The Nationwide Series likely to come down to some usual suspects

Can Carl Edwards do it again, or can David Reutimann close the huge margin that left him the runner-up last year in what is now the Nationwide Series? And what about Clint Bowyer, who is returning to the series full time after Richard Childress Racing won the owner's championship a year ago?

Can David Ragan, last year's top rookie, make the leap into title contention, or can a driver whose sole focus is on Nationwide shock NASCAR by winning it all?

If that last scenario happens, will it be enough to dissuade NASCAR from implementing far-reaching changes to the series come 2009?

Questions? We've got plenty of questions. The answers will start unfolding shortly at Daytona International Speedway (noon ET Feb. 16, ESPN2) and in the 34 races that will follow.

The series has a new name, with Busch beer having left the scene after 26 years of building the series into what it is today. Of course, the question for some is: Exactly what is the series supposed to be?

Is it strictly a training ground where drivers can establish themselves before moving to Sprint Cup? A place where drivers who haven't cut it at the Cup level can race and hope for one more shot? Or should it be a happy medium where one and all -- beginners and veterans -- can give it their best?

That's how things stand now, with teams that are not a part of Cup operations fighting to hold their own while battling the likes of Roush Fenway Racing, RCR and others.

The big teams often fill their cars with Cup regulars, while sometimes working to develop younger drivers, not to mention crew members who might in time make the move to Cup.

Questions about where the series stands can be debated all year. And they may well be if NASCAR gives further consideration to changes that could see a system implemented in which full-time Cup drivers would be ineligible for the Nationwide championship.

And the series almost certainly will feature a variation of the Car of Tomorrow in 2009, but one that NASCAR hopes will further differentiate the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series.

For now, though, the focus is on what to expect on the track in 2008.

The likely answer is: More of the same from '07 -- although a bevy of Nationwide-only drivers hope to have something to say about that. And the fact that only four drivers are set to run both series on a full-time basis means there is at least a better chance something could change.

Realistically, though, it's hard not to see the championship going to either Edwards, Bowyer or, if Toyota is ready to take a step up this season, Reutimann. But don't try telling this to the likes of Jason Leffler, Bobby Hamilton Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Brad Keselowski, Mike Bliss, Mike Wallace, Kenny Wallace, Brad Coleman or even Roush Fenway's Ragan.

Those are the series regulars who enter the season dreaming of a scenario in which they can win a title, even though some would be considered long shots at best. Then there are youngsters such as Stephen Wallace and Kelly Bires, who hope to gain experience and consistency and compete for victories as the year goes on.

More races than not, though, will see a heavy influx of Cup regulars beyond the four that are running all 35 races. And that will make things tougher on the likes of Braun Racing, Team Rensi, JTG Racing, Fitz Motorsports and Baker Curb Racing.

What will make things hardest on the non-Cup regulars looking to win will be the continued presence of Edwards, Bowyer and Reutimann, each of whom won in the series last year.

Edwards' team lost steam during the season's second half, although he breezed to the driver's title, while the combination of Jeff Burton and Scott Wimmer grabbed the owner's championship for RCR. Edwards had four wins, 15 top-5s and 21 top-10s, but he knows things can be better this year.

"We can be better in the preparation department," Edwards said. "We figured out a lot of ways to lose races in the second half of the season last year, and we just weren't as quite prepared as we could be. I made a couple of mistakes that were compounded by mechanical failures on our backup cars and stuff like that.

"Those are things we can do a little better at and some of the strategy on pit calls -- many of which were my fault, where I thought we could do something to try to win the race, where we could have just gotten some points [by racing for a top-5]. That would have been better, so, overall, it's just basic racing, preparation and strategy we can do just a tick better at."

While preseason testing at Daytona doesn't indicate much, last week's test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway did raise a few concerns for Edwards. It was the first time the Nationwide teams were testing under the new engine rules, which see the cars utilizing carburetor spacers designed to decrease horsepower.

The goal is to increase the longevity of the engines, decreasing costs in the series. That left Joe Gibbs Racing at the top of the charts with a pair of Toyotas, followed by Hamilton in a Ford in third.

Edwards participated in only the first day of the test, but having the 18th-best time was enough to leave him a bit concerned.

"I'm a little bit nervous about the new engine package and how we stack up using that," Edwards said. "So we've got to definitely go back after at least that first day of testing and work on these Fusions and make sure we're as competitive as we should be. Right now, with the way it looked after that test, we've got some work to do."

But so do many of those who hope to catch Edwards, and based on RCR's performance last year, Bowyer likely has the best chance. He started just 22 races a year ago and still finished 12th in points on the strength of two wins, 13 top-5 and 19 top-10 finishes.

He was just two top-5s and two top-10s behind Edwards, despite running 13 fewer races.

Reutimann's hope is how his team progressed as the year went along and how Toyotas seemingly have improved a great deal since debuting in the series a year ago.

"Get Carl to stay home," Reutimann said with a laugh when asked how he could win the title this year. "Guys like Carl are going to be consistent throughout the year. Even if we have a few good races, if we finish 35th in a couple, it almost takes you right out of contention.

"You just need to be consistent on a weekly basis. You try to lead laps when you can, so you can get the five [bonus] points that add up at the end of the year. We weren't consistent until about the middle of last year, so we need to work on that."

Leffler was third in points last year, tops among drivers running strictly in the series. That sounds encouraging, until you realize that third place was 809 points behind Edwards. With just 11 top-10 finishes, the team is going to need to take a major leap to battle for the championship.

David Reutimann

Guys like Carl [Edwards] are going to be consistent throughout the year. Even if we have a few good races, if we finish 35th in a couple, it almost takes you right out of contention.

-- David Reutimann

Stewart Cooper has come aboard as Leffler's crew chief this year, which is one reason he is optimistic. The other is the gains he has seen in Toyota's program and the additional gains he expects to be made now that JGR is leading the charge.

"Stewart has been around the garage for a long time. He's done a really, really good job during the winter to get everything organized and on the right track for the new season," Leffler said. "So far, it's all going good. To contend for the championship, we just need to find some consistency, and I think having Stewart Cooper on board is really going to help that."

While it's possible someone else will sneak away with the title, it's more realistic to expect the other Nationwide regulars to simply fight for victories on the days they are running with the Cup regulars.

Hamilton has won in the series in the past, although it's unclear whether Team Rensi will be stronger fielding just one car than it was as a two-car effort last year. Ambrose, Ragan, Keselowski and Coleman are among those who still need to show they can win in the series, let alone challenge for a championship.

Ragan has Roush Fenway's resources and Keselowski is with JR Motorsports, which should be stronger this year now that it has combined efforts with Hendrick Motorsports and the chassis and engines are built by Hendrick. Keselowski, though, still will be seeing some tracks for the first time, so a title would be asking a lot.

Ambrose, meanwhile, is with JTG Racing, which no longer has a technical partnership with Wood Brothers Racing. The Australian showed potential last year; it's just a matter of how far he and teammate Bires can go with a team without a Cup affiliation.

Coleman, who nearly won with Joe Gibbs Racing a year ago, has moved to Baker Curb Racing, formerly known as Brewco Motorsports. The team has moved from Kentucky to Tennessee, and it might take time for all the pieces to come together.

Wins, though, certainly could come from the likes of Mike or Kenny Wallace or Bliss, veterans who know their way around the tracks if their cars are good enough. Mike Wallace is with Germain Racing in 2008, a team that will be running the Nationwide for the first time, while Bliss and Kenny Wallace will be with Fitz Motorsports.

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.