On a rare weekend where the Nationwide Series was the only show in town, Cup regulars were nonetheless the story all night long… though a different face did most of the dominating.
With announcements swirling that he would be doing more Nationwide driving in his own No. 33 car next season, Kevin Harvick led over half the laps run on Saturday night and had something for Kyle Busch’s red-hot No. 18 team. That is, until an audible decision by crew chief Ernie Cope to stretch fuel mileage bit Harvick on lap 172, knocking the No. 33 car from contention and handing Busch his sixth Nationwide win of 2009.
Busch had to deal with a late-race debris caution on lap 177 that put two-time Gateway race winner Reed Sorenson on his back bumper, but the Braun Racing driver was unable to keep up with the No. 18 car. Perhaps the only driver who had a shot at Busch on that final run was Carl Edwards; unfortunately for him, a decision to take four tires late when most of the leaders took only two put the No. 60 too far back in the field to challenge for the race win.
As a result, Edwards lost even more ground in the points race, now sitting over 200 out of first place as Busch continues to pull away from his challengers. Polesitter Brad Keselowski fell to 377 back after a disappointing eighth-place finish that saw the No. 88 dropping backwards from the start, and Jason Leffler finished outside the top 15 for the second time in the last three races after a stretch of 11 straight top 10 finishes (he now is 473 markers out of the lead).
Two veterans that needed good runs badly got them on Saturday night. Mike Bliss delivered a stout fourth-place showing for the No. 1 team, the second consecutive top-10 finish for him after reportedly being out of a ride prior to Chicago – and one of Phoenix Racing’s most competitive runs since their win at Charlotte back in May. With four top-10 finishes in the last five races, Bliss has closed to within 106 points of Joey Logano for a spot in the top five in the Nationwide Series standings.
The other veteran that came through this weekend was Jason Keller. The longtime Nationwide racer is no stranger to Gateway (eight top-10 finishes in 11 starts coming into this weekend), and his ninth-place result was the first top 10 for Baker/Curb Racing since Dover. It was a performance that hopefully signals the end of the bleeding for a No. 27 team that, since the spring, has slipped from contending for the top five in points to barely staying in the top 10 in the NNS standings.
Oh, and Erik Darnell added another top-10 finish to his resume, his third consecutive in Nationwide competition and fifth in only seven starts this year. Tell me again, why is it that David Ragan absolutely has to have the lion’s share of races in the No. 6 car? And tell me again why Cousin Carl is getting the green light to take the team’s No. 60 full-time again at this level next year when a development prospect this good is waiting in the wings?
The Bad (and the Ugly)
Marty Reid was right: it was an expensive night for Rusty Wallace Incorporated. First, on lap 86 Steve Wallace fell victim to restart traffic, as Scott Lagasse Jr. got loose under his machine and sent him for a ride. The No. 66 car ended up pounding the wall, leaving the youngest Wallace to limp home 24th, nine laps off the pace. Wallace was rather demonstrative in his displeasure with Lagasse, charging through the field under caution with his damaged car to run side-by-side and take a swipe at the No. 11 machine (though not making contact). He then stalked Lagasse the length of the backstretch before cutting across the grass to the pit access road for repairs.
Meanwhile, RWI teammate Brendan Gaughan found himself involved in almost every incident on track at Gateway. It started when Gaughan ended up running over Lagasse on lap 102 (which the No. 11 team’s radio chatter described as a payback for wrecking his teammate). That theory was not validated, though, as Gaughan soon proved to simply be out of control himself: On lap 123, the No. 62 car shot up the track entering a turn, slamming into Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s No. 16 car and ending both drivers’ shots at a decent night. For the record, though, Gaughan did acknowledge immediately on his in-car camera that the wreck was entirely his fault… a lesson that some drivers out there (i.e. – Marc Davis) could learn from the No. 62 squad.
And, for the record, it was just a rough night in general for the Wallace family at their home track. Kenny Wallace ended up 18 laps down at the finish thanks to an ailing motor, while Mike Wallace finished a distant 22nd, four laps behind (though it was certainly a welcome change to see the No. 0 car complete a race).
Finally, it wouldn’t be a Nationwide event without John Wes Townley doing something destructive. While Townley did run in the top 15 for much of the race’s first half, lap 76 saw his No. 09 car lose control exiting turn 4, a slip that sent his machine pinballing off the wall and bulldozing the No. 99 of Trevor Bayne. That left Bayne to finish 17 laps down in 27th, snapping a streak of three consecutive top-15 finishes for the MWR prospect.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Tony Raines. Bob Jenkins is a great car owner for NASCAR to have at their events; they always make the most of what they have and come to race, not collect a check. Good finishes for his teams usually come few and far between; however, Saturday night proved to be one of those races. After starting in the 32nd position, Raines did exactly what’s he done all season long in the No. 34, steadily moving through the field and scoring a Lucky Dog under a lap 102 caution (after narrowly missing a spinning Steve Wallace the caution prior). From there, Raines brought his machine home 12th, the first top 15 for the No. 34 team since Talladega and the first top-15 finish for Front Row Motorsports in the Nationwide ranks at a non-restrictor plate track since they went full-time in 2008. Raines’s finish also moved him to 13th in points, now ahead of Kenny Wallace in the driver standings.
The Final Word
It’s been a busy weekend for this writer, so instead of endeavoring to try and make a lengthy column, this week will close with some notes and observations.
- This title chase is over. Please just give Busch the trophy and money now, on condition that he can’t run any more NNS races this year.
- This whole gear rule (and no shifting during the race as a result) sucks. Drop the stupid regulations and let the drivers shift again at Gateway. With corners as treacherous to pass in as they are on this circuit, drivers ought to have some prayer of passing on the straightaway when racing this oval.
- 50,000-plus turning out for this race merits a big pat on the back for the crew at Gateway and for the race fans in the St. Louis area.
- Not at the Nationwide race this weekend, I chose to support a local short track, and was happy to see Tommy Armel finally win the Paul Johnson Memorial late model race at the Winchester (Va.) Speedway after being wrecked out of the victory last season. And seeing three-wide short-track racing did get me excited… because NASCAR’s Nationwide Series is making a rare trip to a short track this coming weekend! Rare trip for a stock car tour… to a short track… and they wonder why they’re losing fans, money, etc.