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Now Nationwide really starts

The Nationwide Series season began three weeks ago at Daytona International Speedway.

The real season began last week at Phoenix International Raceway with the first race away from the restrictor-plate tracks that stage just three of 33 events.

It begins again -- sort of -- Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 & WatchESPN), with the first race of the season on the type of 1.5-mile track that comprises much of the schedule, and with the thinnest crop of moonlighting Sprint Cup drivers so far this season.

For title hopefuls such as Trevor Bayne (11th in points) and Austin Dillon (ninth), both of whom struggled at Daytona but recovered at Phoenix, the path to the front and the rest of the season likely looks more clear this weekend.

"When you are fast right out of the box like we were at Daytona, it builds a ton of confidence for the whole team," Bayne said. "With that said, we need to be able to get the finishes to back it up. Daytona wasn't what we were looking for with a burnt up rear gear and a 31st-place finish. Fortunately, my guys never got down, and we went right on to Phoenix and were able to pull off a top-5 to get our momentum back rolling."

Dillon will drive the same No. 3 Chevrolet he used to win twice from the pole at Kentucky Speedway last season.

Sprint Cup regulars have won the first two Nationwide races in 2013 -- Tony Stewart at Daytona and Kyle Busch at Phoenix -- but just four drivers from NASCAR's top series are entered this weekend.

Nine Cup drivers contested the Daytona opener and seven -- including defending Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski -- ran last week. The Cup contingent is smaller than recently, but still formidable, with Busch, Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the field. Earnhardt has finishes of second, sixth and fifth in three starts at Las Vegas dating back to 1998.

Busch, who broke a 24-race Nationwide winless streak at Phoenix last week, has the most personal stake at Las Vegas and arguably the most to prove. He has led 228 laps worth of Nationwide racing at Las Vegas but never won there, finishing on the lead lap just four times, with an average final position of 21.8, his second-worst in the series.

"As long as I don't wreck, I'll be OK, because I have wrecked there every year," said Busch, who grew up in Las Vegas. "I don't need to wreck; I just have to make it to the checkered flag. One year I had a flat tire, another year I was making a bold move to the finish line and wrecked … I don't need to show my rookie stripes again, for the third time in a row this year."

But with none of the past nine winners -- all of them Cup moonlighters at the time -- in the race, opportunity would seem statistically better for Nationwide partisans.

Jeff Green and Joe Nemechek, who will make his record 15th start in the event, are the only entrants to win the event, but series regulars such as Bayne, Elliott Sadler and co-points leader Justin Allgaier could be poised for a breakout.

"I really like that racetrack," said Sadler, who will make his 200th Nationwide start. "We sat on the pole there last year, finished third, led a bunch of laps.

"It fits my driving style very well. I'm very anxious to get there in a Joe Gibbs Racing car and Mark Cronquist horsepower, and being there for the first time in a Toyota will be pretty cool. These guys have always run good there on mile-and-a-halfs, so hopefully we can go there and be really good."

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. last year became the non-Cup regular to win the race in an event that featured a record-low eight lead changes. His Roush Fenway Racing Nationwide team has produced 30 top-10 finishes in 40 Las Vegas starts. Bayne, who took over Stenhouse's No. 6 Ford full time this season, was fourth in 2012.

Current points co-leader Sam Hornish Jr. finished ninth in his first stock car start at Las Vegas. He recorded his first IndyCar podium there -- in his third career start -- in 2000.