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Milestone race for Nationwide Series

9/5/2013 - NASCAR
The one that started it all: Dale Earnhardt winning the inaugural Nationwide race at Daytona in '82. Courtesy NASCAR

The Nationwide Series has led a speculative existence since it sprouted from NASCAR's old Sportsman division and was recast as a national touring series in 1982.

It was a marketing platform and a proving ground for men and machines -- "a perfect blend of young and veteran drivers, providing some of the most compelling and entertaining racing in motorsports," according to NASCAR president Mike Helton. It was tasked with developing future champions for what is now the Sprint Cup Series, and has done so -- sort of.

But a Sprint Cup regular won the very first Nationwide Series event in 1982. And an active Sprint Cup regular is the series' current wins leader and piling on more weekly. Is it just a walk-through for the Cup races that so often follow the next day at the same track?

Eight Sprint Cup champions have competed in the Nationwide Series. But that counts five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who won once in two attempted full seasons and asserts that he "sucked" there before becoming the most successful driver of his generation at the sport's highest level. Only Brad Keselowski has won titles in both Nationwide and Cup.

So what purpose does NASCAR's top developmental series serve and who exactly is being served continues to be a topic 32 years after its cars first rumbled onto the high banks of Daytona International Speedway. It rumbles onto the short track of Richmond International Raceway on Friday for its 1,000th all-time race, and longevity, if anything, counts for something.

A look at the Nationwide Series through the first 999 races:

Five greatest drivers

• Kyle Busch -- Quite often simply dominating, the circuit's all-time wins leader (60) has made it the Busch Series again, if in spirit only.

• Kevin Harvick -- Third on the all-time wins list (40), he claimed his first of two titles in one of the most pressurized situations imaginable: running a concurrent Cup schedule in 2001 replacing the late Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing.

• Mark Martin -- Forty-nine wins in 236 starts over 23 years, he contested his first Nationwide race in its inaugural season -- as a 23-year-old.

• Sam Ard -- Contested three seasons in his mid-40s, finishing second and then champion in 1983 and 1984. Owned the single-season wins record (10) until Busch tied it in 2008 and won 13 races in 2010.

• Jack Ingram -- From 1982-86 he won two titles, was runner-up twice and third once, claiming 30 of his 31 career wins, which is fifth all time. Joe Gibbs Racing's Elliott Sadler will drive a No. 11 Toyota at Richmond this week commemorating Ingram's imminent NASCAR Hall of Fame induction.

Five memorable moments

• Dale Earnhardt christened the series by winning the first race in its history -- of course at Daytona International Speedway -- on Feb. 13, 1982, in a No. 15 Pontiac owned by Robert Gee and sponsored by Wrangler. There's some nostalgia, for you. Ingram, the eventual inaugural champion, finished 31st.

• In his third time driving a No. 3 car since his father perished in the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won in a Wrangler-schemed tribute car run in collaboration with owner Richard Childress at Daytona at Daytona in July 2010. Earnhardt Jr. and cousin and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. were subdued and emotional about the immensely popular win, with the scion vowing to never use the number again.

• Ard didn't enter the Oct. 28, 1984, race at Martinsville, but ran off to a 426-point romp in the championship. Ard became the first of seven -- preceding Ingram, Larry Pearson, Randy LaJoie, Earnhardt Jr., Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -- to win two titles in NASCAR's top developmental series.

• Busch's win at Bristol Motor Speedway on Aug. 26, 2011, was the 50th in his Nationwide career, moving him past Martin and atop the all-time wins list.

• Rookie Danica Patrick, whose transition from open wheel to NASCAR had refocused greater attention on the series than in decades, was running inside the top five on the final lap at Road American in 2012 when Jacques Villeneuve bumped her into a gravel pit and to a 12th-place finish, inciting crew chief Eury Jr. to confront the former Formula One champion on pit road afterward.

Five biggest winners

1. Kyle Busch, 60

2. Mark Martin, 49

3. Kevin Harvick, 40

4. Carl Edwards, 38

5. Jack Ingram, 31