Friday night’s race at Daytona was shaping up to be a tremendous finish, until a messy wreck on lap 96 stopped the battle at the front of the field and scattered debris and rescue equipment all over the 2.5-mile oval. In their infinite wisdom, NASCAR chose not to red flag the race – instead settling for a green-white-checkered finish.
Still, the two-lap shootout had all the potential in the world to be a fantastic ending. On the inside line, the race’s polesitter and most dominant driver, Clint Bowyer, found himself trailed by JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. To his outside, though, were title contenders Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski. And for the first half lap of the GWC stretch, it looked like the outside line was finally going to prevail. On the restart, Edwards and Keselowski both timed their push perfectly, pulling ahead of the lower line and Bowyer as they exited turn 1. However, as they exited turn 2, Keselowski missed on a bump-draft, hitting Edwards off-center and causing a momentary lapse in momentum that shot both Bowyer and Busch to the point.
The battle between Bowyer and Busch never got to play out, though, as a wreck brought out the yellow flag and ended the race – leaving Bowyer and his No. 29 crew to enjoy an ecstatic victory lane celebration while Busch subtly criticized his engine shop in a second-place interview.
For Keselowski and Edwards, it was a frustrating night, as both turned in top-10 finishes yet lost more ground to Busch in the title chase. Jason Leffler also had a rough last run of the race, getting shuffled back in the draft and finishing 18th, which snapped a streak of 11 consecutive top-10 finishes for the team. Leffler now sits nearly 400 markers out of the points lead.
With the front of the field saturated with Cup regulars early and often, Justin Allgaier found that a lot of the leaders noticed the yellow rookie stripes on his bumper. And despite their best efforts to hang him out of the draft, Allgaier kept his No. 12 Dodge at the front… all race long. Allgaier had a stout Penske motor helping his cause, but his composure in the draft and steady hand at the front of the field earned the respect of his fellow competitors, and by night’s end the youngster had an eighth-place result to show for it. Another impressive performance from the former ARCA standout.
Since ESPN yet again did not see it fit to bestow any TV coverage on the No. 61 car, a shout out goes to another former ARCA driver, Matt Carter. In an interview with the team’s crew chief, Doug Taylor, earlier this week, it was revealed that the team planned to take a car that would not qualify well and run in the back until push came to shove. They did just that, with Carter ending up 15th in the final running order after running a squeaky clean race in only his second Nationwide start of the season. How good a finish was that? It was the first top 15 the No. 61 team has had since they returned to full-time NNS competition in 2008.
As hard as it was to see deal after deal fall through for Chase Austin in the offseason, his performance on Friday night suggested that his absence from the track was a favor to the rest of the Nationwide field. On lap 59, Austin flat bowled over Patrick Sheltra and the No. 81 car, triggering a wreck that also took out Dale Earnhardt Jr. and, ironically, his former teammate at Rusty Wallace Incorporated, Steve Wallace. Later in the event, Austin spun out all by himself in turn 4, a wreck that Robert Richardson pounded the wall trying to avoid. The 37th-place finish also dropped the new Xxxtreme Motorsport No. 07 to 30th in the owner points standings, on the bubble for a locked-in spot in the field.
Michael McDowell did what he’s done all year on Friday night: ran clean, competitive, and demonstrated how his skills as a stock car driver continue to improve with seat time. And though he faded late in the going after getting shuffled out of the draft on a late restart, McDowell turned in another top-15 finish, one that moved him to within three points of being in the top 10 in the NNS standings. So what’s so bad about that? McDowell’s sponsorship money has officially dried up, and he currently is not listed in a ride for Chicago next week. Be it a sponsor for the No. 47 team or a new ride for McDowell, some owner or business out there needs to make something happen for this guy.
JD Motorsports had it all for this weekend: new sponsors, plate-ace Mike Wallace and Kertus Davis’s breakdance moves broadcast during ESPN’s qualifying telecast. But as good as their cars looked with paint on them, there was nothing good about the team’s experience at Daytona. The trouble started in qualifying, when Wallace blew a motor before making a lap and thus missed the race in the No. 0 car, which looked oh-so-sharp with RC Cola decals all over it. The No. 01 and No. 04 both ended up qualifying – but a finish wasn’t in the cards. On lap 96, Davis cut a tire on the frontstretch and triggered a multi-car wreck that heavily damaged not only his No. 04 car, but the No. 01 of his teammate, Danny O’Quinn Jr. as well. What’s worse, as Davis was returning to pit road, dragging debris sparked a fire in his car that quickly engulfed his machine in flames and forced him to make a quick exit. Davis was unscathed by the fire, but it was an uglier end to a disastrous night for a team trying to make three cars work.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Bobby Gerhart. With the success that Allgaier, Carter, Logano, McDowell and other drivers with ARCA backgrounds demonstrated Friday night, who better to recognize for a job well done than ARCA Re/Max Series stalwart Gerhart? Gerhart, who is to the letter a restrictor-plate expert, took advantage of a three-week break in ARCA competition to bring his plate car down to Daytona, a place where he has five ARCA wins to his credit. Qualifying 12th, Gerhart ran in the pack all night, dodged trouble and brought home a top-20 finish for longtime sponsor Lucas Oil. The Pennsylvania driver continues to persevere, even after suffering a vicious wreck at Pocono last year that sidelined him for over four months and wrecking a plate car in the Nationwide race at Talladega earlier this season. It was fun to see him so competitive in NASCAR’s field.
The Final Word
Halfway through the Nationwide Series season, it’s (unfortunately) shaping up just as the experts predicted it would… Busch and Edwards staging their own prizefight, with the rest of the field trying to survive and keep up.
And nights like Friday make it seem obvious that it’s going to stay that way. Keselowski and Leffler both did everything they could, running aggressively at the front and constantly in the top 10, much as they have all year… and it still wasn’t enough to make up ground in the points.
In fact, little has changed from the way things were expected to play out in February. Nationwide regulars are still the afterthought in their own series, ESPN’s telecasts still cover only a select segment of the field (how many times can full-timers Carter and Tony Raines get skipped over?!), and sponsorship woes continue to plague a number of teams out there, with McDowell being the latest casualty.
There’s been great racing for much of the Nationwide Series season, and the on-track action Friday night was no slouch, either. Unfortunately, that’s being overshadowed by the same ole problems that have plagued NASCAR’s second-tier series the last few seasons.
Shame even a trip to Daytona couldn’t shake it off.