NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2009 Federated Auto Parts 300 at Nashville

For the sixth week in a row, Kyle Busch was the dominant car in a Nationwide Series race. That’s it, no tricks to this story. His pit crew perfect, his laps fast, his nose clean, Busch led 173 of the 225 laps run Saturday night to score his long overdue fourth win of the Nationwide Series season. While Busch’s race was clean, his unorthodox celebration was far from it (read on to hear this writer’s take).

Despite posting a performance that no car in the field could keep pace with, Busch’s gain in the title chase was minimized by strong performances across the board from his fellow points contenders. Brad Keselowski, who led 10 laps and finished second, ran equal lap times to Busch’s No. 18 for the second half of the race and was even running him down as the laps wound down. Carl Edwards scored a third-place run that saw his No. 60 team in markedly improved form over their lackluster showings at Charlotte and Dover. And Jason Leffler, whose 26 laps led was second only to Busch, managed to maintain a top-five finishing position despite off-sequence tire strategy, his eighth consecutive top-10 finish.

The race was marred by three ugly wrecks, two that occurred in turn 4, which proved to be tricky for a number of the development drivers in the field. Pit road also claimed its share of victims; Sean Caisse spun entering the pits for green-flag stops, while an incident involving Marc Davis and Brendan Gaughan left viewers scratching their heads… and Gaughan on one of the fieriest tirades seen this season.

Heading into Kentucky, Busch now holds a 65-point lead over second-place Edwards. Leffler maintained his third position in the standings, 188 points back. Keselowski jumped the idle Joey Logano, moving to fourth and sitting 193 markers behind Rowdy.

Worth Noting

The Good

When interviewed during the telecast of practice on Friday, Bobby Hamilton Jr. cited a feeling that he was making a difference as one of the best perks of his new ride, the No. 81 of MacDonald Motorsports. Racing on his home track, that difference shone brightly on Saturday, as Hamilton ran in the top 15-20 for the entire duration of the race, bringing his unsponsored Dodge home in the 14th position, the second consecutive top 15 for the No. 81 team since Hamilton got behind the wheel. How significant an accomplishment is that for this team? In checking the statistics as far back as I could find them, it’s the first time in the history of MacDonald Motorsports, in over five seasons and 120-plus Nationwide Series starts, that they’ve ever posted back-to-back top-15 finishes. Hamilton said that his was a race-by-race deal to stay in this car… that needs to change. The No. 81 needs sponsorship… and the best way to get that is performance. Performance is exactly what Hamilton is delivering.

A shout out also needs to go to Shelby Howard, albeit as I stuff a boot in my mouth. Earlier in the season, when ML Motorsports let veteran Mark Green go in favor of Howard, I openly criticized the decision. Howard has proven me wrong, big time. A 12th-place finish in the No. 70 gave the young Indiana driver three top-15 finishes in five starts with the team, by far the most competitive the team has been since moving from the ARCA Re/Max Series to NASCAR in 2006. Plus, Howard was sporting a black paint scheme that was reminiscent of the No. 67 car the team campaigned with Jason Jarrett in the ARCA ranks that was a threat to win weekly. This team isn’t back to that level yet, but they’re knocking on the door of the top 10.

Kevin Conway had an unremarkable night, but the move he made to miss spinning cars during the Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wreck was breathtaking.

The Bad

Justin Allgaier finished 13th and moved up two positions in the point standings, but Saturday really wasn’t the night he or his No. 12 team should have been looking for. Despite facing the lowest influx of Cup talent that the Nationwide Series has seen in years, Allgaier and the Penske crew couldn’t seem to get a handle on their car all night. Allgaier was never a solid fixture in the top 10, and ended up finishing behind drivers including Stephen Leicht, Erik Darnell and Brad Coleman who all have not had the advantage of contesting a full Nationwide Series schedule. Allgaier’s night was further complicated by troubles on pit road; he was coming in at the same time Caisse spun at the entrance to the pits, and elected to return to the track, hoping for a caution flag that never flew. That lost time, however, was not the reason that the No. 12 team fought hard for a top 15, not a top five, on Saturday. A ton of guys in the field would have given anything for a 13th-place finish, but such a performance was not impressive for the same team that contended for victory at Las Vegas.

Robert Richardson, Eric McClure, Scott Wimmer, Brandon Whitt, Tony Raines and Danny O’Quinn all received no mention during Saturday’s telecast despite contesting the race distance.

The Ugly

There were three major incidents in Saturday’s race, and all three were very ugly. Only three laps into the race, NASCAR’s resident caution, John Wes Townley, spun out on his own and triggered a massive accordion accident behind him that took out not only Mike Harmon, who was fortunate enough to have SK Motorsports give him the No. 07 for only his fourth start of the season, but teammates Casey Atwood and Brad Baker. Wayne Day’s operation, which rolled out its second car, the No. 85, this weekend to fill the field, ended up losing two cars three laps into the race. It’s always a bad night to tear up a car, but it’s even worse to tear up the start-and-park and the primary.

Townley wasn’t the only youngster out there that found turn 4 troublesome, as for the second Nashville race in a row, Roush Fenway development driver Stenhouse spun out in turn 4. The spin, which was not the result of a tire problem as Rusty Wallace speculated, resulted in a destructive melee that took out a host of fellow development prospects, including Caisse, Cale Gale and Trevor Bayne as well as ruining a top 10 night for the local Baker/Curb Racing team and Jason Keller.

