NASCAR fan or not, every sports fan in America has had at least one eye drawn on the NCAA basketball tournament this weekend. There are few sporting events anywhere in the world that can match the excitement, passion and competition evoked by the weekend’s first two rounds. And, just like it does every year, the tournament provides countless examples of how teamwork is the most important element of any sport.
Just as my beloved Wake Forest Demon Deacons got reminded of this truth the hard way in getting routed by Cleveland State, the weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway gave Kyle Busch a refresher that racing is a team sport, as well. Because even though Busch drove like a “wild thing” all day long and led 156 laps, in the end his pit crew had a tire escape their pit box during the race’s final cycle of stops. The resulting penalty left Busch mired deep in traffic with less than 30 laps to go and unable to challenge for his second win of the year.
Instead, it was the teamwork of Kevin Harvick Incorporated that shone through. Kevin Harvick, whose oft-berated No. 33 pit crew got him out first during the critical money stops, drove away from the field on the final restart after crew chief Ernie Cope opted not to add fuel to the car; in the end, his lead proved too much for Carl Edwards to overcome. The win was KHI’s first since Bobby Labonte took the checkers at Talladega in 2007, as well as Harvick’s first win behind the wheel of his own Nationwide car.
Edwards finished second, his 13th consecutive top-five finish, a result that allowed him to extend the points lead to 114 over second-place Harvick and 124 points over Busch, the next full-time Nationwide Series driver in the standings. Three rookie candidates remained in the top 10 in points after Bristol, with Brendan Gaughan in fourth, Justin Allgaier eighth and Scott Lagasse Jr. 10th.
Who Should Have Won: Harvick. Busch led the most laps and was in front before the final cycle of pit stops, but his team didn’t get the job done on pit road: Harvick’s crew did. Plus, Harvick proved to be lightning quick in clean air and held off Edwards easily, who had a top-five car himself. Harvick earned this one.
One of the main reasons Allgaier toppled Frank Kimmel to win the ARCA Re/Max Series championship last year was his short-track prowess; he scored top-five finishes in all seven short-track races while recording three wins. Those abilities shone through again on Saturday, albeit in a different series. Allgaier, who had never visited Bristol as a competitor and prepared for this race by watching old videotapes, drove with the same authority that he did at Las Vegas three weeks ago, mixing it up with the series regulars all day long and holding off Busch at the end of the race to score a fifth-place finish, his career best in the Nationwide Series to date. Penske Racing may well have the hottest emerging prospect in NASCAR in their stables right now.
Typically, BMS is far kinder to veteran drivers than it was this weekend. Jason Keller qualified third, only to drop a cylinder and finish 28th, eight laps down. Nationwide Series rookie but longtime veteran Gaughan won the pole, but only led six laps and struggled with handling problems and a flat tire that left him with a disappointing 21st-place finish. But perhaps the worst day of all the Nationwide-only drivers there was that of Mike Bliss. A mediocre 22nd-place qualifying effort went amiss quickly, as Bliss spun on his own 10 laps into the race. The spin did no damage, but Bliss was nonetheless well off the pace all day until he came down across the nose of Morgan Shepherd on lap 174 and ended up with a hard driver’s-side impact into the wall. Bliss finished 35th in what was perhaps his most uncompetitive race with Phoenix Racing since his debut with the team at Texas in April last season.
On second thought, the worst day of all the veterans went to Shepherd. Just as he has in the last two series races, Shepherd was methodically climbing through the field, knocking on the door of the top 20 until lap 189. That’s when Paul Menard rammed his No. 89 Chevrolet and spun him off turn 4, absolutely crushing the rear end of his machine. Shepherd’s crew did fix the car on pit road, however, and got him back on the track running competitive speeds. But on lap 263, a spin by Brad Keselowski caused a massive pileup that destroyed the front end of Shepherd’s car, relegating him to 34th in the running order. The really bad news, however, is that this was the team’s only primary car. The Chevrolet, which was a gift to Shepherd from Harvick, is the same one that he also ran at Fontana and Las Vegas. It’s fortunate for Shepherd and his crew that the Nationwide Series has another bye week ahead, as it will take considerable work to repair this particular Chevrolet in the team’s fleet. Still, this weekend was a major setback for one of the surprising stories of the 2009 NNS season.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Trevor Bayne. While names such as Marc Davis and Ricky Carmichael stole the headlines as the class of last year’s Camping World East Series, DEI development driver Bayne was among the most stout entries to contest last year’s schedule, finishing fourth in points and notching a win. However, with all of the tumult regarding the DEI/CGR merger, development programs for drivers such as Bayne have been put on the backburner for the time being.
Bayne, who was actually preparing his own race car to enter at Bristol, managed to put together a deal with Means Racing to drive the No. 52 instead. He wanted to make his Nationwide debut at Bristol, because, as he put it, he “felt comfortable racing there” having made multiple starts on the bullring in the USAR ranks. That comfort level showed on Saturday. Despite driving a backmarker entry, Bayne kept his nose clean, completed all but four laps and finished 23rd, the best finish of 2009 for Means Racing thus far. More importantly, as a result of this deal, Bayne’s own car is still in one piece, which could allow him to attempt the upcoming event at Nashville in a few weeks. Either way, Bayne got all he could out of his ride on Saturday.
The Final Word
It may be only four races into the 2009 season, but NNS regulars are quickly losing any sort of grasp they had on the title chase. Gaughan, who came into the race fourth in points, left still in fourth, but now nearly 200 markers back after failing to capitalize on a pole run. Still, Gaughan is the only Nationwide regular within even 200 points of Edwards and Busch.
Though it seems both drivers will have little, if anything, to say about the NNS title hunt, Steve Wallace and Keselowski enjoyed rebounds of sorts this weekend. Wallace drove like a Wallace at Bristol on Saturday, racing smartly to a seventh-place finish, his best of the season. As for Keselowski, it was another top-five car, another incident, another disappointing finish. This time, however, Keselowski had to point the finger at himself, as both of the crashes that tore up his car were a result of his overdriving. Still, the 13th-place finish the No. 88 team salvaged was by far their best of 2009, good enough to vault them back into the top 15 in the standings.
After the next race at Texas, the owner points from 2009 will kick in for the NNS, with the top 30 being locked into the field. As it stands after Bristol, a number of full-time teams currently locked into the Nationwide Series field would have to race their way into the show in Nashville in three weeks, including the Key Motorsports No. 40 team, Evander Holyfield’s No. 42 car, Brian Keselowski’s No. 26 and the Means Racing No. 52, among others.
Sadly, that points race may prove more compelling to watch than the championship chase, because unsurprisingly the pseudo-Cup teams of Edwards and Busch are appearing all but unstoppable. Give the advantage in that race to Edwards, though; his No. 60 team has been doing this for years now, whereas Busch is relying on a No. 18 team that wasn’t a full-time operation last year. And if their pit gaffe Saturday was any indication, the experience of Edwards’s Roush crew might just trump any advantage JGR’s Toyota equipment has.
The upcoming race at Texas Motor Speedway in two weeks will allow those teams to dominate again. Busch and Edwards fans, rejoice.