It was business as usual at Richmond Friday night, as Kyle Busch in his No. 18 ran up front all night, led the most laps and won the race. Busch, who led four times for 115 laps, had little trouble holding off Carl Edwards following a late restart in notching his third victory of the 2009 campaign.
But, much like last season’s race at O’Reilly Raceway Park that saw Busch do the same thing on a short track, there was plenty of racing throughout the pack to make Friday night an enjoyable show. Mike Bliss capitalized on the momentum of Phoenix Racing’s Cup win at Talladega last Sunday, leading 62 laps after starting on the front row before a broken track bar arm robbed him of a top-five run and a definite shot at the win. Bliss had charged from 13th to fourth on his last full tire run before getting hit with those mechanical problems. Brad Keselowski also kept his momentum from the same win going, trading paint with a number of drivers as he slashed from the back of the pack into the top five over the race’s 250 laps. Throughout the field, there was side-by-side racing aplenty; and for once, the TV broadcast covered it.
With Busch and Edwards finishing 1-2 on Friday night, there was little change in the points, with Rowdy expanding his lead to 82 points over Cousin Carl. Jason Leffler, despite a late-race tangle with Keselowski, moved up to third in the standings (David Ragan did not race), 198 markers behind the top two. Further back, Justin Allgaier’s early accident dropped him from the top 10 in points, a spot that was filled by none other than Steve Wallace.
Friday night’s race at Richmond marked the second consecutive week that Nationwide Series veterans enjoyed solid performances… and this weekend’s shout out goes to those veterans making it happen with single-car teams. Jason Keller scored his second consecutive top-10 finish for the Baker/Curb Racing team, the first time the No. 27 accomplished that since David Green scored three straight top 10s at Pikes Peak, Gateway, and ORP… back in 2005. Speaking of Green, the 1994 Busch Series champ delivered a season-best finish of 14th for his No. 07 team, the first top 15 for newly-formed SK Motorsports in 2009. Tony Raines followed up his top-five run at Talladega with another top 15, the first time in team history that Front Row Motorsports has scored consecutive top-15 runs. And Scott Wimmer avoided the qualifying troubles that have plagued his Key Motorsports squad, qualifying in the top 10 and running 16th at the finish, a run which put his No. 40 car within striking distance of cracking the Top 30 in owner points… and a guaranteed spot in the field.
For awhile on Friday, it looked as if, for the second week in a row, Phoenix Racing was going to slay the mighty Cup giants and score another NASCAR win. Bliss was among the class of the field from the drop of the green flag, as he powerfully stole the lead from Kyle Busch on lap 13 and led the next 58. Pit strategy would drop the No. 1 car to the rear of the lead-lap pack, but Bliss on new tires proved to be handling impeccably – and as the race wound down, he found himself back inside the top five. This run proved to be all for naught, though, as Bliss’s car (which had developed a noticeable yaw in the rear end) broke a track bar mount which sent him to the garage for lengthy repairs. Bliss returned to the track and was running at the finish, but a 32nd-place run was certainly not the result his performance merited. What’s more, it marked the second week in a row that a mechanical failure robbed the No. 1 team of a top-five performance.
Eric McClure was one of the hometown Virginia boys taking to the track on Friday, and his performance in qualifying was proof positive that he was fired up to be racing at home; he qualified in the top 20 for only the third time in his seven-year Nationwide Series career. Unfortunately, like his qualifying run, his race didn’t last long. On lap 14, Scott Lagasse Jr. made hard contact with the rear of McClure’s Ford, and the resulting contact with the turn 2 wall left the No. 24 Hefty car a mangled wreck. McClure was very animated in showing his displeasure with Lagasse on the track before entering the ambulance, and even though the team eventually got him back on track, he was only able to pass the start-and-parkers to improve his position. He finished 39th and now sits only 25 points away from falling out of the Top 30.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Peyton Sellers. To win a Nationwide Series race at Richmond International Raceway means a lot to any Virginia driver. Just look at how emotional Denny Hamlin was to score this trophy last season, or how dejected Elliott Sadler was in 2005 when Edwards bumped him out of the lead on the final lap to score the win. For other Virginia drivers, such as Sellers, simply the chance to start a race at Richmond was a dream come true. And Sellers did not disappoint. Making only his second start of the year with a startup Cardinal Motorsports operation, the 2005 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series champ qualified 12th and ran in the top 20 the entire night, finishing 19th. Sellers’s short-track aptitude is already well-known (he won the Toyota All-Star Showdown this January), and it showed convincingly in his home state.
A call also needs to go out to Derrike Cope. Making his first start of the season in his own car, Cope, with a sponsor on board, ran the distance in his No. 73 Dodge and earned a top 25 finish for his troubles. After seeing the No. 73 car do nothing but start-and-park in 2008, it was refreshing to see Cope’s team, which has scaled back this year after, in Cope’s words, they “stretched it a bit too thin” in 2008, run a race to completion – and run well to boot. Hope to see you out there again soon, Derrike.
Who Did We Miss? Drivers Not Featured During the Telecast
The Final Word
Both in this column and on the Carey and Coffey Show last week, I noted that ESPN’s TV coverage of the Nationwide race at Talladega was a marked improvement over the rest of the season, with better coverage of racing through the pack and more drivers featured. However, I was hesitant to praise the network for this… because hey, when cars race in packs like they do at Talladega, it’s not possible to get single car shots of Edwards or Kyle Busch.
But thankfully, on Friday night ESPN did something I never thought they would with their coverage… they improved again. Big time. Demonstrating a responsiveness that FOX has not even come close to showing with their Cup coverage, ESPN’s telecast from Richmond was different from anything they’d done all year… it was a Nationwide Series telecast. When Kyle Busch was leading the race, we didn’t have three different reader questions about how good he was on screen… the cameras cut to where there was action on the track.
What did Nationwide Series fans get to see? Where do you start? McClure was involved in a wreck, and this time he actually got interviewed when he left the care center. Sellers got a shout-out when he proved able to run in the top 15… and the commentators actually had something to say about him. When Bliss was driving away from the field early in the race, we didn’t watch Kyle Busch or Edwards running him down with graphics of their point struggle… we saw Kenny Wallace and Burney Lamar battling side-by-side for a spot in the top 20. There was a focus on where there was action on the track all night… and when the lesser-known guys were on the screen, the commentators actually gave them a few moments of their time.
That’s not to say it was a perfect telecast… a number of Nationwide regulars still got stiffed with regard to coverage (especially David Green, a top 15 and no airtime? Come on!). Fans also didn’t get a good replay late in the race of Kenny Wallace getting involved in a late wreck. But, credit needs to be given where credit is due, and this weekend showed that maybe, just maybe, ESPN is listening to what Nationwide Series fans are saying. I thoroughly enjoyed Friday’s telecast… a solid race at a great track that was covered well.
And that said, is the Nationwide Series on a roll or what? After a thrilling finish to a well-run race at Talladega that featured no Big One, there was side-by-side racing aplenty at Richmond, with plenty of traded paint and veterans mixing it up with the young guns. And unlike last year, though Kyle Busch did win on Friday, Bliss, Keselowski and a number of others had cars that were in the same league. The title chase in this Series is not yet decided… and considering what fans have seen the last two years, that’s an improvement.
All that good news… and the Lady in Black is next! Throw professionalism from the train: Hell yeah, we’re going to Darlington!