It’s hard to believe there are only 11 scheduled races left in the 2008 NASCAR Nationwide Series and, unlike in the previous two seasons, we actually have a genuine title chase. Who needs the manufactured excitement of the senior circuit’s Chase for the Sprint Cup when you have a three-way shootout for the inaugural championship under the Nationwide banner? Two of the three protagonists in the battle for the title are, predictably, Sprint Cup regulars in Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer. But the third, JR Motorsports’ Brad Keselowski, has had the sort of breakout season that suggests his might be a name we’ll be hearing for years to come in Cup as well as Nationwide. This weekend’s race is a critical step along the way as home to the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet is Rochester Hills, Mich. – just two hours from the site of tomorrow’s race at Michigan International Speedway.
The homecoming for the 24-year-old couldn’t come at a better time. Just 128 markers behind points leader Bowyer, Keselowski is closer to Bowyer than any driver has been since early June. It’s not as if Bowyer has been a slouch of late either. After 11 straight top 10s, he sandwiched a ninth-place in the rain at Montreal between an 18th-place run at O’Reilly Raceway Park and a 23rd-place effort at Watkins Glen. But since Keselowski’s win at Nashville nine races ago, the kid has been a-coming on-cutting slowly but definitively into Bowyer’s lead. The significance of the opportunity in front of him is not lost on Keselowski either. “I was reading something the other day about Alan Kulwicki when he won his championship in 1992,” he said. “He wrecked out at Dover with six races to go and he was about 280 points behind and came back to win the championship. So, being only 128 behind Clint is not the end of the world.” But Keselowski is nothing if not realistic when he noted that: “We need to race to win, and if we can win some races, we can close that gap really quickly.”
Can Keselowski close the gap on leader Bowyer and hold off the reigning Nationwide Series champ Edwards? We’ll see; but there can be no doubt he’s very definitely in the mix and far, far stranger things have happened. Perhaps the surprise of the season, for this writer at least, has been the relative lack of success of the current champ. I say lack of success; Edwards still has two wins, nine top fives and another three top 10s. But those numbers pale into insignificance when you rewind to this point last year. Following a ho-hum 23rd-place finish at Watkins Glen, Edwards’s lead stood at a jaw-dropping 766 points at this point in 2007. This time around he’s some 174 markers out of first.
At the start of the season in my two-part Nationwide Series season preview, I made the following prediction as to the destination of the Series crown: “I’m bravely predicting Carl Edwards to repeat,” I said, and to be honest with you, I didn’t think anyone would come close. I thought it would be the same sort of relentless processional for Edwards on his way to a second straight title. And yet, as the weeks went by, the charge I kept expecting the Back-Flip King to make never materialized and it was Bowyer, instead, who has made most of the running. As the races are checked off the calendar it will be interesting to see if Bowyer can keep his lead and win his first ever second series crown–his goal at the outset of the campaign. This weekend he’s racing chassis number 63, with which he won the Bristol race earlier this year, so the Emporia, Kans. native will be hoping it brings a similar result to Bristol where he led 122 laps – over a third of the race.
Another driver moving in the right direction is Marcos Ambrose. After a relatively frustrating season so far, Ambrose moved back into the top 10 in the overall standings courtesy of his first win at Watkins Glen. It was the fourth victory for a Nationwide regular this season following trips to victory lane for Scott Wimmer (Nashville), Keselowski (also Nashville) and Joey Logano (Kentucky). It wouldn’t be fair here not to also recognize Ron Fellows in the rain at Montreal. Fellows has won four of the 13 races he’s attempted over nine years in the Nationwide Series – all of which came at road courses. For Ambrose the Watkins Glen win was vindication of sorts. Ambrose said after taking the checkered flag, “I’ve dragged my family halfway around the world… and today it just feels like it was all worthwhile.” The native of Launceston, Tasmania, added, “It feels like I’ve conquered a huge mountain.” And even if it was on a Ford, it was still good to see the famous old STP paint scheme back in victory lane.
And finally, we have the 20-year old Houston, Texas native, Brad Coleman. After just two top 10s on the season and only 43 races on the junior circuit (no wins, three top fives) Coleman will assume driving duties for the No. 96 Cup Series car of Hall of Fame Racing following the release of JJ Yeley. It will be a huge step up (monstrously huge, you could argue) for the young driver, especially with the team sitting in 39th place without a guaranteed starting slot. But there is some respite for Coleman, as only 44 drivers are on the entry list for Michigan so he will just need to beat one driver to make the field. “I just want to qualify for every race that I do. I think if I do that, I’m doing a pretty good job,” said Coleman, who tested four times with HoF Racing earlier this year, and is sensibly keeping expectations low. “I want to finish every race, not get involved in any wrecks and do as good as I can. I think top 30s, top 25s or even a top-20 [finish] will be outstanding.”
Good luck to the kid this weekend and for the rest of the season. Something tells me he just might need it.