Just another Friday night Nationwide Series race in 2009… or so it seemed. Kyle Busch took the lead early, ran away from the field, and stunk up the show at Darlington, leading all but 10 of the laps run in the 200-miler. But despite his best efforts, the 24-year-old did not take one step closer to his oh so superfluous goal of winning 200 NASCAR races. Thanks to a late race incident that scattered the track with debris, Busch suffered a flat tire under caution prior to a green-white-checkered finish, forcing him to pit for fresh rubber as a result.
That left Matt Kenseth and a hard-charging Jason Leffler to duke it out for the win. However, Leffler didn’t get a chance to score the first victory of the season for a series regular, as NASCAR threw the caution immediately after Morgan Shepherd got punted into the wall on the restart (despite the fact that his No. 89 car was well out of the pack’s way). That made it easy for Kenseth to score the win, although he had been running Busch’s car down even with four inflated tires until the late yellow flag.
Busch’s issues (he finished 16th) shook up the Nationwide points standings, as Carl Edwards moved to within 37 points of the lead with his third-place finish. Also making up ground was Leffler, who closed to 153 markers on the heels of his runner-up performance. Brad Keselowski, who had an ugly outing Friday night and was involved in three different spins, still managed to scrape out an 11th place run, making up a handful of points on Busch and remaining fourth among drivers contending for the title, 208 points back. Further down the list, Michael McDowell found trouble early in the race and fell out of the top 10 in points; he was replaced by Justin Allgaier, who enjoyed a top five run (fifth) in his Darlington debut.
It was a good night for rebounds on a number of different fronts. After a not-so veteran performance in practice that forced him to a backup car, Jason Keller bounced back and finished 15th, the fourth consecutive top-15 run for his No. 27 team and one that moved him up to sixth in the Series standings. As previously mentioned, Keselowski overcame three separate spins, managed to stay out of the wall three times, and salvaged an 11th place run that allowed him to make up ground – however minuscule – on the points lead. Mike Bliss made an uncharacteristic mistake early in the race – forcing himself into an incident with McDowell entering turn 1 on lap 6 – but recovered to score a much needed top 10 for his No. 1 team. And Erik Darnell’s performance on the track Too Tough to Tame was far from that, as he put his quiet season debut at Richmond to bed with a convincing fourth place run that saw him challenging frontrunners Busch and Kenseth all night long.
A number of teams already hurting for funding didn’t get done any favors on their trip to the Lady in Black… but it wasn’t the track that reached out and bit them. Kevin Lepage was just minding his own business, making laps in the Means Racing No. 52 car only to have the race’s “dart without feathers” (this week, it was Brian Scott) slam him into the wall coming out of turn 4. Joining Lepage in getting run over was Shepherd, who suffered heavy damage to his No. 89 machine on the race’s final restart after getting punted into the inside wall right after the drop of the green. Means Racing now has a crash and a DNQ to show for their last two outings, while Shepherd now finds himself with another wrecked car to fix… and judging from how his team’s performance has dropped since his last crash at Bristol, that’s not good news for a crew trying desperately to get back into the top 30.
Getting booted out of a ride is one thing. Getting booted out of a ride on race day that your family owns is something else… but that’s exactly what happened to Robert Richardson on Friday. After a performance in practice that, according to the team’s press release, allowed Richardson to “experience the track Too Tough to Tame,” the development driver was yanked… in favor of Jeff Fuller. It was a welcome change to see Fuller run a race to the checkers (though he missed the drivers’ meeting, he ran a clean race for the No. 23 team and finished 30th), but on a day that both rookies and veterans took a beating at the hands of NASCAR’s own maneater, only Richardson found himself out of a ride just a few hours prior to the drop of the green flag. Can’t help but feel for any driver in that boat.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Brian Keselowski. The elder Keselowski’s 24th-place run wasn’t as remarkable as most of the underdogs recognized this season, but it did mark the third consecutive top 25-run for the No. 26 team. Keselowski kept the car clean and managed as well to keep his team in the top 30 in points another week, both of which can be considered nothing but victories for this cash-strapped operation. Plus, considering the effort they’re putting into running a full schedule, someone needs to give them a shout out; ESPN wasn’t proving up to that challenge Friday night, failing to even give us a glimpse of the No. 26 car during the broadcast.
