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NNS: Stenhouse Jr. To Defend Title Against Array Of Competition

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In the Nationwide Series, it’s the year of Danica. Also of the Busch Brothers Tag Team, of Austin Dillon, of Cole Whitt and of Travis Pastrana.

A busy year, clearly, for NASCAR’s No. 2 division.

The biggest story of the season is likely to be the performance of Danica Patrick, who plans to run the full schedule in JR Motorsports Chevrolets. Patrick hopes to race in 10 Sprint Cup races with Stewart-Haas Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing, but her focus will be Nationwide racing and a shot at her – and her gender’s – first win in a major NASCAR series.

Patrick, 29, ran 12 races for JR Motorsports last season, scoring one top five and three top 10s. After she failed to finish three of 13 Nationwide races and scored no top 10s in 2010, last year’s effort was considered a noteworthy improvement.

Driving some of the best cars in the series, there is anticipation that Patrick can break into NASCAR history this season by becoming the sanctioning body’s first female winner of a major race.

Having abandoned IndyCar racing (at least for now) and concentrating full time on NASCAR, Patrick figures she can make advances.

“It’s kind of a relief to just be able to focus on NASCAR as I have a lot to learn,” she said. “I’m going to need to focus completely on it. I’ll have the whole season to do that. With more racing will come more expectations of doing well, and I want to do that.”

Returning to defend his 2011 Nationwide championship is Roush Fenway Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won two races last year on the way to outrunning Elliott Sadler for the title. A year earlier, Stenhouse’s career appeared to be in jeopardy after he was involved in numerous accidents, but team owner Jack Roush stuck with him, opening the door for a superior season in 2011.

Sadler had a consistent season last year but wasn’t able to drive into victory lane. He failed to catch Stenhouse in points late in the year but figures to have another shot at the championship this year driving for Richard Childress Racing.

Also set for a full-schedule Nationwide run for Childress is his grandson, Austin Dillon, last year’s Camping World Truck Series champion. Dillon ran four Nationwide races last season and finished in the top 10 three times.

Dillon is considered a threat for the title in his rookie season. He’ll be driving the iconic No. 3 made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Also entered in the series by RCR is the No. 33 car, a ride that will be shared by Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard, Max Papis and Brendan Gaughan. In the off-season, Harvick closed his Nationwide/Truck shop, and much of the equipment wound up at the Childress shop.

Although NASCAR’s “pick a series” requirement effectively prevents brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch from running for the Nationwide drivers championship, the Busches nevertheless will be a force in the series this year as they share the ride in the Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyotas. They will essentially split the season between them, with veteran Mike Beam serving as crew chief.

The series will see a new driver in the potent No. 88 Chevrolets fielded by JR Motorsports. Aric Almirola left that team to move on to Sprint Cup, and he’ll be replaced by highly regarded 20-year-old Cole Whitt, who finished ninth in the Truck standings last season.

Also noteworthy during the season will be the scheduled arrival of action sports star Travis Pastrana. A Rally driver and X sports medalist, Pastrana is scheduled to drive seven Nationwide races for team owner Michael Waltrip. His scheduled debut, delayed a year by a leg injury last season, is at Richmond in April.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.