A winless champion could be trouble for NASCAR Nationwide Series

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The good news: a NASCAR Nationwide Series regular will win the 2013 series championship this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The bad news: the potential exists that champion could finish the 2013 season winless.

So long as Austin Dillon finishes ahead of Sam Hornish Jr. – the Richard Childress Racing prodigy leads Penske Racing’s Hornish by eight points entering Saturday’s Ford Ecoboost 300 – and doesn’t win, he’ll be the champion. To Dillon’s credit, that would give him titles in both Nationwide and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (2011).

NASCAR can spin it all it wants, as in “Dillon’s incredible consistency carried him to the title” or some such. But a winless champion would be the first all-time in any of NASCAR’s three top tiers, and a potential nightmare scenario from a marketing or PR standpoint.

After all, the Chase for the Sprint Cup was introduced a year after Matt Kenseth won a solitary race in 2003, building his lone title triumph on consistency rather than race wins and dominance.

Nationwide has, for better or worse, traditionally allowed the influx of Sprint Cup regulars to compete in its races. And while Cup drivers can’t register driver points, they can play major dividends in both the driver and owner championships.

The dominant teams entering this weekend are the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford and the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota teams; Penske lead JGR by 4 owner points, 1256-1252. Both teams have 12 wins; Busch has all 12 for the 54 while four different drivers (Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, AJ Allmendinger, Ryan Blaney) have won in the 22. That’s a full 24 of 32 races thus far won by just these two cars (75 percent), and in total, 27 of 32 won by Cup regulars. Dillon’s and Hornish’s teams rank only third and fourth in the owner points, by contrast.

That’s a majority of the races where the 54 and the 22 have received the most ink, the most press, and the most coverage, instead of the series’ actual full-timers.

Knowing and learning how to win races should be part of a training ground, and so long as the Cup regulars continue to dominate the scoreboard, it’s always going to be difficult for Nationwide drivers to gain that skill before moving up.

Perhaps a “maximum race cap” gets introduced for Cup regulars, or the schedule itself designates only a certain number of races where Cup regulars will be eligible. That’s a topic for another day, though.

Still, it’s no coincidence that some of the most intriguing Nationwide races this year – Iowa and the road courses at Road America and Mid-Ohio, for instance – have featured less than a full handful of Cup regulars in the field. And all three were won by drivers not competing in Cup full-time.

You could properly see how well Dillon and Hornish fared against their Nationwide peers in those races compared to the majority, populated by Cup regulars, where all they really needed to do was finish “best in class” to keep building the points.

Hornish has finished second five times this year, and third four times. Of those nine races, the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford driven by Keselowski, Logano or Allmendinger has won five of them (Hornish finished second to the No. 22 three times, third twice). He finished best in class, but you could argue he left points on the table in ending behind the team car. Indeed, it’s more than 20 points that have gone begging as a result, and right now, those points would be pretty valuable heading into Homestead.

Sponsorship is the main reason Hornish doesn’t have a 2014 contract in place, although he plans to remain in NASCAR. But those missed winning opportunities have to loom large to potential suitors.

Perhaps Hornish overcomes the deficit this Saturday, and a win with Dillon outside the top five would do just that. For his and the series’ sake, it would be welcomed, to give him his second win of 2013. Or, Dillon could reduce the potential angst of a winless champ with a win of his own.

Either way, game on this Saturday.

Helio Castroneves: ‘I have nothing to lose’ Sunday in bid for 4th Indy 500 win

All photos: IndyCar
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You might say Helio Castroneves comes into Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 with a “less is more” philosophy than he’s had in years past:

* No pressure

* No worrying about points

* No worrying about winning a championship

Take away all those things and the very popular Brazilian driver could be in the best position he’s ever been to achieve the biggest goal of his career:

Winning a fourth Indy 500, making him a member of motor racing’s most exclusive club, joining legendary drivers A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only drivers to conquer the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway four times each.

Like his car number, Castroneves has won the Indy 500 three times. He wants to change that number to four times in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. Photo: IndyCar.

“For sure, I definitely don’t have much to lose in terms of points, championships, and things like that,” Castroneves told MotorSportsTalk earlier this week. “I don’t have to think that I don’t have a car to win, I’m not going to risk that much because there are still championship points (to earn if he was still racing full-time in the series).

“Not that I did that before, but if the situation occurs, people just need to know I have nothing to lose this time.”

Castroneves three prior triumphs in the 500 came in his first two years in the field – 2001 and 2002 – and again in 2009. In addition, he has finished twice in the last four editions of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing in 2014 and 2017.

Coming so close last year, losing to Takuma Sato by .201 of a second, is something Castroneves hasn’t forgotten about. To come so close to No. 4 has only made him more hungry to get it done on Sunday.

“Yeah, but if it were easy, we would likely have had more than four wins by now,” he said. “We’ve had opportunities in the past, the last four years we were really competitive, we were right there, especially in ’14 and ’17, we were right on it.

“Last year, I thought it was going to be the hardest 500 for me and look what happened: we were battling to the end for a victory,” Castroneves said. “It’s not just about trying hard, it’s about being there at the right place at the right time.

“And this place, Indianapolis, I’ve always said the track winds up choosing who is going to be the winner. Hopefully, with safety and luck, we’ll be part of it and be on the right side.”

Team owner Roger Penske decided after last season to put Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya as the chief drivers of Team Penske’s new two-car effort in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship sports car series.

When the announcement was first made, many feared that Castroneves had run out of chances to get that elusive No. 4 at Indy.

But Penske sweetened the deal for Helio to go sports car racing by promising he’d field a car for him at Indy. And Penske has proven to be a man of his word, giving Castroneves everything he needs to finally win No. 4.

“I feel we’ve prepared as much as a team, we’re doing everything possible in relation to preparation,” Castroneves said. “The preparation we had in the previous year helps us tremendously to give us an opportunity fighting there for a win, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Castroneves has taken to the new style Indy car with aplomb. During the first week of practice leading up to last weekend’s qualifying, he was consistently one of the fastest drivers in the field.

The 43-year-old even topped the speed charts in the Fast Nine last Saturday before ending up eighth in the following day’s pole qualifying.

As a result, he’ll start Sunday’s race from the middle of Row 3, anchoring Team Penske’s four-man Top 8 starting lineup effort in the 500. When the green flag drops, to his left will be Danica Patrick and to his right will be four-time IndyCar champ and former 500 winner Scott Dixon.

And millions of others right behind him, so to speak.

“I feel the sense that everyone wants it to happen,” he said of winning No. 4. “We’re talking about being part of history here. The last guy to do it was Rick Mears in the ‘90s (1991).

“I mean, how cool would that be if I would be in the position and to see No. 4 in my era. I hear a lot of the fans, even those supporting different drivers, all saying ‘Man, I want to see you win No. 4.’ That just shows how special this place is.

“(The Indy 500) is part of a lot of people’s lives. I just would be very fortunate to hopefully to have this generation see someone do No. 4.”

While he’d rather not think about missing out on a fourth win at Indy for a ninth straight year, Castroneves is using reverse psychology somewhat.

He’s going into Sunday’s biggest race in the world fully believing he will finally win No. 4.

And if he does, forget the idea that he would never come back to race at Indy again.

“Not at all. Why? You’re so close to getting four, and then when you get four, you stop it? It doesn’t make sense.

“I think I still have at least four or five more years, there’s no question about it. As long as Roger (Penske) gives me the opportunity, I’m going to be going for it, for sure.”

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