Wide-open race for the 2014 Nationwide Series championship

Daytona Beach, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - The 2014 Nationwide Series season gets underway on Saturday with the 300-mile race at Daytona International Speedway.

Austin Dillon won the Nationwide championship in 2013, but Dillon has graduated to the Sprint Cup Series this year. Dillon's rookie season started off with a bang, as he won the pole for Sunday's Daytona 500. He is driving the No. 3 car, owned by his grandfather, Richard Childress, in Sprint Cup.

There appears to be no clear favorite to win the Nationwide title this year. In fact, it should be a very competitive battle throughout the season. The 33- race schedule concludes on Nov. 15 at Homestead.

Sam Hornish Jr., who finished only three points behind Dillon last year, is running a partial schedule in Nationwide this season, sharing driving duties with Kyle Busch in Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 54 Toyota. Hornish was behind the wheel of the No. 12 Ford for Roger Penske's team last year, but Penske ceased operations with the 12 due to lack of sponsorship.

Regan Smith, who placed third in points, is back in the No. 7 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, and Elliott Sadler, the fourth-place finisher, returns to the No. 11 Toyota for JGR.

Smith, in his first full season with JRM, was the only Nationwide regular with multiple victories last year (Talladega and Michigan). During the offseason, the No. 7 team restructured its team personnel, with Ryan Pemberton taking over crew chief duties. Smith and Pemberton previously worked together during Smith's opening season in Sprint Cup in 2007.

"This year is a lot different," Smith said. "My team has Ryan Pemberton leading it this year. We have a new engineer [Allen Hart], and a lot of new faces. Anytime you have changes like that you wonder how everyone is going to get together and how the chemistry will be. I'm really pleased with how everyone is coming together. Ryan has done a good job putting the right people in the right places. Things are clicking really smoothly."

Sadler was winless in his first Nationwide season with Gibbs' team last year. JGR did not make any personnel changes to its No. 11 team for this season.

"As a team, we had a great offseason, and I was extremely impressed from the results during our Daytona testing in January," Sadler said. "With the same team heading into 2014, I'm really looking forward to using our momentum from the last few races of the 2013 season."

With Dillon now in Sprint Cup, his younger brother, Ty, has moved up from the Camping World Truck Series, where he finished second in points last season, to compete for rookie-of-the-year honors and possibly a championship in Nationwide. Ty is replacing Austin in the No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.

"It's a great feeling to come into a seat where you know you have great experience with guys who have been in the series for two or three years and had a championship in the past year," Ty Dillon said. "I'm very excited to get going. I know that I will have some of the best equipment every week for sure. All I have to do is make sure I'm on par. I'm really looking forward to the challenge."

Dakoda Armstrong, Chris Buescher, Chad Boat, Chase Elliott, who is the 18- year-old son of former NASCAR Cup Series champion Bill Elliott, Dylan Kwasniewski, Ryan Reed and Ryan Sieg are rookies in Nationwide this season as well. Elliott, the youngest of the eight rookies, is in the second semester of his senior year of high school.

"Moving up into the Nationwide Series is going to be a big step for me, but at the same time, I feel like it's one that I can do, if I go out and do my job right," Elliott said.

Brendan Gaughan is running a full Nationwide schedule this season after competing in the Camping World Truck Series last year. Gaughan is driving the No. 62 Chevrolet for RCR.

Kyle Busch, Landon Cassill, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Danica Patrick, David Ragan and Josh Wise are those Sprint Cup regulars entered in the 300-mile Nationwide race at Daytona.

Tony Stewart won last year's Nationwide season-opener here, but he is not competing in Saturday's event.

Stewart's victory at Daytona one year ago was overshadowed by a horrifying multi-car accident that occurred on the frontstretch at the finish. Dozens of spectators in the grandstands were injured, two of them critically, when Larson's car flipped around and sailed into the catchfence after he had been caught up in the wreck.

The front end of Larson's car was ripped apart after it tore a gaping hole in the fence. In wake of that incident, the crossover gate areas at Daytona and Talladega, a track similar to Daytona, were reinforced as part of NASCAR's new safety measures.

"I'm really glad the fans were okay, and we're all thankful for the safety improvements that NASCAR and its tracks continue to make," Larson said. "I'm looking forward to getting the finish we deserve this year."

Series: NASCAR Nationwide. Date: Saturday, Feb. 22. Race: DRIVE4COPD 300. Site: Daytona International Speedway. Track: 2.5-mile tri-oval. Start time: 1:15 p.m.ET. Laps: 120. Miles: 300. 2013 Winner: Tony Stewart. Television: ESPN. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.