For 198 laps, it was business as usual for Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing, as the No. 18 and No. 20 Toyotas put an absolute smackdown on the NNS field – combining to lead 195 laps and holding the top-two spots when the race’s final green flag restarted the event with two laps to go.
Then, it happened.
With Joey Logano getting his best restart of the day and running nose-to-tail with Busch’s No. 18, Busch had an apparent tire problem entering turn 1 and slowed dramatically. With nowhere to go, Logano bumped Busch way up the track, into the marbles and out of contention. With Busch gone and Logano stunned, Brad Keselowski pounced, driving under both Toyotas and pulling away to score his first Nationwide Series victory of 2009 and first since the summer race at Bristol last season. Busch, irate about losing his third consecutive Nationwide Series race in as many events and having been hit by his teammate Logano, stormed off the track following the race without comment.
In the meantime, Keselowski wasn’t the only driver celebrating Saturday. With Busch falling to 17th after his issues in the final running order, Brad, Jason Leffler and Carl Edwards all turned in top-10 finishes that led to gains on the NNS points leader. Busch now leads second-place Edwards by 40 points, with Leffler and Keselowski 153 and 173 markers back, respectively.
Welcome back to the Nationwide Series, Bobby Hamilton Jr.! After spending the first third of the season on the sidelines, working in an ownership role with Rensi-Hamilton Racing and Eric McClure’s No. 24 team, the former NNS title contender stepped into MacDonald Motorsports’ No. 81 Dodge and delivered a convincing 15th-place finish that reminded everyone he’s still got it. The performance was the team’s best finish of 2009, as well as their first top 15 since Kevin Lepage scored a ninth-place run at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in October 2005. It truly was exciting to see a driver that has been as committed to Nationwide Series racing as Hamilton Jr. getting another shot to slide behind the wheel. Note to owner Randy MacDonald: give this guy the No. 81 and sit back… you’ll enjoy the ride.
R3 Motorsports’ full-time debut in the Nationwide Series has been a rough one thus far, but Saturday proved to be their biggest hit. With Ken Butler III driving this week, the No. 23 car ended up like a Lucky Dog that’d been kicked too much – though there wasn’t much Butler could do about it. Already mired in the back after a poor 37th-place qualifying effort, on lap 29 Butler found himself in the most precarious situation the Nationwide Series has to offer: side-by-side with John Wes Townley.
Listening to Butler’s spotter on the radio loudly instructing the young driver to give his fellow rookie a lot of room, one couldn’t help but know that something big was going to happen – and it did a mere second later when Townley’s out-of-control Ford slammed into Butler exiting turn 2, destroying his Chevrolet. What’s more, the wreck and resulting 36th-place finish dropped the No. 23 team out of the top 30 in owner points, leaving them forced to race their way in this coming Saturday at Nashville. The crash proved to be a microcosm of the season for two full-time 2008 ARCA competitors who appear to be in a bit over their heads in NASCAR.
Marc Davis, Lepage and Townley are all mimicking each other a bit too much as of late. Let’s rewind back to Lowe’s Motor Speedway a week ago… what did they all have in common? Davis, Lepage and Townley all failed to qualify for the race.
Now, back to Dover. This time, all three drivers made the field; but in all honesty, the three of them may have wished that they hadn’t. Davis, locked into the field this week with his sponsor from Charlotte in tow, wrecked on lap 83 in his first outing with Braun Racing after contact with teammate Leffler. Lepage was a true victim on lap 65, getting dumped by McClure exiting turn 2 in a wreck that flattened the front end of his unsponsored No. 52. And as for Townley, well, read the section above on Butler III. Townley’s story on Saturday was the story of his season: running in the back, finding himself completely out of control, and wadding up another racecar. Seriously, how many No. 09 cars can RAB Racing have left laying around for this kid?
Underdog Performer of the Race: Brian Keselowski. It may not be as good as a sponsor, but the paint scheme on the elder Keselowski’s No. 26 car this weekend was certainly channeling the winning ways of the Detroit Red Wings. Staying out of trouble with a car he couldn’t afford to wreck at a treacherous track he had minimal experience at was one thing, but to bring it home in the 16th position on the lead lap was an eye-opening performance. It also marked the first lead-lap finish for this Keselowski on a non-plate track since his top-15 run at ORP last August. Most importantly, it allowed the No. 26 team to pick up more ground on the Nos. 01 and 61 in the race to stay in the top 30 in owner points. Another solid finish for a team that’s showing signs of establishing itself on this circuit.
The Final Word
The weekend at Dover prior to Sunday’s Cup race was a vivid reminder to two drivers contending for the NNS crown as to just how quickly this sport can humble its participants.
On the one hand, there was Kyle Busch, who despite flat tires and rain at Darlington and Lowe’s, respectively, was still on a tear in Nationwide Series competition. On the other, there was Keselowski, a driver who since his shocking Cup victory at Talladega has appeared to have nothing but his future in the Cup Series on the brain.
Well, Keselowski was brought back to earth in a big way on Friday. With the Hendrick Motorsports camp already in tumult following the announcement that Keselowski’s Cup crew chief, Lance McGrew, was going to be leaving the No. 25 team for the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the part-time crew that scored a top-10 finish in the Southern 500 looked far removed from that performance, struggling all through practice at Dover and culminating with Keselowski failing to qualify for a Cup race for the first time in his career (excluding rainouts).
Meanwhile, as previously stated the latest Nationwide Series race was all Kyle Busch… again. And Kyle Busch didn’t win… again. A surefire victory stripped from him for the third time in as many weeks, Busch was beyond furious as he did his trademark stomp off the track and pout routine. Only this time, he had no one to blame… though behind closed doors, I’m sure all fingers and fists are pointing to Logano. His luck simply ran out Saturday, and suddenly all the aggression, all the posturing, all the horsepower and all the attitude was all for naught. Even the mighty Kyle Busch couldn’t win this race.
What was different, though, was Keselowski. Shaking off what was an embarrassing weekend for his No. 88 team last weekend at Lowe’s, Dale Jr.’s protégé demonstrated a focus that had been absent from him on the track in recent races, a focus that had Keselowski in contention… and perfect position… to score a much-needed win for himself, his team, and for his besieged owner.
It was a true redemption song for the JR Motorsports bunch as they rolled into victory lane. The passion and gratitude that Keselowski showed so convincingly in his celebration at Talladega last month shone through again this Saturday, even though it was back in the Nationwide Series. Any questions that were left in the minds of fans or media concerning whether or not success had gone to his head were put to bed, as Keselowski demonstrated both a class and an understanding of just how fortunate he was to have scored another Nationwide Series win.
Keselowski was humbled… and he responded. And while I’m still not convinced that the No. 88 team is in championship form, they certainly gave me pause following this performance.
The question now becomes whether or not Kyle Busch can channel the humility being shoved down his throat the way Keselowski did. Three races this weekend, he was capable of winning, and three circumstances out of his and his team’s control led to three disappointing finishes and no new hardware.
What’s more, this stretch of bad luck and mental trials is arriving just as Busch will begin a difficult segment of his pursuit of the NNS title. With the Nationwide Series breaking away from Cup companion races for the next three weeks, Busch will be faced with traveling between venues and likely starting at the back of the field for the next three NNS races. And while Busch has proven time and time again able to climb from back to front, let’s also not forget that it was during this stretch last year that Busch wrecked himself while dominating the race at Kentucky, a wreck that frustrated him enough to say on the spot that he would not be traveling to Milwaukee the following week and would not be competing for the Nationwide Series title.
With humility being forced down his throat even prior to this difficult stretch of the season, who knows where the current points leader will be following Milwaukee?