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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Nuts for Nationwide: 4 Down, 31 to Go in 2008

It’s still very early in the 2008 NASCAR Nationwide Series but already the themes are emerging. Yes, there are thousands of laps to be run, but the preseason predictions are proving to be accurate. Well, mostly.

Moonlighting Cup drivers are cleaning up

Drivers from NASCAR’s top echelon have made almost exactly a third of the total available starts (58 of 172) in Nationwide races this year and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they’ve picked up all the prizes on offer so far. Tony Stewart (Daytona, California), Mark Martin (Vegas) and Matt Kenseth (Atlanta) have accounted for the wins while Stewart (Daytona), Jeff Burton (California, Atlanta) and Brian Vickers (Vegas) have vacuumed up the pole positions. For Martin, it was an all-time series best 48th victory, the next nearest being Kevin Harvick with 32 wins; for Kenseth it was win number 24, moving him into a tie for fifth place on the all-time wins list with Tommy Houston. Kenseth’s win, by the way, ended a 22-race winless streak for Ford in NASCAR’s second series.

And ominously last year’s champ shows no signs of slowing down

Harvick, the 2006 Series champion, currently has the points lead in the Nationwide Series, but since he’s only running 22 of 35 races this year it’s unlikely he’ll hold onto his advantage for much longer. Carl Edwards, who most assuredly is running the full slate, is just 25 points back. Edwards has three top 10s in four races, and it’s surely only a matter of time before he wheels his Ford Fusion into Victory Lane. Last season, his early form helped him build an unassailable lead and those hoping to challenge Edwards for the inaugural Nationwide Series crown need to keep within striking distance of the driver of the No. 60. It’s not a stretch to say that anyone who finishes ahead of Edwards in the final points standings is likely to be the Series champion.

But it’s not all bad news for the Nationwide-only regulars

One of the major concerns at the outset of the season was that the Nationwide-only regulars would, put simply, not be able to live with the Cup drivers appearing in their ranks. At Daytona, the Nationwiders had only one finisher in the top 10 (Bryan Clauson, sixth); the following week, in Fontana, Stephen Leicht scraped in with a 10th-place finish. But in Vegas, the tide turned just a little. David Stremme drove to a creditable fifth-place while Mike Wallace was seventh and Brad Coleman ninth. The three-peat came in Atlanta where Brad Keselowski, Mike Bliss and Jason Leffler finished sixth, seventh and eighth respectively. As Dale Jarrett pointed out on in the commentary during the Atlanta race, “this is still a developmental series.” Yes, the race wins, top fives and top 10s are incrementally harder to achieve with the presence of so many experienced Cup veterans in the ranks; but there can be little doubt it will make the Nationwide-only drivers that much better for the experience. That acquired knowledge can only be good if and when they make the step up to Cup racing.

And the Nationwide-only championship is very close

As I promised two weeks ago, I’m going to keep my own personal championship table that features Nationwide-only drivers. As you can see, it’s a tight race with the top five drivers separated by a measly 43 points and the top 10 split by just 95 points. Kelly Bires has impressed so far with three top-15 runs and were it not for a Martin error, Keselowski might well be atop this list with a first series win to his name. His disappointment was clear to see in his post-race comments on the incident: “You can throw that onto the list that makes it bitter to swallow. In some ways you excuse it from that standpoint. In other ways, it makes you a little angrier.”

NATIONWIDE-ONLY DRIVERS CHAMPIONSHIP

1. Mike Bliss 472
2. Mike Wallace 469 -3
3. Kelly Bires 445 -27
4. Brad Keselowski 431 -41
5. Jason Leffler 429 -43
6. Bobby Hamilton Jr. 426 -46
7. Jason Keller 406 -66
8. Johnny Sauter 404 -68
9. Brad Coleman 387 -85
10. David Stremme 377 -95

Saturday’s race will see another Bristol milestone for a Wallace

Older brother Rusty Wallace won nine times at Bristol while younger brother Kenny Wallace won the fourth of his nine Nationwide victories at Thunder Valley. Last year, Rusty’s kid Steve Wallace won the pole for the March race, so it’s high time middle brother Mike Wallace had his own milestone at the famous old track. And this Saturday he’ll achieve just that when he takes the green flag in the Sharpie Mini 300 for what will be his 300th Nationwide Series start. For the record, that’s a grand total of 51,864 laps, or 59,548 competitive miles. The last of Mike’s four victories came at Daytona in July of 2004, so a fifth victory is unlikely but maybe, just maybe, that old “Wallace” magic at Bristol will mean it all works out serendipitously for the driver of the No. 7 GEICO Camry. As the man himself notes on his 300th start, “If it can’t be at Daytona then it’s got be Bristol. My brothers have both won at Bristol and I’d like to join that list.”

Winningest Nationwide Series Driver at Bristol?

Harvick and Morgan Shepherd each have four total wins. Shepherd, who sat on the pole in the third ever Nationwide Series race at Bristol, won all four of his races before Steve Wallace and Coleman were even born.

Soccer and NASCAR. Who’d have thought it?

And finally, I have to finish this week by saying that I heard something I never thought I’d hear on a NASCAR broadcast; when Doctor Jerry Punch uttered what is for me a near immortal line of commentary.

“It seems a little unfair that soccer superstar David Beckham gets Posh Spice while two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart gets Old Spice.”

My two favorite sports together. It’s almost too much.