Last year, Carl Edwards shook off a disastrous run at Kentucky and a weak start to his defense of the 2007 Nationwide title with a breakthrough win at the Milwaukee Mile. That’s exactly what happened on Saturday night, again. Edwards, who stalked the race leaders for much of the event, finally got past Kyle Busch with 44 laps to go, and never looked back, holding Busch off on two late-race restarts to score his first Nationwide win of 2009.
Despite featuring only four cautions in 250 laps, Milwaukee proved to be a rough venue for the rookie class. Though Erik Darnell won the pole and scored a top-five finish that was every bit as convincing as his top five at Darlington, the rest of the 2009 class was not so fortunate. Brendan Gaughan and Michael McDowell both failed to crack the top 10, Justin Allgaier and Scott Lagasse Jr. tangled on track, and Michael Annett and Ken Butler III both ran in the back all night.
Despite being the final leg of Nationwide’s standalone stretch, Edwards and Busch made the second half of the race their show, with Busch leading the most laps for the eighth race in a row. Their 1-2 finish allowed the two to pull further ahead of title contenders Brad Keselowski and Jason Leffler, who despite scoring third- and 10th-place finishes, were yet again unable to make up ground in the points race.
Heading to Loudon, Busch now leads Edwards by 127 points, with Keselowski and Leffler 218 and 264 markers back, respectively.
If Saturday night was any indication, the future of Roush Fenway Racing is in very good hands. Darnell took advantage of substitute drivers being behind the wheel of the No. 18 and No. 60 for qualifying, scoring the pole and leading 19 laps en route to a fourth-place finish, equaling his career-best finish in the Nationwide Series and proving to be all that Keselowski could handle and then some in the latter portion of the race. And while Darnell’s Milwaukee run was not the first bright spot of his 2009 campaign, it was just that for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The RFR driver who came within a race of winning the ARCA Re/Max title last season finally showed that type of track prowess on the Nationwide circuit, qualifying and finishing in the top five for the first time in his career. And all of that with the No. 16 team’s regular crew chief, Eddie Pardue, absent from the pit box. Between that and Edwards’s win, it was a banner night for RFR.
And to those people out there that, be it because of his father or not, feel the need to continually insist that Steve Wallace does not have what it takes to race at this level of NASCAR, I give you Saturday night’s performances. Being a Ryan Newman fan, Rusty Wallace is one of my least favorite NASCAR personalities… but that doesn’t change the fact that his son is slowly but surely proving he can drive these race cars.
Plenty of drivers would have loved to finish 18th on Saturday night, but that’s definitely not what Scott Wimmer was looking for. Stepping out of his normal ride with Key Motorsports in favor of a shot behind the wheel of JR Motorsports’ No. 5, Wimmer did well to qualify seventh. However, a pit-road speeding penalty on lap 194 proved too much for Wimmer to overcome for a top-tier finish. Wimmer’s results in the No. 5 car have not been bad this year, but they haven’t been flashy or impressive… and without flashy, impressive performances Wimmer is not going to get what he’s looking for out of this part-time deal… another shot at Cup. If a win and an owners’ title while driving with RCR wasn’t enough to get Wimmer back in the big leagues, battling for the Top 30 in owner points with Key Motorsports and top 20s with JRM isn’t going to get it done either. Especially when Wimmer’s replacement in the No. 40 for the weekend outran him.
What has happened to Jason Keller? A few weeks ago, he was a fixture in the top 10 and in the top five in the Nationwide standings. Yet, on Saturday night, in a standalone race, Keller and his No. 27 team ended up two laps down in 20th.
Allgaier has had his share of impressive moments during his first full-time NNS season. But, this weekend saw Allgaier look very much like the rookie that he is. After wrecking his primary car in practice, Allgaier was far from contending for a top five this weekend, until late in the race he pushed up the track exiting turn 3 and spun, collecting Lagasse Jr. in the incident. The two rookie contenders ended up finishing 16th and 17th, but the incident was a sharp departure from the veteran presence that Allgaier has demonstrated through much of his rookie campaign.
Also you can’t help but feel for Brad Coleman. Qualifying second, leading 35 laps and having the No. 20 contending for its second consecutive win after Joey Logano won at Kentucky last week; Coleman happened to get just a tick loose in the midst of lead-lap traffic, leaving Leffler with no place to go but into Coleman’s rear bumper. Coleman’s car made hard contact with the turn 4 wall on lap 208, damaging the left rear and leaving one of the night’s strongest cars doomed to finish 24th, three laps down.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Aric Almirola. While in the technical sense, Almirola is a previous race winner at the Milwaukee Mile, this has to be a bittersweet venue to visit for the former Cup driver. Back when Almirola was still driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, he won the pole for this race in Denny Hamlin’s car, and was running in the top five over 50 laps into the event… only to be replaced by Hamlin, who went on to win the race. Being yanked from the event led Almirola to leave JGR for what was then DEI, a move that while landing Almirola in a Cup ride for the start of 2009 proved to be a failure in the long-term. Nonetheless, Almirola’s aptitude on the Milwaukee oval led Key Motorsports to put him in their No. 40 for the weekend, and he delivered an 11th-place finish that moved the team to 26th in the owner points, their highest position this season. Wimmer’s seat may just start heating up a bit.
But, had Peyton Sellers not received a pit-road speeding penalty midway through the race, the No. 77 car may have finished in the top five… and scored another underdog award for his troubles. Still, Sellers’s 14th-place run was a notable recovery from the team’s last outing that saw the No. 77 team leave Dover with two wrecked cars.
The Final Word
The standalone stretch of the Nationwide Series schedule has now concluded… and all that’s to show for it is that the Cup regulars have re-established their stranglehold on the Series. Busch, Logano and Edwards scored the three race wins, and Busch and Edwards both extended their leads in the Nationwide standings.
Just a few shorts to close the weekend, as it wasn’t one that lent to a lengthy commentary:
- Darnell needs to be driving in Nationwide full-time. His limited outings in the No. 6 car have proven to be just as competitive as that of his fellow driver, Cup regular David Ragan. And anyone that thought his top five at Darlington was a fluke got shut up good on Saturday night, when he did it again.
- Chad Blount parked Joe Nemechek’s No. 87 car after only eight laps. Come on! We’re coming off a multi-race stretch that saw Kevin Conway bring some sponsor dollars to the team, and now NEMCO starts-and-parks for the first time this year? For crying out loud, give Conway another run before joining Parsons and Co.
- What exactly is SK Motorsports thinking by keeping Mike Harmon in their No. 07? Patrick Carpentier put the car in the top 20 at Darlington after replacing David Green, but keeping past champion Green out of the car in favor of Harmon?! Since Harmon took the ride over, the team has yet to crack the top 25… or, for that matter, to finish a race. As a result, the No. 07 group now sits 30th in owner points, only one marker ahead of Brian Keselowski’s No. 26.
- Busch is proving to be too dominant for his own good. Yes, Busch led the most laps for the eighth race in a row. But he’s nowhere close to eight trophies for his efforts. Seeing Edwards able to get his No. 60 up to the front and past Busch’s No. 18 late in the going was reminiscent of Logano’s charge to overtake Busch at Kentucky. And it seems that the reason this keeps happening is maybe because Busch spends too much time up front. Being in front of the field for the majority of a race does make for gaudy driver ratings and plenty of air time, but it also makes adjustments harder to make, as Busch has no benchmark cars to compare to. Busch largely hasn’t been racing with anybody on this circuit for weeks… and that may well finally be catching up with his team.
Until next week….