Sometimes, going faster and winning all comes down to going a bit slower. Whether or not that was Kyle Busch’s strategy doesn’t matter… because it worked.
In a performance far departed from his stretch of eight consecutive Nationwide races leading the most laps, Busch started ninth on Saturday… and stayed there for a while. But rather than embarking on a banzai charge to the front from the first lap, Busch was patient. Running in traffic for a bit, the No. 18 team made adjustments to a degree and volume not seen from them in recent weeks, turning Busch’s car from a top-five runner to the fastest piece in the field over the long haul. And, thanks to those adjustments, Busch was able to pick off teammate Joey Logano (who dominated and led the most laps Saturday) on lap 165 en route to driving off to score his fifth win of 2009.
Though Busch managed to get by Logano, he scored the win without any contest from Carl Edwards, who proved to be the only car in the early running able to keep up with Logano’s No. 20. Two consecutive pit stops that saw the No. 60 crew lose multiple positions in the pits relegated Edwards to a sixth-place run, a finish that saw him lose more ground in the championship points race to Kyle Busch. The same could be said for Brad Keselowski (who finished third yet again and proved unable to challenge Busch and Logano late after struggling to pass Mike Bliss, who had 50-plus lap older tires) and Jason Leffler, who scrapped by to barely salvage his streak of consecutive top-10 finishes.
A late-race incident between Cup teammates Scott Speed and Brian Vickers dominated post-race coverage, as Vickers was spun late by Speed after checking up in turn 3 on the race’s final lap. Vickers confronted Speed after the race and attempted to downplay the contact, while Vickers was heated in his post-race comments.
Busch now leads Edwards by 162 markers heading to Daytona, with Keselowski 243 points back and Leffler an ever-growing 320 behind.
When the rest of the field made their final pit stops on lap 159, only Bliss elected to stay out instead of taking fresh tires. Problem was, Bliss’s tires were over 50 laps old already, making him what appeared to be a sitting duck. But while Busch and Logano made quick work getting by the No. 1 car, Bliss lost only one more position over the last 40 laps en route to a fourth-place finish. Bliss’s car wasn’t the fastest on the track, but his throttle control of a car that proved able to roll well in the center of Loudon’s flat corners was enough to keep the field behind him at bay. Keselowski took well over 10 laps to make a late pass of Bliss for third, but a fourth-place finish for the Phoenix Racing team was far better than the team appeared in line for had they stayed in sequence with the rest of the leaders.
Both Brendan Gaughan and Jason Keller got lost in the shuffle on Saturday and never seemed to get a grip on the Magic Mile. Unfortunately for them, that’s not in reference to the TV coverage but the poor handling on their racecars. Gaughan made up a lot of ground from his 38th starting position, but a 21st-place outing off the lead lap was not impressive, especially with his teammate Steve Wallace finishing 11th. As for Keller, the Baker/Curb No. 27’s slump continued, as he started 23rd… and finished 23rd. Keller slipped to 10th in the Nationwide standings as a result.
Meanwhile, Michael McDowell is 11th in Nationwide points and threatening Keller for a spot in the top 10, but he has no sponsor for any race past Daytona. It’s a sad state of affairs for a program that will run a limited schedule if any races the second half of the season unless another company steps up.
Saturday’s race was a surprisingly clean one, and with no accidents marring the event (until the last lap), the ugliest moment goes to Eric McClure and his engine for faithfully recreating what happens when a hand grenade goes off under the hood. McClure’s motor expired in a nasty way with less than 25 to go, and left him with a 33rd-place finish.
Of course, there is the small matter of that last lap wreck to consider. As Busch took the checkers, Vickers had to check up in turn 3 and slowed dramatically. As a result, Vickers got hit in the back and spun by his Cup teammate, Speed (who was driving for Michael Waltrip Racing on Saturday). The bump took Vickers from a top-five finish to a 12th-place result… and he was none too happy about it. On the cool-down lap, Vickers made contact with Speed’s rear bumper through all of turns 3 and 4… until Speed brake-checked his No. 32 Toyota at the entrance to pit road. The resulting contact did heavy damage to the front end of Vickers’s ride, causing minimal damage to the rear of Speed’s car as well. Vickers then confronted his Red Bull compatriot about the contact immediately after exiting his car. Speed claimed he couldn’t slow down, but Vickers wasn’t hearing any of it – blaming Speed for being overly aggressive towards him because of his struggles on the Cup side of the garage.
