It’s amazing what a driver can do when Goodyear brings rock-hard tires to the track.
In a scenario reminiscent of that seen at the Cup race in Charlotte last October, where Jeff Burton managed to hold off a hard-charging Jimmie Johnson despite having nearly 40-lap older tires, Joey Logano and Jason Leffler stayed out under a lap 186 caution (one of only two the entire race) while the rest of the leaders pitted for fresh rubber. But what happened next left everyone in the field, including Kyle Busch, with their jaws on the floor.
On the restart, Logano simply drove away to his fourth Nationwide victory of the season and his first at a Cup companion race. Logano’s No. 20 car showed no signs of being on significantly older tires, able to hug the bottom white line for the duration of the 200-lap event. Leffler also benefited from the staying-out strategy, losing positions only to Busch and Brian Vickers and finishing fourth, a solid rebound from last week’s 18th-place result at Daytona that broke a streak of 11 consecutive top 10s for the No. 38 team.
However, despite the strong performance by Leffler, he again lost ground in the title chase, as Busch finished second. Fellow championship contenders Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski also lost ground; Edwards faded after starting from the pole and finished sixth, while Keselowski lost two laps in the pits during green-flag stops after the engine folks at Hendrick Motorsports miscalculated fuel mileage for both the No. 88 and No. 5 cars, running them out of gas on the track. Busch now holds a lead of 192 points over second-place Edwards, with Keselowski and Leffler 334 and 404 markers back, respectively.
When talking about Mike Bliss, the phrase “reversal of fortunes” comes to mind. After rumors surfaced following last week’s race at Daytona that Bliss had been fired from the No. 1 team, more rumors emerged that the team’s owner, James Finch, reconsidered the decision and left Bliss in the driver’s seat. But whatever happened in the Phoenix Racing camp, all seemed business as usual Friday night. Bliss qualified in the top 15, ran up front all night long and brought home a ninth-place result, his ninth top-10 finish of the season. Bliss now sits within 11 points of Justin Allgaier for sixth in the Nationwide standings, and continues to provide a stable, veteran presence to one of the Series’ most stalwart operations.
Leffler may have lost ground in the points standings even after finishing fourth, but what was positive to see was Leffler debriefing with teammate Vickers after the checkered flag. After seeing how tumultuous the relationship between Braun Racing’s only full-time driver and their Cup cohorts were last season (see Busch at Dover last June), observing the No. 38 and No. 32 teams apparently meshing well is a positive development that hopefully will allow Leffler and company to maintain the high performance level they’ve demonstrated thus far in 2009.
And, I’ve got to say, that Trevor Bayne certainly seems to have some talent behind the wheel.
Jeremy Clements backed up his qualifying for one of the season’s most competitive fields at Charlotte by cracking the field again here at Chicago. And from the drop of the green, his No. 50 car was picking them off and laying them down. Knocking on the door of the top 25 by the first round of pit stops less than 60 laps in, Clements lost a few spots in the pits, but was climbing back towards the top 25 before a steering failure forced the No. 50 to the garage after completing 92 laps, derailing what could have been a top 20 run for a weekend that wasn’t kind to single-car teams (Morgan Shepherd, Kevin Hamlin and JC Stout all failed to qualify).
Seeing the No. 47 car starting eighth on Friday night was painful. What was so bad about seeing a full-time Nationwide car starting in the top 10 with a highly talented prospect (Kelly Bires) behind the wheel? Simple… the car that Michael McDowell had driven so well for the first half of 2009 had no sponsorship and no plans to run the distance. The No. 47 car ran only eight laps before settling for a 40th-place result. And before anything gets said about start-and-parking until a sponsor can be found, here’s a question: How many major sponsorships have come to Nationwide teams in recent memory because they were start and parking on the weekend? Shame this team, like so many others, won’t catch on to the fact that picking a limited schedule and, gasp, performance, is the way to land the dollars (just ask CJM Racing).
Underdog Performer of the Race: McDowell. It certainly wasn’t a storybook debut with his new team for the former ARCA standout after sponsorship dollars dried up at JTG Daugherty Racing. Even before on-track activity started, the No. 81 car suffered damage after coming loose on the hauler en route to Chicago. McDowell also struggled in qualifying, but delivered on the track, scoring a 25th-place finish for the MacDonald Motorsports operation that was both a rebound for the team after Patrick Sheltra’s wreck at Daytona last Friday and the team’s first top 25 since Bobby Hamilton Jr. finished 19th at Milwaukee last month. McDowell maintained his 11th-place standing in driver points and remains within striking distance of the top 10.
The Final Word
While it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the 2006 edition of this race that saw Cup regulars take the top 16 spots in the finishing order, it was yet another edition of Joe Gibbs Racing dominance on Friday night. Outside of Edwards leading 17 laps from the pole, Logano and Busch owned the front of the field, and outside of the restarts there wasn’t a single car on track that could keep up with them.
And while the crowd that showed on Friday was vocal in celebrating Logano’s ability to leave Busch in the dust, it was hard to argue that JGR’s Toyotas didn’t stink up the show… again. Unfortunately, as has been the norm when they’ve stunk up the show, ESPN’s coverage couldn’t audible and cover the other 41 cars running throughout the field.
I’m tired of telling this story and saying why it’s bad, so I’m going to close with Rusty Wallace’s observation that dominance such as what Logano and Busch are exhibiting week after week used to lead NASCAR to tear their cars down… because they were stinking up the show.
If these were Nationwide regulars that had the field covered so thoroughly, it’d be one thing. But two Cup drivers doing this week after week? Tear the damn cars down, I say.