The Nationwide Series doesn’t tackle the high banks of Bristol until March 21. Apparently that message didn’t get through to the drivers Saturday. The Sam’s Town 300 opened with four wrecks in the first 28 laps, becoming a demolition derby that featured 12 cautions and two red flags while ending with only 10 cars on the lead lap.
The race featured 17 lead changes as each leader tried to outdo each other and lose this race. In the end, it was Greg Biffle who overcame running himself out of gas under green to hold off a hard-charging Carl Edwards to score his first Nationwide Series win since 2006, a stretch of 76 races. Biffle nearly lost the lead coming to the white flag as Edwards got a run under his Ford in turn 3, but Biffle pinned Edwards on the low side of the track and maintained his lead. Brian Vickers, Jason Leffler and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounded out the top five in the finishing order.
Edwards’s recovery to finish second after falling a lap down on lap 101 with a blown tire moved him into the series points lead, as previous leader Kyle Busch spun out racing for the lead on lap 22 and triggering a multi-car wreck that destroyed both his No. 18 Toyota and that of polesitter Scott Speed. Edwards currently holds a 108-point lead over fourth-place Brendan Gaughan, the next driver in the current NNS standings who is contesting the full series schedule.
Who Should Have Won: Justin Allgaier. Though a late-race brush with the wall relegated him to an eighth-place finish, Saturday’s race in Vegas was officially Allgaier’s coming out party. The defending ARCA Re/Max Series champion put on a show throughout the second half of Saturday’s race, leading laps and making passes on the low side of turns 3 and 4 that even Cup stars Busch and Jeff Burton were unable to complete. Even with late-race damage, Allgaier was contending for a top-five finish on the race’s final restart before being hit on the backstretch and knocked from the lead pack.
The Nationwide Series rookie class delivered a convincing performance in the season’s third race. Of the five official rookie candidates, four finished in the top 10. Michael McDowell celebrated the birth of his first child with a sixth-place finish. Gaughan drove a backup car to a seventh-place run at his home town track. Allgaier finished eighth after leading laps and contending for the win. And Scott Lagasse Jr. finished ninth in a backup of his own, scoring his second career-best finish in as many races. In a race that saw the best of the Cup Series struggle to stay under control on the high speed LVMS oval, 2009’s rookie class made a statement. Further, both Gaughan and McDowell now find themselves in the top 10 in the series standings.
It was a bad day to be in the front of the pack, as contender after contender found trouble on Saturday. Speed’s Nationwide Series debut started with a pole, but ended very early when he slammed into the side of Busch, who spun himself out trying to take the lead from Kevin Harvick on lap 22. The wreck also caused a chain reaction that led to Brad Keselowski’s Chevrolet being slammed into the outside wall, leaving Keselowski to drive a wounded car to his third consecutive finish outside the top 20. Harvick had possibly the strongest car in the field, but he got collected when Burton’s car snapped loose and spun on lap 104. David Ragan spun out by himself in turn 4 just after taking the lead on lap 170. And both Mike Bliss and Denny Hamlin were involved in a heavy wreck on lap 197 when Hamlin cut a tire, leaving Bliss with nowhere to go but straight into Hamlin’s rear bumper.
John Wes Townley has officially become the Nationwide Series’ new Kyle Krisiloff. Though his Zaxby’s sponsorship is still providing needed funding, Townley continues to wreck nearly everything he drives. After destroying his primary car in practice on Friday, Townley needed only 26 laps before losing control of yet another one of his Fords, making hard contact with the wall and finishing 38th. Maybe Townley’s struggles in the Nationwide cars are a product of being rushed out of the ARCA ranks instead of simply being overrated, but either way it was a very ugly weekend for the RAB Racing outfit.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Andy Ponstein. Though Morgan Shepherd and Kenny Hendrick each scored top-15 finishes, my nod for this week’s underdog goes to Ponstein and the Stott Classic Racing operation. Granted, Ponstein finished 20 laps down in 23rd, but the team’s efforts this weekend were notable for two reasons. First, it was the first Nationwide Series race that Ponstein managed to complete since finishing 27th at Nazareth in 2004. Second, it marked the first race for the Stott team since qualifying for Chicago last July. After running a limited start-and-park effort in 2008, seeing this team run the distance was a pleasant surprise. If this is a sign of things to come, I hope to see Ponstein and the No. 02 at Bristol.
The Final Word
With all the attrition and pit road mistakes that turned Saturday’s 300-miler into a true endurance marathon, it’s perhaps hard to draw any sure conclusions from race three of the season. However, there are two that come immediately to mind.
One, this year’s NNS rookie class is something special. And the funny thing is even though there are two “rookie” candidates that have been full-time Cup drivers in the 2009 class, it doesn’t appear that either of them are going to win the ROTY title. Allgaier’s performance in this race was to put it lightly impressive. Having never seen the reconfigured LVMS prior to this weekend, Allgaier had no problems establishing an aggressive pace and momentum in running his race. More impressive, Allgaier made a large number of his passes at the front of the field using the lower groove on the racetrack, a tactic that even the vaunted Busch couldn’t make work. Allgaier served notice Saturday, and both Gaughan and McDowell are going to have to deliver this year if they want the rookie crown.
Two, after all but conceding the Nationwide Series title to either Busch or Edwards after last weekend’s race, I am going to eat some crow. The chances for a points race in this series this year are there, and perhaps better than I gave them credit for. Busch was the class of the field on Saturday, but his over-aggression on the racetrack left him with a 39th-place finish reminiscent of a green rookie rather than a title contender. Edwards scored yet another top-five finish (12 consecutive dating back to Fontana in September of 2008), but earned it after facing adversity on the track for the first time this season. Both of these heavyweights appeared far more vulnerable than they did one week ago, while other Nationwide teams moved into contention, as Leffler proved capable of challenging the Roush Fords at the front of the Vegas field and Gaughan scored his second consecutive top 10 on an intermediate oval. Gaughan’s RWI equipment is proving stout on the track, and he has previous experience chasing a championship (he nearly won the Truck title in 2003).
Biffle may have won Saturday, but between Gaughan’s newfound consistency, Leffler’s stout performance and Allgaier coming into his own with a Penske Racing team hitting on all eight cylinders, Bristol may prove to be even more chaotic and unpredictable than it typically is.
Packing in over 80,000 fans and providing an exciting race, a trip to Las Vegas re-energized the Nationwide Series. Go figure.
Shame it’s going to be three weeks before the trip to Thunder Valley.