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Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2009 Bashas’ Supermarkets 200 at Phoenix

Friday night’s broadcast was the Kyle and Carl show on TV… and it was literally called that. The first eight minutes of the pre-race show were uninterrupted Kyle vs. Carl, as was the majority of the on-track coverage from flag to flag.

Yet, while both drivers led a number of laps, neither driver won. What a concept.

With Kyle Busch forced to pit under green midway through the race with a cut tire and Carl Edwards experiencing engine trouble, ESPN had to actually cover another race for the final 100 miles. Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Jason Leffler and Joey Logano all battled furiously for the race lead until a caution with 20 to go jumbled the field. Biffle and Leffler both chose to stay out on old tires, then benefited from a rash of late-race cautions that kept the drivers with fresher tires from catching them. Leffler had shots at Biffle on each of the final two restarts, but Biffle’s ability on both occasions to throw Leffler off allowed him to pull away and score his second Nationwide win of the season – which also doubled as the 100th in the history of Roush Fenway Racing.

Behind them, while Busch and Edwards struggled for the second half of Friday night Nationwide regulars seized the opportunity to make up ground on the points leaders. Leffler, Brad Keselowski, Brendan Gaughan, Justin Allgaier and Mike Bliss all scored top-10 finishes to close the gap a bit. Busch still ended the night with a 47-point lead over Edwards… but Leffler and Keselowski pulled within 200 points of the top spot.

Worth Noting

The Good

Apparently, wrecking in qualifying was just what the doctor ordered for Friday’s race. Steve Wallace fell victim to a cut tire during his time trial run, spinning into the turn 1 wall and flattening the rear end of his Chevy, while Allgaier inexplicably lost control of his Dodge coming up to speed in turn 4 and heavily damaged his primary car, a brand new one out of the Penske stable. Sent to the back in unpracticed backup machines, both youngsters started the night under pressure… but ended it by turning in two stellar runs. Wallace and Allgaier both methodically worked their way to the front of the field, and by the race’s midpoint were permanent fixtures in the top 15. Allgaier actually challenged for the top five at points before settling for an eighth place result, while Wallace was running in the top 10 until a late-race bump from Michael McDowell sent him back to 12th at the checkers. For Allgaier, it was another stellar run in what has been an impressive rookie campaign, while for Wallace Friday night was another tangible demonstration of his continued maturation as a racecar driver.

The Bad

Alongside Allgaier, Scott Lagasse Jr. has also been an impressive rookie success story through the start of 2009, and he was on track to challenge Allgaier for rookie of the race honors and a top-10 finish on Friday night. That is… until lap 181. Racing hard for position with fellow rookie Allgaier, Lagasse got a tap in the back of his Toyota that sent the No. 11 hard into the wall, flattening the right side of the car as well as damaging the rear end. The damage was too extensive for the CJM Racing team to repair in the time remaining, leaving Lagasse with a hugely disappointing 32nd-place finish – a result that dropped the team outside the top 10 in points. Ironically, it also marked the second consecutive season that the No. 11 team lost out on a top-10 finish with less than 20 laps to go in the spring race at PIR: Jason Keller blew a motor while running in the top 15 on lap 182 of last year’s event.

The Ugly

Despite having returned to full-time Nationwide Series competition, nary a word has been heard regarding the re-emergence of Casey Atwood. Unfortunately, that changed for all the wrong reasons late in this weekend’s race. Atwood, running five laps down in Wayne Day’s No. 05 car, ended up in a vicious wreck that saw his Ford slam the inside wall on the frontstretch, only to ricochet and pound the exterior retaining wall well past the SAFER barriers. Atwood was unable to drop his window net before rescue crews arrived, and while he was able to walk from his car to the ambulance, he was transported to a local hospital following the wreck. At press time, no update regarding his condition has been made available. Here’s hoping that Atwood is OK, though, and that the Day Racing team will be back on track at Talladega – ready to run the distance.

