Commentary

Cup regulars will have their hands full in new Nationwide Series

Cup regulars will have fewer sitting ducks in the new Nationwide Series thanks to such rising stars as Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski, writes Rupen Fofaria.

Updated: December 3, 2007, 3:46 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

They will need to be called something else next season. Nationwide Whackers just doesn't have the same ring to it. Of course, if the young gang of Busch Series faithful in 2007 make good on the promise shown, we might not be talking about Cup invaders at all next year.

True, Cup regular Carl Edwards ran away with the points title and his teammate and fellow Cup regular David Ragan took the rookie honors. It's also true that the final standings were littered with Cup regulars among the top 10.

[+] EnlargeMarcos Ambrose
Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCARBusch Series newcomer Marcos Ambrose finished eighth in the driver standings in '07.

But what was most impressive was that many young, up-and-coming, exclusive Busch racers were no longer sitting ducks for the Cup moonlighters. Marcos Ambrose led a group of racers who showed great potential. They delivered a message, as well: Cup drivers will have to earn every position on the track in their Saturday excursions.

Ambrose finished eighth in the standings and second, by a narrow margin, in the rookie race. Brad Keselowski, despite finishing a distant 25th in the standings, was every bit as impressive. After all, he made seven fewer starts than the Busch regulars and finished with five top-10s in his final 12 outings. Keselowski was third in the rookie race.

Ambrose is leading a wave of international drivers trying their hand at America's motorsport of choice. His first spin in a Busch car was also his first spin in a stock car, leaving the future boundless for the Australian.

"I am absolutely loving being a part of NASCAR," Ambrose said. "To finish in the top 10 in the points as a driver who has come from the other side of the world is very special.

"We've had a solid year. It was a big goal of ours to get that top-10 in the points, and we also got a pole and a top-5. We've still got room for improvement, and we're excited about next year."

Next year brings a full slate in the newly named Nationwide Series. It might bring some opportunities for mixing it up with the Cup drivers, too.

"We've got a lot of hard work to do before next year," Ambrose said. "But I feel like we've achieved something -- something to be proud of as a team. My guys have worked hard all year. We've struggled a bit, but it's great to give them something they can enjoy over the break."

Keselowski was just getting warmed up when the break arrived. Tabbed after the season began by team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., Keselowski took the wheel of the JR Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet in the 15th race and was the highest-finishing rookie his first time out.

"Brad jumped in our car back in July and has shown a lot of promise in a short period of time," Junior said of his driver, whom he inked to a two-year deal. "... We're starting out with a younger guy who has the skills, and we're going to give him the equipment, training and other resources necessary to get the job done."

For his part, Keselowski is focused on not wasting the opportunity.

"I've worked really hard for many years to get an opportunity like this with JR Motorsports and the Navy," Keselowski said. "JR Motorsports is a solid organization with incredible resources, and as a driver, you can't ask for much more than that."

Drivers such as Jason Leffler, Bobby Hamilton Jr., Scott Wimmer and Mike Wallace helped fill out a formidable field of primarily Busch Series racers. Next season, they will continue to work toward making things hard for Cup drivers looking for an easy Friday night or Saturday drive.

Of course, the level of Cup competitors coming into the second-tier division was as high as ever in 2007. That was evidenced by Edwards' remarkable title run and the budding career of Ragan.

Ragan made it nearly impossible to argue that a rookie gig with Roush Racing's Busch program isn't the hottest ticket around. He exceeded his own expectations in the final standings and became the third consecutive Roush driver to win rookie of the year honors in the series (Edwards won in 2005, and Danny O'Quinn Jr. won in 2006).

"This is what we set out to do in the springtime," Ragan said. "This was one of our goals this year to finish in the top 10 in points and win rookie of the year. And we finished fifth in points and won rookie of the year. Two of the three we got to cross off.

"I'm a little disappointed that we didn't win a race this year, but we were pretty close a few times. But that gives us something to look forward to next year."

As for the fans, they can look forward to rooting for Nationwide regulars standing their ground against an ever-talented barrage of Cup drivers seeking escape from the boxy Car of Tomorrow. From what we saw this past season, it will be an increasingly even match.

Rupen Fofaria has covered NASCAR for ESPN.com since 2002. He can be reached at rupenisracin@yahoo.com.

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