NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2008 Missouri-Illinois Dodge Dealers 250 at Gateway

In a Nutshell: With the Sprint Cup Series taking the weekend off, many Cup stars took the opportunity to return to their old stomping grounds – and the Nationwide Series race at Gateway International Raceway was no exception. Midwest drivers Jamie McMurray and Clint Bowyer had strong runs; but in the end, it was Carl Edwards who scored the victory, his second win in only five starts under new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. Edwards and his trademark backflip received a raucous ovation from what he called a hometown crowd, taking his second win at Gateway in his last three starts at the track.

Despite being a standalone Nationwide Series event, Cup regulars dominated the race’s 250 miles, with McMurray taking the pole and leading the first 22 laps. Joey Logano then led for a bit before handing the lead to Edwards and David Reutimann, who juggled the top spot until lap 112. McMurray regained the lead with a two-tire stop on lap 114, but quickly relinquished it back to Logano, as the 18-year-old showed his strength after a three-week hiatus from the No. 20.

But one of the few Nationwide drivers running up front would lose his grip on the win once the laps wound down. The race’s final caution saw Jason Leffler take two tires and the lead on lap 143, until Edwards on four fresh Goodyears got up front for good on lap 152. Edwards was never seriously challenged after that, defeating second-place Logano by a good 6.8 seconds.

Behind them, Nationwide Series points leader Bowyer finished eighth and saw his lead trimmed for the second week in a row, as second-place Brad Keselowski rebounded after a mid-race incident to finish fifth. Bowyer now leads Keselowski by 170 markers, with Edwards in third, 201 back.

Who Should Have Won: Edwards. Somehow, someway, Edwards and his No. 60 Ford had something for Logano. After their last pit stops of the day, both drivers had four tires and restarted on top of each other following the race’s final caution. After starting on equal footing, Edwards flat outran Logano and the No. 20 over those final 50 laps – and for that, they deservedly scored the win, only the seventh for a non-Toyota team this season.

Worth Noting

While the Joe Gibbs Racing stable of Cup drivers have headlined for Braun Racing this season, James Buescher has quietly posted stellar results in Braun’s No. 32 during the 2008 campaign. After hitting the wall during qualifying and being forced to start 41st, Buescher charged to the front of the field, running solidly in the top 15 by the race’s midway point. During the final cycle of pit stops, Buescher and his No. 32 team then played the strategy game, taking two tires and putting him at the front of the field over the final 75 miles. Though he was unable to hold off hard hitters such as eventual winner Edwards and Logano, Buescher gained valuable experience and posted a career best seventh-place run. The young driver has yet to finish outside the top 20 in Nationwide competition in four career starts… making it such a shame that Cup regulars Busch and Hamlin keep hogging the No. 32 ride.

After finding himself fired from JR Motorsports in the middle of the 2007 season, rides have been few and far between for Shane Huffman in the Nationwide Series. Nevertheless, Huffman made the most of Saturday night’s race. Driving the MacDonald Motorsports No. 81 in place of DJ Kennington (who was busy racing in the Canadian Tire Series), Huffman ran a clean race in his Dodge entry, eventually posting a 19th-place finish – the best of the season for his MacDonald operation. The result marked the second consecutive strong performance for Huffman in a mediocre entry; he ran briefly at the front in Stanton Barrett’s second car at Daytona before breaking a rear end. Although he’s far from a trip to victory lane, Huffman’s done well with what he’s gotten in 2008 – and he’s not hurting his chances for a second shot at Nationwide Series success with these part-time rides.

Jason Keller‘s remarkable 2008 season continued on Saturday night. Fresh off the announcement that CJM Racing had formed a technical alliance with JGR and would campaign Toyotas in 2009, Keller turned in the strongest performance of the season for his No. 11 team. After qualifying in the top 10, Keller didn’t fall out of it all night, and by race’s end posted a third-place finish – his first top five since Milwaukee in 2007. Keller and the No. 11 are knocking on victory lane’s door, and should be considered a legitimate threat for the win this weekend at ORP.

Better Luck Next Time

Mike Bliss has done a fantastic job turning the No. 1 car and Phoenix Racing around, but those efforts hit a wall (literally) on Saturday night. After running at the top of the practice charts and qualifying eighth, Bliss ran up front all night and was in position at the very least to continue his streak of six consecutive top 15s – but a racing incident between Landon Cassill and Scott Wimmer collected Bliss and demolished his No. 1 Chevrolet. The veteran was then left with a 31st-place finish in what was just his first DNF of the season, leaving him 434 points behind Bowyer in his bid for the championship that’s looking like an impossible climb. It will be interesting to see if the Phoenix Racing team can rebound from this – their first true adversity with Bliss behind the wheel – next weekend at ORP.

Brandon Whitt’s return to full-time driving certainly hasn’t gone according to plan. In his debut with the Specialty Racing team last weekend, Whitt completed only 20 laps before a broken driveshaft left his No. 61 Ford with a 41st-place finish. This weekend wasn’t much of an improvement, as Whitt found himself behind the wall early with transmission issues. Though the No. 61 team did a commendable job in getting Whitt’s Ford fixed and back on the track, Whitt managed to complete only 122 laps and finished 28th. Until Specialty Racing overcomes their current rash of mechanical woes, the young Whitt is going to have a hard time improving over the performance of veteran former driver Kevin Lepage.

Underdog Performer of the Race

Jeremy Clements has made quite the name for himself in the ARCA Re/Max Series, and earlier this season gave NASCAR a sign of things to come after convincingly racing Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota into the Nationwide Series race at Kentucky. Still seeking his big break, Clements turned to a family-owned ride this weekend and again demonstrated why he is considered one of the top prospects in ARCA today. After racing his No. 50 Chevrolet into the race, Clements did exactly what a young driver ought to, logging laps and running clean. By night’s end, Clements had a career best 22nd-place finish under his belt, and one can only hope that he caught the eye of NASCAR owners out there. This guy truly deserves a break; but until then, solid runs in his own No. 50 are just what the doctor ordered.

JGR vs. the Field

JGR Toyotas led 42 of 200 laps in the Missouri-Illinois Dodge Dealers 250.

JGR Toyotas have won 13 of 21 Nationwide Series races this season (12 with Cup drivers).

JGR Toyotas have led 46.5% (1,786 of 3,844) of the laps run in the Nationwide Series this season.

Quotables

“It’s unreal. There won’t be a guy tomorrow who has a better day than me. Thank you everybody up in the grandstands. Thanks a lot.” – Carl Edwards, after scoring what he considered a hometown win at Gateway

“We’ve missed Big Guy a lot. He went through his treatment this past week and did well. We’re going to keep our fingers crossed and say a lot of prayers that he’ll be back at ORP. But we miss him, there’s no doubt.” – Jason Keller – after CJM Racing’s third-place finish – in the absence of car chief Steve Helwig, who is undergoing cancer treatment

“We gained a lot of spots in the pits, but I lost a lot of spots in the pits with me driving. I learned a little bit there, but that’s part of the learning curve as a rookie.” – Runner-up Joey Logano

Up Next: The NASCAR Nationwide Series goes short-tracking this Saturday night under the lights at O’Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis. Coverage of the Kroger 200 begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, and 8:00 p.m. on your local MRN affiliate.

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