Tale of the Tape
Who We Didn’t See on TV
#01 Danny O’Quinn (Finish: 27th)
#07 Patrick Carpentier (Finish: 17th; replaced David Green in the seat in a last-minute, one-race deal)
#23 Jeff Fuller (Finish: 30th)
#24 Eric McClure (Finish: 28th)
#26 Brian Keselowski (Finish: 24th)
#28 Kenny Wallace (Finish: 18th)
#31 Travis Kittleson (Finish: 38th)
#34 Tony Raines (Finish: 21st)
#40 Jeff Green (Finish: 23rd)
#61 Brandon Whitt (Finish: 25th)
#62 Brendan Gaughan (Finish: 19th)
#81 Kevin Hamlin (Finish: 26th)
#84 Mike Harmon (Finish: 37th)
Well, I made the mistake of praising ESPN last weekend. So, naturally, they regressed at Darlington. While the coverage for the first third of the race was again solid (excellent illustration of the side-by-side racing all over the track, notable stories of series’ regulars), by race’s end it was all about Mr. Busch. And while the coverage given as Kenseth tried to run the No. 18 down late was gripping, the middle portions of the event were about as much of a snoozer as the race up front was.
Busch flat dominated this race, he really did. But he did that for a large amount of time last weekend; the only difference was we heard other stories from all around the track. Let’s make it clear: not even hearing a mention of 13 regular teams on the track all night is unacceptable. Not hearing stories such as Fuller being tabbed last minute to replace Richardson, or how Carpentier made his return to NASCAR, or that past champion Green was back behind the wheel because Scott Wimmer was getting a shot in a top-tier car is unacceptable.
Plus, how awkward was it to see Jamie Little stick her microphone right into Jack Roush’s face immediately before the final restart of the race? What the hell was she thinking? Roush was about as composed as anyone could be in that situation, but this marked the second time in three weeks that the network’s pit reporters showed no sign of discretion (at Talladega, they broadcast footage of Kenseth’s crying wife before fans knew if he had been injured in his crash-turned-flip).
To be fair, the coverage this weekend from ESPN did not come close to matching the embarrassment that it was at Texas and Phoenix. But it also snapped a streak of consecutive improving performances for the network, one that saw them by race’s end retreat to the tried and failed formula of covering only a narrow segment of drivers and a narrower segment of the pits.
The Final Word
In leaving Darlington, the Nationwide Series is learning more and more about the upcoming summer stretch and how their 2009 title chase will shape up. And after Friday night’s race, I think we can cut the four frontrunners for the title in half.
At this point, Edwards and Keselowski can be all but written off. That’s right; write off the 2007 Series’ champion and the same driver who scored one of the most daring Cup wins in recent memory. Edwards is right in touch with Busch, but his team again proved on Friday that while they’re a top 5-10 team consistently, they’re missing something that’s going to get them back to winning races. Edwards had a hard enough time dealing with Darnell as this race wound down – how is he going to catch the JGR juggernaut if his protégé gives him all he can handle?
As for Keselowski, writing him off this title chase is no knock on his talent, but his focus. To be blunt, his performance on Friday night was sloppy and a bit embarrassing, one that indicates after the win at Talladega, he’s got 2010… and Cup… on the brain right now. Want proof? Keselowski ran a perfectly clean race Saturday night that was over twice as long as the 200-miler he tapped for three cautions on Friday – finishing seventh on the Cup side Saturday in a part-time car.
That leaves us with Busch and Leffler for this year’s title. Busch is the favorite in that matchup… no questions asked. His cars are uncatchable when the setup is right, and every fan knows his drive to win. If anything, it should be distressing to JGR how hungry Busch seems to be every time he’s driving the Z-Line Designs car… he’s showing more fire driving the Nationwide car than his Cup ride. Does winning mean so much to this guy that the focus is going where Busch knows he can rack up trophies… even if it is the minor league title he’s playing for? While that may be the last thing Addington and Gibbs want to hear, it’s bad news for the rest of the Nationwide ranks.
Now, as for Leffler, there’s a fire burning there too. Unlike Keselowski, Cup is not in Leffler’s future… he’s tried twice and failed twice. Now happy and content over at Braun Racing, his No. 38 car is now the primary focus after running a handful of Cup races in 2008. The Nationwide Series is his home – and the title is his ultimate goal.
With big names (and big egos) Busch and Denny Hamlin no longer running for the team either, the Great Clips car is top dog under Braun’s roof – and the team’s performance on the race track is now illustrating that each and every weekend. Leffler must have been foaming at the mouth for one more lap to race with Kenseth on Friday… because he would have caught him. Even with the second-place run, one look at Leffler’s post-race interview exuded a confidence in both his team and in the belief that they would win… soon… despite still looking to lead a lap so far in 2009.
A Toyota vs. another Toyota, it’s a David vs. Goliath matchup shaping up between Leffler and Busch moving forward… but we all know who won that.