A Nationwide Series regular went to Victory Lane for the first time in 2009 Saturday night. It only took a lucky caution… and a lot of help from Mother Nature… to finally make it happen.
The only car left on the lead lap waiting to pit before green flag pit stops cycled through, Mike Bliss got a lucky break that instantly absolved all the bad luck his Phoenix Racing team has endured this season on lap 153, when Kevin Hamlin’s contact with the turn 4 wall brought out a yellow that trapped literally the entire field (sans Lucky Dog Brendan Gaughan) at least one lap behind his No. 1 Chevrolet. Restarting in traffic behind the 11 cars that started in front of him on the tail end of the lead lap, Bliss methodically worked through traffic and kept out of trouble until rain started falling on the track just before lap 170. Though NASCAR and track crews worked feverishly to dry the speedway, the jet dryers reported having lost the track shortly afterward, leaving Bliss celebrating in Victory Lane as the red flag turned to checkered.
For Bliss, it marked his second career Nationwide Series victory and first since Lowe’s Motor Speedway back in October of 2004. More importantly, the trip to the Winner’s Circle was a shot in the arm that his No. 1 team was overdue for: they had one of the best cars at Talladega and Richmond these last few weeks before being sidelined in both events with mechanical trouble. Bliss’ triumph marked the second win of the season for the Phoenix Racing operation and moved the Nationwide regular back into the top 10 in the championship standings.
As for the points race, leader Kyle Busch finished third despite leading over half the laps run on Saturday night after being trapped on the tail end of the lead lap. But despite that disappointment, he extended his lead to 73 markers over second-place Carl Edwards, who won the pole but faded in the race’s second half to outside the top 10 (he rallied late to finish 10th). Jason Leffler made up ground on Edwards with a strong sixth place run, but lost another 20 points to Kyle to fall 173 in arrears. After wrecking twice in practice, Brad Keselowski finished eighth in his third race car of the weekend and now sits fifth in points, 241 in arrears.
He may not have picked up the most positions from where he started, but there is no doubt that Saturday night’s hard charger was Leffler. The driver of the No. 38, who went out in qualifying almost immediately after his NNS title competition Edwards and Busch both qualified one-two, was highly frustrated after his time trial run that landed him 28th on the grid. Angry to start so far behind, he spit a verbal tirade directed not at his team, but at those they are trying to keep up with:
“Why can’t I qualify up there with those f****** guys?”
Leffler’s crew told him to shake the bad run off for the race… and boy, did he ever. There was no driver on the track working harder for every pass than the driver of the No. 38, who methodically made his way to the front and was convincingly blowing by cars all night. Prior to the lap 153 caution that jumbled up the field during a green flag pit stop cycle, Leffler had cleared lapped traffic and was running down both leader Busch and second-place driver Brian Vickers. Unlike last season, the Great Clips squad is now proving capable of putting winning cars on the track every weekend, and to lose only 20 points to Busch on a night that the No. 18 dominated another intermediate race was a job well done for this bunch. Plus, unlike Rowdy, when Leffler was expressing frustration it was about him… not his team. I don’t need points to tell me who’s the better driver in that regard.
Let’s get one thing clear here: Keselowski drove one hell of a race on Saturday night, finishing in the top 10 after starting 40th. Coming into the race, Keselowski had taken only two laps behind the wheel of his car (his time trial laps, which were very slow as he used them to simply feel out his Chevrolet). That’s because he was driving a vehicle that the team had at the shop that was prepared not for LMS… but for Dover this coming weekend.
What’s most frustrating for Keselowski is it was his team, not himself, responsible for the issues he struggled through. Due to glaring oversights by his race team that resulted in drastic sway bar problems, Keselowski wrecked not one, but two, cars during the first NNS practice on Thursday. As a result, his team skipped Happy Hour and had to return to their race shop to prepare a third car.
Considering those circumstances, an eighth place result for the team was an incredible recovery. But Saturday’s race marked another opportunity blown by the No. 88 team to get back in the title hunt (remember, they nearly won this race one year ago before Denny Hamlin took them out with a cheap shot). Because of oversights at the shop, Keselowski had to endure two hard wrecks, meaning the team is now behind in preparation for the Dover race weekend. Plus, once in the race, the team was behind from the get-go, learning as they went about their backup backup car and having to claw their way through heavy race traffic all night long. The No. 88 car also proved to have more trouble on restarts: on the long run, there are few NNS regulars better than Keselowski, but much of that advantage is being wasted during a run trying to pick up two or three positions that they lose on the initial start.
So between the qualifying woes and the complete inability of the team to get up to speed on short sprints, the 241 point gap between the team and the point leader is going nowhere. You can’t win races, much less a title, giving up positions every time we go back green.
Though Michael Annett and Kevin Hamlin endured the only heavy wrecks of the evening at Lowe’s, there are several that endured ugly weekends nonetheless.
