Amanda Vincent, NASCAR Correspondent
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series isn't the only national division of NASCAR in which a heated championship battle is brewing. The Nationwide Series doesn't have a Chase, as the points in that series aren't reset with 10 races to go, but there are 10 events left in the 2012 season; and Elliott Sadler, driver of the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, are separated by just 19 points heading into the final stretch.
Sadler has the points lead right now and reigning champion Stenhouse wants it. The heat turned up on the previously respectful championship battle last weekend with physical racing at Bristol (Ten.) Motor Speedway when Stenhouse made contact with Sadler late in the race that cost Sadler several positions on the race track.
He opened it up. Now we can race differently the last 10 races.
"I told him, 'we've always raced each other with a lot of respect,'" Sadler said. "I'm glad he didn't wreck us, but it's not the finish we deserved. He opened it up. Now we can race differently the last 10 races."
The first of those 10 races comes Saturday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, as the Nationwide Series makes its way to the track for the NRA American Warrior 300. With the high speeds at Atlanta, physicality will probably have to wait until next weekend for the short track of Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
Meanwhile, Atlanta looks to be a venue at which Stenhouse can gain more ground. Sadler does have more experience at the track than his competitor, with six Nationwide Series starts, not to mention Sprint Cup experience, there.
But Stenhouse has better results in the form of a top-five finish in only two starts. That was a third-place showing last year. Sadler does have one m
ore Atlanta top-10 in Nationwide competition with three, but Stenhouse has two top-10s there in the series -- two races = two top-10s."Our No. 6 team is pumped going into Atlanta due to our success this year on 1.5-mile tracks," Stenhouse said.
Stenhouse's crew chief, Mike Kelley, is also optimistic about Atlanta.
"This track really suits Ricky's driving style, because you run up high in close proximity to the wall," Kelley said. "I feel confident that we will have a strong showing in our No. 6 Cargill Beef Ford."
While he hasn't had the success of his counterpart, Sadler is also looking forward to the Atlanta trip.
Of course, Stenhouse and Hornish aren't the only two drivers in championship contention. Sam Hornish Jr., driver of the No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge, and Austin Dillon, driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, also have mathematical shots at the title, but they are long shots.
"We're maximum points racing right now," Dillon said. "Trying to get as many points as we can and the way you do that is by winning. So we're not really points racing, we're racing for wins. We've got 10 races left; that's it."
Hornish is 28 points out of the lead and Dillon is 35 points back. The two head into the 10-race stretch with a visit to a track at which they have limited Nationwide experience. Dillon will make his series Atlanta debut come Saturday. It'll only be the second Nationwide start at the track for Hornish. He finished 15th there back in 2007.