No twists to this plot. The No. 18 car was the one to beat, it ran on a rail all night long, and Kyle Busch scored what was all but an easy victory on Friday night, leading 137 laps to score his seventh victory of 2009 and end an 11-race winless streak.
Though Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton both managed to lead chunks of laps, Busch was the class of the field from the drop of the green flag, and was largely unchallenged for most of the race’s second half. The No. 18 was also in a league of its own on restarts, which allowed Busch to keep hard-charging Dave Blaney and Mike Bliss from mounting any serious threat to steal the trophy.
The race was marred by a number of nasty wrecks early on, as David Gilliland, Jason Leffler and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. all triggered multi-car melees that took out a large segment of the race leaders. The resulting attrition did well to mix up the top of the running order, with Tony Raines scoring his third top 10 of the season, as well as Eric McClure snagging a rare top 20 for the Rensi-Hamilton Racing team.
Busch’s win trumped a pole-sitting run for Carl Edwards, who despite scoring a top 5 finish lost 40 points in the NNS title chase, falling back to 195 markers behind Busch with four races to go in the season. Steve Wallace was taken out by Gilliland while Justin Allgaier scored a solid top 15, allowing Allgaier to take a commanding lead in the battle for the final spot in the top 5 in points. Allgaier now sits over 100 markers ahead of Wallace, who is now sixth in the standings.
What more can you say about Mike Bliss, especially at Lowe’s Motor Speedway? Just as with Dover, Bliss found out less than a week in advance that he would be driving the No. 11 car for CJM Racing. And just like at Dover, Bliss was a top 10 fixture all night long, ending up with a runner-up finish that equaled the best in team history. Bliss’ second place run also allowed him to jump over Jason Keller for seventh in the NNS standings despite not having any full-time ride at the present. CJM Racing has signed Bliss to drive for the team in the next two races at Memphis and Texas… though if the way he’s running is any indication, they may want to consider signing the 2002 Truck Series champ for two seasons.
Michael Annett took to the track Friday night bearing the colors of Lumber Liquidators… the same sponsor that carried Germain Racing and Todd Bodine to the 2006 Truck Series crown. With such a significant backer on the hood, Annett’s performance behind the wheel did not disappoint. Surging forward from a 31st place start to run in the top 15, Annett even challenged for the top 10 in the second half of the race, hanging on to score a 13th place finish after scraping the wall in Turn 4 racing hard for a potential top 10 late in the going. Though Justin Allgaier (who finished a solid 12th) may have had the most impressive campaign of the NNS rookies, Annett is indisputably the most improved driver in that class.
Special commendations also need to go to Jeremy Clements, who bettered his practice time by over four miles an hour to score a top 20 starting position, his third straight qualification driving the No. 0 for JD Motorsports, and to Brendan Gaughan, who rebounded from early crash damage to score a top 15 finish despite battling tight handling conditions nearly the entire night.
Though Gaughan averted disaster in scoring a top 15, the same could not be said for his teammate Steve Wallace. Running down the frontstretch on lap 63, Wallace was broadsided after David Gilliland made a boneheaded four-wide charge through the fronstretch dog leg, clipping the infield grass and making hard contact that sent Wallace’s No. 66 into the wall…and to the garage with extensive crash damage. The footage from the garage said it all, as Wallace slammed his helmet to the floor after exiting his mangled race car. The team eventually got back on track, only to see Wallace spin again trying to manhandle the machine. The team’s 31st place finish dropped Wallace over 100 points out of fifth place in the standings, a seat at the head stage for the awards banquet, and continued a slump in which they’ve wrecked in three straight races.
While the Specialty Racing outfit managed to avoid the carnage that plagued Friday’s race, the No. 61 didn’t need crash damage to have problems. Again finding themselves near the bottom of both practice charts and the starting lineup, the team was unable during the race to make any progress in diagnosing what was wrong with their car’s setup. So frustrated by the inability to figure out their shortcomings, the team elected to yank Matt Carter in favor of Chase Miller, who spent the first part of the race start and parking the No. 47 car. By night’s end, Carter and Miller completed 179 of the 200 laps run, but judging from the speeds of the team’s Ford on track, there’s still a long way to go before the team’s baseline setup is back to competitiveness.
