It’s often been said that on a late restart, the last place a driver wants to be is leading a restrictor-plate race. Ryan Newman found that out the hard way on Saturday. Despite playing the ride in the back strategy to perfection all day long after winning the pole Friday and leading at the white-flag lap, the Rocket found himself unable to hold off the hard chargers behind him at the finish.
But in this case, the second-place driver didn’t take the win, either. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had stalked Newman through the race’s final few laps, was unable to overcome Newman’s block in the tri-oval coming off turn 4. That opened the door for… David Ragan?
Ragan, who was running fifth headed into the final lap, proved once-and-for-all that his winless career in NASCAR was over. Driving his Ford with reckless abandon, Ragan surged to the front with help from Joey Logano, getting enough of a run to split Newman and Earnhardt Jr. heading to the start/finish line. Ragan then made hard contact with Newman, who tried in vain to block the Georgia native… but to no avail.
The finish, Ragan’s first NASCAR victory in nearly 200 starts, capped what was a highly competitive and entertaining race. Devoid of the infamous Big One, 27 cars were running on the lead lap at the finish, and NNS regular title contenders Jason Leffler and Brad Keselowski both kept pace with leader Kyle Busch and made up ground on second-place Carl Edwards. Leffler, who finished sixth, now finds himself only 137 points behind leader Busch, 75 markers out of second place in a title race that is the closest the Nationwide Series has seen at this point of a season in recent memory.
Talladega has a reputation for being an equalizer, but this race was uncommonly favorable to a number of Nationwide Series veterans. Kerry Earnhardt, making his first Nationwide Series start of the season and first since Daytona last summer, delivered a competitive 12th-place run in Rick Ware’s No. 31 car. Earnhardt was in contention for a top-10 finish, but pulled out of the lead pack prematurely in the final laps, a mistake similar to the one that cost him a shot at victory in the 2005 edition of this race. Nonetheless, Earnhardt did score the No. 31 team’s best result of 2009.
Jason Keller also enjoyed excellent fortune Saturday, being blessed enough to both score TV time on ESPN (the first time that has happened in two weeks) and to come home with a seventh-place finish that kept him seventh in the NNS standings.
But the best day any veteran enjoyed went to Tony Raines. Raines, who quietly ran midpack all day, strategically moved into the lead draft late in the race, refusing to be shuffled out on the race’s final restart. Raines kept up with leaders Newman and Earnhardt Jr. to the checkered flag, coming home fourth during some frantic jockeying for position. The finish was Raines’s first top 10 in the Nationwide Series since Homestead in 2007, as well as the best finish ever in the six-year history of Front Row Motorsports. Perhaps my favorite image of the weekend was seeing Shannon Spake atop the No. 34 car’s pit box, a rig that lacked all of the fancy laptops, antennas and roof tents that we’ve become so accustomed to seeing, trying to speak to a crew chief she clearly had no clue about. Had a certain other Nationwide regular not literally turned the racing world upside down on Sunday, Raines may have been the story of this weekend.
Oh, and both of Phil Parsons’s cars failed to qualify, keeping the start-and-park tally to a minimum at Talladega.
Both of their cars ran well on Saturday, but it turned out to be a rough day for Rusty Wallace Incorporated. Brendan Gaughan and Steve Wallace both ran clean, smart races and found themselves in the top 10 for portions of the event; but in the end, both also found adversity they simply could not overcome. Gaughan was one of a number of Chevrolet drivers to suffer engine failure on Saturday, while Wallace fell victim to both a flat tire and suspension problems late in the running. Both drivers finished outside the top 35, with Gaughan falling out of the top 10 in Nationwide Series points.
What was set to be a potential banner weekend for JD Motorsports, with drivers Mike Wallace and Mark Green signed on in addition to regular Danny O’Quinn, proved to be nothing short of a complete disaster. Green parked his No. 04 car only two laps into the race, the only driver in the field to start and park. Plus, both Wallace and O’Quinn had their engines expire, leaving the three-car team with finishes of 37th, 39th and 43rd at the same track that saw Kertus Davis score the team’s last top 10 back in 2005.
And Matt Kenseth’s wild airborne flip on the backstretch after cutting in front of a charging Ragan was the worst wreck of the weekend… on Saturday, anyway.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Jay Robinson Racing. Kenny Wallace continues to work wonders with his No. 28 team. Running in the top 10 for portions of the 312-mile event, Wallace stayed on the lead lap all race long and scored a 17th-place finish, a solid rebound from last weekend’s mechanical woes. What distinguished this day for JRR though was the performance of the team’s second, No. 49 car. The entry, which Davis has start-and-parked all season, went the distance on Saturday, ending the day with a solid 22nd-place finish on the lead lap for its efforts. Robinson has expressed an interest in establishing a race team for Davis since he left JDM last season. By actually running the distance Saturday, and running well to boot, the No. 49 team and JRR finally took the first step towards making that dream a reality.
The Final Word
For better or for worse, restrictor-plate racing is both an equalizer and a crapshoot. It provides some of the closest and most exciting competition seen in NASCAR, but it also is criticized for taking control from the drivers, making luck almost as important as skill and fast cars.
Leave those criticisms at the door. The Aaron’s 312 was exactly what the Nationwide Series needed.
With the cars running in tight packs all race long, nearly the entire field was on camera and in the mind of the broadcast booth for much of the race. Keller, Morgan Shepherd, Michael Annett, DJ Kennington and others who have been all but marginalized during TV broadcasts the last few weeks got significant airtime on Saturday, and a number of Nationwide regulars challenged for the lead, racing tooth and nail with the Cupwhackers in the field this weekend. The TV coverage was far from perfect (title contender Mike Bliss hardly got a wink when he lost his motor), but it was an improvement. Plus, it was refreshing to see Leffler, Keselowski and Scott Lagasse Jr. among those able to keep up and mix it up with Edwards, Busch and others.
Most importantly, all of the drivers involved in Saturday’s race put on an exciting – and clean – race. There was no Big One to drastically deplete the field, and the race’s opening 50-plus laps of green-flag competition were a blast to see. The Nationwide Series’ aero package for plate racing allowed for tons of passing at the front and throughout the field, making for a race that was not at all hard to watch. Plates or no plates, the Nationwide Series was exciting on Saturday, and that’s never a bad thing.
To close, a very special hats off to Keselowski. After years of Cup drivers beating down the Nationwide regulars, the tables turned in a big way on Sunday. Seasoned with years of racing in the Nationwide ranks, Keselowski demonstrated relentless aggression and a drive to win that proved too much for even Edwards to handle, scoring one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history by winning Sunday’s Cup race. Way to go, Brad; here’s hoping this momentum starts a charge to take the Nationwide title back for the regulars.