BRISTOL, Tenn. — Cocky kids, grizzled veterans and Sprint Cup stars with nothing to lose.
The NASCAR Nationwide Series has certainly evolved into a crossroads for a strange brew of drivers at different stages of their careers with vastly different agendas. It could all add up to plenty of excitement when the green flag falls to signal the start of the Jeff Foxworthy’s Grit Chips 300 Saturday afternoon at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Youngster Parker Kligerman is in his first full-time season on the circuit, driving the No. 77 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports. The 22-year-old certainly hasn’t seen anything like the Nationwide Series during his quick ascent up the NASCAR ladder.
“This series, right now, you have guys that made the Chase and have won races in the Sprint Cup Series, and they’re racing for the points (in Nationwide),” Kligerman said. “You haven’t really seen that in many years, especially guys that are just doing Nationwide and not doing Cup at the same time.
“I think the different agendas you see out there, yeah, some guys like (Kevin) Harvick might come in here and just want to win. He’ll do what it takes to win.”
Knoxville native Trevor Bayne has a Daytona 500 victory to his credit, but he now finds himself among the drivers with Cup experience racing for a Nationwide championship. Bayne, who will drive the No. 6 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing Saturday, said the mix of talented drivers is making the Nationwide Series more competitive than it’s ever been.
“It definitely pushes the competition to the next level when you look at that,” Bayne said. “There’s guys like Sam Hornish, who is leading the points now, that has won the Indy 500s and run for Indy championships. And guys like Brian Vickers, who has run in the Cup series for multiple years, as well as Elliott Sadler.”
For young guys like Kligerman and Bayne, compensating for the maturity possessed by veterans like Sadler and Vickers can be a tall task. Sadler won his first Cup race when Kligerman was just 7 years old, and he’s learned a lot over the years about maximizing his potential.
“I think when you’re younger, you take a lot of things for granted,” Sadler said. “You don’t focus on all the mental aspect stuff that goes on with racing and preparing yourself for everything each and every week maybe as much as you do when you get older.
“I’ve learned to prepare myself mentally and physically for each and every week to run for a championship.”
When Sadler decided to step back into the Nationwide Series full time in 2011 after losing his Sprint Cup ride, many saw him as a trendsetter. But Sadler actually made the decision based on advice he got from Dale Jarrett, who made a similar move years ago before eventually returning to Cup racing and winning a championship with Robert Yates.
Vickers has made a full-time commitment to the Nationwide circuit this year as well, and both drivers are running for a series title with Joe Gibbs Racing. Even though they are now teammates, Sadler said he never spoke with Vickers about making the move.
But Sadler figured his results in recent years might have spoken for themselves.
“I see other drivers doing the same thing,” Sadler said. “I haven’t really talked to other drivers about it. Maybe they are thinking the same thing — go back to Nationwide, kind of reboot, get yourself re-energized, get in some really good equipment and try to make the most of it.
“I have nine poles and four wins and a bunch of top fives and top 10s just in the last two seasons, and I think that says a lot.”
Vickers said the move was about putting himself in the best situation regardless of the series. Like Sadler, he lost his Cup ride following the 2011 season. Vickers spent last year driving eight races with Michael Waltrip Racing in addition to a schedule of select sports car events.
Now he’s ready to run for wins and a championship, and he’s pretty sure he found the equipment to allow him to do both.
“For me, the important thing was being on an A-level team above anything else — above being full time in Cup or making more money,” Vickers said. “It was to be with the best team I could possibly be with and that would put me in Victory Lane as much as possible. That just so happened to be the Gibbs Nationwide team.”
So what’s a young guy like Kligerman to do? If he wants to expedite his climb to the Cup series, he figures outrunning the veterans is a pretty good place to start.
“You gain everyone’s respect by being fast, being up front and also not doing anything stupid,” Kligerman said. “But it’s like any other sport — nobody respects you until you go out there and beat them. The biggest thing you can do in this series is go out there and race guys as hard as you can, hopefully beat them and prove that you belong.
“Then hopefully you’ll get the opportunities you need to move up.”