Related: Nationwide standings
NEWTON, Iowa -- Just stop the bleeding.
With three different drivers sitting atop the standings over the past three races, fluidity in the top five and the developing trend that those atop the standings seem to rise and fall in unison, it's becoming clear that the guy who will be holding the big trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 16 will be the one who figures out how to salvage the races he has no business competing in.
"I think the guy that's going to win this championship is the guy that figures out how to stop the bleeding as much as they possibly can and not give away points unnecessarily," said Justin Allgaier at Iowa Speedway on Friday, so casually offering the theme of a race upon which so many teams' seasons hinge.
Regan Smith, whose standing eased up from a 28-point lead over Allgaier following Road America to a six-point deficit to Austin Dillon heading into Saturday's U.S. Cellular 250 presented by Enlist Weed Control System (8 p.m., ESPN2) can't help but agree.
"After last week, if you look at the top five, I'd say that's probably an accurate statement," said Smith before placing 12th and 16th in Friday's two practices. "It seemed like nobody wanted to have a good day. I was pretty happy with where our car was and then we had the motor problems. Sam (Hornish Jr.) obviously had motor problems. I don't know what the other guys fought, but they didn't appear to be as good as they've been in the weeks leading up to it."
Smith fought back to a 19th-place finish at Indianapolis, which certainly wasn't the goal heading into Indy, but it might be exactly the kind of recovery race these drivers are looking for.
"It was one of those weeks when you look and as bad as we were having it, we knew if we just salvaged it we were going to come out of here OK," Smith said. "I don't know that you have to stop the bleeding, I think everybody's had speed at most of these tracks. ... It seems like everybody will have one good week together and then everybody has a bad week together for whatever reason, so I think it's just a matter of piecing the races together. Whoever finds just the littlest bit of consistency will be in good shape."
Right now, it looks like the drivers setting the bar for consistency are Hornish and Dillon, the two most recent points leaders. With an average finishing position of 6.0 in the five races preceding Indianapolis -- where, you know, he has an Indy 500 title to his credit -- everything seemed to be pointing toward Hornish extending his points lead. The Penske Racing driver qualified second but ran into a bit of tough luck when a chunk of grass got stuck in his radiator, overheating his car. It resulted in a 34th-place finish after completing just 64 laps.
Hornish's secret to success the rest of the way?
"Keeping grass out of our radiator would help out a lot," he quipped.
He's got a point, but he also knows there's a certain element -- luck -- that each driver has to take into account each time out.
"Everybody always wishes you good luck and you say, 'Oh thanks, you know, I need it,' but sometimes you really do," said Hornish, who trails Dillon by six points. "None of us go out and prepare 50 percent better than the next person, sometimes it just comes down to did the guy crash behind you or did the guy crash in front of you? I think it just shows that fluctuation is just something that can happen very quickly. It could've been the guy ahead of you that gets grass on the radiator. That's racing."
While luck seems to make itself known in some way every weekend, one factor the Nationwide drivers can count on at Iowa is that the man who has won eight races this season is far, far away in Pocono. It'll level the playing field between the drivers competing for a championship and allow everyone to see how they rank against each other, instead of seeing who's the fastest as they try to catch up to the 54.
Dillon, who despite being in the points lead has yet to celebrate in Victory Lane, didn't shy away from acknowledging this.
"It'd be very important to win a race. I think that's just an overall goal, even if we do win the championship without a (win) because of what Kyle Busch has been able to do this year. It's kind of hard to win one when he's winning every one of them," Dillon said. "This is a great weekend, for sure, to come out with him not being here and less Cup drivers ... to take advantage of that and getting the first one behind us would be huge. I think it would propel us for the rest of the season."
It'd be hard to bet against Dillon. Heading into Iowa he's averaged a finish of 5.8 in his previous five races, nearly won from the Coors Light Pole position here in June before giving way to Trevor Bayne in the final laps, and opened the weekend by topping each of Friday's practices.
But as we know, it sure seemed like it was Hornish's race to lose last week. Look what happened.
One thing's for sure, though, and Smith put it best.
"It's going to be a dogfight these next 14 races."
We'll just have to see who can stop the bleeding first.
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