CHARLOTTE _ On Friday night, the Charlotte Checkers AHL minor league hockey team hosted its fifth annual Race Night with some of NASCAR’s future stars. Dropping the puck for the game against the Manchester Monarchs was Joe Gibbs Racing’s Joey Logano. A Connecticut native, Logano is a former hockey player who still enjoys watching the game and strapping on the skates from time to time.
While Logano was the only Sprint Cup driver there, fans attending the game were able to meet Nationwide Series drivers Brian Scott, Michael Annett, Austin Dillon, along with others from the truck series and other various racing series, as well as see race cars up close and get information on the nearby NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Signing autographs and posing for pictures, a few of the drivers took time to discuss NASCAR’s apparent decision to restrict drivers to competing for only one championship. Reports broke last week explaining that drivers are now instructed to choose which series – Cup, Nationwide or Truck – they would like to compete for the championship.
For Logano little will change, but for others, they just took one step closer to becoming title contenders.
Going into the season with a limited Saturday schedule, Logano was never planning to battle for the Nationwide championship. Running for owner points, the JGR driver says his focus will remain on winning races.
“It doesn’t make a difference to me,” Logano said. “It makes more of a difference for people like Brad (Keselowski) and those guys that are doing both (series). You’re going to have a different champion than last year, for sure. It’s cool. It’s definitely going to bring in some new faces to be a Nationwide champion.”
One of those new faces hoping to emerge as a threat for the Nationwide title is Logano’s newest teammate Brian Scott.
Last season, Scott started out with Braun Racing as a contender for the Rookie of the Year title. When the team merged with Turner Motorsports in September, Scott moved on to RAB Racing for the final seven races. Finishing runner-up in the Rookie of the Year battle and 14th in the standings, Scott will now have JGR equipment and a growing confidence on his side.
“Knowing the equipment is going to be there, it will be the first opportunity I will be in a situation like that,” Scott explained. “Really, just digging deep inside myself to make the thing go fast and finish well in races and just seeing what it is that Gibbs does that makes them so successful. Seeing their preparation, their resources, the people that they have; how they operate is incredibly efficient and I think it provides a lot towards their success.
“I’m going to have good teammates that are going to be running up front and knowing I’m going to have the same equipment as them and have the opportunity to do so,” he said. “It will be a great opportunity for me to hone my skills and figure out how to get there.”
Focused on improving his ability throughout the year, the sophomore driver still has his eye on the championship, especially after learning of NASCAR’s newest policy.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to be able to win a championship and be one of the top contenders to do so,” he said. “I hope when it’s all said and done, that I’m holding the championship trophy and, regardless of how-ever-many races the Cup guys did, if you were to add up all their points I hope I still beat them.
“I think it’s good, I think it will make the Nationwide Series have its own identity a bit and I think it will be a huge step forward.”
Another Nationwide-regular looking forward to the chance to compete for the championship is Michael Annett. Joining Rusty Wallace Racing for the 2011 season, Annett is looking to improve on his 13th place finish in the season standings last season.
While the new policy has opened the door a bit wider for this organization to contend for the title, Annett explained their focus was already on the championship.
“It hasn’t really changed anything,” Annett admitted. “If I went into the shop every day, or the guys came in thinking, ‘Oh, we don’t have a chance at the championship,’ then everyone would be selling themselves short.”
The third-year driver explained he enjoyed competing against the Cup stars on Saturdays, saying he was able to learn from their experience, his mistakes and hone his skills before making the jump to Sundays.
“For me it’s a win-win,” he said. “They can still race with us – (NASCAR) didn’t say they can’t race against us. You’re still going to race against them, but still we’re going to have the chance to bring home the hardware and win a championship. I don’t think it changed anything in the shop, if one announcement can change how we prepare our cars, then we have big problems. They had a championship in their mind no matter what.”
NASCAR’s decision to limit each driver to one championship is a move in the right direction for the much-ailing Nationwide Series. Once a stepping stone for younger drivers, the series has become one dominated by the stars of the Sprint Cup Series.
While the rule adjustment will not change who competes for and wins races, what it will do is allow younger drivers to once again step to the forefront proving their abilities and compete for a championship, all while learning from the best of the best. Plus, it will produce the first Nationwide-regular champion since Martin Truex Jr. accomplished the feat in 2005 – something that will help build the series’ identity for years to come.
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