In a Nutshell: Friday night’s race at Daytona was a true barnburner, slowed by only three cautions and run at a near-record pace. Unfortunately, Friday’s race was also as predictable as a TV movie – with Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas dominating the field.
Once the checkered flag flew, it was Denny Hamlin scoring the win, his third in the Nationwide Series for 2008. Hamlin’s victory also marked the ninth of the season for JGR’s No. 20 team, and the 12th win in 18 races for JGR this season in this division. Though Ford and Chevrolet had strong performers in Carl Edwards and JR Motorsports, respectively, in the end the horses under Hamlin’s hood proved to be insurmountable for any challengers – even for his teammate Kyle Busch, who came home a solid second.
The event marked the second consecutive week of Cup dominance on the Nationwide circuit. Though four Nationwide regulars finished in the top 10, only Brad Keselowski was able to run with the Cup regulars at the front of the field. Over in the championship battle, Clint Bowyer finished fourth and increased his point lead to 202 over now second-place Keselowski, who finished in fifth. Bowyer has now scored eight consecutive top 10s in Nationwide Series competition.
Who Should Have Won: Keselowski. Though it’s certainly debatable whether any car in Daytona Beach could have outrun the JGR Toyotas on Friday night, Keselowski gets the shout out here for being the Nationwide regular that could. Keselowski proved his mettle Friday night, hanging with an aggressive pack of Cup regulars at the front of the field for the race’s first half – including an impressive 28-lap run in the lead after taking only left-side tires when much of the field had four new Goodyears. Keselowski’s car handled well on the long run, and the No. 88 remained smooth enough on green-flag runs to avoid scrubbing off speed in the corners. But the JRM driver’s shot at the win was derailed on his final green-flag pit stop, when the front tire changer had troubles changing both front tires. The long stop left Keselowski out of touch with drafting partner Dale Earnhardt Jr., and he could never work his way up back into contention after that. Had Keselowski stayed with the No. 5, however, JRM may well have proven to be the equalizers to JGR’s Nationwide tyranny.
If a reporter had told polesitter Bryan Clauson that he would end his race in 19th place, Clauson would have likely been disappointed. Well, Clauson finished 19th, and he was disappointed. But that shouldn’t damper what was still a solid showing for the 19-year-old development driver. Clauson’s run was notable for several reasons. On the track, Clauson showed patience and respect to more experienced competitors, running clean in the lead draft, anticipating runs well, and maintaining smooth lines. Clauson’s car didn’t have a scratch on it at race’s end, an accomplishment given how slick this speedway was on Friday night. On a larger scale, though, Clauson did himself and Chip Ganassi Racing big favors with his race. Winning the pole gave the CGRFS camp something to celebrate after a painful week that saw its No. 40 Cup team shut its doors and 71 employees get the boot. Further, Clauson reminded owner Chip Ganassi that he’s got more left in the chamber than his pet project Dario Franchitti. Ganassi reportedly offered the No. 40 Nationwide car to Franchitti full-time… but after this weekend, Chip better dust off the No. 41 for young Clauson.
Kerry Earnhardt’s 17th-place finish was about as uneventful as they come, and won’t set DEI’s impressive annals of restrictor-plate racing on fire. But, it was a solid return to racing for the eldest son of Dale Earnhardt Sr., as well as for DEI’s Nationwide Series program. Earnhardt qualified his part-time ride in the top 10, and never fell outside the top 20 for the race’s duration – running competitively and bringing the car home in one piece. The organization had previously announced plans to return to full-time Nationwide Series racing in 2009 for development drivers Jeffrey Earnhardt and Trevor Bayne; but if Friday was any indication, Kerry Earnhardt may be a valuable test driver to use now to get the No. 8 team up and running once again. Don’t be surprised if Teresa realizes that, and adds some races to Earnhardt’s schedule…
Better Luck Next Time
DJ Kennington and his MacDonald Motorsports team felt that restrictor-plate racing owed them one after their strong run at Talladega was spoiled by a flat tire, and they had this race circled on their calendar. Unfortunately, another strong run wasn’t in the cards for the No. 81. After a solid qualifying effort, Kennington and team failed to back up their strong Talladega performance, finishing a distant 29th and never really challenging for a front-running position. Friday night marked an unfortunate underachievement for an underfunded team that will likely have few other chances this season to contend for a top-tier finish.
Mike Wallace has a well-earned reputation for success at restrictor-plate racing, and was in position to deliver a top 10 for his Germain Racing team when his nephew Steve Wallace pushed up the track in turn 4, putting the GEICO Toyota into the wall and relegating Mike to 22nd at the finish. Livid after the wreck, Wallace gave viewers one of the season’s most memorable interviews, forcing a smile while veins throbbed in his neck as he described how good his car ran and how unnecessary the wreck between him and Steve was. It’s a shame that the camera crews couldn’t have caught up with Mike in time for his words with Steve… it would have made last week’s squabble between Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya look pansy by comparison.
Owner Rick Hendrick had perhaps the best restrictor plate driver in NASCAR driving his car last night, running third with two laps to go. But, when asked what he thought Junior’s chances were, all he could say was he wished he had another engine in his car to compete with what he claimed was a 15-horsepower disadvantage. Later on, Bowyer shrugged off his inability to score the win, because even a monkey could win a race in the No. 20 car. That’s the pulse of the current Nationwide Series field – with one obvious exception – who have become almost cynical about the dominance of the JGR Toyotas. It’s a dominance that owes itself largely to the horsepower advantages that the No. 18 and No. 20 are enjoying on the racetrack.
Now, there are plenty out there that will scream bloody murder that JGR isn’t winning races solely because of horsepower, and that equating their dominance to Toyota’s engines is just making excuses for the rest of the field. In some ways, they may even have a point. But in a season where the Nationwide Series is attempting to redefine itself and has made progress in both reducing Cupwhacking and establishing a unique identity for its field, NASCAR has got to do something to stop one team – and a Cup team at that – from running roughshod over the field with Cup drivers in insurmountable cars with all the money and trophies. Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Tony Stewart should not be the face of NASCAR’s minor leagues.
Underdog Performer of the Race
After start and parking for much of the season, Morgan Shepherd shocked the NASCAR community not only by running the distance at Talladega, but by finishing in the top 15 doing it. Since then, Shepherd and his No. 89 team have gone from field-filler to a legitimate race team, scoring another top 20 at Darlington and posting some solid qualifying runs as well. For Friday night’s race, Shepherd placed his No. 89 Dodge an impressive 14th position on the grid, and while he finished two laps down in 31st, Shepherd ran the distance again on a hot summer night. Earlier in the season, I cited the No. 89 team as an example of rampant field-filling in the Nationwide Series, but performances like those on Friday night have gotten this team off that ugly list. Well done, Morgan Shepherd.
“It feels good to do this in my final ride in the No. 20 car. I’ve got to thank Kyle [Busch] for sticking with me there at the end. The only way we don’t win this is if Kyle goes for the win. I knew Kyle could go for the win and maybe not succeed, but I knew, as long as he stuck on my bumper, we’d have a 1-2 finish.” – Denny Hamlin on his win at Daytona, the ninth of the season for Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 team
“A monkey could win in that car.” – Clint Bowyer on the current hot streak of the No. 20 team
“I thought Tony was in the No. 20 all night. I didn’t know Denny was in it – so congratulations, Denny.” – Dale Earnhardt Jr. after finishing third to Hamlin and Kyle Busch
Up Next: The NASCAR Nationwide Series will tackle Chicagoland Speedway under the lights for the first time this Friday night, July 11th. Coverage of the Dollar General 300 begins at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN and 8:00 p.m. on MRN.