Perhaps the Nationwide Series championship battle is a little more wide open than it first appeared.
Through the first 14 races this season, JR Motorsports teammates Regan Smith and Chase Elliott were the only drivers to lead the series points standings.
That came to an end in last Friday’s race at Kentucky Speedway, even though their JR teammate Kevin Harvick won the Hero Campaign 300.
Smith finished 28th and Elliott 12th which allowed Joe Gibbs Racing driver Elliott Sadler, who finished 10th, to take over the series lead heading into this weekend’s race at Daytona International Speedway.
The loss of the points lead may have produced a feeling of déjà vu. After his second consecutive finish outside the top 10, Smith gave up the series lead at roughly the same point that he did last season.
“I think I’m going to take these two weeks of the schedule off next year,” Smith joked.
Smith and Elliott are sure to remain in the title hunt, but at least for now there is reason to believe JRM may not have a stranglehold on the championship.
“It’s too early to worry about points. One good thing about next week is we ran very well there in the spring race at Daytona and we ran very well at Talladega,” said Sadler, who won the Talladega race in early May.
“For us to sit here right now with the points lead is pretty amazing after the last couple weeks we’ve had. We’re going to go to Daytona and race like crazy and see what happens.
“That’s a fun track to go and try to run up front, lead laps and go to Victory Lane.”
Sadler, Smith and Elliott are bunched atop the standings, separated by a total of eight points. After that, Ty Dillon is fourth, 29 points behind Sadler, and Brian Scott is fifth, 47 behind Sadler.
Still, the JRM contingent remains a formidable obstacle.
Harvick’s win at Kentucky was the organization’s fifth of the season, which also includes a pair of victories by Elliott, one by Smith and a previous win at Richmond by Harvick. That’s the most victories JRM has ever accumulated in one season, and we’re not quite halfway done.
“I feel real good. Between Smith and Elliott we have two real good opportunities to win the driver’s championship,” team co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.
“You’re to have tough nights like Regan did and you know the other guys are going to make mistakes, too. You just can’t let them get so far ahead of you where you can’t keep the pressure on them.
“Not everybody is going to be bulletproof, whether it be mechanically or in the decisions they make on the race track.”
There will be little time for Nationwide teams to regroup during the summer as the series is in a 19-week stretch of consecutive races with no breaks.
“Usually this stretch separates the men from the boys as far as staying a contender in the Nationwide Series,” Sadler said.
“Hopefully, we can be one of the guys that are standing at the end of it in October when we get ready for that last little stretch of races.”
Utter: (704) 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.
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