Commentary

No holds barred in Nationwide

Updated: February 13, 2011, 1:59 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Turn Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards loose on full Nationwide Series schedules and deny them championship points. Put them in win-or-else mode. Throw in an occasional visit from Kyle Busch.

And … well …

Keselowski's grin went far and wide at just the thought of it.

"I would say we'll get rowdier yet," he said when reminded those three got pretty rowdy in 2010.

Can they get any rougher than, for example, when Keselowski opened the Nationwide season doing his Dale Earnhardt driving impersonation, then was launched in March at Atlanta by Edwards (a Cup payback stemming from Nationwide issues), then was wrecked at St. Louis by Edwards in July, then dumped by Busch at Bristol in August?

[+] Enlarge Kyle Busch
Jerry Markland/Getty Images/NASCARIt just wouldn't be the Nationwide Series without Kyle Busch celebrating in Victory Lane.

"Oh, yeah," Keselowski said. "Ohhhhh, yeah! Believe me, it's not hard to be more aggressive."

NASCAR put a stop to Cup drivers collecting Nationwide points for 2011, but still allows the big boys to drop down at will on Saturdays. With sponsorships already set before the ruling, former Nationwide champions Edwards and Keselowski will run a full schedule anyway.

"Yeah, they can certainly get a lot rougher," said Aric Almirola, who'll be running for the Nationwide title for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s JR Motorsports. "Winning is all that's going to matter to them. They're not out there to collect points. They're not out there racing for a championship."

But, speaking for the regulars who will be running for the title, Almirola said firmly, "This is our series …"

"They can crash the hell out of each other -- I could care less," Almirola said of the three rowdies. "But they need to race us with respect."

That is, it's OK to have a sideshow. Nationwide regulars are used to that.

Among stellar outsiders, X Games sensation Travis Pastrana will run selected Nationwide races, and Danica Patrick will be back for a projected 12 races -- the highlight being her Bristol debut on March 19 -- as both drivers continue transitioning into NASCAR.

And Edwards and Keselowski will be showing off the two fan-pleasingest designs in the stable of new Nationwide cars that look like throwback muscle cars.

Edwards will drive a Mustang and Keselowski a Dodge Challenger. The new body designs, run in four races last year, will run the full schedule this season.

But among all the sideshows, just don't interfere with those who "checked the box" -- the informal term for mandatory selection of one national NASCAR series in which to collect points -- for Nationwide.

Most of the top Nationwide contenders -- such as Almirola for JR, Elliott Sadler for Kevin Harvick Inc., Edwards' teammate Trevor Bayne for Roush Fenway and Jason Leffler for newly fortified Turner Motorsports -- believe winning their championship will carry the enormous bonus of opening doors to Cup rides for them in 2012.

"The way this is structured, if you go win the Nationwide championship, I have to believe that whoever does will get a Cup opportunity the next year," Leffler said. "I've had two or three good shots at Cup racing. And at my age [35], I'm still confident that if I go win a half-dozen races this year I'll still get another shot at Cup racing."

"If you look back," Almirola said, "I think Martin Truex Jr. was the last guy who did it [win the Nationwide championship from the rank and file, in 2005, before the Cup drivers began dominating the title]. And it opened up an opportunity for him to go racing on Sunday."

[+] EnlargeAric Almirola
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesAric Almirola on his Nationwide chances in 2011: "Everybody has been building new race cars, but we've been building badass race cars."

Almirola deems the JR team better prepared than anybody to run for the title.

"Everybody has been building new race cars, but we've been building badass race cars," Almirola said. "We've gotten a lot of help and support from Hendrick Motorsports. They're really working on our engine package to make it better.

"Pops [Tony Eury Sr., Almirola's crew chief] and Tony Jr. have been working our guys tirelessly over the winter to make our stuff better and make our cars lighter."

But the rowdy regular visitors "can be up there racing for the lead … and they can get in a crash and collect us," Bayne acknowledged.

"The only saving grace," said Leffler, "is that they are probably running for the owners' championship."

But Leffler has learned to watch out for cherry-picking Cup drivers on Saturdays anyway.

"I've noticed that with some Cup guys who come into this series, if they're not in position to win the race at the end of the race, usually something happens," Leffler said.

"They're showing up to get trophies," Leffler continued. "Not that we aren't, but at the end of the day, with our car, if everything's not going the way you want it to, you tend to start thinking about points and get the best finish you can, where they're in a position where they're just going to go for it."

Edwards said his car owner, Jack Roush, wants to run for the owners' title, and "I think he's got a lot of pride there. So I'd still like to win that."

But, "I guess what we'll do is just go race the first few races and see how it goes," Edwards continued. "But if it turns out we're not racing for a championship, it could be -- uh -- it could be pretty exciting just going for wins."

Edwards paused and his smile grew sheepish.

"But I don't know if NASCAR would allow me to get too much more rowdy than I was last year," he said.

And Keselowski, after his initial thoughts of mischief, reined in his glee a bit.

"What's tough is trying to balance what's right and what's fair," he said. "You try to be somewhat responsible about it and look out for the crew guys. They've got to work on the cars if you tear them up.

"Probably more important yet are the guys who are running for the championship," Keselowski continued. "You try not to get them in any of your carnage."

Told of Keselowski's forecasts of rowdier than ever, Busch deadpanned, "If it's gonna be that way, I probably just need to quit Nationwide and focus on the Cup effort."

Yeah, right.

"But, you know," Busch said, "those guys talk too much sometimes."

All in all, Bayne said, "They know they're coming down to our playground, and I don't really see them as being the bullies that are going to push us off the swing set."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.