The Nationwide Series championship trophy Regan Smith hopes and plans to cradle this November at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be especially gratifying, he said. Certainly, any trophy is a desired trophy, and in the 29-year-old JR Motorsports driver's case, a validating résumé-builder as he attempts to make his way back full time to the Sprint Cup Series.
"Absolutely," Smith said. "And trust me, I've thought about that. This will be one of those years, if you can hoist that trophy, it's a tough year in Nationwide and makes you appreciate it even more."
Tough, certainly. Maybe toughest in years, even though Nationwide regulars have won just two of nine events -- one each by points leader Smith and second-place Sam Hornish Jr. -- preceding the next event on Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, ABC).
Five of those wins by Cup moonlighters have come from Kyle Busch, the series' all-time leader with 56, three of them from the pole and one from the second starting spot. A 113-time winner in the top three NASCAR series, he has been dominant when venturing outside of NASCAR's highest level, particularly in Nationwide while utilizing the ultra-successful resources of Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch went winless driving for his own team last season, but secured his fifth win of the season for JGR two weeks ago at Darlington.
Tony Stewart, driving for Richard Childress Racing, won the season opener at Daytona, when race-leading Smith attempted to block Brad Keselowski in the final stretches, cuing a mass wreck that sent rookie Kyle Larson's car into the catch-fence and seating areas.
Cup drivers won four of the first nine Nationwide races last season.
Even though Cup drivers continue to win the majority of Nationwide races, doing so is proving to be a more difficult task, according to NASCAR statistics, as Nationwide regulars have taken more than half the top-10 finishing spots in every race this season except for Texas. In six races, the figure has been seven (Richmond, Talladega) or more. In four, eight (Bristol, Daytona) or more, and at Fontana, Calif., and Las Vegas it was nine. Nationwide partisans also claimed four of the top five spots at California and Las Vegas.
The depth of the driver field is undoubtedly a factor, although on only two occasions has a regular been able to produce a win. As the top-tier NASCAR developmental series, Nationwide by nature has fielded a transitory lineup, with drivers attempting to earn their way up or back in to Sprint Cup. But this season the competing forces, Smith said, seem fortified in numbers and talent.
"It's very tough and diverse," he said. "This field is as thick as it's been for years. I looked at the offseason roster and I was like, 'Man, this is going to be a tough season,' when you start looking at guys who are running full-time and you start looking at all the agendas. You've got guys who have been in Cup who want to get back there, such as myself or [Brian] Vickers or [Elliott] Sadler. You've got guys who are poised to get opportunities in Cup in years to come and you've got guys who are in the Nationwide Series who are trying to prove they belong in NASCAR. There's so many agendas out there, and so much talent."
The top 10 at Darlington was a microcosm of the series this season. Gibbs drivers claimed the top three spots and four top-5s at Darlington, but the second- and third-place finishes came from two drivers, Sadler and Vickers, respectively, who illustrate the diversity of the current driver field: Sadler, 38, moved from Sprint Cup to Nationwide full time in 2011 seeking a championship opportunity, and has been runner-up the past two seasons; Vickers signed with JGR as a bridge to a hopeful return to Sprint Cup next season.
Highly touted 20-year-old rookie Kyle Larson, who has a developmental deal with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, was sixth, Smith seventh and Hornish, a three-time IndyCar champion who is crafting his most productive NASCAR season after struggling to adjust in Sprint Cup, was eighth. Austin Dillon, who finished third in the series as a rookie last year, was on the cusp in 11th.
After the departure of two-time defending champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for a rookie Cup campaign at Roush Fenway, 12 drivers are within 100 points of the lead after nine races. At the same point last season, just six drivers were within the same margin of Stenhouse, who had already won twice.
Certainly, the competitor in Smith would like to promptly reduce those drivers in his rearview mirror. The fan in him, however, is anxious to see how this all works out in November.
"There's a lot of different faces running up front in these races this year, and certainly at any moment, any one of them can win," Smith said. "And that does a lot in helping the series and helping the sport and the future of this sport. Obviously I'm a racer and I want to win and beat all those guys, but I'm also a fan of the sport and I care about the sport, and it excites me to see the potential and see where things are going."