If you’ll forgive me for going all Jean Girard on you, the first two weeks of the Nationwide Series bring to mind a line from an old French proverb; “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.” Or in other words, the more things change the more they stay the same. With a couple of races of the 2008 season now in the books, we’ve already seen a number of issues that have bedeviled the second most popular motorsport in America over the past couple of years; domination of moonlighting Cup drivers, “start-and-park” entrants, incomplete fields and a plethora of sponsor-related issues. For the incoming title sponsor, Nationwide, none of these problems can be considered surprises but one thing is for sure, they are issues that are unlikely to go away until they’re addressed at the highest level.
Results-wise, it’s been the Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch show, with the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers finishing first and second in both races. In Daytona, Stewart led only the final three laps and won by the scant margin of just .259 seconds. California was a different story, with Stewart absolutely crushing the field. His final winning margin was 2.408 seconds, but the fact that he led 136 of 150 laps (over 90%) tells you all you need to know about his utter dominance; and as Busch remarked afterward: “Tony was pretty much in a league of his own, for some reason.” Stewart agreed and didn’t miss the opportunity to take a sly dig at the CoT when talking about running the last two-thirds of the Cup race and following it up almost immediately with the Nationwide race. “It wasn’t a big deal; that was easy. These cars drove so much better than the (Sprint Cup) cars we drove this morning – it was a lot more fun to drive these, obviously, because they handle really, really good.”
Interestingly, Smoke won just twice in 77 attempts in a Chevrolet but since the switch to Toyota he’s batting a perfect two for two. The two wins also double Toyota’s victory tally in the Nationwide Series – Jason Leffler supplied the first victory for the foreign manufacturer at O’Reilly Raceway Park last August, with David Reutimann sewing up the second in a dominant performance at Memphis this past October. I’m not generally a betting man, but you’d be a fool to suggest that Toyota’s win total will not continue to rise inexorably higher.
Busch has picked up where he left off last season. His consecutive second-place finishes mean that in the last eight Nationwide races he’s run his final positions were: second, first, first, second, second, first, second and second. Impressive numbers whichever way you slice them. Overall, the younger Busch’s record in the series that used to bear his name is exceptional. He won Rookie of the Year honors in 2004 not to mention picking up five wins and finishing just a couple hundred points shy of series winner Martin Truex Jr. Plus, he has 11 wins, 40 top fives and 58 top 10s in just 110 races. That’s already one more win than Jason Keller, who has run some 270 races more. Plus, it’s two wins more than Kenny Wallace, who has nine wins in 385 races.
Unsurprisingly, Cup drivers dominate the current standings with the top-seven spots in the latest rankings all primarily Cup drivers; 1) Stewart, 2) Busch, 3) Carl Edwards, 4) Reutimann, 5) Kevin Harvick, 6) David Ragan and 7) Dale Earnhardt Jr. So as part of my bi-weekly roundups, I’m going to keep my own personal championship standings. My version will feature drivers who run the Nationwide schedule only. As you can see, the race is already a close one with positions three through eight separated by just 20 points. Here’s how we’re looking so far:
1. Mike Bliss: 241
2. Jason Leffler: 236
3. Bryan Clauson: 211
4. Mike Wallace: 206
5. Kelly Bires: 200
6. Bobby Hamilton Jr. 200
7. Johnny Sauter 199
8. Brad Coleman 191
9. Brad Keselowski 182
10. Jason Keller 170
With just 45 drivers on the entry list for this week’s race, it’s clear that in the near future the Nationwide Series is unlikely to see full fields for every race. This issue is compounded by the prevalence of “start-and-park” drivers. While I understand the desire to pick up the paycheck just for taking part, I wish NASCAR could find a way to stop these guys from doing this because, ultimately, it makes a mockery of the sport. It would be a hard issue for the sanctioning body, but as fellow Frontstretch columnist Mike Neff pointed out in his excellent race recap from California – how on earth do you have brake issues after just five laps? Now, I’m not a “brake” specialist, but I have to say Mr. Neff has a very fair point.
I want to finish this recap with two heartwarming stories. With the lengthy rain delay, a number of teams were not able to run their haulers to home base in Charlotte and back to Vegas, so other plans were needed to make those all important running repairs. One option was the 28,000 square foot facility of Michael Gaughan. The factory used to build trucks for Gaughan’s son Brendan, but with the program on hiatus the building has seen little recent use.
This week the sound of circular saws, panel beating and wrenches filled the air once more as upward of a dozen teams used Gaughan’s pad as temporary home base. As Kenny Francis, crew chief for the No. 9 Budweiser Dodge commented, “[Without Gaughan] we would’ve been working in a parking lot or maybe at the speedway. This is a really nice option.” Gaughan, proud winner of eight truck races in 2002 and 2003, said he would not charge the teams a single cent or as he put it “this is a racer karma deal.”
And finally, good luck to Cindy Woosley who will become NASCAR’s first female crew chief this weekend when she takes charge of the No. 01 Chevy. Kertus Davis will handle the driving duty as Woosley begins a stint atop the pit box following a six-race suspension imposed on regular crew chief Gene Allnut. It seems amazing that it’s taken so long for this to happen, so let’s hope Woosley is remembered as a pioneer for many other future female crew chiefs, not just a footnote in NASCAR history.