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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2009 O’Reilly 300 at Texas

On paper, this one wasn’t even close. And for over 250 miles on Saturday, it wasn’t. In the end, though, Kyle Busch led 178 of the 200 laps run to score his third win of the 2009 season.

But he came very close to losing it.

Brad Keselowski, who started 42nd in a backup car after a qualifying wreck, sliced and diced through the field and with less than 20 laps to go was running down Busch’s No. 18. Once the caution flag flew on lap 189, the stage was set for Rowdy to be toppled. Turns out the drama was all for naught, though. Keselowski spun his tires on the final restart, allowing Busch to pull away from the field. The only driver who got close to Busch on the final run was Tony Stewart, who had an extra set of tires saved and moved from seventh to second in the final seven laps with fresh rubber.

Busch’s win also translated into a big gain in the points standings, as points leader Carl Edwards found late-race trouble. Running in the top five with Joey Logano following the final restart, Logano shot up the track in turn 2 and slammed Edwards’s No. 60 into the wall. The resulting damage left Edwards with a disappointing 18th-place finish, and moved Busch to within 38 of the series points lead.

Who Should Have Won: Keselowski. While Keselowski certainly needed a great finish on Saturday like the third-place run he turned in, he lost an absolutely golden opportunity to take it to fellow title contender Busch. In the race’s waning laps, Keselowski was running down Busch in a way that no driver had been able to all day (Jeff Burton only got past the No. 18 after Busch got loose on track). When the caution closed him up to Busch’s back bumper, the victory was on a silver platter for a No. 88 team that desperately needed something to go their way. However, a choke on the restart saw the tires spin on Keselowski’s car while the No. 18 simply drove away. Like Keselowski’s last victory at Bristol in August, he came from the back of the field and marched all the way to the front. Unlike that race, however, Keselowski did not manage to stay composed enough to steal a win from a Cup star.

What a shame.

Worth Noting

The Good

Michael Annett has had a very quiet rookie campaign in the Nationwide Series thus far, and Saturday was no exception. Except this time, he should have gotten some airtime for his efforts. Starting mired back in 31st, Annett methodically moved his way into the top 20, and by race’s end had scored an 11th-place finish – his first career top 15 in the NNS ranks. Annett’s first lead-lap finish of the season moved him into 16th in the points standings, leaving him one of only six NNS regulars to finish on the lead lap this weekend.

The Bad

It’s no secret that when the Nationwide Series hits the intermediate ovals of the NASCAR circuit, the Cup regulars kick their dominance of the Series into overdrive. What was different this Saturday, though, was that the Nationwide regulars fumbled away every opportunity they had to make some noise at Texas. As chronicled above, Keselowski blew the race’s final restart and allowed Busch to ride off into the sunset.

Brendan Gaughan was a top-10 runner for much of the race, and once he hit the track’s high groove, his No. 62 car kicked into overdrive. However, Gaughan’s charge was squandered when on the exit of turn 4 on lap 161 he went into an unassisted spin (he finished 37th). Another contender who ran into trouble was Justin Allgaier. By race’s end, Allgaier had recovered from a near brush with the wall that trashed his tires to climb back towards the top five. This climb was undone on pit road, though, as the final pit stop cycles of the race resulted in a penalty for the No. 12 car that sent Allgaier to the end of the longest line and out of contention for a top-five run.

By day’s end, Nationwide regulars scored only three positions in the top 10 of the final running order. Had Logano and Edwards not made contact late in the race, they would have only scored one.

Oh, and what did ML Motorsports get for releasing Mark Green in favor of youngster Shelby Howard? A 32nd-place finish, six laps down. For the record, Green averaged a top-25 finish in both of the No. 70 team’s starts at Fort Worth last year. This team is going to miss the veteran presence that Green brought to them. Here’s hoping their knee-jerk decision to yank him from the car after a DNQ at Bristol doesn’t prove too damaging.

The Ugly

Earlier this week, RAB Racing had their appeal of a 100-point penalty the team incurred at Daytona denied by National Stock Car Racing Commissioner. But the way John Wes Townley is running these days, appealing for points is all but a moot point. Yet again this weekend, Townley ran towards the back of the pack all day, finally slamming the turn 4 wall hard with 11 laps to go. The wreck flattened the right side of yet another No. 09 Ford while leaving the Georgia rookie with a 36th-place finish. The DNF also officially knocked the No. 09 team outside the Top 30 in owner points, meaning they will have to race their way into Nashville, a track he’s struggled with in other series. Townley has made a Truck start and ARCA start in the Music City… and he wrecked in both of them.

Underdog Performer of the Race: Brandon Whitt. When he took over the No. 61 ride at Specialty Racing midway through 2008, Whitt managed to keep the car inside the Top 30 in owner points through the end of the season. Doing the same in 2009, however, was proving a struggle, as the team was on the verge of losing their guaranteed starting spot heading into this race. Under that pressure, and with a new sponsor in Flyin’ R Electric on the car (only the third sponsor for the No. 61 car since their return to the Nationwide Series at Daytona last year), Whitt turned in a 23rd-place performance in the race – a drastic improvement over his 40th-place showing at TMS last November. The result was also good enough for Whitt to move the No. 61 team up to 26th in NNS owner points, locking them into the field at Nashville. While only 15 points ahead of the 30th-place team, Saturday was nonetheless a solid run for the Specialty Racing organization.

The Final Word

Even though Busch made a stinker of the race up front, the final 30 laps of Saturday’s 300-miler were exciting. What was not exciting, however, was seeing ESPN’s coverage of the Nationwide Series hit a new low point with this Texas telecast.

There were 43 cars that started Saturday’s race, but you never would have known that with the way the announcers were talking. Annett turned in a career-best finish, but was never mentioned on air even once over the course of 300 miles. Jason Keller finished 15th, yet received nothing more than a word in passing. Scott Lagasse Jr. finished 16th and remained in the top 10 in the points standings – but wasn’t even mentioned. Casey Atwood, Tony Raines, Robert Richardson, Peyton Sellers? They didn’t get mentioned, either. For crying out loud, MSRP start-and-parkers Johnny Chapman and Terry Cook got mentioned more than these Nationwide regulars.

Meanwhile, on no less than three different occasions ESPN felt fit to pose the question “Why is Kyle Busch so good?” Edwards got plenty of airtime, as did fellow Cup regulars Logano, David Ragan, David Reutimann and Stewart (while owner Kevin Harvick just happened to be in the press box). During pit cycles, it was largely Cup teams that got featured. A good estimate would be that maybe 12 of the 43 teams on the track actually got significant play on-screen during Saturday’s race.

What kind of message does pathetic TV coverage like this send to NNS regular sponsors such as America’s Incredible Pizza Company, Long John Silver’s, Mahindra Tractors and Pilot Travel Centers? I’ve ranted a million times about how bad this Cup influence is on the Nationwide Series regulars, and I’m not going to rant further after this joke of a TV broadcast this weekend.

All I’ll say is ESPN had better enjoy milking their three hour infomercial on the “Cup-whackers” while they can. Because if only 12 cars are going to get TV time, sooner or later only 12 cars are going to show up at the racetrack. And as bad as the NNS broadcasts are right now, absolutely no one will watch that mess.