The first NASCAR preview magazine that came to the local newsstand was that of The Sporting News. As I read through it, I flipped to the publication’s Nationwide Series preview. Predictably, the lead feature was on the “Sprint Cup Showdown” between Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards that is already being framed as the extent of the Nationwide Series’ 2009 title chase.
If you’re not an Edwards or Busch fan, brace yourself for a media frenzy that will likely overshadow every other storyline the Nationwide Series has to offer. As if the coverage of the Cup regulars that week in and week out make NASCAR’s minor league their personal playgrounds isn’t enough, the story of Busch versus Edwards, two Cup titans and rivals since the summer race at Bristol, will likely never leave the screens of ESPN’s broadcasts this season.
On paper though, it’s hard to argue with all the attention that Kyle and Carl will be getting come Daytona next week. 2008 saw the two drivers combine to lead 2,670 laps and win 17 of the 35 races contested on the Nationwide circuit. With Kyle Busch coming off one of the most successful seasons NASCAR has seen across its three national series and Edwards a former NNS champion, the likelihood of one of these two becoming the fourth consecutive Cup regular to win the AAA title is high.
But not certain. Because sitting in the Chevrolet camp is perhaps the best chance a Nationwide regular has had to win the NNS title since Martin Truex, Jr. scored back to back crowns in 2004 and 2005. And, once again, it’s a Dale Earnhardt, Jr. protégé.
I’m talking about Brad Keselowski.
The younger Keselowski’s story of going from a journeyman’s beginning to a ride with JR Motorsports is well known. What many often tend to overlook is how much of an impact Keselowski has had on his No. 88 team. Taking over the ride midway through 2007 after short-track standouts Mark McFarland and Shane Huffman both posted disappointing tenures, Keselowski scored five top 10 finishes in the final 15 races, only one fewer than Huffman scored in twice as many starts with JR Motorsports. That performance led Keselowski to be given the keys to the No. 88 for all of 2008, and he delivered a breakout performance. Scoring two wins and 20 top 10 finishes, he was the highest finishing Nationwide regular in 2008, and now sits poised to spoil the Cup party.
Taking down Edwards and Busch will be no small task, but there are certainly chinks in both of the Cup regulars’ NNS armor. In the case of Edwards, it’s important not just to note that he has finished first and second in Nationwide points over the last two years, but how he got there. When Edwards’ No. 60 team is hot, they’re hot. Last season as soon as crew chief Drew Blickensderfer took over, the team reeled off seven wins in the second half of the season, including three of the last four. But, likewise, when they’re not, they’re not. In Edwards’s full-time NNS campaigns of 2007 and 2008, both saw Cousin Carl endure long cold spells in which he struggled with poor handling race cars and an inability to find the front and finish races. With miracle worker Blickensderfer (who led Danny O’Quinn and his patch-quilt No. 50 team to the NNS Rookie of the Year title in 2006 as well) moving on to the Cup ranks with Matt Kenseth, Edwards will have to gel quickly with a new crew chief if he plans to keep pace with the frontrunners.
As for Kyle Busch, well, his own worst enemy is Kyle Busch. Love him or hate him, Busch’s attitude is a detriment to his pursuit of a NASCAR championship. It’s his attitude that led him to abandon his pursuit of the Nationwide title last year after a self-induced crash at Kentucky, despite driving perhaps the most potent race cars the Nationwide Series has ever seen. And it’s his attitude that rendered him unable to weather the storm of mechanical failures that plagued his Cup team in the Chase, unable to find Victory Lane in the final 14 Cup races after winning eight of the first 22.
Keselowski has a lot going for him heading into this season that will allow him to stay competitive with two of NASCAR’s best. His Hendrick Motorsports equipment will more than keep pace with Edwards’ Roush Fords and JGR’s Toyotas. His No. 88 car will be the primary focus in the JR Motorsports camp, now that the company’s No. 5 team has been relegated to a partial schedule. And sans the Iowa Speedway, which will be new ground for everyone in the Nationwide field, Keselowski enters 2009 having raced on every venue on the NNS slate.
That’s not to say that the table is set for the driver of the No. 88 to swoop in and score the upset. Entering only his second full-time campaign on the Nationwide circuit in a competitive entry, Keselowski’s experience in dealing with the pressure of a title chase does not come close to that of Edwards or Busch. Though Keselowski had a shot at last year’s title going into September after stealing a win from eventual-champ Clint Bowyer at Bristol, disappointing runs at Fontana and Richmond quickly dissolved those chances. When it came to crunch time in the season’s final few races, Keselowski and team were out of the running. When it comes to crunch time pursuing a NASCAR championship, Keselowski’s experience is all but non-existent.
So was Martin Truex, Jr.’s.