By Jerry Bonkowski
Special to NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
SPARTA, Ky. -- Elliott Sadler begins his "comeback" on Saturday.
Having led the NASCAR Nationwide Series after 21 of the first 26 races -- including the 14 races before last weekend's race at Chicagoland Speedway -- Sadler is back in second place for just the fifth time this season (he's ranked no lower than No. 2 in 2012).
Sadler finds himself just nine points behind new points leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr., heading into Saturday's Kentucky 300 at Kentucky Speedway.
"I really like Kentucky Speedway," Sadler said. "Last year, we sat on the pole and ran well there. We missed a little bit here in the spring, but we have worked on our setup and I think we have an awesome package for the weekend."
Stenhouse took over the points lead at Chicagoland with his fifth win of the season, while Sadler, who has four wins to date in 2012, wound up eighth.
The race for the NNS championship has pretty much been a two-man affair for much of the season between Sadler and Stenhouse. Austin Dillon, Sadler's Richard Childress Racing teammate, comes into Saturday's race third in the standings, 34 points behind Stenhouse and 25 behind Sadler. Sam Hornish Jr. is fourth, 57 points behind Stenhouse and 48 markers behind Sadler.
In the earlier NNS race at Kentucky (June 29), Dillon absolutely dominated the event, leading 192 of the 200 laps around the 1.5-mile paved speedway to take what has been his only Nationwide win thus far this season. Stenhouse and Sadler finished back-to-back in eighth and ninth position in that race, respectively.
Dillon seemed to pick up where he left off Friday afternoon in the first NNS practice, leading the 43-car field with a speed of 175.741 mph (30.727 seconds). Sadler was second-fastest at 174.672 mph, followed by Hornish (174.267), Stenhouse (174.059) and Brendan Gaughan (173.734).
In the second and final practice session of the day, Gaughan recorded the fastest lap (176.419), followed by 19-year-old Alex Bowman (176.217, making only his second career NNS race), Michael Annett (175.268), Justin Allgaier (175.177) and Danica Patrick (174.853). Dillon was eighth-fastest (174.481), Sadler was 11th (173.071) and Stenhouse was 12th (172.833).
There are essentially three key storylines for Saturday's race:
1. Sadler needs a strong finish to regain his points lead.
2. Stenhouse, who is making his 100th career Nationwide start in Saturday's race, is looking to put additional space between Sadler and himself in an attempt to earn his second consecutive Nationwide championship. Winning his second race in a row and third in the last four (he also won three weeks ago at Atlanta) would go a long way toward further widening the currently small gap between himself and Sadler.
3. If he's going to make a late bid to add a Nationwide championship to his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title last season, Dillon must go on a tear. It's a long shot, but he has the team and power to be a potential dark horse, if not a spoiler (preferably not for his RCR teammate, of course).
After this weekend, there are only six races left on the NNS schedule, so time is of the essence for all three drivers. If they're going to make a significant move, Saturday is going to have to be the start of that sprint toward the title.
Reflecting upon his 100th career NNS start, Stenhouse fondly looks back on his to-date stats: seven career wins, along with 36 top-five and 56 top-10 finishes.
"Time flies when you're having fun," Stenhouse said. "My career started out a tad shaky, but I have to thank (team owner) Jack Roush for sticking behind me and never giving up on me. The accomplishments that our No. 6 team has made the past two seasons are incredible and I am happy to be part of this team and organization. As I step up to the Sprint Cup series next year, I will always cherish my Nationwide career."
Stenhouse has already been named to replace Matt Kenseth in the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford in the Sprint Cup circuit next season. Kenseth is leaving the organization to drive the No. 20 Toyota in 2013 for Joe Gibbs Racing.
As for Sadler, he is leaving Richard Childress Racing at the end of this season -- no announcement has been made on his future -- and would like nothing more than to give team owner Richard Childress the Nationwide Series championship as a parting gift of appreciation.
"I think that any 1.5-mile track that we go to, we have a great shot at victory lane," Sadler said. "We are taking the car I drove at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (finished 15th), which was really fast. We will feed off our RCR teammate Austin Dillon, who won there last time, and our OneMain Financial team feels really, really good about this weekend."
KURT BUSCH LOOKS FOR KENTUCKY REBOUND
After team owner and younger brother Kyle replaced him at Chicago, Kurt Busch returns behind the wheel of the No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota for only the fourth time in the last 10 races.
The elder Busch brother is hoping for similar good fortune that he had in the late June Nationwide race at Kentucky Speedway, where he finished runner-up to winner Austin Dillon.
Matt Crafton practiced the car for Busch on Friday (Busch was in Loudon, N.H., practicing for Sunday's Sprint Cup race), and will also qualify the car Saturday, but Kurt Busch will drive the car in the race (because Crafton is qualifying the car, Busch will have to start from the back of the field).
"It will be a little difficult driving from the back," Busch conceded. "But as we saw last week when Kyle finished second in his Chicago return, it works to take the notes from the first run earlier in the year, improve on that, and get the better result you are looking for. That is what we're hoping for.
"Mike (crew chief Mike Beam) and the team have a lot of confidence right now and it shows the level of improvement. I can't wait to jump back into the No. 54 car and see if we can do one better this time around."
DANICA ADJUSTING TO NEW CREW CHIEF
Danica Patrick makes her first start of the season with new crew chief Ryan Pemberton atop the pit box.
Originally brought in to be a consultant at JR Motorsports when the team announced it was replacing competition director Tony Eury Sr. last week, Pemberton was quickly elevated to replace the elder Eury. He then added crew chief duties when Eury's son, Tony Jr., was also released from the organization earlier this week.
"I think it's safe to say it has been an eventful week for our Go Daddy team and pretty much everybody at JR Motorsports, for that matter," Patrick said. "It's going to be critical that we keep our focus going into this weekend. We still have seven races left on the schedule and getting solid finishes through the end of the year is important for our team."
Patrick is currently ranked 11th in the Nationwide standings, a massive 365 points behind Stenhouse, but comes into Saturday's race just 16 points out of the top 10. She is completing her final full-time season in the Nationwide series; she'll jump full-time to Sprint Cup in 2013.
As for working with the veteran Pemberton over the remaining seven races, Patrick is ready.
"I'm going to do my best to get acclimated with Ryan this week," Patrick said. "I think that will be easier said than done. There's no doubt it will be challenging and we won't have a lot of time to do it in.
"Chemistry is important for a driver and crew chief, so I'm hopeful we get adjusted to each other quickly. I don't know a whole lot about him, but what I do know is that he has a wealth of experience and comes well recommended."
In only his third career start in the series, Ryan Blaney earned his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win at Iowa Speedway last weekend. But in Friday's first practice session for the Kentucky 201, which was scheduled to be held later Friday evening, the 18-year-old Blaney (he set a NCWTS record of being the youngest race winner ever) was quickly brought back to earth. "Yeah, I got slapped in the face today during practice," Blaney said after crashing his primary truck in Turn 1, forcing the team to go to its backup. "That was a good reality check there." ... Four drivers are pulling double-duty between Saturday's NNS race and Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Loudon, N.H.: Sam Hornish Jr., Kurt Busch, Scott Riggs and Joe Nemechek. ... Retired military working dog, Sgt. Beyco, will accompany her handler, Vietnam War veteran Joe Sturm, to deliver the command to fire engines for Saturday's Nationwide race. Sgt. Beyco earned eight medals, including the Combat Action Ribbon, during eight years of service, of which three years were served in Iraq.