Underdog Performer of the Race: Johnny Borneman III. After running a limited schedule in his own No. 83 car last season, Borneman got a shot at the start of 2009 to run an expanded schedule with Trail Motorsports’ No. 22 on the side of his car. Unfortunately, in his three starts with that “team,” Borneman failed to qualify for any of them before promised funding failed to materialize. Taking a few weeks off to regroup, Phoenix was just the medicine he needed to get back on track. Returning behind the wheel of his own car (renumbered back to its usual No. 83), Borneman shook off a disappointing run in Thursday night’s Camping World Series race to qualify for his first event of the Nationwide Series season. And while finishing nearly 20 laps down in the 30th position was certainly nothing flashy, he kept his car in one piece and ran the distance. It’s always fun to see the hometown guys get a shot to race with the big boys.

Tale of the Tape

Having published Friday an article harshly criticizing the NNS broadcasts for essentially being the Cupwhacker show, I undertook a project during Friday’s race to statistically chart the drivers that got mentioned (and the number that didn’t) on TV during the 200-mile affair.

Though this was largely unscientific, I counted 70 unique on-air mentions of Busch and 52 of Edwards during the Bashas’ 200. Busch and Edwards were the only two drivers to be mentioned more than 30 times. In fact, out of the 43 cars that were in the field, only four drivers were mentioned more than 20 times (Biffle and Harvick were the other two). As for the Nationwide regulars, leading the way in on-air mentions was Leffler, who scored 17 talking points.

Here’s the numbers. Cup drivers in the field were uniquely mentioned 220 times over the course of the broadcast. As for the Nationwide regulars… they only scored 100 mentions. With regard to in-car cameras, Busch’s was used more than all other drivers …combined… with Ken Butler III’s used only once and obscured by other advertising, while John Wes Townley’s only came up following each of his wrecks.

Plus, Nationwide regulars Keller, Eric McClure, Danny O’Quinn, DJ Kennington, Tony Raines, David Green, Brandon Whitt, Morgan Shepherd and Butler III all received the dubious distinction of not being mentioned on-air even once over the course of Friday night’s race. Further, Nationwide regulars Atwood, Townley and Kevin Hamlin were only mentioned following crashes, while Daryl Harr (making his Nationwide Series debut) and Kenny Wallace were only mentioned when they experienced troubles that forced them onto pit road.

Need I say more?

The Final Word

Friday night’s TV broadcast was another disaster, and that’s a shame, because PIR put on a good race. Biffle and Leffler’s battle for the win late in the race was extremely competitive, and the troubles for Edwards and Busch effectively threw a wrench into the series’ points standings heading into Talladega. Allgaier and Steve Wallace sliced and diced the field all night long, and as they fought with Keselowski, Lagasse Jr. and Gaughan for top-10 positions the beating, banging and side-by-side racing was compelling to watch.

When you could watch it, anyway. With all of the coverage on Busch trying to get his laps back and Edwards’s team trying to fix his engine, Allgaier and Wallace’s charges from the back to the front went largely unnoticed. Gaughan scored a top-10 run yet was scarcely seen, even in the background of any on-track shots. And as for the Nationwide regulars running in the top 20 instead of the top 10, they might as well have been in the garage with the start-and-parkers; they were nowhere to be seen. To me, this is a sad example of race coverage; when there is a 43-car field on track, 43 cars need to be seen by race fans.

And as for the points race, sure, Busch and Edwards are ahead at the moment. But Leffler and Keselowski are right there, less than 200 points out. Both of them are as close to the Series points lead as anyone in the Cup Series was to current leader Jeff Gordon prior to Saturday’s race. Yet Leffler and Keselowski are merely afterthoughts, while over on the Cup side of things, well over a dozen drivers within striking distance of the points lead are actively being featured throughout their telecasts. What more can you say?

I still love the Nationwide Series because I love seeing the up-and-comers (the ones that are still getting a shot anyway) making their marks. I love the storylines that make up the pack in the AAA ranks. And as a result, I hate seeing what truly can be and was on Friday night an entertaining racing spectacle ruined by an arrogant, self-absorbed ESPN network.

Thank God we’re going to Talladega next week. As close the cars run together there, the TV crews will have no choice but to show drivers running back in the pack. That’ll be quite the change.

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