In a Nutshell: Considered a preseason favorite for the Nationwide Series championship, Clint Bowyer officially established himself as a contender on Saturday. With a little bit of luck and a whole lot of skill, the driver of the No. 2 Chevrolet led 122 of 171 laps run to score the win in the rain-shortened Sharpie Mini 300 at Bristol. A jubilant Bowyer said afterwards, “It feels awesome [to be in victory lane]. I’ll take it any way you can get it.”
Well aware of the rain approaching the racetrack, Bowyer fended off a series of furious charges by Kasey Kahne, who settled for second in his No. 9 Dodge. Kahne caught Bowyer using the high line, but was unable to find the grip he needed to pass Bowyer on the outside. “I should have pressed the issue a little bit, and I’m disappointed I’m in second,” said Kahne. “I should be winning. He shouldn’t be winning. I just let him have it.”
Outside polesitter Denny Hamlin led the opening 37 laps of the race before yielding the lead to Bowyer. Scott Wimmer then took the lead briefly on lap 48 before yielding it back to Bowyer, who held the lead till a caution on lap 94. After one more brief swap, Bowyer regained the lead from Wimmer on lap 106 and never looked back. The win leaves him second in the Nationwide Series standings, but first among drivers running for the championship – and that’s the momentum he needs heading to Nashville on Saturday.
Who Should Have Won: Mike Bliss. This pick may be surprising, but as the race wound down nobody on the track had a better handling car than Bliss. Bliss, who spun out on lap 101, charged from the back of the field and worked his way up to fifth by the time rain started to fall. His No. 22 Dodge was a rocket through the turns, and had this race gone the distance, he would have been a major factor. The enthusiasm Bliss had for the car was evident when interviewed on ABC following the rain delay; excited and hopeful, Bliss was raring to get back to racing. Bowyer should be thankful he didn’t get the opportunity.
Brad Keselowski turned heads at Bristol last spring by qualifying 12th for the underfunded Keith Coleman Racing team, his career-best qualifying effort at that point. Boy, how things have changed. Saturday, Keselowski methodically worked his way around the treacherous Bristol bullring, staying out of trouble and scoring a career-best fourth-place finish for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dario Franchitti may have finished one lap down in 22nd place, but he gets a shoutout for running an admirable debut at Bristol. After starting 22nd, Franchitti ran in or around the top 15 for nearly 100 laps without incident or damage. It was only lap 94 when Franchitti found trouble, a victim of Kahne flat out dumping the No. 40. Nonetheless, Franchitti was the Raybestos Rookie of the Race, and did a solid job for a first event at the half-mile. Franchitti also maintained his lead in the Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year standings, keeping himself in contention to win the award for both that and Cup.
Overall, the short track was kind to Nationwide Series regulars, many of whom scored their best performance of the season to date. They took five of the top-10 finishing positions: Keselowski finished fourth, Bliss fifth, Jason Leffler sixth, David Stremme ninth and Mike Wallace 10th.
Better Luck Next Time
Hamlin led the first 37 laps of the race and continued a string of strong runs for the JGR No. 20, until, surprise, a flat tire took him and the team out of contention. Hamlin finished four laps down in 26th.
Kyle Busch suffered through his third wreck not of his making in as many weeks. Busch and his No. 32 lasted only 12 laps after getting slammed into the wall by a spinning Martin Truex Jr. It’s a shame, for Busch’s troubles in recent weeks have seen him tumble from second to 10th in the Nationwide Series standings.
Underdog Performer of the Race
Jason Keller scored his fourth consecutive top-20 finish in the CJM Racing No. 11, but a lot of credit also needs to go to Kevin Lepage and his No. 61 Specialty Racing team for their 18th-place finish. Lepage stayed on the lead lap for the majority of the race and more importantly has his No. 61 team in the Top 30 in owner points and thus locked into the Nationwide Series field for the foreseeable future. Not bad for a team that failed to qualify at Daytona…
“Purse Snatcher” Watch (Editor’s Note: This name was originally suggested on the Frontstretch Forums)
12 of 43 starting positions in the Sharpie Mini 300 went to Sprint Cup regulars.
70 of the 215 starting positions in the Nationwide Series have gone to Sprint Cup regulars this season.
Five Sprint Cup drivers have finished in the top 10 of the Sharpie Mini 300.
Five of five Nationwide Series races have been won by Sprint Cup regulars this season.
Six of the top-10 drivers in the Nationwide Series points are Sprint Cup regulars.
“A lot of guys have been racing me cleanly. I’ve been racing guys cleanly, and you get guys like Kasey Kahne that do stupid stuff running into the back of you for no reason. I don’t know what he was doing. I was trying to give the leaders room, and he wrecked me going into one there… but everyone else has been fine.” – Dario Franchitti on racing at Bristol
“I feel bad for those guys. I wanted to do a good job for them. I feel pretty stupid running 10 laps and wrecking.” – Martin Truex Jr. after his first start with the JR Motorsports No. 5 team
Up Next: The Nationwide Series heads to the Nashville Superspeedway for the Pepsi 300. Coverage from the Music City begins at 2 p.m. on ESPN and 3 p.m. on MRN.