weekly tension to validate his talent has been “a little bit tempered” by being able to run double duty on select weekends this year.

“It makes it a little bit easier on me,” Keselowski said. “It’s nice to have two races a weekend to prove yourself. I felt like I left a little bit on the table during the Talladega Nationwide race and entered the Cup race looking for redemption — and I got it.

“There are weekends where I don’t feel like I’m in a different type of a situation than any of the other Nationwide drivers. You have to show that you belong. The best way to do that is to pass other cars, make your way to the front and hold your ground.”

Saturday night’s performances by the next crop of aspirants in the Missouri-Illinois Dodge Dealers 250 at Gateway International Raceway were no different. Particularly since there were only four full-time Sprint Cup drivers competing in the event, the Nationwide Series regulars had an opportunity to shine.

Yes, the race was dominated by Cup campaigners. Kevin Harvick put on a masterful display on the track, where he had won twice before. Once Harvick ran out of gas after leading 105 of the first 170 laps, the 250 became the Kyle Busch show as he scored his sixth win of the season. Reed Sorenson and Carl Edwards, both former Gateway winners, rounded out the top three.

Scattered in the top 10 were fifth-place Brad Coleman, sixth-place Stephen Leicht and rookie Michael Annett, who finished seventh. Coleman, 21, is making his third start of the season in the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. Understandably, he has the necessary equipment and crew to show what he’s capable of accomplishing. His Nationwide teammate Busch won the race. Annett was driving for Bob Germain, who finished eighth in the 2008 point standings. The 23-year-old is currently 14th in points.

Leicht, 22, has been on the verge of a breakthrough since 2005 when he was a development driver for Robert Yates. He posted two top 15 finishes in his only starts that season, ran a partial schedule in 2006 and finished seventh in points in 2007 while posting his first career Nationwide Series win at Kentucky Motor Speedway.

Leicht ran five races for Richard Childress Racing last season and picked up additional events for this year. In five starts behind the wheel of the No. 29 Chevrolet, he’s posted three top 10 finishes. His average finish of 12.4 is skewed by a DNF caused when his engine overheated. Leicht’s average starting position is 10th.

Despite his youth, polish and ability to drive for a championship-winning organization with admirable results against the Cup regulars, Leicht knows it’s nearly impossible to find sponsorship to launch a full-time campaign for a Nationwide-only driver.

“I think it’s worse than ever especially in the Nationwide Series,” Leicht said. “Personally, being a Nationwide-only driver — not being a Cup driver yet — these sponsors that do get on a Nationwide car, particularly the big ones, they want a Cup driver driving these cars. They don’t want a Nationwide-only driver. They don’t want someone who is part-time that was full-time, like myself even though I did well in ’07, won a race, ran top 10 in points and did pretty much everything I should have done to prove myself.

“Now these sponsors have so much say in the way they spend their dollars and who gets in that racecar. Most of them want a Cup driver in their car for at least part of the races. Holiday Inn, for example, Jeff Burton has to be in the car for 10 races a year. That’s their main guy. That’s really who they put their focus on. The same thing goes for a lot of other sponsors. As a Nationwide Series-only driver it’s getting harder to find a full-time sponsor for yourself.”

The sponsorship problem is compounded by a sluggish economy. And without backing, the opportunities are shrinking.

“It’s hard enough being compared to teammates like Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer, but knowing that sponsorship is so tight now, I know every week I’m driving for a job,” Leicht said. “I’m going to be compared to those two at the end of the year when (sponsors) are thinking, ‘Do we want to go full-time with one driver? Do we want to go after that championship? Well who’s our best choice?’

“Obviously they’re going to compare all the finishes from every week to decide who they want to go full-time and that puts more pressure on us for sure.”

Stand-alone events offer Nationwide drivers an opportunity to excel among their own. Although Busch, Joey Logano and Edwards won the NNS races at Nashville, Kentucky and Milwaukee last month, the remainder of the fields has been filled by Nationwide regulars.

Gateway kicked off a second round of stand-alone NNS races followed by O’Reilly Raceway Park (IN) and Iowa Speedway. This is the time of year when owners are searching for the next Busch, Logano or Keselowski and a perfect time for hopefuls to audition. Certainly, owners want to see how the young guns compete against the Cup racers, but how are these drivers doing compared to their peers? How do they take care of their equipment? What do they get out of their cars? How do they handle adversity on and off the track? How do they carry themselves? What type of feedback do they offer the crew chief and how do they treat the crew?

As summer heats up, so does the competition. So for the racer that forgot to name his sponsor last weekend or the driver more concerned with the messages on their Blackberry than the questions for the media, remember that owners and potential benefactors are watching.