Let’s face it. The Chase for the Sprint Cup is over. Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team are on just the latest of their trademark rolls, and coming off a dominant win at Martinsville stand poised to defend another race title at the Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend. Sure, other guys will contend for the win at AMS, and should a part fail or a fellow competitor find trouble, the No. 48 team could see it’s points lead evaporate.
But do you honestly see that happening? Neither do I. Besides, with the rocks imitating tires that Goodyear will have on the cars this weekend, I expect the Cup race to be rather run of the mill, a 325-lap exercise of futility in waiting for a dramatic story of Johnson struggling and the rest of the field catching him to save another Chase from mediocrity.
For race fans out there looking for an event to watch this weekend where the storylines and action will be there regardless of how the points leader does, look no further than the Nationwide Series race at Memphis. Clint Bowyer is leading the purse snatcher brigade and stands poised to claim the title in NASCAR’s second-tier series, but there is a lot going on in the event’s 50-car field.
Many of the sport’s future prospects will take to the tricky Tennessee short-track on Saturday. In addition to Landon Cassill, Cale Gale and Chase Miller, who have been fixtures in the Nationwide Series’ non-companion races in 2008, fans will get to see the debut of two big-name drivers, Marc Davis and Jarit Johnson. Davis, a Drive for Diversity graduate and Joe Gibbs Racing development driver, will drive the No. 18 Toyota that Kyle Busch has laid waste to the Nationwide field with in recent weeks, making him the first African-American driver in recent memory to attempt a Nationwide race. The pressure will be on Davis, an East Series regular, this weekend as no driver in the field will have a better racecar, while expectations at JGR are high fresh on the heels of Joey Logano.
The other debut will be none other than Johnson’s younger brother, Jarit. The younger Johnson, who has competed at the Hickory Motor Speedway, will drive the No. 22 for Fitz Motorsports. While it’s hard to see this team cracking even the top 15 this weekend, it will nonetheless be worth a look to see what the younger brother of Sprint Cup’s most dominant driver has in store.
There are plenty of other prospects out there going it the old fashioned route, driving for underdog teams in search of a break. A wealth of accomplished short-trackers will go this route and try to make the field this weekend. Among those drivers include Florida short-track ace Travis Kittleson, taking the reins of the No. 56 for Mac Hill Motorsports in what is essentially a home race for the long-time team. Kittleson, who saw a full-time ride in the USAR Pro Cup series dissolve earlier this year, is still looking for his shot at a gig in NASCAR’s upper divisions. Joining him will be Brian Keselowski, driving his own No. 92 machine for what will likely be his final start of the season. Keselowski, who has scored multiple ARCA Re/Max Series wins on short tracks, survived the attrition of this race last year to post a top-10 finish, and is still searching for a home in 2009 after his ride with Jay Robinson Racing disappeared in favor of Kenny Wallace. And don’t forget 2006 series Rookie of the Year Danny O’Quinn, who will get another shot in Rensi Racing’s No. 35 Ford after falling victim to electrical issues after making the field at Charlotte.
There are also plenty of veterans out there racing for a ride in 2009. Scott Wimmer, who is being ousted from RCR’s No. 29 at the end of 2008, has only four more chances this season to score another win and garner some attention. Coming from a short-track background, Wimmer’s best chance to get back to victory lane by season’s end will come on Saturday. Bobby Hamilton Jr. finds himself in similar dire straits, with his longtime ride in Ed Rensi’s No. 25 team in jeopardy due to a lack of sponsor dollars. Being from Tennessee, Hamilton will have the crowd on his side. Here’s hoping the results are as well.
And with Memphis requiring double-duty drivers to fly in from Atlanta for the race, a number of aspiring drivers will get to at least practice the best rides the Nationwide Series has to offer. Bobby East, Stephen Leicht, Auggie Vidovich and Josh Wise will all practice cars for Sprint Cup regulars, garnering seat time and points with their respective team owners. They’ll also be making prayers for rain that could keep the Cup guys out of Memphis and get them an invaluable shot at making their names known.
Even if you couldn’t care less about how exciting and loaded the field for this race is, there is still plenty to be enthused about for the 250-lapper on Saturday. With only four Cup regulars scheduled to make the start, there is as strong a likelihood as there has been all year that a Nationwide regular will score the win on Saturday. Last year’s edition of this race featured a NASCAR record 25 caution flags, offering enough wreckage and mayhem to satisfy even the most “demolition derby” of race fans.
This Saturday, put the college football on hold for just a little while, and tune in. For those of you without SPEED or ESPN Classic at home, take a trip to your local sports bar and tune in. Because more than anything, it’s one last chance to see NASCAR do what it does best this season.