Return to Their Roots Equals Success for Keselowski, Wallace
Brad Keselowski has had top-10 racecars in each of the season’s first three Nationwide Series races. Yet he has not finished in the top 20 even once this year, finding himself mired in 22nd in the points standings. Thankfully for him, Bristol and short-tracking is in the cards this weekend, a track and form of racing that Keselowski has been nothing but successful at in Nationwide competition. When he was driving for the vastly outclassed Keith Coleman Racing team, he turned in a 12th-place qualifying effort that was by far the best in the team’s history. And since joining JR Motorsports, Keselowski has scored three consecutive top 10s at Bristol, including an impressive win stolen from Nationwide title-winner Clint Bowyer in the summer race last August. Keselowski earned his win by passing Bowyer with less than 25 laps to go, capitalizing on a minor bobble by Bowyer that opened the lower groove up and driving away with 24 consecutive error-proof laps even as he was being hounded. With Bowyer being as good on the re-surfaced Bristol as any driver in NASCAR, it’s safe to say that Keselowski knows how to get around this Tennessee bullring. This will be the weekend the No. 88 returns to contention.
Another Nationwide regular who will likely be rejuvenated after this weekend will be the son of one of the greatest drivers ever to tackle the high banks of Bristol. Steve Wallace has a long way to go to reach his father’s stature at the track, but he’s been consistently improving. Wallace finished outside the top 30 in his first three starts at BMS, but in 2008 he finished 16th and 10th, both lead laps runs. Wallace’s equipment has been solid throughout 2009, and despite the wrecks this year, Wallace has improved in being patient on the track. The family lineage plus the need to run well should lead Wallace and the No. 66 to a solid finish on Saturday.
“Rookie” Candidates Due for a Bipolar Weekend
The Sam’s Town 300 at Las Vegas saw four of the five full-time Nationwide Series rookie candidate score top-10 finishes. That won’t happen this weekend, but don’t look for this rookie class to end up a blended mess like so many before it have at this treacherous short track. Brendan Gaughan, who’s currently fourth in series points, averaged a top-15 finish in five Truck Series starts at Bristol, including a runner-up performance in August of 2007. And Justin Allgaier is coming off of an ARCA campaign that saw him score top-five finishes in all seven of the series’ short-track events, including three wins.
As for the other full-time rookies in the field, well, it could get ugly. Michael McDowell has never raced at Bristol before, and in all of his starts in NASCAR has never finished better than 20th. Scott Lagasse Jr.’s best short-track effort was a 20th in a truck race at Mansfield, and Lagasse has never tackled Bristol in his career. And as for John Wes Townley, whose 2009 season has proven to be just as much of a wreck-fest as his limited 2008 run, just look at his results here from one year ago; a wreck and DNQ in the Nationwide ranks alongside a 35th-place run in the Truck Series event.
Gaughan and Allgaier could shine, but look for Bristol to mark a return to the status quo for the Raybestos rookies this time around.
Morgan Shepherd’s Top-20 Stretch Will Continue
It’s amazing what giving a 60-something-year-old competitor tires and a few decent racecars can do. Since Morgan Shepherd developed a relationship with Kevin Harvick Incorporated, his No. 89 car has gone from a start-and-park field filler to a top-20 fixture. After struggling in the season opener at Daytona, Shepherd posted back to back finishes of 19th and 13th out west, leading him into the top 20 in Nationwide points. And these results came on intermediate circuits. Now that we’re heading to a short-track, the shortcomings in Shepherd’s cars are going to be even less pronounced. And did you know that Shepherd has won four Nationwide Series races in his career at Bristol?
Scoring win number five will take a miracle. But a third straight top 20? It’s going to happen. And a lead-lap finish to boot is a real possibility.
At Least One Big Name Will Miss This Race
Perhaps the biggest surprise heading into the weekend at Bristol has already been seen in the form of the entry list, as a whopping 52 teams are expected to attempt the Scott’s 300. In short, qualifying will feature 22 go-or-go homers. And with past champion Steve Grissom entered in the JD Motorsports No. 0, an additional spot in the field is already taken, as Grissom stands no chance of racing his way in.
So who are the big names that are on the bubble? Joe Nemechek is well known for his qualifying prowess, but that has translated to intermediate circuits far more consistently than short-tracks (Nemechek missed the Bristol spring race in the Cup ranks in 2007). Plus, with Grissom in the field, his past champion’s provisional is all but worthless. Another name is Scott Wimmer, who despite having three top 10s in his last four Bristol starts, is driving for the newly-formed Key Motorsports Nationwide program. The No. 40 car will be solid in race trim, but Wimmer has already faced qualifying troubles this season as he failed to make the race in Fontana. If this team is slow off the truck, they may well be heading home early.
But, the most likely calamity of the weekend’s inflated field seems to be Marc Davis. Davis, the Nationwide Series’ youngest owner, will attempt to make his Bristol debut, and only his fifth Nationwide start ever, in a self-owned No. 36 Toyota. Bristol is far from the most attractive venue for a team to make its debut, and his Toyota will likely be far removed from the JGR No. 18 Camry that he drove to a fourth-place qualifying effort at Memphis last October. There are a number of more experienced drivers in more established equipment on the entry list this weekend, and this will likely be the first of many DNQs for Davis this season.
And speaking of the entry list, it’d be a safe wager to make that Johnny Chapman will be the worst finishing of the top-30 drivers locked into the field.
A Cup Regular Will Win the Race
OK, that’s far from a bold assertion. But while the Nationwide Series regulars won’t find victory lane on Saturday, they will enjoy their best collective showing of the season at Bristol. Nationwide regulars scored five of the top-10 finishing positions in both Bristol events last year, and with only 10 Cup drivers entered for this race plus the typical attrition that hits any Bristol field, fans should see six or more Nationwide regulars pepper the top 10.