On this very day some 10 years ago, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won his first race in NASCAR's second series, taking the checkered flag in the 1998 Coca Cola 300. The Kannapolis, North Carolina native drove his father's AC Delco sponsored No. 3 Chevy to victory lane at Texas Motor Speedway. Later that same year, Junior founded JR Motorsports, initially to deal with his burgeoning sponsorship and marketing opportunities. Four years later he turned the business into a race team running in the street stock division at Concord Motorsports Park. And in 2006, Earnhardt, Jr. debuted the No. 88 car in the Nationwide Series with Mark McFarland picking up the driving duties. Tomorrow, Junior will pilot the second Nationwide car in his JR Motorsports stable, the No. 5 Go Daddy Chevy, as he tries to mark the 10th anniversary of his maiden victory at a track where he also secured his first Sprint Cup win.
Alongside Junior in the O'Reilly 300 tomorrow will be around a dozen or so of his colleagues from the Sprint Cup Series. Once again, in just the seventh race of this young season, the upcoming drivers will get a chance to pit their collective wits and driving talents against some of the best in the business. One of those young guns looking to do just that is Brad Keselowski who will be behind the wheel of the US-Navy sponsored 88 car. Keselowski had a best finish of 24th in his first 20 Nationwide races, but when he was signed by JR Motorsports last July, his transformation in form was almost immediate. In the 20 races he's run since, he's picked up eight Top 10s and was only a Mark Martin mistake away from nailing down a first Series win in Las Vegas. The 24-year old Missouri native was in an ebullient mood after the recent Nationwide test at Richmond:
"I think if we can find a little more speed with our cars we have a shot at it (the Nationwide Series Championship)," he said. "We need to get better at these types of tracks if we want to run with Clint (Bowyer) and Carl (Edwards) to have a shot at the championship come November.”
Optimistic words, maybe, but it's crystal clear that Keselowski is aware he has both the opportunity and the equipment to make an impact this year. It will certainly be interesting to see how cleanly he races his boss should the moment arise this weekend.
Another young driver who has made a strong start to the season is the driver of the No. 47 Clorox Ford, Kelly Bires. Six months younger than Keselowski, Bires was signed by JTG Racing last June and his fifth place finish at Nashville was a series best for the Mauston, Wisconsin native. As Bires commented following the conclusion of the Richmond tests:
“We’ve had a great start to the season. Consistency has been there, which is really what you need. It’s a long season and if you’re consistent, the Top 10s, the Top 5s and the wins are going to come with that."
And after so much pre-season doom mongering on the topic of Cup driver dominated Nationwide fields, the success of both Bires and Keselowski has been a huge positive. But it's not just the 47 and the 88 of the series regulars that have started with gusto. So for the third time this year let's take a look at the Nationwide regulars Championship.
1. Mike Bliss 757 -120
2. Brad Keselowski 756 -121
3. Kelly Bires 708 -169
4. Mike Wallace 706 -171
5. Jason Leffler 703 -174
6. Bobby Hamilton, Jr. 672 -205
7. David Stremme 665 -212
8. Jason Keller 633 -244
9. Steve Wallace 558 -319
10. Marcos Ambrose 552 -325
As you can see it's still a close race with the Top 5 drivers separated by a mere 54 points. Celebrating a decade in NASCAR's second series, Mike Bliss leads the way; the veteran has run well, finishing fifth at the Bristol bullring and seventh in Atlanta. But it's not just Bliss clocking up Top 10 finishes. At Bristol, five Nationwide regulars finished in the Top 10, and two weeks ago in Nashville, six regulars scored Top 10 finishes—albeit with fewer Cup moonlighters in the field than usual. And although technically not a regular, he's running only 23 races in the RCR No. 29 car, but Scott Wimmer deserves a huge shout out for notching his first Series win in five years in the Pepsi 300.
So without wanting to get too carried away, especially given the preponderance of Cup vets in the Texas, Phoenix and Talladega fields, the Nationwide regulars might just be starting something of a renaissance in 2008. Yes, Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer look fast and reliable, but you only need to glance back one year to see the difference. After six races in 2007, Edwards had a 197-point lead over Kevin Harvick who was running a partial schedule. The first Nationwide regular was rookie Marcos Ambrose in seventh place a whopping 360 points back. It's an odds-on bet that either Edwards or Bowyer end up as the first Nationwide Champion, but the race is much closer than last year and that can only be a good for a developmental series.
A few quick points to finish with:
What does Kyle Busch have to do to get a win in the Nationwide Series this year? He's led 345 of the 1066 laps turned so far (that's 1433 miles for those that are interested) but proving the old adage that only leading the last lap matters. Busch has no wins and only the two early season second place runs to show for his efforts.
How quickly do things change in NASCAR? Just ask Johnny Sauter, who's gone from Cup ride to Nationwide ride to no ride in just four short months. His efforts keeping the Haas No. 70 car in the Top 35 last season - he finished 30th, 563 points clear of 35th place - was, in its own way, as impressive as Bowyer's third place finish, yet it wasn’t deemed enough to keep him behind the wheel and he was replaced by Jeremy Mayfield. Sauter teamed up with James Finch and Phoenix Racing in the No. 1 car and there was much pre-season optimism. Just five races later, Sauter was out of a ride in acrimonious fashion.
The Custom Gibson Guitar given to the Nashville winner is one cool looking trophy even by NASCAR's unusual standards.
Following the off-weekend, the Nationwide Series will run six straight weeks in Texas, Phoenix, Mexico City, Talladega, Richmond and Darlington. That's a stretch that should sort out the contenders from the pretenders.
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