The incident that sparked the most fireworks, however, was on pit road. Coming in for a green-flag stop, Gaughan was pulling into the pits only to have Davis, also on pit road at the time, make the hard left turn to the garage… right in front of Gaughan’s machine. The resulting carnage obliterated the left front of Gaughan’s car and relegated him to a 24th-place finish. After the race, Gaughan verbally assaulted the youngster Davis, claiming he must have gotten a better education at Georgetown than Howard (the Howard University radio station sponsors Davis’s car) and questioning the intelligence of Davis’s entire team.

My take? Gaughan summed it up perfectly with his final quote of the night:

“In the middle of a race, you end up turning left, while guys are coming in for green-flag pit stops, that’s asinine. Maybe he needs to look that word up.”

Underdog Performer of the Race: Morgan Shepherd. The Nationwide Series’ elder statesmen wowed a lot of folks earlier in the season when he posted consecutive top-20 finishes at Fontana and Las Vegas. But, following two heavy crashes at Bristol that left his KHI-prepared Chevrolet a mangled wreck, Shepherd’s performance had dropped over the last few months; the No. 89 team has fallen out of the top 30 in owner points and failed to qualify at Charlotte. Fortunately, the team appears to be on the rebound. Coming from the 43rd starting position, Shepherd, driving a car that Rusty Wallace astutely noted had a sleek looking body on it, methodically drove through traffic all night long and netted a 17th-place finish, his best run since a 13th in Las Vegas back in March. More importantly, Shepherd made up a lot of ground in the Top-30 chase, and now sits only 28 points behind the No. 23 team for a guaranteed spot in the field.

The Final Word

Busch’s display in victory lane that saw him take a beautiful Sam Bass guitar and smash it was embarrassing. There, I said it.

But before delving into his latest childish display, it needs to be said that the Nationwide Series had itself one fine evening in Nashville. With only two Cup regulars in the field, the regulars were, for once, the show, and they put on a good one. Long stretches of green-flag racing, with plenty of passing throughout, made for a very entertaining 300 miles. The tires Goodyear brought to the track held up well all night long, there were no questionable officiating calls… it was pure and simply stock car racing.

And while Busch and the No. 18 team did stink up the show up front, ESPN delivered by far their best telecast of the Nationwide season. With only two Cup guys to talk about, ESPN didn’t have any choice but to cover the regulars… and they did an admirable job. While the big guys such as Keselowski and Leffler all logged significant airtime, the crew in the booth had great stuff to say about a number of lesser-knowns as well, be it tracking Bayne early in the race or mentioning Brian Keselowski’s visit with the Detroit Red Wings after promoting his hockey team on his car. The camera work was improved over the first visit to Nashville back in April, and the slate of interviews offered both during and after the race was as varied as it has been all season. I praised ESPN following Richmond only to see them drop off with the Darlington coverage… here’s hoping Kentucky isn’t a repeat of that.

And yes, Busch’s smashing the guitar in victory lane. Yes, I know a number of rock stars out there made a name (and quite the show) for themselves by smashing guitars following performances. Yes, I know that Kyle wanted to give a piece of the trophy to every member of his team. And yes, I know that Kyle spoke to Sam Bass about why he smashed his artwork… and that Bass was OK with it.

I’m not OK with it, and that’s not because Busch did what he did with Bass present. I don’t care whether Busch considers himself a showman or a rock star, there is no way to equivocate Pete Townshend smashing a guitar following a concert with what Busch did. Busch didn’t destroy a musical instrument, he destroyed a trophy, a symbol of recognition and accomplishment as well as one of the most coveted pieces of hardware the Nationwide Series has to offer. That wasn’t a guitar, it was a trophy. Would it be acceptable to see Busch spike the Harley J. Earl trophy should he ever win the Daytona 500, or knock over a grandfather clock should he ever tame Martinsville? No, it wouldn’t be.

And I don’t want to hear one word about this being a way to share his triumph with his team. Hearing Kyle justify destroying an illustrious piece of racing lore as an example of team spirit rings about as true it would to hear Terrell Owens justify one of his theatrical touchdown celebrations as being “for his team.” This is the same Busch who has thrown his No. 18 team, perhaps the best in the business, under the bus whenever he’s been unable to win. A true team player is one who supports his team win or lose, not just when the going is good. And if Busch ever wants to use “for the team” as a justification for his antics, he’s got a long way to go in proving that he actually is a team player. Handing pit crew members splinters in victory lane does not a team player make.

My immediate reaction to seeing Busch smash the guitar was of anger, as I quickly jumped out of my seat, cursed at my TV, and sent a few bewildered texts to some fellow writers. But, that quickly faded to an almost sinister satisfaction on my part… because I finally figured out a character to compare Kyle Busch to. For those of you out there who watch The Office, Busch is none other than Dwight Schrute, a belligerent, unorthodox paper salesman.

By the numbers, Dwight and Kyle are the best in their businesses. Dwight sells the most paper at Dunder-Mifflin, Kyle leads the most laps and wins the most Nationwide races. By the numbers, these two should ride off into the sunset with promotions and championships respectively.

But Dwight, thanks to his immaturity and aloofness to the blowback of his own actions, never gets promoted, as Office fans know very well. And by that same vein, a very immature and seemingly aloof Busch doesn’t have this title locked up. Edwards and his No. 60 team were dramatically more competitive Saturday night, while Keselowski and Leffler both did well to minimize the points damage when faced with the No. 18 on rails.

When all was said and done Saturday, Busch dominated the race and won. But even a perfect on-track performance couldn’t hide the immaturity that still is lurking beneath the surface. It’s going to get out again this season, and next time, it may not wait till victory lane to show up.

And that’s good news for the guys chasing him.

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