In a Nutshell: On paper, Saturday night’s race was not much of an event, with Kyle Busch leading a record 197 of the 200 laps run to win the Kroger 200 at O’Reilly Raceway Park. The win marked Busch’s sixth Nationwide Series victory of the season and the 14th of the year for Joe Gibbs Racing through 22 events. However, minus the dominance of Busch’s No. 18, the event at ORP produced fantastic racing throughout the field, and allowed a large crop of development drivers to shine – with Colin Braun, Josh Wise and Cale Gale all posting career-best finishes.
The newsworthy rule change that NASCAR made to Toyota’s engines did not keep Busch out of victory lane, but it definitely seemed to curb Toyota’s performance as a whole. Joey Logano and the No. 20 struggled more than any other race they’ve entered all season, and no Toyota not fielded by JGR finished inside the top 15. The true effect of the rule change may not be seen until the series returns to a longer oval at Michigan, but Saturday night did mark some progress for parity.
In the championship, current points leaders Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski struggled to 18th and 19th-place finishes, respectively, leaving Bowyer with a 173-point lead over Keselowski. Carl Edwards battled from three laps down early to finish 11th, and is now only seven markers out of second place.
Who Should Have Won: Busch. He had the best handling car all night, and was flat-out dominant on restarts. The right car (unfortunately) won on Saturday night.
Braun scored his first career Nationwide Series pole on an oval Saturday afternoon, and while he failed to lead the opening lap of the race, Braun ran in the top five all evening and stalked Busch for much of the latter portion of the event. Braun’s runner-up performance marked his career-best finish in NASCAR and was a dramatic improvement over his showing in the Truck Series race the night before (he finished 15th). With Braun slated to drive the No. 16 at Montreal on the road course, momentum is on this team’s side, and the youngster may well be a major factor as the series heads north next weekend.
Surprisingly, the JR Motorsports car of note this weekend was not Keselowski. Landon Cassill, after running the Truck race Friday night, went exploring on the tight Indiana bullring and found that his car was fast while running on the rims along the outside wall. Running higher on the track than any other car all race long, it paid off with a solid seventh-place run for his No. 5 Chevrolet – his third consecutive top 10 with the team. The sooner JRM finds sponsorship for 2009, the better… they’ve got more than Keselowski on their roster.
After Mike Bliss left Fitz Motorsports, the results just haven’t been the same for the No. 22 team, as new wheelman Josh Wise is about as green a development driver as they come. But Wise’s inexperience failed to show up at ORP, as he stepped it up a notch from the time he walked in the infield. Wise drove like a veteran all night, qualifying a career-best seventh and following that up with a strong, competitive fifth-place run. Wise raced with the heavy hitters of the series all night long, and more importantly raced them clean. Wise has now posted back-to-back top 20s for the first time in his career, and with Fitz Motorsports having the short-track program that they do, the No. 22 team is counting down the days until Bristol… where Bliss nearly won in March driving their Dodge.
Better Luck Next Time
Jason Keller has won two times at ORP in Nationwide Series competition, but that experience didn’t show on Sunday night. Keller and his CJM Racing team struggled mightily for the first time in a considerable while, struggling to stay on the lead lap all race long before finishing as the last car on the lead lap in 24th. How good have things been for CJM? The finish was the worst for Keller and the No. 11 since suffering engine failure at Phoenix… in April.
Whether or not the new engine rules imposed on Toyota were responsible, Saturday night marked the worst Nationwide Series race of James Buescher’s career, and among the worst performances of the season for Braun Racing’s No. 32 Toyota. After qualifying a disappointing 29th, Buescher found himself unable to find a handle or move forward much at all over the course of the race, eventually finishing three laps down in 28th. The finish was Buescher’s career worst and his first ever outside the top 20. Braun Racing in general did not deliver at ORP after winning the event in 2007, and it will be interesting to see if this team can shake it off – or, if this is a sign of problems to come for the Toyota-backed operation.
Underdog Performer of the Race
Brian Keselowski delivered a fantastic performance in Dusty Whitney’s No. 92 Dodge on Saturday night, outrunning his better-known (and better-funded) brother Brad en route to scoring a 15th-place finish, his best run of the Nationwide Series season. Brian, a Nationwide Series part-timer with several ARCA Re/Max Series wins to his credit, has consistently shown an ability to get the most out of his lower-tier No. 92 ride, having scored top 15s at Memphis and Homestead in the same car last season. Brian’s doing a solid job proving that brother Brad is not the extent of racing talent in the Keselowski family, waiting patiently for his full-time opportunity to come. Here’s hoping it’s soon.
JGR vs. the Field
JGR Toyotas led 197 of 200 laps in the Kroger 200.
JGR Toyotas have won 14 of 22 Nationwide Series races this season (13 with Cup drivers).
JGR Toyotas have led 49.0% (1,983 of 4,044) of the laps run in the Nationwide Series this season.
“I was kind of disappointed because I feel like that 15 horsepower cost me the pole. I really got to thank my competitors for doing the complaining they did, because we were able to have good traction control all night long. I feel like that was important, to get off the corners a little bit better than everybody.” – Kyle Busch after his win in the Kroger 200
“There’s about four levels of team when you go NASCAR Nationwide Series racing. There’s the guys with a lot of budget with like $8 million. There’s the guys with mid-level budget with about four. There’s the guys with very little budget and then there’s me with no budget [laughs]. I mean, I’m coming with a car that’s five years old and a motor that’s three years old built in our back shop and racing with these guys. I don’t really feel like we deserve to race with ‘em, but we still got to do it and we got to do it competitively, and hopefully didn’t make anybody mad.” – Brian Keselowski after an excellent 15th-place finish with his underfunded volunteer team
Up Next: The NASCAR Nationwide Series goes abroad for the final time this season, heading north to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal. Coverage of the NAPA Auto Parts 200 begins at 3:00 p.m. on ESPN2 and 3:30 on MRN.