Frontstretch spoke to crew chief Doug Taylor during the race:
“He [Carter] can’t tell us what’s wrong with the car. And we can’t see what’s wrong from here, so we put Chase in to see if he can tell us.”
“This car has been giving us trouble for a couple of races, so there’s probably something wrong with it. We just don’t know what it is.”
The two largest incidents of the race were triggered by driver errors so egregious that they go beyond debate as to who was at fault. First up was David Gilliland, whose decision to force his nose under Kevin Hamlin on lap 63 and force a four-wide run through the dog-leg of the frontstretch looked reminiscent of Steve Wallace (who he took out as a result of his aggression)…two or three seasons ago. Not only did Gilliland claim a completely innocent victim in Wallace, he certainly didn’t look a driver worthy of a three-race trial with Joe Gibbs Racing on the Cup side. Gilliland’s been a great story racing the hard way with TRG this year, but he’s been at this level long enough that mistakes like his four-wide bonzai move should not be happening anymore. Cup drivers may need to tread carefully around the No. 02 on Saturday night if Gilliland drives that race the same way he drove Friday’s.
Joining Gilliland was Jason Leffler, who thanks to pit strategy started in third on a lap 68 restart…with a car that was, according to the driver, nowhere near fast enough to run up there. Driving beyond the edge trying to maintain a top 5 position, Leffler pushed hard up the track in turn 2 and slammed into Matt Kenseth, all but destroying both race cars. The resulting contact also triggered another wreck behind he and Kenseth (ironically triggered by his Braun Racing teammate, Reed Sorenson) that took out Erik Darnell and Ken Butler III. Leffler returned to the track to limp around for the race’s second half, completing 70 laps in finishing 33rd, another ugly run for a No. 38 team that was in the thick of the NNS title chase this spring.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Tony Raines. Throw the attrition numbers out the window folks, Tony Raines’ No. 34 car was a top 10 piece this Friday night. Though avoiding wrecks is what got Raines track position after starting 35th, the fact is that he kept it there. Never falling outside of the top 15 for the second half of the event, Raines outran a number of well-funded organizations, including Penske Racing and JR Motorsports during the race’s final run, scoring his third top 10 finish of what has been an unheralded campaign for the longtime veteran. Fortunately, this time ESPN saw fit to interview him after the race…as Dale Jarrett actually mentioned him in passing during the telecast. Congrats go out to Raines for a great run, and some well-deserved exposure to boot.
The Final Word
- I never would have thought I’d be comparing a crowd in Charlotte to one in Fontana, but the attendance of Friday night’s race was appalling. The announced attendance was 55,000…and though some have argued that between the grandstands, the infield and the suites that that number may be accurate, I’m calling BS. If there were 25,000 in the grandstands I would be surprised, and that alone makes me doubt that 55,000 saw what was a surprisingly decent race. And even if there were 55,000 in attendance, come on, it’s freaking Charlotte.
- I said it once, I’ll say it again: CJM Racing, hire Mike Bliss now.
- Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. lasted 12 laps in his latest NNS start. Tell me again why he’s getting a full-time ride in 2010 instead of Erik Darnell, who’s actually won races at the NASCAR level before?
- Joey Logano’s left rear quarterpanel was more than scraped up after his involvement in Jason Leffler’s mess…it was all but crushed. And yet, somehow, his No. 20 car still ran in the top 15. Between that and how untouchable Busch was all night, it has to be asked again…just how good are the Toyotas at JGR? And is it even possible for someone to catch up to them?
- He may be a Cup driver, but kudos do need to go to Dave Blaney for making the most of a rare opportunity not to start-and-park. Driving a Braun Racing entry, Blaney contended for the win and finished third…ironically in the same rollcage that he won this race in (the only NNS win of his career) back in 2006.
- The suspense was fun for a week, but Busch and Ratcliffe put the final nail in the NNS’ title chase coffin in this event.
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