Before the green flag dropped, John Wes Townley missed the race in a backup car after running some very conservative laps. Townley had no practice in that Ford after wrecking his primary in Happy Hour, one of several crashes he’s endured in a difficult rookie season on tour. The wreck, which started when his No. 09 snapped loose exiting turn 3, resulted in damage only because Townley got on the brakes instead of staying in the gas to keep his car off the wall. The avoidable incident led his crew chief to respond over the radio, “You could have saved that car.”
During the event, Donny Lia enjoyed about the shortest return to NASCAR possible. With the cars coming to a green/yellow in order to start the race, Lia brought the No. 07 Toyota down the pit road after only one lap with ignition issues… the same issues that led the team to be unable to complete their qualifying laps. Lia’s response over the radio as he pulled into the garage: “Great race, guys.”
And yes, unfortunately there’s more MSRP Motorsports bashing after listening to their scanner Saturday night. In an article published by Dave Rodman on NASCAR.com, team owner Phil Parsons was quoted as saying that his No. 90 and No. 91 cars were running the way they were in an effort to court sponsors.
Well, I’ll say this much on that one: after listening to Johnny Chapman’s radio chatter, if they’re trying to court some extra money there is no, and I mean no, sponsor out there that is going to give these teams a decent sum based on what I heard. Among the more frustrating tidbits was when Chapman reported to the crew under the pace laps that the fuel pressure gauge in the car was reading incorrectly. The team’s response: “I think I’ve got another one back at the shop, we’ll fix it over the next couple weeks.” A couple of weeks to fix a gauge? Sounds like a real race shop right there. Other highlights included Chapman diagnosing a “vibration” after his crew chief suggested it under yellow, the crew chief asking Chapman and the crew if they all wanted Klondike bars once they parked as other cars were setting their pit road speeds, and the cornerstone modus operandi of MSRP… voluntarily dropping to the back of the field prior to the green flag. Phil Parsons, just stop insulting our intelligence and quit kidding around that you’re trying to be a competitive car owner in this Series.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Stanton Barrett. Despite being a full-time competitor in the Indy Racing League this season, the Hollywood stuntman failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. But being the journeyman racer that he is, Barrett refused to take no for an answer when it came to racing Memorial Day weekend. So Barrett took his part-time No. 31 ride back for Lowe’s, taking out his Indy frustration by qualifying the car an impressive 11th for Saturday’s race. He then followed that up with a top 25 finish, one of the better runs this season for the No. 31 team despite facing one of the season’s most competitive fields. As sad it was to see Barrett miss the Indy 500, it’s always a pleasure to see a true racer working hard to succeed at a NASCAR event.
Also, since I know several of his fans are loyal readers of this feature, here’s a tip of the cap to Jeremy Clements for making the field for the 300-miler. Going from a borderline DNQ speed in practice to a 26th place starting position is no small deal, and while the 27th place finish wasn’t flashy, Clements ran a clean, consistent race that showed no rust despite being only his second start of the 2009 campaign. Busch is looking for a driver to help him run the non-companion NNS races… well, look no further than a guy who’s consistently successful on a limited budget.
The Final Word
It took a third of the season, but congratulations need to go to Bliss as the first Nationwide Series regular to win a race this year. Bliss did not have the best car by any stretch of the imagination on Saturday, but he was a legitimate top 10 runner until the lucky caution. The No. 1 bunch also was due for a dose of good luck, deserving the trip to Victory Lane after the way they lost the Richmond race earlier this month.
And while Cup regulars did dominate the show, taking 10 of the top 15 finishing positions and leading all but 29 of the laps run, the Nationwide regulars as a whole performed solidly in front of the hometown crowds. Keselowski and Justin Allgaier both rebounded from horrendous qualifying efforts to score top 15 finishes, Kenny Wallace scored a top 20 after leading a few laps, and Leffler truly drove like a man possessed all night long, turning in a truly gutsy performance.
But despite all of that, Leffler — the highest-performing Nationwide regular in the championship standings — still lost ground to point leader Busch. As I wrote two weeks ago, the title chase that could very well come down to Leffler and Busch is truly a David and Goliath struggle… and last night, Goliath proved just how formidable a foe he is. For despite all of Leffler’s heart and determination to recover from a poor time trial, his car just couldn’t make up ground on Busch’s Toyota when the No. 18 had clean air. Unfortunately on these intermediate tracks, it’s all about motors, and Triad Racing Technologies’ Toyota powerplants just aren’t JGR’s.
But Leffler did as much as could be expected on Saturday night. It was a night that Busch truly was the class of the field… again… but his gain in the title Chase was minimized about as much as it could be. And for Braun Racing to stay in this hunt, all they can do is play to their strengths on the shorter tracks while keeping their opponents in sight on longer ones. They did that on a rainy night at Lowe’s; and if they can just keep that up, the JGR NNS program will find itself under pressure it didn’t experience last season down the stretch.