Well, Vickers apparently wasn’t hearing much in the form of common sense either. For crying out loud, he checked up in turn 3… in a pack of lead-lap cars… on the race’s final lap. What did he think was going to happen in that situation? Speed wasn’t gunning for Vickers: for the record, the contact that Speed made with the No. 32 car also dropped him in the final running order after being a top-five contender all race long. The bottom line is Vickers slowed up in a hurry… and Speed hit him. That’s what’s called a racing deal. Vickers may well be the senior driver at Team Red Bull and the de facto tutor of Cup rookie Speed… but he sounded like the rookie in the Red Bull camp on Saturday, going after a teammate publicly after all but dismissing anything he had to say in his defense.
Let’s summarize. Vickers, one of the strong “team of drivers” that Braun Racing is assembling to replace Burney Lamar, heavily damages his own race car after the checkered flag falls, goes after a driver in what’s a no-fault wreck, and then proceeds to throw a rookie he’s helping develop under the bus on camera. You’d think Todd Braun would have learned his lesson about Cup moonlighters in the Nationwide Series after Busch went after Leffler so vehemently last season.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Matt Carter. Carter’s debut with the Specialty Racing squad in Loudon resulted in a 24th-place finish, four laps down. Not flashy, but then again, that’s not the style of the No. 61 squad. Back when I interviewed this team in October, they were steadfast that they knew how to stretch a dollar and were going to keep coming to race… sponsor or no sponsor. And thus far through 2009, even as the team now weathers a midseason driver change, they remain perhaps the best example of how to compete as an independent team in the Nationwide Series; and more importantly, that it can be done without starting and parking.
The Final Word
There wasn’t a whole lot new to learn about the title chase on Saturday, as Kyle Busch is still the man to beat. The only difference was, Busch actually raced smart for once at New Hampshire, and he reaped the fruits of his labor. Busch was joyous and grateful in victory lane, just like he always is… when the going is good.
Sans the Speed/Vickers incident, Saturday’s race was largely uneventful. And, unfortunately, that was amplified by the TV coverage. ESPN has definitely improved its coverage over where it was at Texas and Phoenix earlier this season, but Saturday was far from their best effort (though I about fell over laughing when fill-in broadcaster Marty Reid actually had the nerve to identify a car on-air as a “start-and-park candidate.” You can’t say that Marty… there’s no such problem in NASCAR!) Steve Wallace went largely unnoticed despite a solid run, as did Justin Allgaier. McDowell’s sponsorship plight (and his current sponsor, for that matter) got little airtime too. Danny O’Quinn, Ken Butler III, John Wes Townley, Tony Raines, Benny Gordon and Chase Mattioli got no mention at all – and the same goes for Carter and the Specialty Racing No. 61 team (how exactly does a full-time team change drivers and not even get mentioned in passing during a three-hour broadcast?!)
Further, the only reason Bobby Hamilton Jr., McClure and Brian Keselowski got any time on screen was because they were involved in incidents. However, the new feature ESPN has been doing of late, going outside the top 10 cars to do a through the field rundown, is a nice addition and one that deserves credit. But it’s not enough airtime, nor done in enough detail, to give fans a true rundown of the Nationwide field in its entirety.
And while ESPN has admittedly gotten better in discussing a wider swath of drivers during their coverage, their pit-road reporting is lagging behind. Every single weekend, viewers always see Wally Rogers and Jason Ratcliff atop their boxes. They may as well have their own features within the broadcast, they’re on so often. Maybe it’s because JGR’s Goliath pit boxes cast more of a cold shadow over pit road than their cars do over the Nationwide regulars on the track….
But seriously, ESPN; there are over 30 teams and crews out there, even after the start-and-parkers do their nasty. Examples such as pit reporters converging on Bliss’s pit box when he took the lead under caution should be more frequent… and not confined to those at the front of the field.