In a word, uneventful.
As if following up Daytona with Fontana wasn’t enough of a letdown, Kyle Busch made sure that there would be no last lap fireworks this time around. Leading over 140 of the 150 laps run Saturday night, Busch followed up his Truck win earlier in the day with a dominant performance that saw the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 team lay waste to the Nationwide Series field. The win was the first for the No. 18 team with Jason Ratcliffe on the pit box since his suspension at Michigan last August for tampering with a NASCAR chassis dyno. Busch also became the first driver in NASCAR history to win two national touring division races on the same day.
Fourth-place finisher Carl Edwards put it best in saying “Busch was in a league of his own tonight.”
Much like his performance at Auto Club Speedway this past August, Busch proved impossible to pass for anyone on track. The only time Busch’s Camry got passed all evening was by Edwards on pit road during the final exchange of pit stops, and his No. 60 Ford failed to lead even half a lap under green before being losing the point to a bump-and-run by Busch in turn 2. With the win, Busch took the Nationwide Series points lead by 20 markers over Edwards.
Who Should Have Won: Busch. Love him or hate him, Busch’s No. 18 Toyota was hooked up. All night. With flawless handling, Toyota horsepower under the hood and an all-star pit crew composed of regulars from all of JGR’s Sprint Cup operations, Saturday night’s race will likely be a movie that the Nationwide Series will see played many times in 2009.
Cup regulars took eight of the top-10 finishing positions Saturday night, and both of the Nationwide regulars that cracked the top 10 came from the Rusty Wallace Incorporated stable. Brendan Gaughan struggled with handling early in the race, to the point that his No. 62 team made numerous pit stops under a later caution. The adjustments hit on something, as Gaughan took to the high side of the track like a man possessed. The former Winston West Series regular got as high as sixth before fading to a solid eighth at the finish, a finish that moved Gaughan into the top 10 in points. Meanwhile, Steve Wallace rebounded impressively from his nasty wreck at Daytona, using a Lucky Dog and timely adjustments to score his first career top 10 at ACS. Of note, Gaughan’s No. 62 team is now eighth in points, the highest ranked Nationwide Series regular.
Last week Brad Keselowski had no one to blame but himself for late-race contact with the wall that cost him a shot at victory at Daytona. Another week, another wreck for the driver of the No. 88, though this time he got punted. Literally. Entering turn 4 on lap 97, Greg Biffle bowled all over Keselowski’s back bumper, sending his Chevrolet hard into the retaining wall, a wreck that also caused notable damage to the front bumper of Jason Leffler’s No. 38. Though ESPN commentators were quick to rationalize Biffle’s bulldozing, saying that Keselowski had gotten loose in front of Biffle’s car, replays made it very clear that Keselowski had gathered his car up well before contact was made. The wreckage left Keselowski four laps down from resulting repair work (he finished 27th) and mired Leffler back in traffic for the duration of the evening. Keselowski’s eventful evening left him 16th in points, already 171 markers behind leader Kyle Busch.
Fortunately, Biffle got what he had coming to him, losing control of his No. 16 on his own later in the race and slamming into the turn 2 wall, recording a DNF.
You’ve got to hand it to Michael McDowell. When he wrecks, he does so in spectacular fashion. In the most dramatic accident to rock a Nationwide Series race in Fontana since Keselowski’s horrific wall-slide in the 2007 fall race, McDowell’s No. 47 Toyota literally blew up in turn 2, igniting oil and turning the car into a massive fireball. McDowell did an admirable job to get his car off the racing surface and into position for fire crews to react. Fortunately, the former open-wheeler was quick to remove himself from the car after he got it stopped and was reportedly no worse for the wear. The same could not be said for his car, however, which left the track on a roll-back. He finished 36th.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Morgan Shepherd. Back in 2004, on a blistering hot race day in California, Shepherd brought his only car and engine to the then-California Speedway for the Sprint Cup race, the Auto Club 500. With only 43 cars present, Shepherd qualified for the race and managed to remain on the lead lap for nearly 60 laps, eventually finishing 36th. The purse money he won didn’t cover his expenses for the weekend. Still, when interviewed by the Rocky Mountain News, Shepherd could only say “I’m a racer. I’m here to race.”
Fast forward to 2009. Shepherd is now 67 and is running Nationwide Series races instead of Cup, but his mantra clearly hasn’t changed. Because despite being outclassed by the majority of the teams that started the Stater Brothers 300, Shepherd ran the distance and finished in the top 20. The Nationwide Series often sees underdog teams crack the top tier of the finishing order on the short tracks and in plate races, but to see Shepherd finish 19th on the intermediate tracks that have become the feeding ground for NASCAR’s super-teams was nothing short of impressive. Well done, Morgan.
The Final Word
The biggest gaffe that NASCAR made last weekend at Daytona was their asinine decision to penalize Leffler five laps for “rough driving” on the auspice that he intentionally wrecked Wallace, holding Leffler guilty until proven innocent. In Saturday night’s race out west, NASCAR had a similar incident occur on lap 97 when Biffle ran all over Keselowski, causing a wreck that also caught Leffler. Fortunately, true to form, NASCAR was inconsistent, this time levying no penalties against Biffle despite ample video evidence that he was at fault.
I’m not condoning Biffle for his actions by saying he shouldn’t be penalized. On the contrary, any time I see a Nationwide Series regular get slammed into by a Cup regular who has no need to be on track in the first place I get angry and curse at my TV screen, and Saturday night was no exception.
But, just as with the Leffler/Wallace wreck last week, there was no way looking at the video for NASCAR to truly know whether Biffle had a lapse of concentration or for some reason had it out for Keselowski. And this time, given the inconclusiveness of the evidence, they made the right call; no call at all.
What the Biffle incident seemed to conclusively prove though was that 2009 is looking to truly be a year of the Nationwide Series being Cup Lite, be it the companion races or the title chase itself. Saturday night saw Busch impose his will over absolutely every car in the field, with Edwards hardly breaking a sweat to remain in the top five. The same could not be said for the Nationwide regulars contending for the series title. The damage that Leffler received in the lap 97 wreck cost him a top-10 finish. Mike Bliss had a top-five run going before having a flat tire under green that left him fighting traffic the rest of the night. Jason Keller was off the pace all evening. And as previously mentioned, Biffle saw to it that Keselowski’s awful history at ACS continued.
We’re only two races into the season, and the “Busch vs. Edwards Cup Showdown” that was hyped all offseason is already the story of note. These two Cup regulars are each now at least 84 points ahead of the closest Nationwide Series regulars, and judging from their post-race comments they are the only two competitors that their teams are thinking about.
Next up for the Nationwide Series tour is the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, another high-speed intermediate oval that will likely be dominated by Cup regulars doing double-duty. The good news for Nationwide Series fans is that Keselowski darned near won this race last season.
The bad news? He lost it by getting run over by a Cup regular late in the running.
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