Clint Bowyer is not defending his title in NASCAR's Nationwide Series this year - and that's fine with Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch.

Edwards, the 2007 Nationwide champion, and Busch, who won a record-tying ten races in the series in 2008, enter the season as the favourites to win the title, given that Bowyer will not run a full schedule this year.

Edwards and Busch hope to continue a trend that began with Kevin Harvick's championship in 2006, which began a three-year streak of the Nationwide title going to a full-time driver in the Sprint Cup Series. Martin Truex Jr., who went back-to-back in the series in 2004 and 2005, is the last non-Cup regular to win the Nationwide championship.

The presence of full-time Cup drivers, however, doesn't bother Braun Racing's Jason Leffler, a full-time Nationwide competitor who drives the #38 Toyota.

"I love the competition," said Leffler, who gave Toyota its first win in the series, at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis in 2007. "I love beating some of those guys, and I love trying to keep up with some of them. At the end of the day, you can maybe take a satisfactory day and look at who you beat and take some positives from that. It makes you feel good."

Leffler says he can return to victory lane this year after a winless 2008.

"We're looking to win races," said Leffler, who finished ninth in the series standings last year. "We have a new crew chief in Scott Zipadelli and a lot of changes around Braun Racing that are all positive. The place looks totally different than it did last year, and we're just anxious to get on the racetrack to see if that all transfers. We're pretty confident it will. We look forward to going to victory lane, and as they say, you don't want to win all the races - just the ones you enter."

Equally hungry is Nationwide driver Brad Keselowski, who finished third in the final standings behind Bowyer and Edwards. Keselowski says he can contend for the championship in the #88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet.

"My goal is to win the Nationwide Series championship," Keselowski said. "I want to run well on a weekly basis and have the consistency that's necessary to be in the title picture."

The Nationwide Series will have a strong rookie class this season, featuring truck series veteran Brendan Gaughan, Justin Allgaier, Michael McDowell (who competed in the Cup series in 2008), Scott Lagasse Jr., Michael Annett and John Wes Townley.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News

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